Jazz Appreciation Month is inspiring me to get out all my pent-up thoughts
and feelings about jazz while it’s semi-legal to do so. These days my memory
continues to serve up some of the jazz piano giants that I struggled all
my life to emulate. Oh, I finally settled in and played “who I was” and how
I felt at the moment, but always in the back of my mind was this niggling
little thought that I continued to miss the mark. And of course I missed the
mark… the people I was trying to emulate were world class musicians all.
I feel as though I’ve served a life-long apprenticeship to some of my
heroes of the piano jazz world. From time to time my sense of how I wanted
to sound has changed, depending upon mood, place, and who I was playing
with. In those times I would usually float back to one or two of my heroes
of that style, and try to help them, as Ricky Keller would say, to “enter my
body” and guide me to play more like they play.
As far as my style of piano jazz is concerned, different people will tell you
different things. Don’t listen to them… I sound nothing like Floyd Cramer or
Ramsey Lewis. And anyway, if you’re under 50 you probably don’t even know
who those players are. The Herbie Hancock of the ’60’s and ’70’s was
easily my biggest influence. I still love his playing of that era so much!
I heard Herbie live several times in Boston and always came away totally
inspired! I heard Bill Evans live in Boston too, and was also blown away
by him… for different reasons. For me, different players ring different bells
inside me. With Bill Evans, it was his precision and his style, which I could
somewhat emulate. With Wynton Kelly, it was his soloing ideas and left hand
chord structures I could relate to. So it’s no surprise that my style has ended
up being a poor man’s integration of Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans.
Wynton & Bill
Herbie is in there somewhere, of course, as is McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea,
but no one would say I sounded anything like them… and I didn’t. There were
subtle influences that might come out in a 4-bar phrase or a rhythm of some
sort. I listened to the recordings of these giants so much that little bits and
pieces of them stuck with me over the years, though I was never able to
really emulate them. Finally I landed on my own style, which a few folk say
they’re actually able to recognize. One would hope a “style” would finally
emerge after 30+ years of playing. You see, that’s one of the few drawbacks
of being versatile, which, thank god, I am. If I don’t sit at the keyboard with a
conscious intention of playing a certain way, my playing will be scattered…
and as some might say, exposing my true nature. But never mind that. The
trick to my playing consistently well lies in the ability to connect my heart
to whatever I’m about to play. As long as I do that (and I do it every time now)
my playing is as strong and as true to my musical nature as I can make it.
If you were to ask me who I would most like to play like, it would be Keith
Jarrett. He is a monster of emotion, taste and creativity. Just don’t watch him…
Keith & Russell
I’ve met several of my personal heroes. I know, and have worked with
Russell Ferrante, who is perhaps the most underrated giant of piano jazz
in the country. He is also the most sociable of the group, while Keith Jarrett
would be considered (by me) to be the least sociable. I’ve hung out with
Lyle Mays (of Pat Metheny fame) several times, the most memorable being
playing for each other in EJ’s in Atlanta ’till 5 a.m. A special time with a
genius player that I’ll never forget.
I lived in the apartment above Keith Jarrett for six months in Boston before
he joined Charles Lloyd. I would leave my door open and listen to him play
and practice while I did my homework, many times late into the night. He
was incredible, even as a young man. Guys like Keith, Ernie Watts, Alan
Broadbent, Harvey Mason, Tony Williams, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton…
they came through Berklee in the ’60’s and ’70’s hoping to put a polish on
their considerable abilities, and perhaps pick up a trick or two. I remember
the drum teacher at the time, Alan Dawson telling his student, Tony Williams,
“Sorry man, but there’s nothing I can teach you. Just go out there and
Most of them quit after a semester or two and moved on. Berklee was a jazz
broker back then, placing the good players and students with small groups
and big bands. Several of my classmates and friends dropped out early and
went with Woody Herman.
I played a jam session with Ernie Watts one night; used to cover an
occasional gig in an Irish bar in Boston for Alan Broadbent when he was
down in the city, taking a lesson from Lenny Tristano. Never met Alan, and
sorry that I didn’t. He’s a monstrous player, has been a member for years in
Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, plus being the conductor for several movie
scores and the conductor for Diana Krall on her concert tours.
There were other great musicians in other circumstances who inspired me…
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, whom I recorded and became friends with before he landed
with Steely Dan and the Doobies. Harvey Mason, whom I also recorded. Sonny Emory,
another fantastic drummer who played on an album I did… Ricky Keller
and I wrote a song for him called “Goodbye Sonny” as he was about to
leave Atlanta. I remember telling him at one point that if he could just “stay
clean” he could go to the top… and he did!
I met Diahann Carroll, Melissa Manchester, Susan Anton, Pat Metheny.
I played and recorded with John Abercrombie… that is a precious memory.
One of my roommates in Boston became a dear and lifelong friend…
Craig Herndon. We lived and played together for about 3 years in Boston
before he went on the road with a band and toured much of Europe. The
three roomies (Craig, Paul Miller & I) all took a Transcendental Meditation
class and learned to meditate. It really stuck with Craig, who finally stopped
playing jazz altogether and taught TM for 28 years! When he retired he
began playing again and was better than ever! I have recordings of Craig,
Paul and me playing together in ’69 and again in 2003… 34 years later!
I guess my biggest thrill of meeting my heroes was meeting and playing
five concerts with Henry Mancini. A great composer and a very cool dude,
he also had a big heart and a fine sense of humor. He gave the American
public a classy form of jazz they could relate to… the old TV series Peter
Gunn, The movies Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Moon River and The Pink Panther.
Talk about inspirations! I am so lucky and so blessed to have known and
worked with some of these fabulous talents. Many of the fine musicians
in Atlanta inspired me as well. And there was Joe Benjamin, a well-known
bassist from New York City, who played Broadway shows and jazz recording
sessions. We were playing an audition for Jimmy Helms, a singer, for
Columbia Records, down in the City. Joe pulled me aside right before we
played the audition and said, “We’re here to make this guy sound great.
We need to cook, but we need to be quiet, because this room has terrible
acoustics. So what I want us to do,” and spread his thumb and index finger
about two inches apart, “is play about this high above the carpet.” He smiled.
“Because if you can do that, and swing, you’re a damn good player.”
And we did that. Columbia didn’t sign Jimmy. He moved to London and
had a great singing career over there. He’s the lead singer in the group
Londonbeat, and still sounds as good as he did 50 years ago. Too bad,
Columbia, you missed a good one!
I am eternally grateful for all these fantastic inspirations. Those of us who
have been lucky enough to have a career in music can only hope that,
somewhere along the way, we’ve been able to somehow inspire other,
younger players and composers to reach for their musical goals. Because
when we do, we complete the cycle of constant improvement… we pass
the torch of excellence, we set the bar for the next generation. And if that
helps to keep jazz, and all art alive, it might just be the most important
and lasting thing we do.