Wade Barnes: “Jazz was always my father’s music, and he always laughed at us because we were singing stuff that he considered trite.”
The Brooklyn based drummer Wade Barnes has been taking advantage of his American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 membership to develop and promote his love of jazz, which is deep and highly nuanced. Barnes’s big band, the Brooklyn Repertory Ensemble, rehearses at 802 twice a week, and he recently received a $100,000 grant that will allow him to continue an educational partnership with the Louisiana State Museum and the Recovery School District Program in New Orleans.
In this candid interview with Jazz Rep Todd Bryant Weeks, Barnes discusses his advocacy for children, his musical roots, and his longstanding relationship with AFM, Local 802.
TBW: When did you receive the grant?
WB: Earlier this year.
TBW: And this is the “Charles Evans Foundation’s Initiative in New Orleans”?
WB: It’s the “Charles Evans Foundation’s Initiative in New Orleans featuring Wade Barnes and Unit Structures”!
TBW: Who’s Charles Evans?
WB: I don’t even know! (laughing) Because I have nothing to do with who gives the money. He’s a philanthropist.
TBW: So it’s a private foundation?
TBW: So this is for your African diaspora educational project?
WB: Well, there are a couple of components. The musical component has to do with evidence of how the music of Africa moved throughout the diaspora. That’s one component. You see the idea came from the fact that when I was teaching, a lot of the African American kids didn’t believe that certain institutions would avail themselves. They thought they would be shown the door if they ever tried to go into them. When I was teaching at Boys & Girls High School in Brooklyn, there was a problem getting the kids to go to and see the Black Explorers and Scientists Exhibition at the Museum of Natural History, and so I had to schedule a separate trip for some kids—
TBW: They thought it was basically an empty promise—going to see something like that?
WB: No, they just thought they wouldn’t be allowed in! Because they were black kids from the ghetto! So I had to prove to them that they were wrong. So we went there, we did the whole thing, they had a great time….we had a ball the whole time we were there—these are high school age kids, 16, 17, 18. And so when I told this to folks at the Louisiana State Museum and the people at the Recovery School District in New Orleans, they decided that we should partner and do a program—and that I would put together a musical program for them that illustrates the way the music moved throughout the diaspora. And they would then continue on through the museum and have a tour.
TBW: That’s the jazz museum in New Orleans?
WB: Yeah they call it “The Mint.” So it ended up being a rousing success.
TBW: When was that?
WB: July 2008.
TBW: This all happened before the grant came down, right?
WB: Right. Before this, we had a little grant that allowed us to do it, for about $15,000.
TBW: And you took a small group down there?
WB: Right. And so the guy that saw it, loved it, and wrote to these folks and got us $100,000 for at least the next two years. And they want to make it an annual event, so that’s what we’re trying to do now.
TBW: Is it a series of classes or just one event where kids come—a single performance?
WB: Well, we do it many times—each group is 150 to 200 kids; they come to the museum, attend a performance; we do the whole lecture demonstration, Q & A, and we do a little call and response, you know get the kids involved, and then we show them how the music traveled by using the calypso rhythm; how it first was in Africa, how it moved to the Caribbean, how it moved to New Orleans and how it moved to New York. Then we show how that rhythm moved, and you can see clearly how local situations allowed the music to change, and how individuals influenced that movement. It’s almost like the Joseph Campbell idea about shared cultural practices appearing in different parts of the world simultaneously….
TBW: Like the mandalas?
WB: Right. The whole idea of the circle as a symbol of life, and that it developed in different places at different times, but for similar reasons. So we use the calypso rhythm to demonstrate something similar to that. It’s also just the notion that there are certain consistencies throughout human experience, and that it comes out in different ways depending on the environment. It’s a global thing. And also the idea that human beings have more in common than they have differences.
TBW: So you have been leading your own units for many years. What was the first group that you put together?
