Since his late teens, Kenny Garrett has been living the kind of life most musicians only fantasize about. He’s been a side musician for legends like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, and also performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
The 44-year-old Detroit native was a sax player almost by birthright, with his tenor saxophonist father exposing Garrett to jazz almost immediately.
Planning to go to college, Garrett was presented instead in 1978 with an invitation to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which was led by Duke’s son Mercer. After playing with that outfit for over three years, Garrett moved to New York in 1982 and worked with the Mel Lewis Orchestra (playing the music of Thad Jones) and with Dannie Richmond’s quintet (performing the music of Charles Mingus).
In the mid-’80s, Garrett not only released his first solo album but he also began playing with many of the greats he grew up listening to.
In 1985, he performed and recorded with Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and OTB.
He was chosen by Miles Davis to play alto in the trumpeter’s band in 1986, and Garrett blossomed in his five years with the legend. He played on four albums with Miles: “Amandla,” “Dingo” (with Michel Legrand), “Live Around the World” and “Miles Davis and Quincy Jones: Live at Montreux,” which was the famed trumpeter’s swan song.
During his years with Miles, Garrett used his down time to record two well-received solo projects for Atlantic, as well as contribute to albums by Donald Byrd, Hubbard, Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton, Wallace Roney and others.
In 1996, Garrett won Down Beat magazine’s readers’ poll as “Alto Saxist of the Year,” unseating jazz elder and fellow Local 802 member Phil Woods, who had dominated the alto category since 1975. Garrett also won the readers’ poll for Jazz Times magazine in 2002.
In all, Garrett has appeared on over 100 records as leader or sideman. Recently, Hal Leonard published a book of his transcribed solos.
Kenny Garrett has been a member of 802 since 1981.
This exclusive interview for Allegro was conducted by Matt Weiers, a jazz pianist and multimedia artist, whose last interviews for Allegro were with Fred Hersch and Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Matt Weiers: How did you develop your saxophone sound?
Kenny Garrett: I grew up in Detroit and I remember in my childhood being at the Dairy Queen with my father. He said, “Who is playing on the radio?” I didn’t know, and he said, “Everyone has their own sound.” So at that point I was beginning to be conscious of what my sound could be, but I didn’t think about it much more until I played with the Duke Ellington orchestra. The lead alto player at that time was Harold Minerve, who has since passed away. He called me and let me hear a tape of myself playing. When I heard it, I said, “Wow, that sounds like me!” and I realized that I had a sound of my own. I was also influenced early on by the sounds of Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr. and also Cannonball Adderley’s funky playing, such as on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
MW: To me your sound seems focused, clean, and high energy. Is that an accurate description?
KG: I usually don’t try to describe my sound in words…I always wanted a sound which has a flexibility in it. I have always liked the “classical” saxophone sound, which I call the “compressed sound.” It’s not about how big the sound is, it’s about how focused it is. I also like the jazz sound, which is a bigger, rounder sound. If you’re describing how I play, yes, people often say “high energy.” But what I like about my sound is that it is flexible enough to play in any situation. I played “Adagio for Strings” with the New Jersey Symphony; I played with Marcus Miller and Miles Davis with that same sound. And I also play straight-ahead jazz. So I can use my sound in different genres without having to change it. Even playing with Sting, I use the same setup. Some of my classical friends have a classical mouthpiece and a jazz mouthpiece. I like just one mouthpiece for everything.
MW: Do you think about projecting your sound differently in a small club space versus a large auditorium or stadium?
KG: Ever since I played with Miles in ’87 I have used wireless mikes. I want my musicians not to feel they have to play quietly because I’m playing an acoustic instrument, so I mike my instrument and that way everyone can hear and the music can come out.
MW: What’s your relationship with the soprano versus alto sax?
KG: I think of the alto as my main instrument, which has a big sound. I think of the soprano as a more mellow sound. I use the soprano on a song I wrote called “Asian Medley” (which is a Japanese folk song), a Korean folk song, and another Japanese folk song. I think of the soprano as a lighter sound, so that’s the way I use it.
MW: What happens for you as you play the same tune over the course of many years? Do you continually discover new things about a tune or do you get tired of it?
