(This interview was done August 2017 and transcribed by Lysa Hale.)
Ethan Iverson: Where are you from, George?
George Colligan: I tell people I’m from Columbia, Maryland, because I grew up and spent my formative years there. But I was actually born in Summit, New Jersey. My father is from Brooklyn, and my mother is from Newark, New Jersey. We ended up moving to Maryland because my father started working for the federal government. Columbia, Maryland was an easy commute to D.C.
I also lived in Baltimore for a while. I went to Peabody Conservatory and lived in Baltimore for a year after I graduated. I lived in Rockville, Maryland, for a year and Washington D.C., for about a year. I moved to New York in 1995 and I lived there for about 15 years, I lived for a couple of school years in Winnipeg, Canada, when I taught at the University of Manitoba, and now I live in Portland, Oregon.
EI: How did you get into music?
GC: My mother liked to sing show tunes and some pop tunes. My father — if he was particularly drunk on any given night — would sort of improvise at the piano. He wasn’t a musician, but he would make up a kind of tone poem at the piano, with me sitting on his lap. He would have little characters for different ranges of the piano; the high register would represent the princess, the middle register would represent the brave prince, and the low register would be the troll who lived under the bridge. That kind of thing.
I wasn’t really interested in playing music at all, at first. I took about a month’s worth of piano lessons in second grade, and I quit, never practiced. I took up trumpet and was in the elementary school band in 4th grade. Still didn’t practice. I wanted to quit. My parents were paying 10 dollars a month to rent a Bundy trumpet. They said, “If you don’t want to play trumpet, we don’t want to pay 10 dollars a month renting a trumpet for no reason.” So, I went to the band director, who at the time didn’t seem very nice. He seemed to hate his job. During rehearsals, he would say things like, “Johnny played his part so nicely, let’s all give him ONE CLAP.” It wasn’t what I would call a great atmosphere. So, I went to him at the end of the 4th grade year and said I wanted to quit. He replied, “Well, you are pretty good. You should play next year.” I was too shy to be a contrarian, so I ended up playing the 5th grade year also.
When I moved on to middle school, there was a band director named Lee Stevens. He seemed to be the most exciting teacher in the whole school! He came around to different classes to recruit for the band and he made it sound like the band program was the best thing happening. Mr. Stevens really turned me on to music and jazz and he really got me excited about practicing and playing. He taught at a summer music camp that I attended. There was a music appreciation class, which is where I first heard Clifford Brown, Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, and Weather Report. I took trumpet lessons with Stevens all through high school. He was an amazing mentor. He even gave me private trumpet lessons when we couldn’t afford to pay. I probably wouldn’t be a musician if it wasn’t for Lee Stevens.
Then there was a neighbor on my block, Mr. Markely, who lived five doors down from our house. When he heard from my mom that I was interested in jazz, he gave me a bunch of records: Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s Joy Spring, Dizzy Gillespie’s New Wave with Lalo Shifrin playing piano, Miles Davis’ Milestones, Art Farmer and Donald Byrd’s Trumpets All Out, and John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.
My parents did have a few jazz records, like Fats Waller & His Rhythm. And my mother had a lot of show tunes records, like the My Fair Lady soundtrack, and some classical records of Beethoven and Stravinsky. Early on I really got into listening. It was kind of an escape for me. It just was always really mysterious, really fascinating.
The radio station in Baltimore, WBJC, had a show called Jazz Beat that came on at noon. It was hosted by Robert Ford, and that’s one of the places where I first heard a lot of the jazz that I’m familiar with now. That’s the first time I heard Charlie Parker. In jazz, one name leads to another name leads to another name. Charlie Parker leads to Dizzy Gillespie leads to leads to Bud Powell leads to Max Roach leads to Clifford Brown and so on. That’s kind of how it was for me, trying to figure it out on my own.
I think there’s this notion that you have to spend a lot of time getting into the music before you can really understand it. But there was never like a warm-up period for me. I was always fascinated and inspired by jazz, which was definitely a rare thing in Columbia, Maryland. Generally, most of my friends were listening to Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Run D.M.C., that type of stuff. So, if I wanted to put on some jazz on the boom box out on the street, it wasn’t going to happen without a fight.
EI: Do you think anyone could dig Milestones and My Favorite Things without knowing anything about them?
GC: Well, you would hope so!
EI: I agree. They are pretty “audience friendly.”
GC: Especially My Favorite Things because the tunes are recognizable. That should at least be a way in.
EI: But also, the groovy vamp is the groovy vamp.
GC: That’s true. In fact, that was the track that I listened to the most at first. Maybe because I knew the musical and I knew the song.
But what it obviously grooving to us might not be grooving to others. I remember when I was in middle school, a jazz gospel quartet came and played in our cafeteria. I was just so enthralled with this group. I was stunned by the sounds I was hearing. There were parts where they wanted people to clap hands and I was elevated to another plane of existence or something. I was just so into it. And I remember going back to my math class and saying to the kid next to me,” wasn’t that just amazingly beautiful music?” And he said with disbelief, “You LIKED that shit?”
A lot of people will succumb to peer pressure. They’ll sort of just get into whatever their friends are getting to. Early on I sort of took a stance for myself. Not to say that I completely ignored all other forms of music, but I would say in middle school that there was some element of jazz snobbery in my development. No matter what anybody else thought, I was determined to dig this music.
EI: How’d you start playing jazz?
GC: I sort of remember like having some trumpet books that had a little chart of “Muskrat Ramble” and things like that.