WB: (Laughs) I was fourteen years old…
TBW: You still look like you’re fourteen years old.
WB: Thank you. I was fourteen and Beaver Harris was putting on a benefit for Grachan Moncur and Cal Massey at the Village Vanguard and he said I could bring in a group and open the show. And so that’s what we did. It ended up being all my neighborhood friends.
TBW: And what was your experience leading up to that? Did you study jazz in school?
WB: No. All of my stuff was out of school. Just cats from the neighborhood.
TBW: Not even marching band?
WB: No. I didn’t appreciate school stuff until I was already out of school—what you could do with that. I started in singing in with doo wop groups when I was a little kid, literally like four or five years old—imitating my brother and his friends—‘cause there were two brothers, Buster and Coochie Nimmens, and their brother Ronnie was in a singing group with my brother.
TBW: This was in Sheepshead Bay?
WB: In the projects.
TBW: What were you listening to?
WB: The Temptations, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. “Since I Lost My Baby,” stuff like that. All of that was prime meat for us. Jazz was always my father’s music, and he used to laugh at us, because we were singing stuff that he considered trite. This was the late 1950s and very early 1960s. We used to say to him, “Pop, you’re an old square.” And he’d say, “You have no taste, no sophistication.” And we go back and forth. I was born in 1954 so I was like 5 years old in 1959.
TBW: So you were picking up on the Coasters and King Curtis?
WB: Oh yeah! In fact, when I was a little older, my father took us to the Fox theater for one of the Murray the K. shows where King Curtis was the backup band, and were going crazy for things like “Memphis Soul Stew,” and “Soul Serenade,” all of that stuff. Then I grew up and got into jazz. But that was my thing. And my father took us, took all my friends—may be the oldest was about 7. And we’re sitting there. And he was losing his mind because all the little girls were screaming and he kept saying, “How can you guys even hear the music?” That’s the kind of guy he was. But I still love that music.
TBW: Of course, this was before the Beatles…
WB: This was way before the Beatles! Matter of fact, that was one of the things….one of the conspiracy theories at the time for bringing over the Beatles. Because you had mixed audiences going to see integrated groups and an audience going to see Rock ‘n Roll and R & B, because there was no differentiation at that time…and so the theory was that to exercise control they brought over these Europeans so that they could re-segregate the music.
TBW: Well of course, the Beatles were more widely marketable just by virtue of their whiteness.
WB: Well, you could say that, but the audiences in New York didn’t make those distinctions; either you could play you couldn’t play. As we were feeling it. Maybe if you went down South there’d be a different set of rules. From what I hear, in the South they had to forcibly stop people from integrating concerts.
TBW: Were you clued in to what was happening with the Ocean Hill school strikes [in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1967—ed.] and all of that?
WB: Of course. I went to junior high in Marine Park. The teachers were being asked to do things they shouldn’t have had to do—and there were some inferior teachers. Plus, the parents weren’t really very savvy when it came to understanding how to work with the union. You have to remember, back then, blacks had no real power, and by demanding that the system be changed—you were perceived much more as an annoyance than a real threat. And that’s where the militancy comes in. But the spirit of that particular time was much more about seizing economic opportunity for the disenfranchised black population. And the powers that be weren’t too cool with that, because when you have 10-25% of your population that isn’t getting the piece of the pie they deserve, then that’s a lot of pie that needs to be redirected. So that had an impact—although I’d say the Southern movement—Selma and Montgomery and Dr. King, that had real weight—because it was national. My mother went to Washington to demonstrate. My father was a cop, and he had to be at Malcolm’s funeral. So it was part of my reality. But our whole approach was we were going to change the world, and it was going to come through the arts. I remember Amiri Baraka had his Black Arts Theater in Harlem and there was just like a lot of different things jumpin’ off back then and…it kind of petered out toward the ‘70s. There are still a lot of people who are a part of that, if not the movement, then the whole idea of arts as a central part of any kind of a community or development. I mean that’s really where I got this idea—from that whole era…of the arts as a part of a community and part of social development. I mean this idea of being creative, you can’t have a decent, healthy society unless there are some people who are at least somewhat creative (laughs).
