Sunday, June 17, 2018

GAYELYNN MCKINNEY ON THE LONG AWAITED 'MCKINFOLK: THE NEW BEGINNING, HER DAD'S INFLUENCE & MAX ROACH'S DRUMSTICKS


Ask the jazz drummer GayeLynn McKinney why it took her so long to record her dad’s music, she says without hesitation, she was focused on building her music career, and she didn’t want to do it by exploiting her dad’s reputation. McKinney’s dad, Harold McKinney, was a nationally renowned jazz pianist, composer, vocalist, and musicologist, and a towering cultural figure in Detroit responsible for teaching scores of young jazz musicians at his weekly workshop The Detroit Artist and Jazz Performance Lab. The pianist left boxes and boxes of his original compositions most of which was never recorded. McKinney’s daughter over a stellar music career that’s approaching three-decades has built quite a name for herself. For years, she has been the soul of the female jazz ensemble Straight Ahead, which achieved international acclaim and put out a string of hit albums on Atlantic Records. Whenever notable jazz musicians such as Steve Turre, and Benny Golson hit Detroit and need a drummer McKinney gets the call. McKinney’s vast musical acumen and versatile chops has capture the attention of music royalty outside of jazz as well. McKinney has become the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin’s, go-to drummer. Five years back, McKinney finally decided it was time to put out her dad’s music.  Last month, the Detroit Music Factory released “McKinfolk: The New Beginning”. The project took McKinney all of five years to complete, having staged a series of aggressive crowd-funding campaigns, and assembled a multi-generational group of Detroit jazz musicians to perform her dad’s music. There’re 11 selections on the recording, and each has a different group of musicians playing her dad’s tunes. The album is wondrous, opening with a snippet of a conversation a nine-year-old McKinney had with her dad as he sat at the piano working on some music.  I Dig Jazz caught up with McKinney recently to discuss the project, which she did enthusiastically while also reminiscing about her career, and her encounters with the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach.

When I first talked to you about McKinfolk: The New Beginning, you said that you got the idea for it from a dream you had about your father and that in the dream he chastised you because he had all this music, and nobody was doing anything with it, especially you.  Will you talk about that dream, and how it inspired you to finally do this project?

Well, what's funny about that, I was on the road with Straight Ahead when I had that dream. I was in St Louis, and we had done a sound check, and I had gone back to the room to take a nap, you know, take that little power nap before showtime. Michelle [McKinney, Harold McKinney’s wife] happened to be on that same show. She was singing with us. So, I went to sleep, and at this point, this is when the dream took over, but it was so weird because it felt real because I was still in my hotel room. I heard a knock at the door, and I looked through the peek hole, and there was this guy standing there who looked like an aboriginal person, and he had on this white turban and a white robe. I was like wow this guy is really striking, so I opened the door apprehensively, and I'm looking at him like, "May I help you?"

He stood there and didn't say anything, and while I'm looking at him, my father peaked from behind him grinning. I was like, “Oh my God Dad”.

He chuckled. Then he looked at the guy, and the guy stepped aside and motioned for him to come on, that he could come into my room. So, he came in, and he looked like he was about forty-something years old, and he was dressed nice. Soon as he came into the room, the smile left his face. By this time, Michelle was also sitting at the desk in my room. He says, “you got to do something with this music!”, and I said, “Well I am doing something with this music, Dad.  I'm right here with the girls, and we're playing music.

He was staring at me and I said, “What music dad?”, and he was getting ready to tell me and the phone rang and woke me up. So, I was really upset because I was like, “Oh my God! He was about to tell me”, so that was it for that dream.

Then three years later, in 2009, Chris Collins came to me and said, “Hey, we're doing a family-theme at the Detroit Jazz Festival this year. We're going to celebrate the Jones [Elvin and Thad] Brothers and celebrate some other brothers, and other families, so why don't you do some of your father's music?

 How much music did he leave behind?

Michelle has been the guardian of this music and trying to keep it safe, you know. So, when I did that concert for the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2009, I was like okay, so this is what dad wants me to do. At that point, that's when I decided on the name McKinfolk, which I really didn't come up with because dad had this name back in the '90s when I used to play with him. The original McKinfolk was me, dad, Uncle Raymond, Auntie Carol, and Michelle. Then, the folk part was, you know, whoever he asked to play on the project.

We had Regina Carter one time playing with us, and just different people playing with us. So, we always had these different musicians playing with us. The McKinney’s were the nucleus. When I got busy with Straight Ahead, I kind of stepped away from the McKinfolk.

So, that made me say, “That's what I'm going to call this project. This is going to be the rebirth of McKinfolk” because after dad died McKinfolk passed with him.

This first project and I didn't do any new stuff really. Well, it’s going to be new to some people's ears, but some other it will not. I decided for this first project to redo some of the music that he composed in 1973.

There are a couple of songs that have never been recorded, that he played live sometimes. One of them is called “Nostalgia,” which Michelle wrote some wonderful lyrics to. The other two was “After the Sunset,” and “Night Blues,” which “After the Sunset” Regina's playing on it, and I have Perry Hughes playing on “Night Blues”. Miche Braden is singing both of those songs because those are the ones she used to do with dad. Michelle also wrote lyrics to “White and Blue,” which was an instrumental piece that dad had, and Buddy Budson did the arrangement on “Nostalgia”.

 Would you have ever recorded your father’s music even if you did not have that dream?

