January 29, 2009

Talkin' Jazz

Today I'll resume my "Talkin' Jazz" radio show on WHCL 88.7 FM streaming on WHCL.org. This semester's show will be Thursdays from 2-4 PM EST. As it was last semester, the WHCL only broadcasts when school is in session, and this is the first show of the Spring semester.

Today's show will feature "Music from the Bottom," great jazz bassists and drummers. If the stars align and the weather cooperates, hour #2 will feature an in-studio interview with two legendary musicians, a drummer and a bassist, who are spending three days on campus as Artists-In-Residence.

January 25, 2009


My interview with Nat in 1995 on my second jazz interview trip, this one aboard "Majesty of the Seas."

Back in 1995, on my second interview trip, I had the privilege to interview Nat Adderley, Cannonball’s brother, who co-wrote many of the tunes that inspired me in my early years. It wasn’t any trouble for me to prepare for this interview; I was a fan of Nat and Cannonball, and was devastated by Cannon’s untimely death in the mid-70’s.

To begin the interview, I asked Nat about three songs he wrote, inquiring as to their origins. After I asked him about the second song, I couldn’t resist asking him about one final song of personal interest to me: “Hummin’.” The following is Nat’s recounting of the basis of that song. The bonus is his mother’s response to it:

NA: [T]here are many many stories to go along. In other words, as far as I’m concerned, most of the music that I have ever written all has — there’s a reason, for it to be the way that it is. Now you’ve got two. If you’ve got another one, speak up.

MR: “Hummin’.

NA: “Hummin’” — actually, wow. “Hummin’.”

MR: And then I’ll let somebody else talk.

NA: You pick a — “Hummin.’” Boy. Well I guess the only way to do it is to tell you the way that it really was. “Hummin’” was written about an old woman who lived on my street when I was a little boy again in Tallahassee. Miss Sally was her name. Miss Sally. Southern people have strange ways of saying things. But there was Mrs. Coleman lived there, Mrs. Lasser lived up the street and Mr. Lasser. Miss Sally was about 80 years old but she was “Miss Sally” there was no man there. She was a tall, Black woman and I describe it — she looked like they look in “Roots” like the ladies looked. She wore that long dress, as long as an evening gown and she wore an apron, and the apron was as long as the dress. Miss Sally must have been about six feet tall. She was a tall, African-looking black woman. Miss Sally sat in this rocking chair on her porch. And her front porch was of course the houses were boards, little wooden houses. She sat in this rocking chair on the front porch and she had a loose board on that porch. And that’s where she had the rocking chair. And Miss Sally would sit there and rock, and like, for example, shell peas, shelling peas. You take the peas out the shells. She’d take the peas out the shells, drop the peas in the pot that she was holding in her lap, and the hulls in the apron behind the pot. Now and then she’d move the pot and dump the shells on a piece of paper on the floor and then go back to shelling peas. Meanwhile she would rock. And on that loose board when she’d rock forward, the board would hit — bomp. And when she’d rock backwards the board would hit from the front and rear — bu bomp. So she’d be rocking — bomp, bu bomp — bomp, bu bomp — bomp, bu bomp. All us little boys used to come by. We used to like to, because Miss Sally was a bit eccentric — at least I know now that she was eccentric, we just thought Miss Sally was crazy, but after I went to college I learned that there was such a word as eccentricity. Once she’d keep this stuff going, we’d say “Miss Sally you want us to fix that board?” Miss Sally say “get the hell out.” So we’d leave. Now, years, later when I was thinking about that again, I wrote this song. Oh, I left out a part. Miss Sally used to humm little churchy sounding things, [humms], kinda Gospel sounding. Meanwhile, — bomp, bu bomp — bomp, bu bomp.

MR: [to Romy, off camera] You’ve gotta hear this song.

NA: So I wrote the song. A little later on, and this is the addendum to it. I was living in New Jersey and had this big house, and my mother was visiting. And my mother came downstairs one morning, and she’d been listening to the radio at night. My momma said “listen — why don’t you write a song that’s got some meaning, like ‘Stardust?’” She said “you and your brother write them little ittilie boobly songs and they don’t have no meaning.” I had just done it. I said “you know that song I got called ‘Hummin’,’ the new one?” She said “yeah.” I said “you know, Quincy Jones recorded it, Cannonball recorded it, I recorded it?“ I said “you know that song is about old Miss Sally.” She said “what?” I said “you know the rhythm represents that board hitting — bomp, bu bomp — bomp, bu bomp — and melody is something like an old, Gospel sounding thing [humms].” And Momma say “yeah,” kind of skeptically, “yeah, sure.” But that night we were working down in the Village at a place called the Village Gate. Momma came down that night, and we played “Hummin.’” Momma, she called me over to the table: “hey, come here, boy” she said. “You know I listened to that song, and now that you told me what it means,” she said, “I could just see that old woman sitting on the porch and the board hitting,” and she said “you know old Miss Sally been dead about fifteen years now, but we all remember that old board hitting.” So she said “now that I see that, you know, and I’m gonna get off your case.” That’s when I knew Momma was hip. She said “I’m gonna get off your case and I’m going to say, I agree, your songs have meaning.” And that is the one for that one. Now I gave you three examples, let’s get somewhere else.