TBW: That’s what changes society.
WB: Right…creative answers to social problems.
TBW: So you’ve been involved in various groups in Brooklyn—groups that do this kind of outreach—for many years. Tell me about that.
WB: Yeah. I’ve worked with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. I was teaching at the Brooklyn Conservatory in 1982; I helped develop the jazz program there. I was the director of the faculty jazz ensemble at the conservatory. Matter of fact Randy Johnson and I were hired together.
I’m technically president of the Andy Kirk Research Foundation. That’s been difficult because a lot of the guys are part of that and they’ve been involved with the music locally for many years—and they know the music—but the focus of the foundation is now undergoing some changes. We’re really trying to get it involved with actual research—at least finding out more about Andy Kirk himself and having historical research be more of a focus of what we’re doing.
There are a lot of different groups, but there also tends to be some overlap, and part of what we’re doing now is trying to figure out how we can help each other without stepping on each other’s toes. Because there’s a lot of different community groups that are doing some good things. And now especially with the current spate of budget cuts everything is being carved up, and so we have to have a more frugal approach. The best way to do that is to try and alleviate bureaucracy.
TBW: Trim it.
WB: I mean there’s not a lot there to work with, but if you can at least have people communicating, calling each other up on the phone and letting each other know what everybody’s doing, it cuts down on a lot of duplication.
TBW: Tell me about the big band, because you have what is it, a seventeen piece big band?
WB: Sometimes eighteen.
TBW: And how long had that band been in existence?
WB: It started out with the Brooklyn Four—and that was Cecil Payne and Leonard Gaskin and Joe Knight and I. We were going into the schools and talking about the music…and the kids loved it! They loved the older guys—they could just eat them for breakfast.
TBW: Those are some heavy hitters.
WB: Well, it wasn’t just that, it was that they were so natural about what they did and how they did it. And the kids could relate to them as older people; people who were good at what they did—people who could communicate the important aesthetic values. Whenever they told the kids something that they could actually use—and this went back to my days with the Brooklyn conservatory as well—whenever that happened, they acted like they had met the gods. It’s hard to explain—sounds silly to say it that way.
TBW: Well, those moments with kids are rare, but unforgettable when you make that connection.
WB: And now we’re finding with some kids—especially those who are “at risk;” we’re finding that what works with them, has to do with the same way that those older musicians treated me when I was just a kid. And when they were trying to teach something, there was always a certain give and take, and when you understand that dynamic, invariably it will work—you will get through. Within a few days, they start to respond. And that’s what happened in New Orleans with the Recovery School District. They asked me to come down and work with two different schools and their music programs. Now each time the kids responded. One school was a little bit better than the other, because we had kids who had a little background [in music] but not much, and the other kids had no background at all. And by the time we were finished, the kids had started to respond. And they responded—especially some girls at the second school—with some poignant poetry. Oh, man! I mean stuff that hit you like…BAM! (laughing) I mean I was like, “Oh ho, Man!” Right?
TBW: But these kids must have some exposure to music being that they live in New Orleans.
WB: That’s a common misperception. They know the street music, but that’s it. They really don’t have an understanding of the chronology. They just know it’s been New Orleans music forever, but they don’t know who came first, what came second…I mean if you asked them who anybody but Louis Armstrong is they’d have no idea.
TBW: At least they know him! I remember on my last trip there, we were at Donna’s near the Treme District, and they were playing old music—1920s tunes like “I’ve Found a New Baby” and many of the musicians were in their teens and twenties. And it occurred to me that they thought of that music solely as New Orleans music, not old music, not Traditional Jazz, just their music. They don’t think of it as being arcane.
