FROM THE JAZZDELAPENA ARCHIVES (2008)
“You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out of the other end and disrupts the universe.” – Roswell Rudd
I met trombonist, composer Roswell Rudd by way of his partner, Verna Gillis, who I interviewed at her apartment in NYC. At the time, he had just completed a project with the Puerto Rican cuatro player, Yomo Toro and was embarking on a project with Cuban tres player, David Oquendo. Also, he was performing the occasional gig with his quartet and trombone band.
When things get hectic Rudd retreats to Kerhonkson, New York, where he communes with nature, gigs with the universe and recharges his battery.
Rudd is a trombonist from the generation of musicians that has forever defined jazz and free-form improvisation but, as you will see, there is much more to the man than meets the eye.
These days, he goes under various aliases, including The Wizard of Roz and the High Priest of Mo’ Honk but deep down, he is a scholar, a gentleman and, one cool cat!
At the end of the interview, Roswell prophetically says, “There are no endings, only beginnings.” My deepest condolences to Verna Gillis and Roswell’s family, friends and colleagues. Rest in power.
Tomas Peña: When did you realize you were destined to be a professional musician?
Roswell Rudd: It had a lot to do with my family. My father was an amateur drummer who enjoyed having jam sessions at home. When he wasn’t playing along with his 78 RPM records, he was beating the drums, inviting people over and making noise. That was the atmosphere I grew up in, people collaborating, getting together and seeing what comes out. That’s where it all starts, and that’s what keeps everything going. I always go back to that. I have had some schooling; I know some theory, I write, arrange and put things together, but everything goes back to those jam sessions.
What kind of music did your father play around the house?
My dad played Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and the Chicago guys, Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke, just a whole lot of good early jazz recordings.
Who were the participants?
Mostly, friends, it was a party atmosphere, you know what I mean? (Laughs)
Returning to the moment you realized you were destined to live a life in music …
When I heard Louis Armstrong I went to a private school in upstate New York and most of the kids where New Yorkers who were farmed out to private schools. They used to bring me down to these clubs and concerts in New York. One day a school buddy took me to hear Louis Armstrong at a movie theater just off Times Square. At the time, Louis performed between films, so I had to sit through the movie, The Crimson Pirates, three times to see him again! It was a popular thing, but Louis radiated so much warmth, creativity, and inspiration that I just melted. I shook his hand, and he said some beautiful things to encourage me. I believe it all started with Louis.
How old were you?
I was probably fifteen. There was another occasion in 1948. The first live jazz band I ever heard was a pickup band from New York City. They were handsome, spectacular guys. There was James P. Johnson on the piano and a bass player named Pops Foster. These guys stomped! I think I was about 12 years old at the time, but it was Louis Armstrong that compelled me. After I had met him, I thought to myself, “I want to do for someone what Louis did for me.”
At the age of eleven, you took up the French horn.
I was playing the French horn and the trombone. The first horn that I brought home from school was a mellophone, just like the one on top of the cupboard (points to the horn, which is on display on a kitchen cabinet). When the school realized I loved to blow they put me in one of those big symphonic regional high school bands of the time. They threw me in the French horn section, and the conductor was very smart. He had a buddy system where he placed people who had little or no experience next to someone who knew how to read and follow the conductor. So he teamed me up with a guy named John Gilbert, who taught me to finger and read the parts. My first public performance was with the French horn. Then everything changed. My family moved to Connecticut, and I started going to a private school and meeting these kids from New York. When I heard what was going on, my focus became to return to New York, which I did around 1950 or 1960.
Your generation grew up listening to popular music on the radio.
At the time jazz was popular music. What was so amazing to me was the fact that there was all of this improvisation going on in modern music.
And it was danceable.
Yes, and I think that’s why it was so important to me, because there was, call it Free Jazz, or freedom being expressed in popular music. To a certain extent, there still is, but these guys were improvising.