KG: A lot of the original tunes that I play over and over are by request, like “Sing a Song of Song,” “Wayne’s Thang,” “Happy People,” or “Simply Said.” These are tunes that people want to hear and so they make a request and I play them. These are kind of like my popular songs. I just always try to find another way to play them. I played with Miles for five years and we played “Human Nature” the whole time. He always wanted you to find a new way to approach it. He played “On Green Dolphin Street” with Jimmy Cobb and those guys and then he also played it with Herbie. So I learned from Miles that I should always try to find a new way to approach it. As a composer it’s a little more difficult because I had something in mind when I wrote the tune. When I record it, it may not sound like I thought it would. But I’m always searching to try and get the tune the way I always thought it should be.
MW: What are some key qualities you look for in your sidemen?
KG: The main thing I look for in a drummer is his beat, his cymbal beat. Not so much how much drums he can play. I mean, he could be a phenomenal player, but I’m interested in his beat. Is it dancing, does it make me want to dance? For the bass player, I’m listening for his pulse, the feeling of his pulse and his sound. Most bass players have a certain beat that can work with the cymbal beat to lock and to dance. For the piano player, I’m listening for the touch and what kind of voicings are used. Being a piano player myself, I hear a lot of those things, whether they’re using fourths or flatted ninths or clusters. And do they understand the piano?
MW: You mentioned your “Asian Medley,” and I know that you’ve performed in Japan. How has that affected you musically?
KG: That goes way back to the first time I went to Japan. I had fallen in love with that country. I was a pretty shy guy, just coming out of high school. I saw these people who were shy. Shyer than I was at the time, and they kind of brought me out of my shell. That was like the first step. Years later, I was on a plane going to Europe and I heard someone saying that Americans were lazy, that they never try to speak any other languages. So next time I went to Japan, I got a tape and a book and started trying to learn Japanese. That’s when I started to really appreciate the culture. By understanding the language I started to understand the people. And by understanding the people I started to understand the music. So this has been like a long love affair with Japan. I was there with the Duke Ellington orchestra and then much later with Miles, who they looked at like God, so I was like next to the powerful person. They’ve always treated me well. And I’ve always continued to draw ideas not only from Japan, but from Korea and China, Middle Eastern Countries, and from classical music. I’m always searching for something a little bit different to incorporate into my music.
MW: Can you think of any specific ways that Japanese culture has influenced your performing or your sound?
KG: It’s funny that you should mention that. This goes back to ’86, when I was playing in Japan with OTB, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw and I was hearing the rhythms of Asian music. Dexter Gordon always used to say that Woody Shaw’s music sounded like Chinese music. Anyway, I started to hear differently and think of chords in a certain way because of listening to this foreign music. I didn’t realize how it affected me until years later. What I like about Japanese music is that the folk music has this unadulterated sound to it, like it’s from a spiritual place that reminds me, for lack of a better way to describe it, of church, or of my upbringing. In their folk music they have that sound. If I’m in Japan and I’m walking across the street, they have this tune that the pedestrian signal plays to tell blind people to walk, called “Toryanse.” I’m inspired even by that. I’m always interested in different sounds and scales to use in my playing.
MW: How would you compare the feeling from this traditional folk music of Japan and the feeling from church music in Detroit?
KG: It’s this feeling or this sound. A lot of times, it’s the melody itself that reminds me of this place I was as a child. Maybe it’s a spiritual place, but there’s a sound that’s there. The simplicity of the melody. When I say “the church” I think that might be a little exaggerated, but it’s that feeling you get when you’re in church and someone plays a gospel song. I might listen to a Korean folk song and love the innocence of that melody and then I start to conjure up more sounds. Sometimes in order to evoke that spiritual place, it doesn’t take something complicated, but just something simple that can touch you.
MW: What are your ideas about a band that is dedicated to playing the music of a specific composer, like the Mingus Big Band, Duke Ellington Big Band, etc.? Is the music missing something essential when the composer isn’t there playing, and would you ever want a group to form and play your music after you pass?
KG: That’s a difficult question to answer. If I had not had the opportunity to play Duke Ellington’s music, that’s a lot of education that I would have lost. To play with Cootie Williams, for me was a great opportunity. So I guess it’s a cool idea. If there was someone around who understood my music, then I would say, that would be great. To play Miles Davis’ music without Miles is kind of strange because he had such an aura and this thing that drew the best out of people. You can still play that music and get the spirit of it, but it is difficult. I came right out of high school and joined the Duke Ellington band and without that opportunity to sit with eighteen musicians and learn about that music, I don’t know where I would be today.