EI: Maybe we need to clear something up, trumpet versus piano.
GC: I’ve been primarily known as a pianist from 1991 to now, but I did start as a trumpet player. I got my degree from Peabody Conservatory, so I guess you could say I’m fully licensed by the state of Maryland to own and operate a B-flat trumpet!
I didn’t really start playing the piano again until I was 15, while a junior in high school. But at that point, I was still kind of more into trumpet and gravitated towards trumpet players, like Maynard Ferguson, of course, just in terms of high notes and the kind of disco songs he used to do. My father also had some records by Jonah Jones, who is a trumpet player that nobody ever talks about. I’d be hard pressed to find a jazz history book that talks about Jonah Jones in any way, shape or form, but he was actually popular in his day.
EI: I like Jonah Jones. It’s not easy listening, it’s serious jazz.
GC: Right. It’s sort of like a Dixieland guy with a bebop kind of rhythm section, that kind of vibe.
At some point I started to get the Aebersold Play Along records. We say there are no shortcuts in music, but if there are any good shortcuts, this might be one of them. I never worked with Ben Riley, but I sort of have been playing with Ben Riley since I was in high school, thanks to the Aebersold with the Charlie Parker tunes.
EI: The Aebersold Bird tempos with Ron Carter and Ben Riley are not beginner tempos.
GC: It’s swinging!
EI: If you can play along with that, you can definitely play jazz.
GC: Sure. I was sitting in my house in Columbia, Maryland, playing along with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Ben Riley. Obviously, I was listening to real records, but also playing along with these Aebersold records kind of got the whole feel thing going for me.
This is what I tell my students: there are scales in the Aebersold books, but in terms of developing vocabulary, you need to make the connection between like the scales, and how you manipulate the scales. You don’t just play the scale. Scales are not music.
So, I got the Charlie Parker Omnibook, and I would sit there and write the number of the scale degrees over every note. I was such a rudimentary trumpet player that it was hard for me to execute those solos, but at least I would develop a framework for how you put it all together.
I would try to play along with “My Favorite Things.” I would just play a chromatic scale along with the Coltrane solo because that’s all I could hear at that point. I would ask myself, “Why doesn’t this sound right?” That’s where transcribing comes in and developing your ear beyond just sort of hearing these random sounds. A lot of it was sort of discovering it on my own, because weren’t so many heavy jazz cats in Columbia, Maryland at that time.
EI: There are heavy cats in Baltimore.
GC: That was the next step. When I went to Peabody, I would hang out with this trumpet player named Alex Norris. He was a prodigious talent, even when he was in middle school. Alex is also from Columbia, ironically enough. I had met him when we were both still in middle school. He had perfect pitch. He was also taller than most of the other middle school kids, so he was kind of intimidating. He was sort of legendary throughout the state. He had already done a little bit of transcribing of jazz solos even in high school, because his ear was so good. He also decided to go to Peabody, and he was a year ahead of me. He kind of took me under his wing in a reluctant way. I hadn’t really shown any potential yet. My trumpet technique was pretty sad- and still is!
I was mostly playing trumpet when you and I were students at the Banff Centre summer workshop back in 1990.
EI: Yeah, I was shocked when you turned out to be this heavy piano player, because I knew you first as a trumpeter.
GC: When I was a Peabody student, Alex Norris would take me around to jam sessions in Baltimore. Alex would always call the hippest tunes so that people wouldn’t think he was amateurish. Older musicians would assume that he’d want to sit in on a blues or something. He’d say, I’d like to play “Three Flowers” by McCoy Tyner, or “Passion Dance.” That would impress people right away.
In some ways, hanging with Alex was as good as taking lessons. He would talk to me about who to check out and he’d show me some of his transcriptions. So, I tried to do it myself, although my ears weren’t nearly as good. I’d transcribe a little bit of Lee Morgan, a little bit of Freddie Hubbard, a little bit of Clifford Brown.
EI: Which solos in particular did you transcribe?
GC: Two of them on Blue Train. “Moment’s Notice” and “Lazy Bird.” I did a chorus or two of the Trane solo and then some of the of the Lee Morgan solo on “Moment’s Notice,” and the trumpet solo on “Lazy Bird.” I listened to that record a lot. For Freddie Hubbard, I transcribed “Byrdlike” off of the album Ready for Freddie and then a couple shorter solos off of that record Echoes of an Era with Lenny White, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Joe Henderson.
For me it was more about just finding stuff that I could use. Again, I just didn’t have the facility on any instrument to really execute a whole solo, so I’d take one lick and work it through the keys, then take another lick, and figure out how to put those together. In some ways, my piano concept comes a lot from trumpet players.
EI: Makes a lot of sense.
GC: My left hand concept came from voicings and snare drum rhythms, because I played drums before I got into piano. And then the right hand concept was just the trumpet stuff that I transcribed. In this way, my piano style is perhaps a little bit un-pianistic. It wasn’t until later when I started to develop some confidence that I went back and tried to get some classical pieces together and really think about it more from a pianistic standpoint. But that initial development stage has made me who I am as a player.
EI: You can hear there’s something missing if someone fetishizes European classical too much and then plays jazz.
GC: I hate to say it like that because I, and I think many other jazz pianists, really secretly want to be classical pianists, because it is such an impressive thing. Any pianist who hears Glenn Gould play Bach probably wants to cry!