WB: Right. The one thing that has kept me going back to New Orleans is the fact that historically there have been all kinds of demarcations in the music—if you were an avant garde cat; you did not play with bebop cats. I mean Billy Higgins was an anomaly.
TBW: Because he did everything.
WB: They had so formed these cliques where you couldn’t travel from one to the other. It was terrible. It’s a little bit better now, but it’s still there. It’s still where there are certain guys you play with and certain guys you don’t. And I was never in any one clique, so I would just go and hang out with everybody, so everybody thought I was with the other group.
TBW: But your band is a kind of amalgam in and of itself, isn’t it? You work with different styles, different thematic material.
WB: That’s because my first real teacher—after a Brooklyn cat named Bob Page who taught me the rudiments, how to read—but I didn’t know the real subtleties of the music until I started hanging out with Beaver Harris. [A seminal “New Thing” drummer, Harris worked with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Horace Silver, Charles Bell, Grant Green, and Joe Henderson among others—ed.] And I even adopted his motto, “From Rag Time to No Time” with the 360 degree insignia. I took it because after he passed I realized it was a great learning tool. When you explain to kids what it means they catch on. When I was hanging out with Leonard [Gaskin] and Max [Roach] and all those guys, I realized that it was important to listen to as much music as possible and learn as much as you can. Because everything, no matter what the context, is musical and…it can help you. It can help your career; it can help you understand life. Learn as much as you can, and about whatever discreet area it may come from. And “From Rag Time to No Time” communicates that.
TBW: It’s too bad that we feel the need to justify music education in other terms, but it puts me in mind of a woman I met named Lolita Jackson from the mayor’s office who cited a statistic that supports the notion of the relationship between music and mathematics; and that this was a way to justify music education by convincing educators that it helped with math skills.
WB: Well, that’s true. But of course, learning how to read music is one thing. But learning how to improvise is something else altogether. Like there are a ton of very fine school programs—just a ton of them. And the kids have the basics—and then some. They can read, but they can’t improvise. The only person that I’ve seen that has instilled a solid approach to the solo—without being too overbearing—is Barry Harris. Within the bebop tradition. Barry’s about opening up your ears, not telling you what to play. There’s nothing that’s going to get around a person sitting down with his or her instrument and playing long tones for three to four hours a day—because that’s how you develop your own tone. I mean all the greats—it didn’t matter what line they played, you knew who they were just from their tone. And that means sitting down with your instrument and really getting to know what sounds the instruments can make and what you can get out of that instrument. There’s not enough of that. There’s too much of running scales, trying to play a scale like John Coltrane or trying to play a scale like Charlie Parker or trying to play just like Freddie Hubbard, or whatever it is. They’re coming from licks—or stealing licks. And as a matter of fact there were a couple of people who came out that school that I played with who were terrible because if you didn’t play the cliché that responded to their cliché, they had a fit! You know what I mean? It was like “Oh, my God! This is like the opposite of what I ought the music was about.”
TBW: I had a teacher who told me that in essence it’s all sound production. And that in that respect it boils down to constantly listening to one’s sound and trying to make it more perfect—or to develop it in a certain way. And that’s a lifelong pursuit.
WB: And remember—the perfection is in the ear of the beholder. I mean, Cannonball Adderly’s sound was a lot different from Eric Dolphy’s but they both fit what they were trying to do. So you have to sit down with your sound and come up with something that’s gonna help you say what you wanna say. The simplest definition of music that I’ve heard is: “organized sound that evokes emotion.”
TBW: That’s good ‘cause you can use that definition for some “out” stuff too.
WB: You can use it for everything.
TBW: You can get people angry—like Stravinsky—or contemporary classical, and still fit into that definition. I don’t know if everyone would agree.
WB: But the thing is, it’s the truth. You can’t deny that it isn’t organized sound. And music is in the ear of the beholder inasmuch as if it evokes emotion, then it’s probably music. If it doesn’t fit that definition, it’s just sound. It leaves the personal in there.