That's a very interesting and a good question. Honestly, in my mind, I was thinking I want to make my own music. I love my father. I love his music, but I didn’t want to be given everything. I wanted to make my own way as a musician. Dad made his way and became this great person, this great and respected musician. I wanted to make it under my name, too.

Honestly, recording his music wasn’t on my mind. I was focused on trying to do my thing, so to speak, but when he did come to me in that dream, that alerted me it was something I needed to do. Then when Chris came to me about the festival it became clear that I needed to do something.  So, that's why I'm glad that whole thing did come to fruition because it really was not on my mind because I was trying to focus on putting GayeLynn McKinney out there.

What were some of the challenges that you faced making the project? I know you went on an aggressive campaign to pay it because it was going to be an expensive endeavor. You have some heavyweights on it such as James Carter, the late Geri Allen, and Marcus Belgrave.

Honestly, I did two crowd-share fundraisers. One was Kickstarter. I started with Kickstarter I did Kickstarter twice. The first time I didn't succeed because with Kickstarter, you must raise the entire amount you're trying to get, or you don't get any of it. I must've been about $2,000 shy of reaching the goal and I didn't get it. So, then I did it again, and the second time around, I did get it, so that's what got me started. I did three songs with that first round of money.

Then I went away from Kickstarter and did Indiegogo because with Indiegogo whatever you raise at the due date you get to keep. So that was cool because then that got me a couple more songs done. Now I was about four songs deep with that first batch of money, but then that money was gone, so I was like, Okay. Well, I'll just keep trucking away. As I get money, I'll do a song when I can.

The musicians really did work with me. They weren't charging me some ridiculous or some outlandish price. They were working with me because they wanted to see the project get done, too. I don't know if it was for my dad or just out of love for me. I love them for it. Anyway, then, I said well, it's going to probably take me a long time to do this project because I knew I wanted Geri Allen on it, especially when I found out she was living here, and I knew I wanted James Carter on it, and I knew I wanted Regina on it.

Here's a funny story. You know, I had tried out for the Kresge fellowship, back in 2009, and I didn't get it, and I was really upset about it. I was just frustrated. It was a lot of work, and I was like, I am not doing that again. When 2014 rolled around, that's when I said I am a spiritually motivated person, and God is always with me.  

So, I kept saying to myself, "I am not doing that again". Suddenly, what started as this little quiet voice, said, "Well, if you apply again you'll get it". Of course, I completely ignored that and was like, "Nope. I'm not doing that again. That was too much work. It was too heartbreaking'. I’m not doing that again."

So, I just kept going about my business. Then about two weeks before the deadline, the voice got louder. "If you apply, you'll get it!" Finally, the last time I kept hearing that voice, I said out loud, "Okay!" The people in my house was like, "Who are you talking to?" That day I sat down and decided to go ahead and do it, and the rest is history. Sure, enough, I did apply, and I did get it.

That's a nice grant that they give to deserving artists.

It's a no strings grant, which you can do what you need to do with it, and it couldn't have come at a better time because all kind of things were going on, and I needed money for, one of which was to finish this project. So, with that, I was able to get the last four songs done. That's when I got Geri Allen, and during the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival Kevin Mahogany was in town, and I had asked him to participate.

I said, "I see you’re going to be at the festival. Can you sing a song on a project?" He was like, "Okay. Sure. What do you want me to do?", and I said, "I'm doing my dad’s music. He said, "Well, you send me music." So, I sent him the music, but I ended up singing the verses, and he ended up doing this ridiculously wonderful scat solo on the song. It was cool. I did all that in 2014. Geri and James were on the same song.  

So, I was able to go ahead and finish it up, and then I got another blessing from a guy who’s a musician friend. He didn't make his money as a musician though. He made his money with an invention that he made. So, because he loves music and musicians, he built this ridiculously fabulous studio in the basement of his house, and he did all the mixing and mastering for me for free.

Who is this guy?

Well, I don't know if I should say his name, out loud because I think he loves doing it, but he doesn't want everybody to know. It's like, if you end up meeting' him, and going' to his house to do some work, then he'll offer his studio for free.

So that's why when I can, I'll take a musician friend of mine and say, "Hey, you should come with me and come over here and meet this guy. Then, in the process of meeting him, if you express, "Hey, I would like to record one day" or something, he'll say, "Well, why don't you come over here". That's how he operates, but he's not trying to publicize that too much.     

Who are some of the other Detroiters on the project?

I have John Douglas, Marcus Elliott, Glenn Tucker, Vincent Chandler, Michael Jellick, Ibrahim Jones, Rayse Bigg, Vincent Bowens, Buddy Budson, Chris Codish, Cecilia Sharp, Marion Hayden, Perry Hughes, Ralphe Armstrong, Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Alvin Waddles, Bill Meyer, and Dwight Adams. 

Damn, that’s a Who's Who of some of Detroit's finest jazz musicians.

Yeah. I have a wide array of piano players because you know dad was a pianist, so I wanted to not only get the people that had worked with him or studied under him.  Geri, she did a little studying under him, and Glenn Tucker, who didn't know him, but I wanted him on the project because he played some stuff that sounded so much like dad.

 Glenn has a gift for channeling the masters like Kenn Cox and Claude Black. Glenn is one of the young jazz musicians who’s really in tune with the masters.

You’re right. I love Glenn’s playing, and ironically his birthday is three days after Dad's.