But at the same time, there are important differences between classical music and jazz. When I was a student at Peabody, for example, there were some pianists who could rip off any Chopin etude, but you give them a blues chart, and they have no idea. Even just with phrasing. There was a pianist who used to hang around my building in Baltimore. He was also studying at Peabody. He was a brilliant classical pianist. But he came by one time, and he said, “Hey, I got a gig at a restaurant, and they want me to play jazz. I don’t play jazz. Do you have any jazz that I could read?” I was like, “Well, I do have this book of Bill Evans transcriptions. You could try it.” So, he pulled out the book and he read every note, it was amazing. But phrasing-wise, it was horrible, horrendous. And I was just like, “Um, no, you have to swing.” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “The eighth notes, I know it’s written like eighth notes, but you have to swing them.” And he said, “I don’t understand.” I think this illustrates my point. Not everybody understands.
EI: I know you had some local inspirations in Baltimore.
GC: There was the legendary Reuben Brown in D.C., this really incredible pianist who came up with Billy Hart. I used to hear him at the One Step Down in D.C. There was also in Baltimore a pianist named Charles Covington. He’s a very interesting guy, kind of coming out of Phineas Newborn, that type of thing. A lot of chops. He’s also a magician, and a chess champion, real renaissance type of guy. So, I used to hear them a lot.
But I would say the two main guys inspirationally, were pianists Tim Murphy and Bob Butta. I first heard Tim at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Baltimore. The stuff Tim was playing was so unique, at least to me. There was some Herbie Hancock, some McCoy Tyner, but then this other harmonic thing that was really fascinating to me. So, I went up and talked to him and asked, “What are you playing?” And he had taken a lot of harmony from Olivier Messiaen. He told me to get this book called Technique of My Musical Languageby Messiaen. So, I did. I went to the Peabody library and checked it out. Basically, that’s where all that diminished scale and modes of limited transposition stuff comes from.
EI: Herbie used that book too.
GC: Tim definitely had the Herbie Hancock stuff from transcribing. He had the whole jazz piano lineage in his playing, but he definitely had figured out his own unique improvisational language, but a lot of it was just verbatim Messiaen! Or it might be quote from another piece. He’d play something weird, and I’d be like, “What is that?” And he’d say, “It’s a Scriabin etude.” He had really kind of taken the classical stuff and put it into the harmony in this very interesting way.
EI: Are there any representative records of Tim Murphy?
GC: Not many. The only ones would be with Gary Thomas. There’s three of them. One is called Code Violations, that’s Gary’s second album. The next one is called Kold Kage. And then the record called Till We Have Faces. I think that might be it. Oh, and also By Any Means Necessary. Besides that, he’s not well documented at all. He never did any of his own records, to my knowledge. He never really composed much as far as I’m aware. He teaches at Peabody. He can play all of Messiaen’s stuff on organ, I think that’s still one of his main gigs that he does, playing organ in a church in Baltimore. Tim never wanted to move to New York; I believe he never had ambitions for anything further than his playing around Baltimore and DC. Tim is a very interesting guy. He told me when he used to play gigs at The Closet in Baltimore, he would play the first tune of the night. But there were so many guitar players that would want to sit in, that Tim would leave, go around the corner and see a movie, come back to the club, play the last tune, and get paid! That just kind of blew my mind. He’s really kind of unique person.
But I definitely credit him because he was someone that I could see and hear and talk to in person. In fact, we used to play together in a Baltimore based salsa band called the Rumba Club. I was playing the timbales with the band. They were looking for a percussionist, and I was again somebody who was eager, and they said, “Let’s give him a shot.” But Tim was playing piano in the Rumba Club, initially. I went on to play piano with them later. But most of the gig I was playing timbales. During the gig, Tim would play some weird chord or some amazing line in his solo, and I’d shout, “Tim! What was that chord?” And he would say, “I’ll show you later.”
EI: What about Bob Butta?
GC: I probably saw the most gigs with Bob Butta on piano. Because Bob Butta was like the real working man’s pianist. When a name jazz musician came through town, most likely Bob was going to be playing with them. He had played with everybody. He played with Benny Golson. He played with Gary Bartz a lot. Played with Woody Shaw. Anyone who came through. Because he knew a lot of tunes and he could really play…. His comping was really great, really solid. He was rather straight ahead in a way, but he had some other leanings. Early in his career he was kind of like McCoy Tyner on steroids. He would play really out there, harmonically. Gary Thomas said in the early days he was really into Bob’s playing because Bob would play so out that if you came into the club in the middle of the song, you wouldn’t even know what song he was playing. You’d be like, “What’s this? Oh, it’s a standard.” I think Bob became a little more conservative as time went on.
EI: It happens.
GC: Yeah, yeah. Guilty… I feel it myself, too. Anyway, I used to go hear him at the One Step Down in D.C., he would play at the New Haven Lounge in Baltimore, and I would go to check him out. I would sit right up front. I don’t know if you ever played at the One Step Down, but you can sit literally right next to the pianist because the piano faces outward. And so, I would go and play, and I would try to write down the chords of whatever song they were playing, by ear. I would try to take note of everything that he did. It was to the point that I would follow him around so much, and I was trying to sound like him so much that he started calling me his son.
GC: He would say, “Yeah, that’s my son.” That was until I started getting more gigs, and competing for the same territory.
GC: I think there’s always that point when the youth starts to move up a notch, and it can threaten the old guard… “Aw, look at these cute kids, trying to play jazz. That’s great. Go for it.” Then it’s changes to “Wait… they might be taking my gigs!” I actually feel that a bit myself now, with all of these young players doing the gigs I used to do!