TBW: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with 802.
WB: Oh, man. The Music Performance Fund [MPF] really supports everything we do. Without that and Legit 802 [802’s payroll service—ed.] we’d be out of it. Just the idea of the business being done properly—guys being paid the way their supposed to get paid, the grants getting written so we can match the funds that are available: all of that is helping us meeting the needs of our “constituents”—which are these kids—because they never hear the music other than when we go in there, and they love it once they hear it, but they have to know it’s being played in order to get something out of it. They have to gain access first. And that’s where the union has helped. I just wish they could afford to do more.
TBW: The MPF?
WB: The Music Performance Fund and the union generally. I mean there should be regular occurrences where the union can get directly involved with jazz education. One of the things that I’m at odds with the union about is that we as union members should be controlling what it means to be an educated musician. Guys should be able to come here to find out what that is. And we should be able to help schools and other people to set up educational programs that utilize our members. Because most people are well-intentioned, but they don’t know diddly about putting together a music program. And so they need a lot of help. They don’t really understand the funding mechanisms. And they’re doing it because they want to see their kids get something that they didn’t have, which is admirable. But they need a lot of expertise—on the business end as well. And the communities and the schools especially—it reminds me of Bernie Shockett—he used to run the 802 music program up at Lehman College—he was chairman of the music department at Kingsborough when I was teaching there. And I used to go to him with all these ideas and he used to look at me, and stop me and say, “Wade, if you have a strong parent’s association and a strong principal, there are no budget problems.” And I found that to be true. The people that lack organization—for whatever reason—those folks that can’t organize their community groups or their school groups, they get wiped out.
TBW: Because they don’t get the finding. Or they get red-lined and don’t present an organized response to their politicians.
WB: It’s not even the red-lining, it’s just that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if you’re not organized you can’t be a squeaky wheel. You have to be organized to even know that there’s a wheel that needs to be greased. Certain parents understand that if there’s not something being taken care of, they’re gonna take care of it. Some schools don’t even have the resources to take care of it. And there’s the rub. But if you have parents that are organized—there are usually some ways of getting the things you need. And especially if you force the politicians in your community to respond to you. Because they need to be re-elected, and the stronger the parents are, the stronger the politicians know the vote will be—because they are organized. Politicians always have access to these little tidbits of money that they can throw your way to make things happen—and if parents understood that, they’d be more organized. And the same, by the way, goes for jazz musicians.
TBW: And this goes for getting work in the schools—or do you mean jazz musicians in general?
WB: Well, both. Because the money is often allocated per session. If you present a school with an after school program that’s warranted, a lot of principals have those dollars. Now, parents don’t know that they have those dollars, but if they did, they could say to the principal, “This is the specific program that we want in our school.” And if the start-up program works, then they can start lobbying their local politicians to start funneling money towards that particular program. But they have to know that it works.
TBW: You’re one of the few jazz musicians here at 802 who has really taken advantages of the availability of the MPF to fund your projects, who has utilized Legit 802, and you do it throughout the course of the school year, and now you have your annual trip to New Orleans in August. What would you say to other musicians who want to learn how to do this?
WB: You have to start with your base. Instead of trying to fight with club owners—which is an admirable fight—but as a starting point, these musicians should be going into their schools, going into their communities and trying to set up programs to teach people about the music, because if they have a strong base of people who support them, the club owners become less important. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see the clubs disappear, but fewer and fewer musicians can get work in the bigger clubs, they’re paying less and less money every year—unless you can provide them with an audience. When I was studying arranging with Marshall Brown [Brown was the longtime director of the Newport Youth Band—ed.], he used to tell me, “Wade, a good musician is also an educator. Because not only are you teaching musicians about your music, but you’ re teaching audiences as well.” And every time you go out, you have to educate them about what you’re doing, because fewer and fewer people were born listening to this music, and the older we all get the more that’s the case. And the musicians today that can make a career have one way or another been able to work within the educational structure as we know it. I mean I’m one of the few, I think, that have worked in both the public schools and in a college setting with some regularity—over the years. But the people who have been successful have worked in one or the other of those different areas.