Were there any challenges writing new arrangements for your father's music, or playing them as he initially conceived them? I mean, did he write complicated arrangements, or was the material uncomplicated and easy for musicians to stretch out on?

His arrangements were difficult as they were, and I rearranged more of the rhythmic aspect of them, I didn't do it on all of them, but on a few of the songs. I just arranged the rhythmic feel of the song and kept his actual arrangement the same, but the rhythm was different.

You also got the Detroit Jazz Factory involved with the project.

Yeah, I did sign a deal with the Detroit Music Factory, and that was a difficult decision because in some ways it's like am I getting ready to give this project away. I've been signed to a record label before with Straight Ahead, and that was not the most pleasant experience, as far as, what we got out of it. So, I was leery about the signing, but already it's a better experience than what I had with Atlantic Records, and probably because Detroit Music Factory isn’t a big, huge label. It's a smaller label, so I was pretty hands-on with everything.

Darrell Garrett, who's the A&R guy for the Detroit Music Factory, we worked well together.

Darrell is a great music executive. He’s singlehandedly made the Detroit Music Factory a great entity for Detroit jazz musicians.

Yeah, he's a good guy. I really like him a lot, and he's the guy that came up with the cover for the CD, which when he sent it to me, I pretty much broke into tears. Even right now, we're working well together, so I just feel like it's going to be good. I feel better about it than when I was going into it.

You said it was a hard decision, so what made you go with the Detroit Music Factory?

I put out a record in 2006, but you never heard anything about it, did you?

I have that recording.

Let me put it this way. It went a little way in Detroit, but outside of Detroit, it didn’t do well. That’s back when the internet wasn't quite like it is now, and I wasn't quite as internet savvy either, so I did the best I could trying to push it through the internet. If I would have had actual promotional dollars where I could've gotten it on the radio, gotten it in some magazines, gotten it in in places where lots of people could hear it, it would have probably done better, but I didn't have promotional dollars.

What made me decide to go with the Detroit Music Factory was two things. One, they had expressed interest in it, and I really like Gretchen [Carthartt-Valade, the owner of Mack Avenue Records] She really wanted to have the project. Number two, I thought about well, they'll have more promotional dollars than I have; and if I can be hands on and if I could stir the project into the places where it needed to be advertised then us working together could be a good thing, a good fit. So, oh you know we did some negotiations and stuff, and in the end, I said Okay. This is good. I can do this. I was still nervous about it, but at that point, I had to have faith.

The experience has been decidedly different from the experience you had with Atlantic Records.

That’s right.

Do you believe it’s that way because the folks running the label are Detroiters and they’re not so much profit driven, and they genuinely want to help the Detroit jazz musicians get their music out?

They want to profit too, and so do I. We've negotiated a nice deal and so if this record sells, we'll both make money. So, there is some profit-driven aspects, but the difference is they're not all about making money and the artist makes nothing. They're about we’re going to push this project, so we can all be happy.

And Darrell, I really feel like he wants to see it succeed as well because it's only going to make the Detroit Music Factory look good, they’ve had some good projects under Detroit Music Factory, so the more good projects they have the more that they get put on the map and get really noticed and known as a company to be reckoned with.

Kind of like Motema. Motema was a company that I hadn't known too much about, which I met the owner. She's a cool lady, and she put Gregory Porter on the map.

  At Atlantic were they adamant about how they wanted to deal with a project, and didn't let you guys have a lot of input?

Yeah. That's the thing. We didn't have a lot of input over there. They pretty much made all the decisions, and unfortunately, too, we got signed at a time where there was a lot of transitioning going on. The guy who signed us, he left. Somebody else came into the picture, then the guy who was head of the jazz department, he was an older gentleman, had been there for a long time, since Coltrane and them guys. He had been there since they were there, and we came in at the tail end of his time, and he died. Then the jazz department just went crazy behind that and went into chaos.

Your dad had a large body of work. Are you going to do more recordings of his music?

I want to. My goal is to take some of those pieces and have piano players or whoever wants to do some arrangements, and I'll record the arrangements, you know, just like Buddy Budson did with “Nostalgia”. That was a piano piece. It had never been a band piece. It's a piano piece, and he did such a beautiful arrangement of that song. I would've never thought of that. So that's what I'd like to do is give other piano players or musicians an opportunity to do some arrangements of his music. That's kind of like what dad was like too. He liked to hear what other ideas people would come up with.





Pianist Harold McKinney
What was it like growing up with Harold? He was such a beloved figure in Detroit and nationally, too. I mean, all that he did musically, then as a jazz educator. , I used to sit in on the sessions that he used to have at SereNgeti Ballroom on Thursday nights. I would just go in. I was the only non- musician there, but he would let me sit in and just kind of listen to him teach the young musicians.

 I told this story at the Dirty Dog. I had a special alarm clock. The alarm clock in my house would be my father. He had this sonata that he was working on for years. So, I would wake up in the morning with him working on that sonata. Meantime, my mother, who was, you know, my mother was an opera singer when she met Dad. She did opera, and she sang in productions like Carmen, and things like that, and she was a model. So, she had a little career going on when she met dad.  I always say she got sucked into jazz, but around the house, she would be singing' some opera. So, I would wake up to some jazz sonata and opera in the morning.

That would be my alarm clock, and I would get up, and a lot of times, the first thing I would do before well, especially in the summer and before I started school I’d go straight down the basement and start practicing the drums. That was normally the first half of my day would be.  Dad would have some kind of rehearsal over at the house with Marcus [Belgrave] and other jazz musicians.