But I give a lot of credit to Bob Butta and Tim Murphy for sure. Maybe Bob Butta a little more because I saw him play countless times. I credit my ability to be a sideman from watching Bob, seeing his consistency. Seeing how he could just fit in with any horn player. Just his rock-solid approach. Because he used to take it really out, but then at some point, he was like, “Look, you gotta be able to SPELL!”
EI: To “spell” means playing the changes.
GC: Playing the changes. Harmonic relevancy. There’s times when I feel like you need to be able to address the music in a basic way, especially with my students. But there is the other side, too, where I think that if there’s no creativity, then this may end up being just an exercise. In my music, I want to find the best combination of both worlds. We ask ourselves, are we meeting the minimum qualifications for playing jazz? and then, are we doing something new and different? or at least trying to do something that could be classified as wrong, in a good way. Some people, I think, as they get older, they lose sight of that, or they’re not interested in taking risks. Even Woody Shaw, for example. You listen to his later records and it’s almost like more bebop. He was playing more standards and more bebop. Not that any of it is bad. It’s just what are your priorities as you move on in your life.
EI: Saxophonist Gary Thomas has come up a couple of times. If you speak to people who know, there’s real reverence for Gary Thomas, although he is sort of off the scene in a way.
GC: He is. He is sort of off the scene, sadly.
EI: But he’s really a monster player.
GC: Oh, yeah. Listening to Gary Thomas was a big part of my development. I believe the first time I heard him was on a Wallace Roney record called Verses. I think I first heard the record on the radio and went out and bought it. The stuff he was playing was just so foreign compared to everything else I had heard. Again, because I didn’t understand it, I was really attracted to it. Also, his tenor sound is very distinctive, It’s very edgy and intense. He’s coming out of Billy Harper as a major influence, for sure, but no one has Gary’s sound and harmonic approach, it’s totally unique.
I met him because he used to be involved with this lady that sang with this group at the Hyatt Regency, Sheila Ford. Sometimes Gary would come by and sit in. They’d play standards, but Gary would play this wild stuff over standards and I was just like, “Man, this is so incredible…” And in this hotel lobby of all places. He had one record out at the time called Gary Thomas and Seventh Quadrant and I went out and bought it and I just wore it out. Then Code Violations came out, with Tim Murphy playing piano on that one.
Gary Thomas was from Baltimore, and he was having success beyond Baltimore. He was going to Europe, he was going to Japan, so people were realizing that Gary Thomas was the shining light of Baltimore jazz. And he was somebody who was able to achieve international success without moving to New York.
EI: Did he ever move out of Baltimore?
GC: He lived in southern New Jersey for a while. He’s back in Baltimore because he founded and ran the jazz program at Peabody for about 20 years. That would explain kind of why he’s been sort of off the scene, because he’s been mostly teaching. He still plays some, but not as much as he should.
So, I listened to his records a lot, and I transcribed some of his stuff. I was always a big fan. And eventually, Gary asked me to do a tour with him. This was in 1994. I would have a few gigs in the New Haven Lounge I would ask him to do. I always liked talking to him. I always found him to be friendly, and he’s got a great sense of humor. We always had a good rapport.
There was a certain point where he kept asking me, “Hey George, do you play Hammond organ?” And I would say, “No, I really don’t.” He said, “Are you sure?” I was like, “Gary, I don’t play Hammond organ.” He asked a lot, then finally said, “Well, I got this tour in Europe, and I’m looking for an organ player.” I said, “Let me get back to you.” [laughs]
I really wanted to do this tour. Gary said, “I’m looking for somebody who can play organ that doesn’t sound like Back at The Chicken Shack, like Jimmy Smith or something. He wanted something different.
The issue was, I had almost no experience playing the organ. But I wanted to do the tour. So, I figured, how hard could it be? I had to do some homework. But long story short, my first real hip experience traveling in Europe was playing Hammond B3 with Gary Thomas and Exile’s Gate in 1994.
EI: Did you backline the instrument?
GC: Yeah, they always had one at the venues, and that’s a lucky thing because if an organ breaks down, I don’t know the first thing about fixing it. I had to take some lessons because I had no idea what to do. I took a lesson with this guy in Pennsylvania named Bill Boublitz, not just playing the damn thing, but how to switch it on, how to adjust the draw bars, and all of that stuff. It’s not rocket science, but it is kind of a different thing. I realize that a lot of pianists don’t want to open that can of worms. And conversely, a lot of organ players feel like that’s their thing and they don’t want to play piano.
EI: I would think that it would suit you partially because it’s so percussive. The lines are so clear on the organ.
GC: The way jazz piano fits in a band is kind of like just a commentator, almost on the side. You’re like the third base coach, you give help when necessary, but you can also back off. You might get a place to shine, but sometimes you can help by not playing. Whereas with the organ, you are the engine, you’re the bass, you’re the chords, you’re the soloist, keeping time, everything’s happening all the time. There’s this huge texture there that needs to happen more or less constantly. So just getting used to that was really different for me, but because I played drums before I played any keyboard instrument, I always was able to hook up with the drummer pretty well.
EI: Pretty soon after that, you must have moved to New York.
GC: A lot of my friends had moved to New York already, and I just felt like there was that call. I might have moved to New York sooner, but there was an incident in 1990 where somebody assaulted me on the train. If that hadn’t happened, I might have moved sooner, like maybe right after college.
EI: That happened here, in New York?