TBW: What do you see for you and this group over the next five years?
WB: We’re trying to get to other schools and other places. Because we really want to help to develop a consistent aesthetic values system that can be implemented—a musical groundwork. Right now, it’s catch-as-catch-can. And even now within the existing structure, a lot of the colleges that have programs are pitching their own students and pushing their own approach—and there are very few overweening structures that allow the students to come together and prove their mettle. There’s the Monk Institute—they seem to do that. But there are very few programs where a lot of talented young people can come together and just—go at it. That’s what I’d love to see. Summer camps where kids from everywhere can get involved—not just from select areas or groups. It reminds me of what Cecil Payne went through when we were working on an adjudication. We sat on a panel at Boys & Girls High School, and we listened to young horn players—trumpet players and saxophonists. And there were two good young alto players who I remember: one who pretty much just copied Charlie Parker’s stuff—and was good at it—and the other guy was trying to find his own sound. He was making more mistakes, but he was trying for stuff that the other cat wasn’t trying for.
TBW: Like Bird. Or Ornette.
WB: Or any of the innovators. But the thing is, this guy didn’t get there. And we had to ostensibly go against our own feelings—because some of us really wanted to vote for the guy that was reaching for stuff; but the thing was is that the other guy was a finished product, so it was very difficult to choose between the two. Ultimately the Bird clone won, but after that Cecil told me he didn’t want to be involved, because he couldn’t go for that. It was too painful for him to have to make that distinction and to say that one was better than the other based on some arbitrary notion of a “finished product.” So—I believe that it’s really important that somehow systems can be set up so that deeply talented people like Cecil Payne can actually be utilized and not feel like their betraying their roots, betraying the spirit of the music. So that these creators can work in that way—work with a different, equally important set of ideas. Because if there’s not enough gigs—and there’s not—it’s a great waste. I remember talking to Philly Jo Jones about this because I used to hang with him a lot.
TBW: He had a reputation for being out there.
WB: Oh, but brilliant. He once asked me to drive him down to Philly. I had a [Plymouth] Fury III, I was cool, right. Right out of college. So he asked me to drive him down to Philly, I stayed at his house a couple of days. He could cook, man he was a brilliant cook. And he showed me stuff on the piano that I still use. And we went through Kenny Clarke’s books and stuff…and this cat was, on every level—a genius.
TBW: He was supposed to be a great mimic.
WB: Oh, yeah, he used to do the Count Dracula stuff. That’s where Lenny Bruce got that whole routine he used to do. Matter of fact, I had been playing with Jimmy Garrison some—Beaver introduced me to him—he was playing with Archie Shepp’s band at Slugs. And Beaver by the third set, he’d be done, and he’d let me play the whole last set. So I had the chance to play with Jimmy and Archie every night for a week at time. And I was under age anyway—I wasn’t even supposed to be in there. This was about 1969, 1970. So—“Blues for Dracula” was Jimmy Garrison’s first recording. So Jimmy told me the story about how he had been reviewed for his appearance on the LP—and that the reviewer said that Garrison was “a young bassist with a bright future ahead of him who reminds me of Pops Foster.” And so Jimmy’s response was: “Who in the $*!&?! is Pops Foster?! My man is Percy Heath! What are you talking about Pops Foster?” So months go by, and then Jimmy Garrison finally bumped into Percy Heath and said, “Man, this cat says I sound like Pops Foster.” And Percy Heath replies, “But that’s who I emulated.” And their styles were related. Because Pops was a New Orleans bass player who played tuba, came to New York with the New Orleans guys—and Percy loved his playing. So it just goes to show you, you never know your influences. It’s like when I first found about Roy Haynes—I didn’t realize that he had influenced so many people, including Beaver, and when I figured out that Beaver had taught me things that he’d picked up from Roy Haynes, then I just fell in love with Roy Haynes.
