I interviewed Ron once before for DTM on the phone. This time when I visited him at his luxurious NYC apartment, the idea was just to bounce names off him and see what came to mind. Thanks to Kevin Sun for transcribing the interview.
EI: I was inspired to hear that you’d played an engagement with Teddy Wilson and Al Harewood.
RC: At the top of the Village Gate in the late 60’s. The Gate was really happening at that time, the environment was slick and cool. In the main room I played opposite Dizzy Gillespie with Miles, and upstairs they had primarily trios and duos, and in the front street café they had this little piano player.
So there was music all over the place, and I had a chance to play with Teddy Wilson and Al Harewood for about eight weeks.
EI: Teddy was still playing strong?
RC: Absolutely. Al and I used to work with Blossom Dearie a lot at the same time, so we kind of got really friendly over the course of those couple of years together. Teddy Wilson wore white socks; he explained to me that while he was in Korea he got frostbite, and he couldn’t wear socks that had dye in them, you know.
He knew the verses, man. He knew the sheet music kind of changes, the way they were originally written, not like the way we do now. For example, like for “Like Someone in Love”: Jazz players have their changes, but they’re not the changes to the tune. Mr. Wilson, I call him, knew all those kinds of original changes. For me, it was an education. I knew all the substitute changes to all the ballads and all the stuff like that, but I hadn’t worked with those people who were back in the genre at that time. Mr. Wilson knew how they sounded like in the ’30s and ’40s because he played them in the ’30s and ’40s, so for me every night was a chance to learn how those songs were constructed in the ’30s and ’40s. It was great for me to do that.
EI: Tell me about playing with his kind of left hand versus a more modern left hand.
RC: Well, you know, he played such right notes down there, I just tried doubling the notes he played because he was striding. I had to be careful of what note I played because sometimes my notes might not match his voicing after he’d played his first note, you know. I played primarily quarter notes and more inside the changes than I would normally do at that time, trying to figure out what that sound was I was hearing. Still, he was flexible to II/V changes that he hadn’t played before. He would hear them on the second chorus, you know: C, F, G, Bb, Eb, Ab. He understood what they were even if they weren’t part of his normal vocabulary.
He played great tempos. They were always not too fast, not too slow. For me it was going to school every night. The pay wasn’t great, but the classes were fabulous.
EI: To me, there’s something that connected Teddy Wilson to Hank Jones. Is that fair?
RC: Absolutely. I call Hank “Mr. Jones,” because every note he played was a diamond.
He was…I don’t want to say inflexible, but he wouldn’t always respond to alternate changes. He certainly could play them and he has played them way before I was born, but he would not respond. He would not…I need to figure out the word that doesn’t sound pejorative or nasty or not complimentary, but I would have loved to have seen him play my set of changes faster, and we didn’t always get to that. It didn’t make me quit the gig or didn’t make me feel that my changes were useless or worthless, he just didn’t play them. Okay, so that means that I can’t play them, because if he’s not going to play them, then what’s the point of me banging my head against this concrete wall, you know?
But, again, him, like Mr. Wilson, has such a great piano sound. My job was kind of to get into that sound without being in the way of the chord, and fortunately they were of enough stature that the clubs always made sure the piano was tuned.
But, again, their sound at the piano was so…it was sort of like Wes Montgomery on guitar. Wes’ sound was so velvety, it kind of made me not play in the range I wanted to because his sound would just web up my note. Such a velvet, non-edgy sound, you know. If I played open G at the wrong time, shit, you wouldn’t hear it, because his chord voicing and his sound kind of cancelled it out.
But those guys, they had such a great piano sound. I just had to find out what register so I could hear my notes and so they can hear my notes.
EI: How did the Great Jazz Trio with Tony come together?
RC: It was Hank’s job, Hank’s gig through the East-West label, I think. I got called, I guess the producers said Hank was putting together this trio date and it was interesting: who wouldn’t be interested to play with Hank Jones? And whoever called Tony, Tony being as astute as he was to Hank Jones — his place in history and his musical dynamisms — he said yes. We had a rehearsal and made the record at the Village Vanguard — a couple records, actually.
EI: I like the fact that you play all of your tunes: you play Tony’s tunes, your tunes, and Hank’s tunes in that group.
RC: Hank just wanted to play music. He didn’t care whose tune it was. If Tony had a tune he wanted to try out, because Hank read so well, he would play like he wrote it when he saw the piece: “Well, I’ll try this now,” you know. He was just a complete pianist in terms of piano playing.