I would be either watching rehearsal sitting by drummer George Davidson's feet, right next to him, really close, which he told me later he was always worried that my nose was going to get caught up in the hi-hat cymbal because I was sitting' that close. It's just like I had to be in it with him. I wanted to see what his feet were doing. I wanted to see what his hands were doing. So, I was doing that, or I would sometimes be upstairs with my mother, and a huge loud argument would erupt in the basement between dad and Marcus. I'd be like, oh my God. Mom! They are going to kill each other. She'd say, "Oh, no honey it'll be alright in a minute", and sure enough a little while later the music would start back up, but the arguing was really funny because the argument would be about music.

They'd be having this heated discussion about music. So, that's pretty much what my life was like growing up. He gave me very valuable tidbits. I remember one day when he had a rehearsal, George Davidson would leave his drums. He still has that kit too. It was a green sparkling drum kit, a nice kit, and he would leave it set up. As soon as he would go out that front door and get in his car and turn the corner, I'd be like whoosh!, right on those drums.

I would jump on the drums, and one day I said, "Dad!  I'm George Davidson! , and my father said, "Well that's good, honey, but I want you to be GayeLynn McKinney". So, I would say, "Okay, I'm GayeLynn McKinney".

He taught me good tidbits like don't put myself in a box. He said, "Learn all styles of music. Learn everything. Learn everything about all styles. Learn country music, learn everything."

He was like that because, in my house, he had all kinds of records. I used to sit, and just sit by the stereo and listen to the records that he had. He had some Temptations. Of course, it was a mix of mom’s stuff too. He had some Pink Floyd. He had some Beatles.

Because of that, I did expose myself to different styles of music and tried to mimic as many of those styles as possible. Boy, he couldn't have been more right about not putting' myself in a box.

That was probably the most valuable advice that he gave you.

Absolutely, and I pass it along to my students too. I tell them Look. You know, I like rap. That's cool to listen to, but hey, open your mind up. Listen to some other stuff too, because if you plan to do this as a career, you want to be able to be versatile. You'll work a whole lot more if you're versatile".

What attracted you to the drums?

You know, I do not know. My mother said when she was pregnant with me, that I was busy. My father verified it. He said because, at night, they would be sleep, and if she happened to be sleeping up against his back, he would wake up and feel somebody tapping him. He said a couple times he would wake up and say, "Gwen! What do you want? What do you need?", and she wouldn't say a word, and he'd fall back to sleep. A little while later, he'd feel it again. "Gwen! Why you keep tapping me?"

She's like, she told him, "That is not me. It's the baby." So, apparently, I was destined to do this because she said I was always moving around, always just moving. One of the reasons why she bought me that drum set was because I didn't care what I had in my hand. I was going to beat on something, on the table, the desk."

She didn't like that part when I would have my knife and fork, and I'd be going to town on the table.

Finally, when I was two, they bought me this little drum set, and I remember it was an orange sparkle drum set. It was really tiny, and it had these little trashcan cymbals on it. Man, they bought me that, and I was beating' on that thing every day, all day.

Who were some of your influences?

Well, I had sets of drummers because like I said dad exposed me to so many kinds of styles. Traditional jazz set drummers were first and foremost was Max Roach because I was up close and personal with him. There’s a story you've probably heard before, where this particular day dad had rehearsal and this tall man came in and I didn't know him because usually, it was either George Davidson or somebody I knew. I was like, who is this guy, and when I looked at his hands, he was carrying a stick bag.

So, he sat down at our dining room table. You know kids don't have a sense of personal space, so I sat right next to him, close, right on his shoulder. He looked at me out the corner of his eye. I didn't say anything. I just looked at him. So, he didn't say nothing either, and he opened up the stick bag and laid it out on the table, and there were these red drumsticks in there, and I said, "Ooh!"

He looked at me out the corner of his eye again, so I mustered up the nerve and tapped him on the shoulder, and I said, "Hey, can I have those sticks?" Now mind you, I'm 10 at the time, and I had the nerve to ask this man for his sticks. He chuckled at that point. He finally broke his silence and chuckled, and he said what are you going to do with these sticks?"

I said, "Well, I am going to take them and play with them."  He said, "Oh you want to be a drummer, huh." I said, "Yeah". And he said, "Okay". He said, "Well I tell you what, I'll give you these sticks, but you have to listen to me first."  He said, "I want you to remember the melodies of every song". I said, "The Melodies?" My face was all scrunched up. I said, "Why I got to remember the melodies? I play drums."

He said, "Yeah, I know. That's all drummers think about is the rhythm. I want you to think about the melody too, because if you think about the melody, it'll help you learn the song better, and if you take solos, people will know where you are."

I said, "Oh. Okay". There was a moment of silence, and I said, "Hey, can I have those sticks?" He took the sticks out his bag, he said, "Here, girl. Take these sticks and go on."

What he didn't know was that message stuck in my head like glue, and I know the melodies of many, many songs. Like, I'll know the melody before I know the name. Just a footnote to that story, well two footnotes.

One is, when I got to be 17, this was about the time that I started reading' about who the major players were in jazz, and me and my friend was looking' at this book, and it was a picture book with a little story about each person because I wasn't one to look at album covers. I just put the music on and immerse myself in the music. So, I hadn't known who these people were really, so I started looking' at this book and I'm reading'. I got to this one page, and I read the story and everything, read a little about him, and I looked at the picture. I looked at my friend, I said, "Oh my God!"