TBW: Tell me about the differences between Max [Roach] and Roy Haynes.
WB: Well, Roy Haynes is later. Klook [Kenny Clarke] is the father of all modern jazz drummers. Then Bu [Buhaina—Art Blakey] and Max. Bu did the African thing and Max did the marching band thing.
TBW: But Max and Blakey were both very melodic drummers, yes?
WB: Not only melodic. What happened was—you have the beginning of the drums in jazz—the marching band music that gets Africanized, so you add more bottom, more bass drums, more ideas, and the sticking gets a little more open. And the big change comes with the high hat and Chick Webb, because he starts adding the four on the floor on the bass drum. And making the high hat the bell rhythm. Which is more African. So the cymbal becomes the equivalent of the bell.
TBW: And this is independent of Papa Jo Jones and his developments.
WB: Well, that’s much later. We’re talking Chick Webb in 1930. He’s the King of Swing up in the Savoy Ballroom. No one presents any kind of serious challenge to Chick Webb until after his death. He leaves the scene in 1938 when he’s sick and then Basie and them come in after that. But those guys [Basie] they got ran out [of the Savoy Ballroom]. Because Billie went up against Ella—just in terms of pipes there’s no contest. Ella has the pipes. And in the Webb band you have Mario Bauza, Edgar Sampson—these are the premier cats in New York at that time.
TBW: And Chick is a master technician—he’s not just changing the rhythms, he’s all over the kit.
WB: The rhythmic innovation is the thing that allows him to get over the kit. If you just try to do it through speed you sound corny. If you don’t have the right rhythm concept, the technique doesn’t matter. That’s what people forget. And the only guy that really advanced that was Klook, because instead of going four on the bass drum, the bass drum and the snare start talking ala the African talking drum. The drums in Africa literally talk, but they talk utilizing the contrast between high and low. So when you go: “Ooo Ah, Ooo Ah, Ooo Ah! Ah Ah Oo Oo, Ah Ah Ah Oo,” that’s the like the dance. The rhythm talking in dance. And Klook started that. No one was doing that before him. On the trap drums. And then Max added a more of a marching band sound to it plus he speeded up the dialog between the snare and the bass drum. And it’s very strange, because I’ve heard some bootleg recordings of Klook at Minton’s with Monk—and he’s killin’. He’s playing’ more stuff than anybody. He’s burnin’. And he’s playing more in that setting—because back then, they weren’t focused on the bass drum in the recording studio because it couldn’t be recorded very well. And so in the studio he wasn’t playing as much as he could. And it’s a revelation to hear him there. And when you talk to guys that actually played with him, you realized that he could do whole bunch of stuff.
TBW: Are you saying that Klook is right out of Chick Webb?
WB: He’s the real break. He’s the father of modern drums. He’s the father of bebop.
TBW: Klook, I know, is famous for breaking up the rhythm and using the bass drum in new ways.
WB: When you get the bass drum and the snare drum to talk to each other intervallically, you automatically start to make the rhythms more angular, and then there’s the possibility for a new development in the harmonic schematic, so that resolutions can come in different places over the form.
TBW: So you’re saying that resolutions can come within the form not just at that typical V-I part of the progression. You have different dialogues going on rhythmically and harmonically?
WB: Right. Look at Bird. He goes out of the chord, he’ll come back to the chord, and he’ll extend the chord.