Some guys have told me, “Tonight, this gig, we’re only playing my music.” I said, “Okay, man.” Kind of a drag sometimes though.
EI: Is Cedar Walton in there with Teddy and Hank?.
RC: Well, I think it’s a little different. Cedar has a real attack. It’s not a negative term, but the force with which he starts his phrases is a lot more blatant than Hank’s or Teddy Wilson’s, you know.
What’s interesting for all three of these soloists is that their solos cover the whole range of the piano. They aren’t just playing within the “Steinway” range for the solos, you know. Hank would go up to the end of the piano, Mr. Jones would play block chords up there, and Cedar would play his things up there, so they used the full range of the right hand piano range to play the solos. Cedar, his attack was a little more pressing than the velvet attack of Hank and Mr. Wilson. But they all had great minds, man, you know. The system of organizing a solo for those three guys was just fantastic.
EI: Would Cedar respond quickly to substitute changes?
RC: Absolutely. But there were also things I guess he had a chance to figure out before I got there, and I’m okay with that, too.
EI: It seems like you and Cedar recorded quite a lot. There’s a great duo record, and in the liner notes it’s suggested that maybe you guys weren’t so busy, so you were just playing duo almost as a reason to play, like in the early ’80s or something like this in New York.
RC: Well, I think at the time there were three or four major duo rooms: Knickerbocker was still happening, Bradley’s, the Ninth Circle by Sheridan Square. There was another room on Second or Third Avenue and the 50s, kind of this sort of gangster club.
Before that there were a lot more. Most of those clubs didn’t have music before, and some of those gigs only lasted six to eight months — the owners got tired of hearing us or whatever reason — but that was a big splash, the duo rooms. Early ’70s, I remember ’68, early ’70s I played at Bradley’s with Bob James; I’d play at the Knickerbocker and other places with John Lewis and Cedar and Ray Gallon and Roland Hanna and Duke Pearson and Bobby Timmons…. Piano players who were looking for duo work so they could practice what they wanted practice without anything else being in the way, you know?
EI: What was it like playing with John Lewis?
RC: John is a very organized player. John’s solos are set up to be an arrangement kind of a solo rather than just off top of his head. To see this develop for three or four nights was really quite fascinating.
EI: It seems like he’s an influence on your musical thinking. You even have a group named after one of his songs, “The Golden Striker.”
RC: No more so an influence than Nat Cole or Oscar Peterson. We just happened to pick that song because it was a nice song for a trio. And John has written some wonderful songs. I’m sorry I haven’t gotten a chance to dig into all of them. Jim Hall was a John Lewis fan, so on our gigs he would play several John Lewis tunes: “Skating In Central Park.” Cedar Walton would play “Delaunay’s Dilemma” or “Queen’s Fancy” from the first MJQ with Kenny Clarke playing the drums. Many guys would play “Django,” so at the time, his songs were really getting a lot of play from musicians. His music was in the air, so to speak.
EI: Of course, John Lewis was very interested in classical music. Roland Hanna also seemed intrigued by the classical piano repertoire and worked on bringing that into his vocabulary in some kind of way.
RC: I don’t think that he was making a conscious effort to play a solo on “’Round Midnight” based on a Chopin style, though. If you heard him play the piano, you knew he studied the instrument, but you would not necessarily say that he learned that at Juilliard. He was just a well-rounded, fabulously skilled piano player.
John’s arrangements would lend you more to the classical air than Roland’s piano playing because Roland’s really a robust kind of player: a real gambler when he played.
But, again, John’s stuff is not necessarily as connected to the classical musical library as Don Shirley’s would be, for example. And I like listening to Don and his band, how he conceived his tunes and the changes he doesn’t play or the ones he does play. He’s always had a wonderful bass player with him, whoever that bass player happened to be. I’ve always enjoyed that option that he’s presented to just the piano and bass duo.
EI: Did you ever play with Don Shirley?
RC: No, but we talked a lot. He was a friend of Kermit Moore, who passed away recently. Don had a stroke maybe five years before he passed away, and he was working on getting his left hand to function better because that was the one affected by the stroke.
10 o’clock one night, man, I get a call from someone: “Hey, Ron,” I say, “What?” He says, “It’s Don Shirley,” and I say “What?” “Man, check this out.” He sits at the piano, playing left hand stuff on the piano. I say, “Really?” “Well, yeah, okay, getting closer. It’s what you wanted to hear.” It was a really nice call, but I never got a chance to play with him.