"This is the guy. "She said, "What are you talking about?" I said this is the guy, when I was 10 years old that gave me some drumsticks. She said, “Quit lying'! That’s not him. He didn't give you those drumsticks. "I said, "No, I'm telling' you the truth. This guy, Max Roach, gave me some drumsticks."

And I had no idea, at 10 years old, who he was. I just knew he was a drummer, and so I was mad then, because I was like, you mean I had this famous man's drumsticks in my hands, and I didn't frame them and hang them up on the wall! I played with the sticks until they were toothpicks.

That was my next question. What did you end up doing with them, or do you still have the sticks?

No. I played with those sticks every day, until they were toothpicks. I said to myself, honestly that's probably what he would've wanted me to do with them anyway, you know, is use them for what they were supposed to be used for.  

So fast forward another 10 years or by this time Straight Ahead is signed to Atlantic. We ended up opening for Max Roach, at the State Theater. During sound check, he was standing by the front looking at us, and I said, "Oh my God! That's him". She's got a nice picture of Max holding him when he was about one year old, and it was from that day at the State

I walked up to him, and I said, "You know, I know you don't remember me. We’re talking years ago, and  before I could finish, he said, You’re that little girl took my drumsticks". He said, "You're Harold McKinney's daughter. You took my drumsticks."

I was in awe. I couldn't believe that he remembered that, and I managed to tell him, I said, "You know, I just want you to know that what you told me that day did not go in vain. You told me to remember the melodies of every song, and to this day I have hundreds, or maybe a thousand or so, melodies in my head."

So, yeah, back to your original question. He would be my first and foremost influence as far as national drummers. George Davidson is a big influence on me too. I told you I used to sit by his feet. Then after him later came Elvin Jones, and I loved him because of his use of triplets, and I loved to study him too. I studied him a lot. Then, of course, I love Art Blakey and Tony Williams.

 Do you think your parents and your dad would have been disappointed, had you decided to be a doctor, or an architect, or something other than a musician?

My parents were cool. They would have been supportive of anything I decided to do, and if I decided not to go into music, they would've been cool with it, if I was happy.

How has the jazz scene changed over the course of your career, particularly here in Detroit? Because it seems like right now there's a wave of these young cats that are playing, that didn't have the benefit to study with the likes your dad, Teddy Harris and Donald Walden and some of the other greats who are no longer with us.

Well, you know the beauty of those guys is that they passed it to us. As a matter of fact, you know it's funny because for years I tried to run from teaching, because I'm a performer. I don't want to teach. I want to perform", but it was almost like it was always thrown back at me that I was going to have to teach, that there was no way that I was not going to teach. That is what my father was, and I believe that's what he intended for me to do as well.

The truth of the matter is, I have really enjoyed teaching. I love it, especially when I have students that are serious and work at what they're doing, and work at their craft. I love it! I have two students now who have done very well for themselves.

Even though they didn't have dad, and Kenn, and Teddy, to study under those guys passed along to us, we're passing along to them, and we're making them study those guys. So, they can see where the music came from, so they can know it's not just us giving these lessons in music and sometimes life. It's these guys. This is where it came from. Look at this. Look at these guys so you know where it came from. That's why this crop of musicians that are coming' up now, a lot of them have that same diligence and are really serious about what they're doing.

Now, I will say this though. We're a whole lot nicer than my dad, Teddy, Donald, and Kenn were. They were very serious. You could not be slacking and half doing stuff because they would let you have it. Nowadays, kids are a little different. They're a little more sensitive, so you must be a little different in your approach to how you get them to do something. At times, I wish that they would've been able to meet dad.

Friday, May 11, 2018

PIANIST KENNY BARRON ON HIS AFFINITY FOR DETROIT PIANISTS, THE CHANGING JAZZ SCENE & 'CONCENTRIC CIRCLES,' HIS NEW RECORDING

Pianist Kenny Barron

Kenny Barron, 74, has long been hailed as one of the finest jazz pianists around. Known for his elegant and his delicate playing. When Barron lays out on a ballad, for example, his fingertips glide across the keys as if covered with feathers. Even on up-tempo tunes when Barron is raising holy hell his playing and improvising are imbued with loads of sophistication. A native of Philadelphia Barron built a sound reputation with some leading figures in jazz such as James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Freddie Hubbard. If proof is needed that Barron is deserving of all the high praise afforded him over the years-- nine Grammy nominations, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz master is a taste of some of his accolades-- survey any area of his discography as a bandleader. You’ll likely find trio gems, duets with the likes of Dave Holland and Regina Carter, masterpieces with the legendary group Sphere, and some solo outings where Barron’s virtuosity is heart stopping. In 2016, Barron made one of his best trio recordings yet “Book of Intuition” with his longstanding trio, proving although he’s been active nearly five decades his chops remain in mint condition. Last week, Barron released another wonderful album “Concentric Circles,” a quintet date of mostly originals. I Dig Jazz spoke with Barron Monday morning about an array of topics dear to him such as his affinity for Detroit pianists, how the jazz scene has changed over the years, and the enjoyment he still derives from composing and recording.

I’d like to start with something you said the last time you played in Detroit with Regina Carter.

Okay.

You were interviewed before the concert and you were asked about your musical influences. You said you were influenced principally by some of the great Detroit piano players.,

That’s right.

You mentioned Barry Harris, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan. Will you expound on how their playing touched you?