Also, vocalists were prominent. Tell me about the impact of singers like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Al Hibbler.
Al Hibbler was the blind singer with the Duke Ellington band in the mid, the 1930s. He was the guy who did the original version of Unchained Melody. He also did, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore and Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me and at least a dozen other Ellington hits.
And there was Ella!
Ella phrased in such a way that the bands who backed her up would end up phrasing with her. She had a way of making her statement in such a way that the whole group would change up to accommodate her, and she made it better (Laughs).
As a student at Yale, you performed with the group, Eli’s Chosen Six.
Yes, I started at Yale in 1954. It was a college band, and we played at fraternity houses and other colleges along the Eastern seaboard.
One critic wrote: “All of Rudd’s future endeavors, including his landmark collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai and Steve Lacy grew out of the lessons learned while playing rags and stomps for drunken college kids in Connecticut.”
Again, there was a party atmosphere and the informality of the jam session.
Eli’s Chosen Six made two recordings: Eli’s Yale University Dixieland Band, for Columbia Records and another record, which is not listed in your discography.
It’s on a record label in Long Island. I can’t remember the name of the company, but I recall that it was a slightly different band. There were two guys from New York who sat in and the feeling was a little different. The first recording was more the reality; the other recording was made a few years later.
In 1961, you recorded New York City R & B with Buell Neidlinger and Cecil Taylor.
That was the third time I recorded and the first time I recorded in New York. The band included Cecil Taylor, Billy Higgins on the drums, Buell on the bass and all of these great horn players: Clark Terry, Steve Lacy, and Archie Shepp. That’s an impressive recording. I knew Buell from my college days. His idol was Jimmy Blanton, who was Duke Ellington’s bass player. Buell had me take these recordings, transcribe them and make sure that I had the bass stuff written like classical music. That was his statement, and that was a new experience for me. I had been jazz arranging, which was as far away from Yale as Timbuktu. So that was my first project. It was very informative, and it sent me down a path that I am still on today.
Let’s return to the bebop era. It’s been said that bebop was the “worst thing that ever happened to the trombone.” True or False?
I don’t know if bebop was the worst thing that happened to the trombone. When Charlie Parker came along everybody wanted a piece of what he was doing. If you were a bass player, you would take what you could handle, the same thing for the trombone. For the more unwieldy instruments, I guess Bebop was a big challenge. But you know, there are people like Slide Hampton, who played the trombone like a piano. Here is the important thing about Bebop for me. When those high school guys started bringing me down here, one of the things that were going on was Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Bird (Charlie Parker) was there. I had no idea what he was playing. I only knew that it was fantastic. I knew what Louis Armstrong was doing. I would go to the trombone and play those riffs, but Parker was on another level. As far as I am concerned, that’s the most sophisticated type of improvisation in the world. Everybody should spend a part of their lives on that because it is a part of everything you do in music. I don’t care how free, how theoretical, how academic it is, Bebop is in there. Also, a European harmonic theoretical foundation and an African modal rhythmic foundation in bop. As far as improvisation goes, Bebop is a conservatory for the world. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker took all of us to school!
Your comment debunks the theory. Also, you skipped the bebop era and went straight from Dixieland to Free jazz.
I grew up in collective improvisation, and that was what I heard with Archie Schepp and Ornette Coleman, so I was very much at home with that. There was probably a theoretical part that was very new to me, but as far as just being comfortable in an atmosphere of collective improvisation and making up a complementary part to what was going on around me, I had no problem. I was more comfortable with that than sitting in a big band reading complicated charts. So that was natural to me, when I heard those guys doing it I went right along with them.
You incorporated the words of the American poet, E. E. Cummings into your first composition.
I have never been able to find that poem. I put a melody to his words. That was during the 1950s.
In 1962 you recorded Into the Hot on the Impulse label with Gil Evans and Cecil Taylor, followed by School Days (1963, Hat Hut) with Steve Lacy, Dennis Charles, and Henry Grimes and For Trane (Impulse). It was the first of many collaborations with Archie Shepp.