EI: I heard he lived above Carnegie Hall. Is that right?
RC: For years. Yeah, him and Bobby Short. They put him out, I think they emptied out that place for renovation and more rent. There’s a lady who’s finally left maybe in the last year, an older person who was there as long as those guys were, and they had a hard time getting her out. They finally did, so they’re going full force with the renovation project.
EI: You mentioned to me before that while you didn’t get a chance to play with Bud Powell, both Bobby Timmons and Barry Harris were the closest that you felt like you got to.
RC: When I came to New York, Bud had just moved to Paris, so I never even saw him play, but I do know his music. One of the early records I bought was him, George Duvivier, and Arthur Taylor, called Glass Enclosure. George’s sound on the record is great, and Arthur Taylor, who I played with much later on with Tommy Flanagan, wonderful sound: sound of the drums, great, man.
EI: Tell me about Bobby Timmons because I’ve gotten some of the information from Tootie Heath.
RC: It’s probably correct. Bobby’s a great talent that couldn’t get unstrung out, and it’s so tragic because he’s a lovely man. He substituted the heroin for alcohol and, of course, tore his liver up, all the damage that does to your internal organs, but he would go up to the mat for you, you know. Paid fair wages, he knew all the songs, and he didn’t like to rehearse all the time, which was great because I didn’t want to rehearse all the time, either. It was unfortunate that he died so quickly as it is in anyone’s case, but the young piano players today don’t know of his presence, really. Therefore they’re not aware of how much he was influenced by Bud Powell.
They don’t know the name of Walter Davis Jr., either.
I mean they, know Barry’s name because he’s still alive and he’s on the scene, but those two guys, Bobby and Walter Davis Jr., they’re heir apparents to the Bud Powell legacy and tradition, and unfortunately these piano players today, they know Bobby from his tune “Moanin,’” maybe, and then they don’t know who Walter is, other than that he’s played with Art Blakey, but they don’t know his playing. They don’t know what he did on the piano.
Nice songs, really great harmonic concept, a good sound at the piano, but, again, somehow those two guys have gotten overlooked in the legacy of wonderful players — but not by me.
EI: Someone else who’s sort of in this group who you must have known pretty young was Tommy Flanagan.
RC: Not much. I didn’t know him until later on. He’s, of course, older than me, left Detroit way before I did. I met him in New York. Back in those days I was not a jazz player. In the early days you couldn’t get into a club until you were the right age. You could sneak in, but by and large you couldn’t get in. So while I knew who they were by name, I didn’t see any of them and didn’t have any contact with them until I got to New York. I mean, I spent three or four weeks with Kenny Burrell, but I never met him in Detroit. Never saw him in Detroit, you know, just the timing was an issue; timing is everything.
One of the things I would always look forward to Tommy is that when his bass player, Peter Washington, took two gigs in one night, he would call me see if I was available for that night. I’d say, yeah, I could do this for a night, two nights or whatever it is, so I got a chance to play with him and Lewis Nash when the arrangements worked out. Good sounding, organized trio, and again Tommy knew a lot of tunes, man. He knew a lot of intros, he knew a lot of verses, so again, I’m going to school free. Not only am I playing with Tommy Flanagan and Lewis Nash, I’m learning the songs that I don’t really know, and because they’re so arranged songs with hits and stuff, it’s difficult to grasp how they work. I’m not seeing how they work; I’m seeing how they’ve been reworked.
Okay, well, that makes it a little more difficult to learn the tune because the hits are coming in on one place and the melody’s over here, man, and the chord is a sus chord rather than a dominant seven. I mean, it’s just kind of arranged; it’s hard to learn the song if it’s been arranged in those fashions, you know, but he played the melody so correctly. If you can hear the melody, you can make it work. He was a great melody player, so by the time we do a 32-bar tune three times, I knew the melody, and if I can hear the melody, I can find the right changes to go with it.
He liked alternate changes, you know. He had a great full range of the piano sound—just a pleasure to play with. I did play with him at the Detroit-Montreux Festival in Detroit, maybe seven or eight years ago. We recorded with Roy Haynes a couple times, some others, there’s an early Prestige with Lockjaw Davis and Coleman Hawkins, so we played together quite a few times.
EI: Gus Johnson is the drummer on that record with Lockjaw and Hawk.