GC: Yeah, Summer of 1990, right after I came back from Banff, I took the train from Baltimore to New York with some friends to go see Richard Davis play at Sweet Basil. When we took the 2 train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, some crazy guy punched me in the head! It was pretty traumatic at the time. But I got over it, and I moved here in 1995.
When I came to New York, I already had a little bit of work. I had made a connection with Buster Williams and then I was starting to play with Gary Bartz. So, when I came to New York, I kind of had a little bit of an in, which is I think more advantageous than a lot of people who just move here cold with no connections.
EI: How’d you meet Buster?
GC: I was playing at the East Coast Jazz Festival in 1994 or 1995, which is still held in Rockville, Maryland. Oddly, I was playing organ! I think it was with drummer Tony Martucci. And Buster was sitting in the audience, and he kind of had an idea that maybe I would be a good pianist. After my set was over, he called me over and asked for my number.
EI: That’s unbelievable.
GC: It is really weird. And then he called me to go to Detroit for three nights. He met my friend drummer Aaron Walker at that festival too. Aaron lived in D.C. at the time, and we played together quite a bit. Aaron and I took the bus to New York and went to Buster’s house in Harlem to rehearse. Then we all drove to Detroit! We left around 1 AM.
EI: That’s old school!
GC: It really is! We left in the middle of the night. We got into a car accident on the way, driving through Pennsylvania. Not major, but the windshield was all messed up. Yeah, it was deep. Took us 13 hours to get there.
But that was really my first association with Buster. I didn’t really officially join his band until 2001.
EI: I saw you playing with Buster and Mark Turner at Bradley’s in 1996.
GC: That’s right! Really? Wow!
EI: Buster is so profound. One of my favorites.
GC: As a composer, I think that he is really underrated. I am surprised that more of his tunes aren’t standards. They should be considered standards at some point.
EI: “Dual Force” is almost a standard.
GC: Yeah, for sure.
The two main ways I was exposed to Buster Williams was V.S.O.P live, a live recording of a concert where Herbie Hancock featured three groups, one of which was the group with Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. And then he featured the group Herbie Hancock Septet, which was originally known as Mwandishi. That group was Julian Priester, trombone, Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone, Eddie Henderson, trumpet, Buster Williams, bass. Billy Hart, drums.
The songs they play are “Toys,” and “You’ll Know When You Get There.” That record was really important to me. The way Buster and Billy Hart play together on “Toys” was unbelievable.
And then there’s one of Buster’s recording as a leader, Something More. Bassist David Ephross and I used to listen to that frequently. David had written out some of the tunes. We used to play “Christina” and “Dual Force” all the time. So, when I met Buster, I was familiar with a lot of his music.
Buster’s approach to playing is pretty adventurous. If you don’t understand what he’s doing, you can get lost in the form.
EI: Very sophisticated. In some ways he’s an avant-garde musician.
GC: But he does have the roots. He played with Sarah Vaughn, he played with all the singers. He’s well documented as a sideman. Played with everybody, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, and so forth, but he also has this creative side.
When I first played with Buster I had to really concentrate. Now I’ve been playing with him for so long, I know what to listen for. It’s funny because the other day Buster was saying, “you know, most people don’t even know how to listen to the bass.”
More advanced jazz bass players play in such a way that they’re playing just like horn players. They’re really expounding upon the harmony, they’re not just playing roots. And many of the bass players that I played with in Baltimore and Washington seemed much more “root” oriented.
When I started playing with bassist Dwayne Burno — who was also inspired by Buster — he was also somebody who might land on any note in the chord. It would be part of the chord, but it wouldn’t be the root. So, the first couple of times I played with him, I was like, “What is he doing? Here’s the chord…what is he doing?” And once I figured it out, it opened up a whole new world for me.
EI: You took some lessons from James Williams at some point.
GC: I did. It was before I moved to New York; I was still in Baltimore. I drove up to New York, to Brooklyn, for a lesson. I think it was 1992. The way I discovered James was through Geoffrey Keezer. I had heard Geoffrey Keezer play at Bradley’s. The first group I saw play at Bradley’s was Kenny Barron, and that was amazing. The next time I came up and I saw Geoffrey play. And it was different because Kenny Barron is probably 20 years older than I am, at least. Geoffrey is younger than me. I thought, “This dude is younger than me, playing a million times more stuff than I’ll ever play. How do I get to that level?” So, I talked to him a little bit, and then I actually went over to Geoffrey’s house a few times. He told me I should go study with James Williams, and so I got James’ information, and I drove up from Baltimore twice to study with him.
James was a really, really nice guy, super sweet. I played a little bit for him, and he played a little bit for me, and we just listened to music, and we hung for at least four or five hours. We got some food. Just a great hang, but it was for a long time.
Finally, I was getting ready to leave. I said, “Well, I’m going to go now, how much do I owe you?”
He said, “Oh yeah, we didn’t really talk about how much the lesson cost.”
I said, “No. What do you charge?”
He replied, “Just pay me what you think it’s worth.”
I said, “That’s not right. It’s priceless!”
James said, “Pay me what you think is fair.”
I’m thinking about how much I can afford, and wrote a check for $75. Later that evening, I spoke to him on the phone to thank him for the lessons. James said, “Yeah, I looked at that check and you overpaid me. I need to give you some money back.”
And I said, “Uh, how about we apply it to the next lesson?“
We had one more lesson after that, and then for years after that I used to just see him around here and there. We actually almost sat next to each other on jury duty! But that’s another story. It’s sad that he died so young because I don’t think he had ever been really sick until he developed cirrhosis of the liver. He didn’t even drink. Such a bummer. A very, very sweet guy.