I felt an immediate rapport with Archie, musically and the way we think. We managed to do quite a few things together, but the thing we did most rehearse. We rehearsed a lot! You might be skipping over some time I spent with a great pianist named Herbie Nichols. We spent about two or three years together. He was my teacher, and I came up with a couple of gigs for us.
What do you recall about the era?
As I mentioned, I grew up around collective improvisation. That’s what the new musicians were doing. With Bebop, it was one person improvising and a rhythm section supporting them. With Free Jazz, it didn’t matter how many people were playing. We were doing spontaneous call and response at the moment, and we realized that it was an infinitely rich musical resource.
What about the scene, the atmosphere, the venues?
I remember performing in people’s living rooms, lofts and in cellars and basements that we fixed up ourselves, and there were a few clubs, like Slugs. That whole thing was very grassroots. Occasionally we would perform at the Five Spot. We didn’t play at the Village Gate until the 1960s. So it was time for our generation to get into these other roads, other places, and spaces.
What’s the biggest misconception about Free Jazz?
People would come up to us and say, “You guys can’t play the changes, you don’t know your music, you are just bullshitting, you are like children who are learning for the first time and taking it to the public when you should be in school practicing.” I guess the music did have kind of a rough edge, and to some, it sounded like we were fooling around as opposed to the guys who were serious. I think the biggest criticism for me was some guy telling me, “You are just playing shit!” To which I replied, “I have been working on this ‘shit’ for thirty years!”
It tends to stir up strong emotions. Less we forget, Ornette Coleman was physically attacked on more than one occasion.
I remember going to hear Cecil Taylor one night and people were shouting, “I’m leaving!” Cecil was right in the middle of a number, and he was pushing the envelope, and this guy got up, spun around and said, “It’s shit,” before running out. The next night, and every night after that, the guy was back, and he sat right next to Cecil. This is what he had to adjust to. For some people, it was like a hallucination or a possession or having to go through a religious experience.
That brings us to 1966, 1967 and the album, Live in San Francisco, with Archie Shepp (Impulse), New York Eye and Ear Control with Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai and Gary Peacock (ESP), Until with Robin Kenyatta (Atlantic), Mama Too Tight with Archie Shepp (Impulse) and Live at Donaueschingen (Saba). Those were productive years.
That was the famous year that Thelonious Monk took an orchestra to Europe. Much of the footage from the film, Straight No Chaser, was taken from that tour. So it was great sharing the stage with Monk and also with Miles (Davis). That was when he had the quintet with (drummer) Tony Williams and (pianist) Herbie Hancock.
What did Monk mean to you?
Monk came to my hometown in 1954. At the time I was just leaving high school and Monk’s 1947 and 1948 recordings on the Blue Note label had just come out. I already told you about Charlie Parker and the effect he had on me. Well, Monk hit me even harder because he was so clear with his statement. Monk’s logic was irrefutable and thanks to him I started to hear Parker and a lot of other music where velocity was so important, better. Monk had those tempos and made statements that were anti-velocity, with plenty of space, except every so often he would purposely turn things upside down! But if you stuck with it, you started to travel.
I came to New York in 1960 wanting to do more and Steve Lacey, who was crazy about Monk, and I got together, and we followed him around. In time, we go to know Monk’s songs, and we came to realize that we could capture his sound with a soprano saxophone, trombone, drummer and bass player. I work with Steve Lacey and Herbie Nichols for three years. I am happy to say I am as immersed now as I was then.
And his legacy?