RC: Yeah, he was living out in Denver at some point and I had the quartet working and Lewis Nash’s cymbals got left at the airport — again. And so I asked someone, do they know Mr. Gus Johnson? Someone gave me his phone number, so I called his home and asked, “Could we borrow some cymbals of yours?” He said come on over, so Lewis and I went over and got some cymbals and it was just perfect. They sounded good, man.
EI: Yeah, I bet. They would have been the right kind of cymbals, for sure.
RC: Absolutely. Sounds great.
EI: Let’s talk about some drummers. Did you play with Kenny Clarke?
RC: No, I never even saw him. Again, I arrived in New York in ’59; he’d already headed to Paris.
EI: But I suspect that he’s one of your favorite drummers anyway. Everyone loves Kenny Clarke.
RC: There’s a video floating around of a band—Pierre Michelot might be the bass player—but they were doing “Out of Nowhere “and they were exchanging some fours, and his sound on the fours was just great. I’m sorry I didn’t even get a chance to say hello to him.
EI: What about Max Roach?
RC: I made a couple records I guess for Candid, maybe, and I did a concert at Dartmouth where Lucky Thompson was on the faculty and there was a concert with Mingus and Mary Lou Williams, I think James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max. Somehow, Mingus couldn’t make the concert, and I got a call to do this concert with Max roach up at Dartmouth with Lucky Thompson. And so I got a chance to play with Mary Lou Williams and what a piano player she was, man—again, it’s a name that the guys don’t know because they haven’t sat down to look past 2013.
I played with Moody before doing the Newport Jazz Festival years ago. I hadn’t played with Dizzy at all up to that point, and I met them at one of those kind of “Freedom” things of Max Roach but I can remember, but I thought, they thought I could do the job, then I’m going to do this job, you know.
He had a difficult sound for me because it was a real percussive kind of sound, wasn’t the kind of sound that Kenny Clarke had or Vernell Fournier or Tootie Heath. It was really an aggressive kind of sound, and if I had trouble getting with the sound, I mean, it’s difficult to play through that because sound is so present. I met him earlier before with Randy Weston because they’re from Brooklyn, so I did know who he was and, of course, his impact on the scene.
His political direction was not mine, so chances of me playing with him in those days was pretty slim, given where he was coming from and what I thought was important for me. His daughter played great viola. I don’t quite miss him because I never knew him enough to miss him, but certainly an important figure on the jazz scene.
EI: Roy Haynes would be another one of that era.
RC: Less famous, but just as important. I saw him last night, last Sunday, at this big event at Dizzy’s Club honoring Prestige’s 65 years of Rudy Van Gelder. He’s lost some body mass, but he’s got the sparkle in his eye, and I worked with him maybe four months ago at Birdland—at the Blue Note—with his band.
I keep hearing how much Tony plays like Roy. But I haven’t heard that yet. Comparing Al Harewood to Kenny Clarke, and the match is almost right on, man. You can hear the sound of Klook, you know, he had the snare drum stuff, his bass drum. You can hear the influence. The connection between the sound that Billy Higgins and Tootie Heath—they can sound the same. I just couldn’t hear it with Roy and Tony. So, okay, let me just enjoy Roy. Roy’s here, got a great snare drum sound, really nice cymbal over here, let’s make this work for me. Free! Free school, man.
EI: Ben Riley?
RC: Ben’s one of the best-recorded sounding drummers on the planet—Ben Riley and Joe Chambers. This isn’t to say that Philly Joe Jones’s sound isn’t good or Art Blakey or Charlie Persip, but those guys, the sound is just made for recording, kind of perfect for recording. Ben’s out of the Kenny Clarke school, I would call it the Kenny Clarke school: crisp snare drum, great cymbals, nice bass drum beat, and knows how to control the dynamic of the band, does it really very well.
EI: I guess probably a lot of these older drummers anyway do feather the bass drum, do play quarter notes down there quite a lot.
RC: I like that. Gives the bass a bottom as if he’d been on the E string all night, man.
EI: That’s great. You mentioned Tony; tell me about Tony Williams for good measure.
RC: What do you want to know about Tony?
EI: Well, of course, his playing changed over the years. At least that’s how someone like me would look at it. Would you ever think that’s a fair statement?
RC: Changed? I’m not sure how you define change.