EI: One thing I really respect about you — and Geoffrey as well — is you have this basic devotional respect toward to the black jazz masters. Which is the way it’s supposed to be, right?
GC: We avoid the subject of race in jazz and yet it’s unavoidable. Jazz music wouldn’t exist without the African American experience. This music that we love comes out of some really horrendous history. Even now, our society seems to want to debate how we look at that history. I sort of want to ask all these white supremacists what music they listen to, because if they listen to anything American, there is a connection to the African American experience, whether they are aware of it or not.
Baltimore is a majority black city, DC is majority black, and yet those cities, like many other urban areas in the United States, are still rather divided. That TV show The Wire is somewhat accurate. A lot of Baltimore is like a war zone. Even with the fact that we’ve had black mayors and black people in government, still there’s still this economic divide in urban America. For example, in Baltimore, there are two accents. There’s the white accent and there’s the black accent. It’s documented. I think that things like that show how segregated our history is in America. Things since the civil rights movement have improved in many ways, but in some ways they haven’t.
I feel blessed to be able to be a part of something like jazz music that has brought people together in a way that not much else can. Sometimes I think I’ve been fortunate because I can see this other perspective that maybe a lot of other people can’t because, with a lot of the groups I’ve been in, I’m the only white person in the group so often. So, you get to hear what other people are thinking that they wouldn’t necessarily say if they were the only black person in the room. I guess they felt comfortable enough around me to say what they want to say.
EI: I think you, as much as any white musician of my generation, has played in black bands. That must have not just to do with how you can deal with anything those guys play, but it must also have something to do with an awareness and a respect of unresolved issues, shall we say.
GC: Well, I don’t claim to have the answers, but I was raised in a liberal household in a mixed neighborhood in Columbia. Black people might grow up in a city where it’s all black people. White people might grow up in the suburb where it’s all white people. Columbia, Maryland was kind of a big experiment. They refer to it as a planned community, and there was this goal of not having Columbia be as segregated as other towns. They wanted it to be mixed. They wanted people to get together. I think that has made my perspective more open than some people who have never been around or even to this day, not met any black people. And vice versa. I think for black people sometimes, it’s not even they dislike white people, they just rarely interact with them. It’s really kind of shocking that kind of division still exists in America.
White supremacists talk about “heritage” or whatever stupid stuff that they say. They talk about “American Pride.” I don’t see why we are supposed to be unflinchingly proud of our nationality, or things that we didn’t have anything to do with. I’m American, sure, only because I was born in America. I could have been born in Ireland, if my father’s people had stayed in Ireland! But, the fact that I was born here has nothing to do with me. I think we should be proud of our accomplishments. I’m proud that I learned to play the piano! But national pride or racial pride or this kind of stuff doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not necessarily ashamed to be American either, given all the terrible things we can acknowledge about our history and our current place in the world. And no one should be ashamed of their race or cultural background, because again, it’s not their choice.
Let’s just say that there’s times I’m not as embarrassed to be an American as I might be other times. Like recent events are embarrassing, for sure. But that’s not my fault. I voted for the woman!
I mean, America has been a good place to live for me, better than, say, Pakistan, I would guess. But how can we say America is the greatest country on Earth? Why does it have to be the greatest? What is this fanatical need to be THE BEST? In some ways, it’s very good, clearly. But in other ways, like racism, it sucks. Every place on Earth has its pros and cons. These so-called America First people or Make America Great Again people need to grow up. They are making America WORSE.
EI: A lot of people who make these kind of statements don’t have a passport and haven’t traveled anywhere else.
GC: Exactly. That’s exactly right.
EI: Let’s fast forward a little bit and talk about jazz education, because I know that you have been very active an educator and for a while you were a fellow blogger, although you gave that up.
GC: It’s on hiatus. I might get back to it in some capacity. It was another outlet. I’m not a great writer, but it came from a place of passion.
EI: You called it JazzTruth, and I thought that was fair. You have the right to say what is the truth about this music because of what you’ve done.
GC: Well, we could talk about that, too. We are both players who write. That was really part of what I thought was important was that we are seldom getting the perspective of people that are getting on the bandstand. And that is a very different perspective of people who only write.
Now, it could be argued that a musician’s perspective is biased in another way.
EI: I’d agree with that. Musicians can be oblivious to the big picture in a way a serious critic wouldn’t be.
GC: I’m totally willing to admit that there’s writers that may know more records and they may own more records and they may have an awareness of music that I don’t. That may be true. But too many times I’ve read something by a non-musician and felt suspicious. “Does this guy really know what he’s talking about?” is the question.
EI: When I talk to an older jazz cat, it’s striking how little jazz criticism has entered their existence. That would be a big difference with rock music, where all the rock musicians read all the rock writers.
GC: Do they?
EI: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of getting on the same page. Historically rock writers have a lot of power within rock music.
GC: Interesting. Do you think it’s the same in jazz?
EI: No, at least not when jazz was at its height. These days the internet has made it a little more of a conversation, where great musicians signal boost non-musician critical perspectives in a way that would be impossible in the era of Monk, Miles, and Coltrane. Can you imagine Duke Ellington talking about how a critic viewed his music?
But I see both sides because I’ve read all the jazz books, and liked them, too. I like reading Whitney Baillett for some things even though the cats joke how he couldn’t recognize the changes to “Body and Soul.” I’ve read all of Martin Williams and most everybody else.