The clarity of his statement, the intelligence, the emotion and his ability to develop logical improvisations out of these compositions, and by logic, I mean logic in a broad sense. Not just two plus two but maybe three plus four. Like I said, Monk’s music was not predictable; it was a lot like life. Something falls off the wall, and you just have to deal with it! I think the best illustration was a performance at the Five Spot where he disappeared while the rhythm section was playing and Charlie Rouse was taking a solo. They went on for a while, and then I noticed Monk coming from the bar area, and he timed it so that just as soon as Charlie Rouse was finishing his last chorus Monk dervishes, comes in on the piano at a funny angle and makes this cluster sound. So he worked that accidental thing unwound it and laid it out for everybody. In other words, he took what we thought was an accident, and he dealt with it like a great composer. That’s where my foundation is.
You taught a course in Ethnomusicology at Bard State College.
That was in 1972. I had been working on and off with Alan Lomax. I was his Field Assistant.
(For additional information on the exploits of Alan Lomax read: The Man Who Recorded the World – A Biography by John Szwed (Viking Press).
You and I share a mutual friend, vibraphonist Steve Pouchie, a former student at Bard. He began as a business major and switched to music. He described you as “bohemian guy” who took his students on field trips and taught them the art of cosmic mutual notation or playing free. Years later you composed the tune, Pouchie, and the Bird, which appears on the recording, El Espiritu Jibaro.
Bard is an old private college. At the time the music department consisted of three people teaching classical music, but there were many students who wanted to write their music, play jazz and study the history of jazz for college credit. My official title was Visiting Lecturer. The routine was, I would take the train to Bard in the middle of the week, teach classes from the afternoon into the evening, then get up the next day, teach some more and take the train home. I helped the students do whatever they wanted to do with music, and I also recommended them to other people who could help them. On Steve and some of the other students, I was a conduit. I also offered a course in World Music and conducted an improvisation workshop and jam sessions.
And in the process, you changed lives.
Well, I have always felt that you are your musical boundary. I helped the students explore themselves.
You gained a lot from the experience as well.
That’s what teaching is all about. Invariably, former students come up to me, no matter where I might be and thank me. Somehow the music took the students to a very deep place inside themselves and opened them up. Music touches you and frees you.
Where else did you teach?
I taught after-school programs in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn (1972-1976) at Powell. I also did a Jazz interaction workshop at a school in New York and taught at the University of Maine (1976-1982).
During the 1970s you recorded with the New York Art Quartet, Gato Barbieri, Marcelo Melis, Don Moye, Steve Lacy, Beaver Harris, Carla Bley, George Gaslini, Sangeeta Michael Berardi, Rashied Ali, Eddie Gomez, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Barry Harris and Mal Waldron among others. Then we get into, what I call, the Soundscape era, which is the late 70s and early 80s.
I performed at Soundscape on two separate occasions. The first I played with my wife, son, a drummer and a bass player. About one year later, I performed with a student band and some musicians from New York.
What do you recall about Soundscape?
I didn’t know much about it until Verna Gillis, and I got together ten years ago. She keeps all of this stuff related to Soundscape at her home in upstate New York. At the time I was living and working in Augusta, Maine, so I was out of touch.
Between 1986 and 1992 you were absent from the New York music scene. One writer described that period in your life as a “rough patch.” How do you describe it?
I lived in Woodstock and Accord (New York) for a time. I was looking to get back to New York, but I didn’t have the wherewithal, so I started living in that part of the world. I didn’t perform for about a year, but a practiced and composed a lot. Later, I worked at the Granit Hotel, backing up stand-up comedians, singers, dancers, and fire-eaters. I had never been involved in that particular niche before, but I learned a lot from the experience, and it put food on the table. It saw me through some hard times.
How and when did you and Verna Gillis connect?
Actually, we reconnected in 1998. I would see her because she lived not far from where I lived. In fact, she refurbished the Accord train station and made it into a performance space and community center. Also, in 1981, we collaborated on Interpretations of Monk with Barry Harris, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Mal Waldron and Muhal Richard Abrams.
Looking back on that period in your life.
I would call it a change of direction. When I left New York in 1976, there was nothing happening, and I was out of work for several years.