EI: Well, if you look at a picture of Tony playing in the early ’60s he’s got a small kit, and if you look at a picture of him playing in 1980 he’s got this huge kit, so that’s one obvious change. You don’t even have to listen to a record to know that that was a change.
RC: Well, he was playing with bands that needed that kind of power, I guess. I can’t really answer for his changing drum set sizes. He’s playing with Larry Young, John McLaughlin—and they were so loud. You couldn’t stand in the Vanguard, man. The small set he had, it couldn’t equate itself with the size of the sound coming from the organ and the guitar, you know. If there was a drastic change, it had to be in his size gear so he could maintain the posture of being part of this trio, rather than just hanging on because his equipment wasn’t geared to make him sonically competitive to John and Lawrence of Newark.
So change in that sense, yes, but it’s more of a change to be competitive sonically than to change evolving his skill level or his style was changing. I think he developed it more and more, and knowing him, he stopped playing for a while to study German and stopped playing again just to learn how to do composing and arranging, so he was determined to make himself a better-rounded musician by diving into these courses full time and not just one at a month. He wanted to know how to speak German, so he stopped traveling and went to German language classes. He wanted to learn how to arrange, so he hired a guy to come by his house and teach him some arranging concepts and some skills, and I don’t know any other drummer who stopped in his tracks to do that.
EI: Did you feel when you first played with Tony at the beginning that this would be such a significant, life-long relationship? It’s sort of a dumb interview question, let me rephrase it…
RC: No, it’s okay. It first it was a gig for me. We were playing with a hot band. Whether this relationship lasted two weeks or two months, no one of us really thought about it. We were each able to do our own experimenting in this small setting, a quintet. I think we were more concerned with, “Can we make this last for our own good,” our own individual good, than, “Jeez, how long has this been going on?”
EI: I think I’ve collected all the records that the two of you are on together because it’s always a special feeling, whether it’s the early days or the last days. It’s always got something that only Ron and Tony have.
You were with him on one of his last gigs, if not the very last, trio with Mulgrew at Birdland.
RC: We were supposed to go to California in January, by the way, after the gig at Birdland, and, of course, he passed away at that same time, so I was crushed on a number of levels: he was gone, and the circumstances under which he was gone was not okay with me, and this West Coast gig would be even more brilliant than Birdland. So I was pretty upset for a while, you know.
EI: I’ve heard that it was hospital doctor error that ended his life.
RC: That’s the story, yeah.
You’ve mentioned Joe Chambers in passing.
RC: Great writer, a wonderful writer, man. His drum sound—engineers liked to see him come to the studio because he brings a sound that makes their job just plugging in a cable, because his sound’s not overwhelming. He plays all the drums with the same kind of even touch, they’re well tuned, so all the guy does is just get that stuff on tape. Joe’s a very great composer, man. I’m sorry that people don’t get a chance to hear his tunes very often.
His brother, plays clarinet, just passed away, Stephen, played clarinet, and at some point during his lifetime, Noel DaCosta, whose name I’d hope you would know, a violin player from Africa who had been in New York for a long time, he wrote a piece for me and Joe and Stephen Chambers, who passed away from cancer, unfortunately.
A nice piece, man, it kind of showed Joe playing behind a clarinet with some really sensitive sounds, you know. Swing was not the issue, of course. We could put the sounds that we got with the unusual setup.
The clarinet, bass, and drums is interesting for me because when you hear clarinet, you just hear Sidney Bechet or Edmond Hall or Benny Goodman; you just don’t think of much beyond that, as far as jazz categories is concerned, you know. But Stephen played so well with such a great, great sound. Of course, he could jam with the best of them. It was interesting for me to watch this development take place and to be a part of this growth on his part, like, “How about that? Wow.”
EI: Another drummer that I associate you with is Al Foster.
RC: We’ve had some nice records: The State of the Tenor; a couple of Steve Kuhn discs; Eli Degibri, a good tenor player. Yeah, Al’s a different sound from those guys: a much lighter sound, almost brittle. He has that kind of sound, but he tunes the drums really great, man. The drums are tuned, for me, wonderful. The bass drum has a certain pitch to it and the snare drum is bright like I like it, because it gets out of the way of the bass drum. When he plays on it, the bass drum still comes through down here. Bright enough and it’s crisp enough. I heard him play about a month ago down at Smoke with Gary Bartz…
EI: Oh, I heard about that. Larry Willis and Buster, right?