I first heard Tommy when I was in junior high school. A friend of mine had this recording. I think it was either a Miles Davis record or a Sonny Rollins record. They were doing a Dave Brubeck piece ’In Your Own Sweet Way’. What immediately struck me about Tommy was his touch. Just the way he touched the piano. It was very light, very delicate, and very clear. That was the thing. And then, the lines that Tommy played made sense. It was like speaking in sentences. It wasn't just running up and down the scales. He actually played ideas, beautiful ideas. That was the thing that got me about Tommy. When I was young I really tried to emulate him. Hank was the same way. He played the same way, a pearly touch and just beautiful ideas.

So, do you believe that kind of sophisticated playing is still out there today?

Young people are doing different things today. That kind of lyricism isn't necessarily there. Young players got other things happening. The stuff they play is maybe a little more sophisticated in terms of rhythm and stuff like that. They're more harmonic now, and not necessarily a lot more sophisticated than 40 years ago. They're still melodic but in a different way.  Although there are some who rely primarily on technique. I won’t mention any names. That kind of playing leaves me cold a little bit.

Do you believe younger players are more technically driven nowadays?

Yeah, I think that's just mostly among younger people. Another reason is probably that many of them have been going to school, academia and the conservatories. Conservatories kind of rely on that. That's a very important aspect to conservatories. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think it should be done at the expense of emotional content.

Does emotional content come with age?

When you've lived a little longer, you got something to talk about. I think that's a big part of it. Just living longer. Then you'll have something to say.

On the Detroit scene, there's a lot of good young players that are coming up. When I listen to them their technical proficiency is apparent and they can really play. They have a lot of technique, but I wonder if they ever listen to the masters because I can't hear the history of their instruments when they play.

That's all part of it. For a lot of young players, they don't go back far enough. For a lot of them, the saxophone history starts at maybe John Coltrane and that's old fashion to them.  Never mind Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, and saxophonist like Stan Getz. They don't listen to that. There's a lot to be learned from listening to older people. One of the things that we were able to do years ago is you can listen to somebody's sound and identify them. That's hard to do now.

Do you think it's partly because their training is coming from academia as opposed to good down home jam sessions?

That's just part of it. Definitely, that's a big part of it. There's so much reliance on technique and everybody kind of sounds the same.

Do you think it can ever go back to that? Where everybody is technically literate and they have their own uniqueness, their own sound, too?

I think it can go back to that. I don't know what it will take, but I think it can go back to that. Most of the stuff is academically driven. It's a different scene so it's hard to ask a person to just get out there and try to be unique. First of all, there aren't the opportunities, so that's one thing that's missing.
There aren't the opportunities for young people to get out there and play. When I was coming up there were a lot of different bands. So many bands, professional bands and then local groups that you could play in. Those opportunities don't exist anymore. It's not the young player's fault they don't get that kind of experience anymore.

What's happening here in Detroit is that a lot of the young musicians graduate high school or college and go straight out and start their own bands as opposed serving an apprenticeship in an established band.

Well, again that's one of the things that doesn't happen anymore. You don't get a chance to serve an apprenticeship with anybody. There's a lot of experience they're missing. It's hard when right out of college, you're a bandleader. Leading a band comes with a lot of responsibility. You're the band leader, that's more than a person who calls the tunes.

How long did it take before you felt comfortable with leading? You've played in some great bands over the course of your career.

I don't know what year it was, but I just maybe struck out in the 70's or 80's. I first started locally, in New York. Going around with the trio and that kind of escalated. Then after I had worked with Stan Getz, it kind of blossomed a little bit more. To where I had an agent in Europe who started booking me on European tours with a trio, which at the time was Ben Riley and Ray Drummond. We did a lot of tours. We did several records in Europe. Then after that, I had a quintet for a while with Victor Lewis and David Williams, Eddie Henderson, and John Stubblefield.

That's a great band.

We had fun. Back to the trio, between the trio and quintet so my trio now is Kiyoshi Kitagawa, on bass and Johnathan Blake, on the drums. We’re coming to Detroit as a quintet, we just finished last night actually at a club called the Jazz Standard in New York.Then in the quintet, there's Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake, and Dayna Stephens on tenor and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, fantastic players.

Which setting do you enjoy playing in the most a trio or a slightly larger ensemble?

I like both. With the trio, I may play more standards. I can kind of go in any direction at any moment.  Not so much with a quintet because you have horn players, and they have parts to play. Solo is probably the hardest of all for me.

Playing solo?

Yeah. It's always scary at least in the beginning.

How so? What do you find so daunting?

There's always just little knots in my stomach before I play. Which is normal I think.

How was it playing with the great stylist Stan Getz?

It was great. He was also a very lyrical player which I can certainly appreciate, and he had a beautiful sound. Very identifiable. That's what I'm talking about. He had an identifiable sound. Even my wife, who's not a musician, she can identify Stan. She can identify John Coltrane because she grew up listening to music.

Did Getz approach you about joining his band?

He got my number from somebody and the first time I played with him, I actually took Chick Corea's place. Stan had a band that was playing mostly Chick Corea's music, and they called it the Captain Marvel band. It was Stanley Clark on bass and Tony Williams on drums.

I took Chick's place with that group for just maybe two or three weeks? That was kind of the beginning and maybe sometime after that, Stan started calling me regularly to come out to California to play. He was an artist-in-residence at Stanford University so I would go out there and play with him. Then it escalated into a summer tour with all the festivals and stuff and then full time.