There just wasn’t enough happening. I had a few commissions to write stuff and perform, but there was a lot of space in between. At the time, I was driving a cab and working as a part-time clerk for the city. That’s when I moved to Maine, I had a job teaching, and I developed a life there.
Tell me more about your experiences at the Granit Hotel.
I was at the Granit from 1986 to 1992. While that was going on, I was doing delivery work and odd jobs in Ulster County. Periodically, I was invited to participate in the Alan Lomax project.
Did your work with Alan Lomax (Song Style, Cantometrics, Global Juke Box) prepare you to go beyond Western music?
It certainly helped. I started working for Alan in 1964. It was very intense, nine to five, five days per week, and it was difficult integrating that into the things that I wanted to do in New York. Sometimes I would work for a year and sometimes I would have to lay-off and do something else around New York City. On and off, I worked with Alan for thirty years.
What is Cantometrics?
Cantometrics is a way of listening to a recording or performance and analyzing it by ear through the use of thirty-seven parameters. When you code the relative presence or absence of ingredients, you come out with a profile of a song style of a particular culture. So you do this all over the world, at the tribal level, urban level, high cultural level and you get patterns for all of this stuff and you can kind of see how traditional music is laid out across the planet.
Tell me about the Global Jukebox.
It was an extension of Cantometrics, for people in middle school or high school. It was computerized, so you could sit down at a computer screen and access a map of the planet, press a button and access a particular culture and its music. It was an educational component that Alan was trying to develop, but it got stalled so it never made it into the public arena.
Part of the problem was that Alan micro-managed everything, and there was a lack of communication between the workers. Also, Alan had a stroke and was out of commission. Sadly, he died about twelve years ago. His daughter tried to resurrect the project, but she was unsuccessful. As far as I know, all of the materials are sitting in a room on Forty-First Street (New York). It’s a great archive. I hope I am wrong.
Your time with Alan Lomax was a training ground.
Look, when it comes right down to it, when you perform and compose music you are dealing with sound. Also, there is something called “ear training.” I was so adamant about “ear training” with my students that they called it “ear straining!” (Laughs) When you play music with others a lot of what is achieved in the way of a good performance has to do with how well you listen to the people you are playing with and how deeply you respond as well as the adjustments you make intuitively to blend in. It makes all the difference between something that has the juice and something that doesn’t have the juice. So any ear training, and especially the work I did with Alan Lomax was very helpful. It gave me more chops and more ears.
In 1994 the project came to a close. What happened after that?
I continued to work around Ulster County doing various odd jobs and began traveling to Europe again. The gig at the Grant was gone, but David Winograd and I collaborated with some local guys. I also started going back to New York to play isolated gigs; I started getting out again.
That year you recorded Dark Was the Night with Allen Lowe.
Yes, Alan Lowe brought me out. Dark Was the Night was a combination studio session and a live recording from Providence, Rhode Island. Allen is a fascinating person, but that’s a story for another day.
Also, in 1995 you recorded New World with Terry Adams and Wozzek’s Death with Lowe.
Yeah, that was with Terry and his band NRBQ. The group had achieved an organic sound after years of being together on the road. Factoring myself in with them was inspirational. Wozzek’s was an unusual approach to musicalized storytelling. Also, on Allen’s Wozzek’s album are two tracks of my music, Concentration Suite, and Bonehead. At the time, I was firmly focused on the compositional process, so I recommended these pieces as resources dealing with that.
1996 was a banner year in terms of recordings: Out and About with Steve Swell, Rumors of an Incident with Elton Dean, Black with Keith Tippett and Terrible NRBQ with NewSense.
I like to think that Steve Swell was the person who officially brought me out of retirement, although I wouldn’t exactly call it that. In 1997, I played and recorded with Elton’s band and recorded with NewSense.
You also recorded The Unheard Herbie Nichols, as a leader.