Reading those books is certainly something that Billy Hart, Tootie Heath, or Ron Carter never did. I’m aware that I’m trying to connect the dots in an academic way for something that is really more like super-advanced folk music.
GC: Martin Williams taught jazz history at Peabody. I took that class.
EI: Oh, what was he like?
GC: He was very knowledgeable, very eloquent. He tried to write the chords of the blues form on the chalkboard and failed miserably.
EI: [laughs] He loses some authority at that moment!
GC: Indeed. He was pretty firm with the idea that Ornette Coleman was the cat, and John Coltrane was not. And of course, everyone in the class was like, what are you talking about? And he had sort of brushed aside McCoy Tyner. He said, “Oh yeah, Tyner had this kind of thing where he played pentatonic scales. It was random and arbitrary and didn’t really mean anything.”
EI: I feel quite critical towards Mr. Williams, yes, it’s true. He was great pals with Gunther Schuller, and I think both of them were horrified by how everyone else loved Miles Davis and John Coltrane so much. It’s a telling point about McCoy Tyner, because if you look in the books and magazines from the 1960s there’s very little about McCoy that is worthy. They could only see John Coltrane, they couldn’t see McCoy Tyner. He’s yet another one who had to sign to a major label and develop his own audience before the critics even really noticed how great he was.
When we were talking about getting this interview together, we were wrangling back and forth a bit about how jazz gets taught.
GC: Are you talking about a certain book we had a Facebook argument about?
EI: Hah! What do you like about the Mark Levine jazz piano book?
GC: I met Mark Levine. Great guy. And I do recommend that book. I am not a paid endorser for him. I hope he gets some money!
The students I tend to get at Portland State are not as advanced as the students you might get at New England Conservatory. They’re often people who are new to jazz. It’d be like if you were going to major in biology, and you had never heard of photosynthesis. Some of the jazz majors we get are somewhat inexperienced. So, the Levine book has some great shortcuts for beginners.
EI: Brutal question: Should we even be teaching jazz to beginners if they are already college age?
GC: It’s a very good question. I have my own feelings. I do think that people should have the right to study what they want, but they have the right to know the truth, they have the right to have some kind of idea of what is the life of a jazz musician really like. Portland State jazz is still a very young program. For many students their only previous experience with jazz was playing in their high school big band. And they had a good time doing that, and maybe they don’t feel strong enough to be in a classical program, so they just say, “Hey, I had fun being in the jazz band. Maybe I’ll major in jazz.”
One of the things I’d really like to do is create a handbook for people who want to major in jazz and say, “Maybe before you decide, here’s all these things you really should know before you get to college.” We get a lot of those kids coming in to be jazz majors who haven’t listened to Miles Davis, and it’s definitely getting worse in a lot of ways. They might know Robert Glasper, but they have never heard of Bud Powell. They know Snarky Puppy but never heard of Weather Report. They might know Brad Mehldau but not Oscar Peterson. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they’re willing to learn. For me, I was into Maynard Ferguson at first.
EI: Harold Mabern told me something last night that made me laugh. He was talking about his early development and said, “Yeah, we were into West Coast jazz. We liked Shorty Rogers, but then this cat showed up and said, ‘OK, this is fine, but did you guys ever hear of Bud Powell?’”
GC: That’s crazy.
EI: Even Harold Mabern had to have someone tell him to dig deeper early on. It made me feel a little better.
GC: Everybody has to start somewhere. This is what I think: You don’t need to know everything, but you need to know something. I have seen students who have a degree in jazz that know zero standards, zero. And I’m like, “What happened? What did you study? What did you spend all that money on?”
EI: That’s something I don’t really understand. How did you get into the music if you don’t know and like the standards? I guess there’s this other pathway now…
GC: Well, like I said, I think being in their big band was what they know, and high school big bands don’t play standards. And now everyone’s into Snarky Puppy and Thundercat, things like that.
EI: That’s one of the reasons I started Do the Math. When the Bad Plus had its breakout, I wanted to make sure that if I got some young fans into this music…
GC: That they weren’t just listening to you.
GC: That’s quite noble of you.
EI: “Noble” is too strong, I mean I get a lot back from DTM in many ways, there’s certainly some self-interest and I guess it spurs my own artistic development. But a big part of that initial impulse was to share the love of jazz lineage, especially to those that might have thought the ethos of indie rock was a shortcut to playing jazz.
Anyway, if standards aren’t a common language anymore, I think that’s really odd for this music.
GC: It is odd. Maybe we are in a transition period to a new paradigm. Some people are never going to get turned on by “All the Things You Are,” but then the question is, what are they getting turned on by? Sometimes it feels little bit weird, to say, okay, if Snarky Puppy is a thing that people are going to want to sound like and you’re trying to teach them “All the Things You Are,” why are we even trying to teach that? I have my own reasons, but I’m totally willing to admit that those reasons may not have much validity anymore. I’m saying that I don’t know. In the meantime, while I’m trying to figure it out, I need to have something to give to students, so that when they leave after four years or two years as a grad student, whatever it is, that they can say, “Here’s what I did.” Rather than, “Well, what did you do in school?” “Nothing.” Or, “I don’t know.”
I have a lot of respect for the profession of teaching, and I want to give information. I want to help people. But students have to be able to help themselves, for one. And for two, they need to have enough information to go beyond school. It’s not about getting a grade or fulfilling a requirement. In some ways, your grades, especially in a jazz program…are they really crucial?