Another of your big named bands was Sphere named in honor of the great Thelonious Monk. Was Monk another of your chief influences?

Yeah, he was a big influence, but the thing is with that band we tried not to play like Monk because Monk was such a stylist. Monk was one of those musicians who could play any standard and it sounded as if he wrote it. We had two guys in the band who played with Monk Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley, so it was a great opportunity to play some of Monk's music. They knew how Monk’s music was supposed to sound. How it was supposed to be. That was a great opportunity and it was a cooperative band without a leader.

We all shared in the responsibilities. Everybody got paid the same amount of money. One person took care of this, one person took care of transportation, so it was a shared responsibility.

I recall watching the Thelonious Monk documentary ‘Straight No Chaser’. In a scene, you, Barry Harris, and Tommy Flanagan were sitting at the piano trying to dissect one of Monk’s compositions. Do you recall that documentary and is Monk’s music really that complicated to dissect and to play?

Some of his melodies are there's a tune called ‘Four in One’ and ‘Trinkle ‘. Technically those are very tricky. They're like, finger-busters. That’s what I call them. Harmonically, it's not that complicated. Sometimes it moves in different directions than you might think, but harmonically it's not that complicated. The melodies sometimes are pretty complicated. Then the other thing is that sometimes his stuff is deceptively simple harmonically. So simple that it's hard to play.

Did you ever get any pointers from Monk?

No, I never really got a chance to really meet him. I would go see him at the Village Vanguard. I was very young and to me, he was kind of a larger than life figure. I knew Ben Riley. He was playing with him at the time.  But Ben didn't really introduce me to him. I wasn't the kind of person to go up and say hey how are you doing and meet him.  That Just wasn't me.

Going back to the Detroit pianists did you ever get a chance to get any pointers from Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan or Barry Harris?

Oh yeah, with Tommy, I did a recording with him, a duo recording. Two pianos. That was for a Japanese label. For me, that was scary because I was playing with my idol. I couldn't play for listening. I wound up doing this gig in the 90's. I toured in Japan, with ten piano players. It was called 100 Golden Fingers.  I was the youngest one. It was Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, and pianists like Cedar Walton, John Lewis, Roger Kellaway, and Monty Alexander. I had a chance to listen to Tommy every night for three or four weeks. It was great. I learned just from listening to him. Hank was kind of the acknowledged master back then. Whenever Hank played, everybody was right there backstage, checking him out. That was a great experience and no egos. No egos at all.

How fertile was the jazz scene in Philly back in the day when you decided you wanted to be a jazz musician? Did you get your act together there or did you have to go away to really understand the music?

No, I kind of had good beginnings there because Philly had a pretty good jazz scene. There were lots of small clubs where young players could play and work on their stuff. Then Philly also had dances they were called cabarets where people would bring their food and stuff and drinks. It was like a big party and so you would have to play for dancing, but what they danced to was jazz. Then there were some rhythm and blues bands, so a lot of those gigs and then a lot of little small bars in Philly I used to work at. Then Philly had two major jazz clubs. One was called The Showboat and the other was called Pep's. I liked to go there.

Yusef Lateef did a great recording at Pep's.

That's right. ‘Live at Pep's’. I have that recording

At what point did you decide jazz was going to be your thing? Was it early on? Had you been exposed to it as a kid?

Oh yeah, definitely. I was definitely exposed to it. My oldest brother was a musician who played tenor. He had a whole bunch of records. When I was 10 years old I used to go and find those records and listen to them. We also had a great 24-hour jazz station. I've never really thought about anything else. I just wanted to play music that was it.

Did you go from Philly to New York?

Yeah, I graduated from high school in 1960 and I stayed in Philly for a year. In 1961, I decided to move to New York. My brother was already there. I wound up actually meeting with a bass player from Detroit and he was living right next door to my brother. He said I'm hardly ever here because I'm always at my girlfriend's house. You can stay here, just take care of the rent, so I did. Rent was like sixty dollars a month or something like that. The New York scene was great. It was really beautiful.

How long did it take you to find work there? Did you kind of make a name for yourself right away or was it a process?

It was a process. I don't think anybody can just go there and sweep the city by storm. That's not going to happen. Where I was living. I lived down in the east village. I could walk to the two major jazz clubs. One of the clubs was the Five Spot and the other one was the Jazz Gallery. I happen to go to the Five Spot one night and James Moody was playing. He was playing with a great sextet and he knew my brother. He asked me to sit in. I said sure, so I played and shortly after that he hired me. That was kind of my first break in New York City and that wasn't long after I'd moved there so I was very lucky in that way. Luckily because of him, I got the job with Dizzy. He recommended me for the tour with Dizzy. That was a really big step for me.

Has there ever been a period where it got so bad or so difficult to make a living as a musician that you wanted to quit and pursue something else?

I stayed with Dizzy for four years. I quit, and it was kind of an impulsive thing. I had just tied the knot and then my wife was pregnant with our second child. I wanted to stay in town for a while, I didn't want to travel anymore. Being young, I didn't really save any money. That was a really dumb move, but we got through it. I thought about a day job. I just didn't know what kind of day job I wanted. I'd actually got some applications for airlines and stuff like that. Luckily, I didn't have to do any of that. By that time, I was living in Brooklyn and it turned out Freddie Hubbard lived right around the corner from me. He started calling me to work with him. That was also another great neighborhood in Brooklyn. Pianist Wynton Kelly lived in the neighborhood so did Cedar Walton. It was great. Anyway, I started working with Freddy, which spared me having to get a day job. He came along at the perfect time.