After doing the thing with Steve Swell at Cadence, I got the idea to do something I wanted to do for a long time, music that I worked on with Herbie Nichols. It was important to me to see how I had grown since 1963. I took the idea to some friends in Buffalo, New York that I had been playing music with on and off. We recorded fifteen songs and the album in one weekend.
With Greg Miller and John Bacon Jr.
That’s right. The recording received a mixed reception.
For some people, the combination of trombone, guitar, and drums for an hour and ten minutes was a bit tricky, but I thought that what it revealed about Herbie was fantastic!
1998 was another productive year. You recorded Hallucinations with Glenn Hall and Trio on Four with the Ab Barrs Trio.
That’s a remarkable recording for the great Ab Baars Trio plus and a track that I did, called The Year was 1503, which was the first time I had done any stand-up recording. My experience’s at the Granit Hotel, and accompanying comedians were the inspiration for the scenario. When you play for comedians, you have to watch out, because they improvise a lot. Anyway, 1503 is like the comedic theater with characters out of the band, people playing an all that.
In 1998 Verna Gillis’ husband, Brad Graves passed away. Also, one month later your wife suffered a stroke and was admitted to a nursing home.
That’s where your relationship with Verna took root.
I had some contact with Verna before that time. I played in her performance space in Accord and before that, at Soundscape. When I heard about her husband’s passing, I called and wished her well and gave her my condolences and told her to keep going. We got together sometime after that.
At some point, you got into World Music. It’s worth noting that Verna presented many World Music artists at Soundscape and was one of the first to do so. That must have had an impact on you.
Not to mention the Cuban musicians who came to New York via the Mariel Boatlift.
In 2001 you and Verna traveled to Mali. The trip is documented in the film Bamako is a Miracle, where you collaborated with Toumani Diabate among others and created the recording, Malicool. It’s a fascinating film!
During the first trip, we performed with kora player, Toumani Diabate at the French Cultural Center. It went so well that we returned the following year and recorded Malicool.
There are some defining moments in the film. Perhaps the most telling is the scene where Toumani is wrestling with a Monk tune and Verna calmly asks you to lay out while the musicians settle their differences and work out the arrangement. There were some tense moments.
That’s true. Verna had her finger on the pulse, and we were able to get through that.
The other defining moment is when Toumani and Verna fess up to hearing negative rumors about one another. In spite of that, they laugh it off and share a victory hug. Also, I should mention Malicool was nominated for a Grammy.
You are right, the film goes into the nitty-gritty of it. Suffice it to say, African and New York exist in different worlds of time.
In 2002 you recorded Roswell Rudd and Archie Shepp Live in New York and Seize the Time with the Nexus orchestra. In 2003, there was the Sex Mob and the Grind Palace, and in 2004, your wife passed away. You didn’t record again until 2oo5, with the Mongo Buryat Band. How you became acquainted with Mongolian throat singers is quite a story.
There were two guys, Odserun, and Tuvsho. They were performing in the area, at public schools and wherever they could create some interest in the throat-singing phenomenon. When Verna and I heard that they were in the area, we put out a call and had them over the house. They started singing, and I got out my trombone. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There is something about that kind of singing that just goes with the sound of the trombone.
The result was the recording, Blue Mongol.
That took a couple of years. The original jam session was me, and two singers. The next time Tuvsho came with the Badma Khanda, a great singer, and three instrumentalists. I started writing some pieces for them, or I should say for us and integrated myself into what they were doing. The year after that, 2004 or 2005 was when we recorded the album. In 2006 we did a U.S. tour. We played on the East Coast, Chicago, and the West Coast.
How was Blue Mongol received?
People were amazed and transfixed, the same way that I was when I first heard Odserun and Tavsho sing in my living room. It’s transfixing. I don’t know if the recording captures the music because it’s such an acoustical thing. It’s all based on harmonics. It’s something that has to happen in a natural acoustic space, but it’s so strong that I think that some it translates to the recording.
The next collaboration was with the Puerto Rican cuatro (guitarist) player, Yomo Toro.