Where did you go to college, Ethan?
EI: I dropped out of NYU.
GC: Okay, you have no degree. Okay, then, how did you get all these gigs?
GC: That’s what I’m saying. Gary Bartz didn’t ask to see my transcripts from Peabody before he hired me.
A lot of people know right off the bat that they’re never going to be good enough to go to New York, and they need to teach in some capacity. That’s cool, too. I was also a Music Ed major, that’s my bachelor’s degree. So, I have another perspective on education, and furthermore, my inspirations were my teachers. As I mentioned before, without Lee Stevens I wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff. He’s maybe the best teacher I ever had. He inspired me, he had a lot of information, he got me active.
EI: Well, George, maybe I can get a quick verbal piano lesson from you. I really admire your facility. Burning. You’ve always been so burning.
GC: Really? [laughs]
EI: When you leave here, I’m going to practice. What should I practice to become a little more burning, George?
GC: Well, what does “burning” mean?
EI: It means playing fast, loud and angular. What the hell do you think it means? If you don’t know, nobody knows!
GC: Right. Well, you have as much technique as you need to do what you want to do.
EI: I don’t think so, but…
GC: Can you teach me how to be less burning?
EI: [laughs] Well, thank you for the return serve. More practically, address me and DTM as if you were talking to a comparative beginner.
GC: Ok, did you ever check out Dorothy Taubman?
EI: Yeah! I’m actually way into Taubman. I didn’t know you were as well!
GC: I came to piano as just a hobby. I wanted to be a composer. That’s why I would sit at the piano. At a certain point, in my noodling at the piano, I said, “Hey, this is a lot less painful than trumpet.” I didn’t know anything about technique. Zero. I hadn’t done any Hanon. I was just totally raw. So, I would kind of play some McCoy Tyner-y type stuff. But then, all of a sudden, I started having some hand issues, and pain, because I didn’t know what I was doing.
And I ran into a guy at Banff, Bill Peterson. I was having hand trouble there, and I think he could smell the Tiger Balm I put on my hands to stay loose. Bill said, “Oh, are you having some hand issues?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I used to have carpal tunnel syndrome.” And I said, “Well, what did you do?” He said, “I studied the Taubman technique.”
Bill said, “Everybody thinks that piano, at least from a technical standpoint, is about ‘hours of toil.’ But it’s not. It’s all about efficient technique. And it’s all about rotation.”
He asked me, “Move your fingers and feel it in your forearms like you’re grabbing something. How does that feel?” It felt tight. “How does this feel, like you’re waving at somebody?” It wasn’t tight at all.
When I got back to Peabody, I found a grad student named Fred Karpoff who had studied with somebody who had studied with Dorothy Taubman. He said, “Yeah, well, I was injured, too, and I couldn’t play at all. So, I studied Taubman, and it ended up totally working for me.”
We played C, D, E, F, G, just five notes, for many, many lessons. There were certain basic principles that I think I have created my own version of. I don’t claim to be a Taubman specialist because in some ways there isn’t that much to it. It’s just thinking of those basic principles, and you can apply it to anything. There’s a YouTube video of her teaching and talking, and it’s great. It’s mostly classical pianists and they’re dealing with heavy repertoire. But I know a bunch of jazz people who have checked out the Taubman concepts, and it’s working for them.
EI: This is so cool. I’ve recently been working with this guy John Bloomfield, who’s a Golandsky/Taubman person, and it’s done wonderful things for my facility.
GC: Did you ever have trouble?
EI: No, I never had trouble. But maybe I never was that burning, either!
GC: Dorothy Taubman says, with a thick Brooklyn accent, in the YouTube videos, “When people use the word endurance, the very word is abhorrent. It should be a pleasure to play piano.” I always tried to have that feeling; to me that’s the key to playing fast.
The next thing I think with playing fast is, well, how do you play fast without turning the time around? How do you play fast and have it swing and hook up with the drummer? The next step, I think, is just to listen to drummers more. Billy Hart has certainly talked to you about the vocabulary with the drums. You gotta have an awareness of that language, and you can’t be thinking about it from the standpoint of “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4”. You can’t really be counting. You have to be playing with the drummer. Ralph Peterson’s talked about that. He wanted to have a class called Drumming for Non-Drummers. That, to me, is the better way to think about how to play tempos and play rhythmically and create excitement. A lot of people don’t get that when they’re just practicing on their own.
Burning… despite the intensity of that word, I don’t think it is necessarily about fast notes, in the same way that playing fast isn’t necessarily about muscles. It’s about playing efficiently and relaxed. Same thing with time. If you’re really just tense and counting, you’re never going to be able to listen. The faster the tempo, the more relaxed you have to be. You almost have to be able to step back and listen to everything that’s going on at once.
I also advocate listening to others more than yourself while you are on the bandstand. When I’m doing that, then I feel like I’m really making something happen. If you just get into your own world, if you’re disconnected, you’re not really a part of the conversation. That’s a concept that can be hard for students to get the grasp of. I’ve seen so many times people sit in with a band, especially after they’ve been waiting to play all night. They’ve heard somebody that’s been super burning, and they think,” I’m going to be super burning, too,” and they just blow it immediately, they get into some lick that they practiced, they play with blinders on, and they turn the time around. That’s not good.
But I don’t think you have that problem….
EI: [laughs] It’s always good for me to remember this advice as well.
I think that was perfect. Thanks for coming over!
GC: Okay, awesome.