A good piano player can always find work.

You can, but there are other variables. One of the things that I wish, which unfortunately today a lot of musicians aren’t aware of. Taking care of business. Showing up at a gig on time stuff like that. That's a very, very important part of it, too. You can play your butt off, but if you're not responsible, nobody's going to call you.

You have a new album coming out ‘Concentric Circles’.

It came out Friday.

Will you talk about the album and how it ranks among your other albums?

Well, it's a quintet date and it's the same group I’m coming to Detroit with. I'm very happy with it. It's a great band, they really play and they're very energetic and have a lot of fire. The music is primarily originals. I'd say it's about 80% or more. On every record, I do a Monk piece so this record I did a solo. I did ’Reflections,’ one of his ballads. I did a Lenny White composition called’ L's Bop,’ which came out really good. I've very happy with the recording.

Do you still derive a lot of enjoyment from recording and composing music?

I still look forward to it. Every time we record, it's a chance to document where we are at a particular time, but also it's just great and inventive to hear your music played well by great people. That's a big incentive. It keeps me composing and then working and trying different things.

Do you ever have periods where you go back and listen to recordings that you did in the 60's or the 70's?

Oh yeah, and usually when I do, I'm just like God, that sounds horrible. You listen to yourself and you always hear what you could have done better.

They say that's growth though when you look back and you can say, "Yeah, if I'd have played that note it would have been that much better" or whatever.

Yeah, that is growth. Learning what not to do. What not to play.

How has the jazz scene changed?

Well, it's changed quite a bit. The number of places to play first, that's a big change. When I was with Dizzy we were guaranteed to work 40 weeks out of the year and most of that was on the road traveling in the states. One of the big differences for us is that you would work in a club, let's say we would go out to California and work at the Jazz Workshop or in San Francisco, but you're always in a club for two or three weeks as opposed to two or three nights. Two or three weeks in San Francisco then you go down to LA and do three weeks at the Lighthouse. We were away a lot. One of the things that happened was that there were more clubs. Many more clubs from New York to the Midwest. 

There were even a couple clubs down in the south. In Atlanta. Clubs in Atlantic City.
In Detroit I used to go hit the Minor Key, and we played Baker’s a lot.  Then they had a whole thing on the west coast. Seattle, Portland all the way down to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. All of those places we would play for two to three weeks. It was great. That doesn't exist anymore, so you can't book a tour. It's very hard to book a tour in the United States. Unless you're just doing one-nighters. So that's one of the big differences. Just the sheer number of. That doesn't exist anymore. I kind of miss that.

The other thing is that most of the jazz festivals now aren't jazz festivals anymore. That's kind of a downer. I look at some of the international jazz festivals that like Montreux jazz festival. That festival is down to jazz night. Some of the big jazz festivals may have Elton John as the headliner. He's nowhere near being a jazz artist. I actually understand the necessity for selling tickets. I do understand that, but they'll spend a million dollars on Elton John.

That kind of bums me out and then the fact that you won't find a blues festival hiring jazz artists at all. Rock festivals they're not going to hire me. That kind of turns me off a little bit, but then there are some good and positive changes. There are a lot of young players doing different things. Trying to widen the audience. Hopefully, that'll work.

Are you speaking about artists like Robert Glasper who's created a hybrid between jazz and hip-hop?

Yeah, I mean I don't necessarily agree, but I've heard Robert play in a trio setting and he's an incredible musician, Everybody's got a family you got to make money. I do understand that.

I figured that was a part of it. Once they get a taste of that R&B and that Rock money it's hard for them to come back to jazz.

Yeah, I've seen him win a Grammy so the focus may be there. Which I get. I understand.
For the most part, are you happy with the level of new talent that's out there?

Oh yeah! The musicianship is incredible. Do you know Gerald Clayton?

I love Gerald’s playing.

He studied with me at Manhattan School of Music. He's an incredible player. I love that boy. There's another young guy, he's from New Orleans, Sullivan Fortner. He's seriously bad.

Absolutely.

taught Jon Batiste. He was one of my students too. Batiste has always been more of an entertainer. That's his thing. I remember when he did his senior recital at Juilliard. He did a second-line thing at the end. It was fun, but he's got that entertainer thing.

Last question. You're regarded as one of the best jazz pianists in the history of the music, so if a young player came to you and asked, ‘Mr. Barron, what can I do to achieve what you achieved and even more.’ what advice would you give him or her?

That's hard to say. Thirty years ago, I would have said just hang out, practice. I know there are some good students coming out of college. What are they going to do though? Everybody's not going to be able to play. Everybody won't be able to earn a living playing music, but if that's what they want to do then, they have to practice and they have to play. You could practice forever, but you have to play.

The music is basically a social thing. It's a group effort. You have to play with people, and you somehow have to play with people better than you. Who’re all matured and so that you can learn from them. You find all these people coming out of jazz, graduating from college and are band leaders. It's so easy to make a record now. You can pretty much do it yourself in your living room. Years ago, people actually had to seek you out. The best advice would be to just practice, listen, and play. Those are the main things.


The Kenny Barron Quintet plays Paradise Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall Saturday May 12th 2018-8:00 pm Special guest saxophonist Melissa Aidana (3711 Woodward Ave 48201 Detroit, MI 313-576-5111)