TBW: That reminds me of the theory that cites Louis Armstrong as being the architect of a new music that was the result of his insertion of passing chords into otherwise set progressions of blues or popular tunes …
WB: And Ellington is doing something similar as well. Look, there are the written elements of the music and then there are the improvisational elements of the music. Outside of New Orleans, at the turn of the last century, you had guys like James Reese Europe and Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. Redman is really important because his experiments in arranging predate a lot of Ellington’s innovations. Redman is the original arranger of the Henderson band in 1921. Look at “Sugar Foot Stomp” from 1924. It’s the King Oliver tune, “Dippermouth Blues.” Redman wrote the Henderson arrangement that featured Armstrong. And by the 1940s, Redman was already in the studios doing jingles. That’s why everything from the 1940s on sounds like a Don Redman arrangement—he had been paving the way for other arrangers for years. Don Redman is the principal arranger that changed the music. Everyone else comes after him. And all these guys that were unsung—Redman, Europe, Kenny Clarke. These are the innovators. And people sleep on Tad Dameron. He’s the one that really worked with those passing chords. And those are the guys that are…
WB: Not only unheralded. Their spirits must be talkin’ about, “Heeey! What about us?!”
TBW: What about James Reese Europe?
WB: In 1900, he had the house band at the Marshal Hotel on 52nd. All the important black intellectuals used to hang there—Countee Cullen; James Weldon Johnson. And Europe’s drummer, Buddy Gilmore, was highly influential. You had white drummers coming in to copy Gilmore’s technique and the way he twirled his sticks. And this is pre-Harlem Renaissance. James Reese Europe died before the recording industry and the radio industry came into being, so that’s why we don’t know about him. And you have to remember that once those industries were established, that the history is bastardized and distorted by the need to sell records, to hype things, and everything was told through a filter of marketing jazz as product. And that’s why we have to go back and re-assess.
TBW: Because the history was always laid out in the service of selling soap.
WB: Right. And some of it was accurate, but much of it wasn’t. Because the tale was always told within the context of the showbiz elements, but in the service of advertising as in: “This guy’s the greatest since sliced bread!” Right. But everybody then becomes the greatest since sliced bread. But the public doesn’t know that Earl Bostic might have been among the greatest technicians on his instrument. All the musicians say he was the greatest. But we don’t say that now because of the commercial nature of the vast majority of recordings that he made—which were in the advancement of his economics. Which is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a truly great musician, even though the body of what he did was in not in the advancement of some larger creative process.
TBW: The development of some new style or some important innovation.
WB: Right. And you have to differentiate between people like that. It’s the same thing with Jimmy Dorsey. Bird used to talk about copying him because of his technique. It didn’t mean he was a creative genius, but he was a monster technician.
TBW: Pres copped from Jimmy Dorsey.
WB: Everybody did. But being a master technician and being the greatest of the creative artists—we’re talking the difference between Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. When it came to sheer chops, Billie couldn’t hold Ella’s girdle.
TBW: Well Billie had an incredible sense of time.
WB: Absolutely. And telling stories. Nobody could tell a story like her. She could make you feel a lyric better than anybody. And there’s nothin’ wrong with that.
TBW: Getting a song over.
WB: And that’s why they used to say that Max was so great, because there was a marriage there between technique and ideas. You know? Some people have great ideas but they lack technique. Like Elvin Jones –he may not have had the most complete mastery of his instrument but his ideas were unimpeachable.
TBW: And a perfect foil to the contributions of his bandmates.
WB: But he could make his ideas fit with anybody he played with. I remember Sonny Fortune told me how Elvin was playing with some band and he was burnin’ and then another, less experienced group came up to sit in and Elvin simply pared down his playing. I saw him do that with another inferior group. All he did was play time.
TBW: That was all he needed to do.
WB: That was all he could do!
TBW: He made them sound good.
WB: He made them sound great. But he couldn’t push them the same way he could push Curtis Fuller or J. J. Johnson. It wasn’t gonna happen. But he made that work with that group. And he was brilliant for that.
TBW: This has been great. Where are you performing this month?
WB: Our next performance with the small group will be on May 15th, at “966” which is the Fort Greene Senior Center in Brooklyn. And then the entire big band will be playing as part of the Juneteenth Celebration at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan—on June 19th.