The collaboration with Yomo goes way back to Verna’s earliest days of producing. I have traveled and performed in Europe, Canada, Africa and beyond that, but I have to say the experience with Yomo and drummer, Bobby Sanabria was hard for me in a good way.
I will say it in one word, CLAVE!
If you are brought up in it, it’s one thing. If you have to learn it and reapply it to everything you have experienced in your life, that’s another thing. I call it, The Science of the Clave. I had to work with it as a science before I could get it to an art. What an experience! I grew from this. Both of these guys are incredible teachers. Bobby does it one way. He breaks it down and lays it out theoretically as well as logically. With Yomo, it exudes from his character. He plays it for you, sings and makes the air move around you so that you pick it up by osmosis. That has been the most challenging thing thus far.
In 2007 you returned to your Roots with, Keep Your Heart Right.
There are some very early songs and more recent songs on that recording. It was the result of discovering a singer named Sunny Kim, who is South Korean. She was a student at the New England Conservatory when Steve Lacy and his wife were on the faculty. Sunny has tremendous vocal resources, and there is nothing that she wouldn’t take on. We did a memorial for Steve (Lacy), and it was a great thing. It was two hours of Steve Lacy sounds, his compositions, and his songs. It was a tremendous experience for me. That’s where I met Sunny.
About a year before that I started working with a great pianist named Lafayette Harris, so I pulled together with rehearsals with Sunny, Lafayette and myself and we began to grow the material and develop a chemistry with one another. Last year we brought bassist, Brad Jones into it and we had ourselves a quartet. We traveled to Italy twice last summer, and we have two things coming up in New York in October. It’s a very enjoyable group. A lot of the material has never been performed.
That’s just one of many projects you are involved with.
This is one of the configurations that I hope will go on for a long time so that we can find out more about ourselves.
You recently completed the recording, Encounters with Cuban guitarist, David Oquendo.
I have to talk about David Oquendo. He’s like Yomo Toro, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. People who come along occasionally that are a school onto themselves. So for me, it was another opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. This is a record of standards from his experience, from my experience and our experience, because what happened in the 1940s and 1950s in our art was absorbed and assimilated in the Caribbean, Europe and all over the place. Even though we come from different backgrounds we were familiar with a lot of the same material.
One of the things that fascinated me about Oquendo was his scat. He does this mouth percussion thing that is just killing. He told me that there was a time when drums were not allowed on the street in Cuba, you had to have permission to play the drums, so mouth and body percussion became something of a substitute for playing percussion. He recounted that there were times when they would be standing around doing this on the street, and it sounded so real that people would call the cops. I don’t think he does it publicly, I guess it’s a private thing, but David is full of this type of stuff. There is a lot of street in David.
In a past interview, you said the following: “I consider myself very fortunate to have lived to see the fruition of so much labor. I think Mc Coy Tyner called it a privilege and so it is humbling to have gotten to the point to have the privilege of supporting myself this way.“
That’s right, over the last ten years I have gotten a lot more thanks to Verna and the collaborations that she has arranged for me and the things that I have been able to do for myself. The quartet with Sunny Kim is one such thing, and another is the trombone band. We will be coming out with that in November.
Tell me about the trombone band.
Its brass music, trombone music, three trombones, a tuba, bass, and drums. We just participated in the Lake George Jazz Weekend. There was a group there called Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers, they came on after us and carried the spirit of the festival. The music was fun, entertaining and accessible. The beauty of my band is that I can go just about anywhere with it. I can play dance music, folk music, some edgy stuff and pretty much do whatever I want to do. Judging from the response, we have received thus far I think we are going to be fine.
You seemed to have achieved the best of both worlds; an apartment in Manhattan, a house in the country, a resurgence of your career. Who has it better than you?
You got it, Tomas! You got it, man!
It’s a great place to be, and you deserve it!
There are no endings Tomas, only beginnings.