Click on the title, “Hummin” and you will be transported to the section on my website where you can click “Nat Adderley” that tells about the song “One for Nat” which I composed following this interview. Also there is brief biographical information about Nat and Cannonball.

January 18, 2009

A Statesman of the Highest Order

Those who frequent the streets of New York City tell me that Joe Wilder is never seen without a sport jacket and tie. Like many statesmen of his era, Joe’s dignity is unsurpassed, and I consider him a close friend and confidant. Born on the lucky date of 2/22/22, Joe is now 86 years old. He shared a birthday with Claude “Fiddler” Williams, but Claude was born on 2/22/08, so next month will be the 100th anniversary of Claude’s birth.

Joe met his lovely wife Solveig in Sweden when he traveled through Europe in the 1950’s with Count Basie. They married and moved to New York, where they’ve been ever since, and have raised three lovely daughters. When Joe received his honorary doctorate from Hamilton, it was a privilege to meet Solveig and learn of her political activism through her church and other community activities.

Joe told me a story that he had never shared before. As a child, in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, his family used to have chickens in the back yard. When they were little he remembers running around in the backyard without any clothes on and the chickens were trying to peck the little boys in a certain part of their bodies, but he wouldn’t say the word. He started to say “pecker” but he wouldn’t say it. He says “so I’ll never forget that, you know, I never told anybody that.” But, he says, “talk about trying to ‘nip things in the bud.’” That is about as off-color a joke as Joe ever says.

I’ve played many gigs with Joe over the years, and I never miss a chance to bring him to Upstate New York for concerts. It’s especially significant for young listeners to see such a vital and dignified example of someone who has grown as a musician, like most do, and it is inspiring to hear him play the trumpet, an instrument many young players aspire to master.

I was thinking about how it was to work with Joe, and parts of it were a little nerve wracking. Most times I’d suggest starting with “Apex Blues,” (a tune we had previously played), but Joe acted like he didn’t know it. Then I’d remind him, and then eventually I’d say “Apex Blues” and he would go — “oh is that the one that goes de-de-la-de-de-la-de?’” I’d say “yeah.” So we knew that one. Nevertheless, he was a little hard to read because I’d say “is it okay if we do ‘Take the A Train?’” He’d say “oh, okay, that’s all right.” And I never could quite tell if he was happy with the tune selection, but it was fun and challenging on a number of occasions.A couple of times he made minor errors like dropping sections of the song. One time in particular, the first time we played “Seventy-Six Trombones,” he played one A and then went immediately into the bridge. That happened also on “It Might as Well be Spring” when we played during his first improvised chorus. He dropped an A and went to B and I think within one measure the bass player had it and about another two beats later I heard it. It can be identified because his soloing is so well conceived. I’m not sure whether he’s thinking of the specific chords in his head, but even if he’s not he’s playing the changes so well that you’d have to be zoning out to not get it. On one occasion it happened twice within the same song and both times we were right on top of it. And I think the added pleasure of working with this particular group was that I knew that our drummer heard it also. There is a kind of glance of acknowledgment that we all shared that we were still with him.

It’s a daily occurrence of people are always offering to help Joe with his luggage. He brings his horns in what looks like a suitcase, in addition to his cameras and photography equipment which he totes everywhere. He repeatedly says “no, no, no, I’ve got it. If you pick that up you’ll fall to the ground” he would say. He’d say “no, no I’ve got it because this way I’m balanced, I got one in each arm.” And even when we picked him up at the hotel and he’s got this suitcase that must weight 60 pounds, he wouldn’t let you touch it. It reminded me of Milt Hinton. Even in his last years Milt adamantly refused to let anyone help him negotiate his way around with his bass and cameras.

When we played one school gig with Joe I had to bring my P.A. At the end of the gig, of course where is Joe? He’s carrying gear to the car. There can be a lot to learn from behavior like that. How impressive it was to see students crowding around him after gigs and him signing autographs. He struggled to hear their names, and he’d ask them to spell their names for him. He would write a little personal note to each person who requested his autograph. It was interesting also to hear more stories. Some stories he told I had heard before. Nevertheless it was interesting to hear about some of the people he previously played with that he did not enjoy. He mentioned a couple of people who, as soon as they turned into leaders turned into cantankerous personalities. He was only with Lionel Hampton for a short time, but I asked him when he was with Hamp if they were doing some of that show business shtick. I know Hamp used to ham it up and jump into the audience. And Joe said “oh yeah, and we would twirl our trumpets.” Apparently there was this one point in one chart where the trumpet players had to throw their horns up in the air. He said that one night, because of the floodlights above them, he threw it up and either he couldn’t see or the floodlights had him disoriented, anyway he threw it well behind him. At the time the band was on risers so his horn went up and came crashing down on the back of the stage. At that time Hamp said “oh yeah, leave that in the show, leave it.” And Joe said Hamp never gave him a dime to get his horn fixed. It got to the point in later years when Joe would not accept a gig that was going to be with Hamp.

Joe was a classically trained trumpet master, and his father lived to the age of 99. We can hope that Joe gives us many more years of his peaceful presence, as we need more statesmen like him to set pristine examples for young players.

Click on the title, “A Statesman of the Highest Order” to go to the Hamilton website and see a clip of Joe talking about his experience in the 30’s playing with Lucky Millinder, and what it was like in the south traveling with an integrated band.”