MW: What are some things that you learned musically from working with Miles Davis?
KG: The main thing I learned was to be really open-minded about music. Miles was always trying to push us to keep coming up with different ideas. Not only that, he gave me a format. I was playing 10- and 15-minute solos with Miles. I was playing with Freddie Hubbard and others, but nobody else did that for me. He respected me enough that he didn’t have a problem with that – he was like, “O.K., do your thing.” That’s what I try to do with my musicians, I try to give them an opportunity to play and really develop themselves. I always want them to stretch. Also, you never knew what to expect from Miles. When he hit the bandstand, you never knew. But that kept us on our toes, that’s what I enjoyed about the situation. Sometimes it was a little unnerving, but in retrospect I think it was a good thing. If there was something that he didn’t think was cool, he was yawning on the bandstand, like “That’s boring.” He had ways of pulling things out of you. He was encouraging of his musicians. And everyone interpreted that in different ways. I interpreted that as, “O.K., I should do something a little different here tonight.” Because that’s what he expected. When I first joined the band, I played in the style of the music. But as time went on and the music evolved, I started to incorporate more harmony and do more rhythmic things. For Miles, it was interesting because he could see there was growth.
MW: How do you feel about the current state of jazz in New York and in the country. Is it vital and healthy?
KG: Is it healthy? I guess to a certain extent, because people are still trying to play the music. When I was coming up, there was a different environment. I got to play with some of the legends of the music. I don’t think we have that as much now. The younger generation of musicians may tend to go more towards the business of music rather than just the music. In some ways, that’s healthy and in some ways, that not healthy because you need people to carry on the purely musical development. Of course, they have their choice as to what they want to do because they have to make a living playing this music. In some ways, it may have been a little stagnant because some companies have encouraged players to play the old standard tunes and in some ways that was hurting them because they weren’t able to develop their own music. I always felt that if you wanted to grow, like the musicians that I admire like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk, just to name a few, they always had their band, their sound, and their music. I always felt it was important for me to have my own music. If I continue to play only the same standard tunes, then how can I develop my own sound and the inner Kenny Garrett? I was always pretty stubborn about what I wanted to do in having my own music.
MW: How is it different today for you to make a living as a musician than it was for Freddie Hubbard or Woody Shaw?
KG: There are some similarities, but when I think about those guys, everybody was just trying to create music. I think it was about trying to see who could outdo the next person and at the same time be an individual. Today it seems like it’s changed a little bit and it’s more about the business of music. It’s about creating music to a certain extent, but it’s not on the same level. Today you don’t get a lot of opportunity to hear what I heard. When I first moved to New York, I went down and heard George Coleman playing “On Green Dolphin Street” through the keys. Now I don’t hear anybody playing any tunes through any keys but the one it’s in. That was a certain standard that they had.
MW: What do you think about mixing musical styles?
KG: I think of it all as music. I remember my high school band director, Bill Wiggins. He said, “You should move to New York.” I said, “I don’t want to move to New York.” He said, “The C7 is the same around the world.” And that statement made me realize that it’s all just music. You can play a C7 in classical music, in pop or hip-hop or in a folk song. It’s still a C7. They are only notes until I bring them alive. It depends on whether you understand the genre enough to interpret it. I always loved different types of music. My mother listened to the Motown sound, my father listened to jazz. Coming from Detroit, it was rich in all these different styles of music. To me it was never about playing one style of music. Today I’m still trying to learn to interpret different styles of music. If they touch me and fill me up musically – sometimes there’s an emptiness that you have. I remember when I was a kid at Christmas I used to hide my records all around and then bring them all out. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re hungry and you eat something delicious and it makes you feel good. That’s what I like about music. So I don’t really discriminate against the style that it’s in – I’m open to just playing music. I’m playing with Roy Haynes now, playing the music of Charlie Parker. I love Charlie Parker. I’m not trying to be Charlie Parker.
MW: You mentioned Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. What do you think are the key elements that you want people to hear and to remember?
KG: I think it’s the same thing that Charlie Parker and John Coltrane had. They had a sound and they had a language. I always wanted to have a sound, and that’s here, and I wanted to have a language so that people could say, “That’s Kenny Garrett’s language,” and that’s here, but I’m still developing that. That’s what I’m searching for, the sound and the language.