RC: Yeah, they’re doing that McCoy Tyner tribute. Interesting. Al still plays good. I don’t see him much because he doesn’t hang out. If he’s not working, he’s not hanging out, and then I’m kind of the same way, but I enjoy listening to him play after sitting next to him for so long.
EI: Well, he’s certainly got a idiosyncratic approach: you can tell in a moment that it’s Al Foster, like he really worked on having his own signature at all times.
RC: Well, I’m not sure. That’s the result of what he does. I don’t think Al’s the kind of guy who’ll sit down and figure out what he’s going to do as a signature thing, people know that this is Al Foster—he just plays what he plays and he works at those items, whatever they are, with due diligence and good intention, you know. But, again, he tunes the drums, man, all those guys who played good tuned the drums right for me: Joe and Ben and Payton Crossley. They just tuned the drums so correct for me. There are lots of ways to get heard, no matter where the line is.
EI: Paul Motian told me you told him to raise the snare drum to make it a bit higher.
RC: It’s too low; it’s like playing with two toms, man. And it’s right in the bass’s wheelhouse, so to speak. An open A, first space to G to F# on the A string, you know. He eats the area up if you know what that means, and I say, “Man, if you keep doing that, I’m going home because I can’t do anything.” And there are some guys who think I’m exaggerating and overdoing it, but I’m serious. He’s just playing in such a place that doesn’t leave anything to do, you know?
EI: Well, for sure the classic bebop jazz tuning of the snare would be nice and high.
RC: Yeah, and he ended up jacking it up when asked him to do that because, for me, you got to get this thing going, man, and that’s right in the way of my midrange, so to speak.
EI: What about Jack DeJohnette?
RC: Jack’s another guy who’s got great cymbals. [long pause] Jack is a guy who doesn’t always play the form. He listens carefully, he gets to the form. He’s really a free drummer in terms of that part of music. He doesn’t always play on one, and he doesn’t always play the downbeat at the top of the tune or those kind of landmark things, you know, but if you listen carefully, the way he plays, he doesn’t need to do that to make what he does work. Again, the sound he gets on the drums is great, man. The engineers like to see him and Tony, who insists on a certain kind of drum tuning with this guy, you know. They know what’s coming at them and those guys don’t disappoint.
EI: You and Cedar are on a couple of records with Jack: there’s a trio record, and then there’s one with Benny Golson and Pharaoh Sanders. I think it was all made in one weekend in the ’80s. It’s fun because Cedar is so strong in the tradition and Jack’s really sort of free against it, and you’re hooking up both sides of it.
RC: Got to make it work. And I did a record with Jack and an alto player, Erena Terakubo, Japanese, about 18, 20-year-old alto player plays really good, so Jack and I have done a couple of things with her recorded for a Japanese label, yeah.
EI: One of the great records is Power To The People, Joe Henderson’s record with you and Jack…
RC: On Milestone?
EI: Yeah, exactly.
RC: With Don Friedman.
EI: Herbie’s on this one.
RC: Is the trumpeter Mike Lawrence?
EI: Yeah, exactly.
RC: I thought maybe Don was on a part of that. I knew the record, and on that record I have “Opus One-Point-Five.”
EI: That’s the earlier record, that’s true, called Tetragon.
EI: You’re right, Jack is on that as well.
RC: Joe never had enough music, man. He’s always one tune short.
EI: Joe Henderson?
RC: I said, “Joe, what’s up?” “Big brother, I got a date, I’m one tune short. Help me out here.” I said, “Okay.” It was “One-Point-Five.” “
EI: You and Joe are so great together.
RC: Great player, man. So clear.
EI: You two are perfect for each other.
RC: The State of the Tenor, man.
EI: He can play so open, but there’s always the sound of the blues in his horn.
RC: He has a frame. He played with the song form in his head, and that’s because he has the song form so clear to him. It allows him in his head to move the bar lines and get back to where the tune started out in terms of the form of a song. The lines he plays, if you isolate them, they’re just kind of lines. You put them in the form of the song in the song form, they’re quite astonishing, you know. I’m sad more guys aren’t copying Joe because he’s a great model for composition: not just composition like writing it down, but spontaneous composition this way. He was great.
EI: Well, I got you here, so we’ll keep going down this drummer list and then we’ll get to more saxophonists. What if I was to say Jimmy Cobb.
RC: I played with Jimmy whenever Paul Chambers was sick or not available. Wynton would call me or somebody would call me to take Paul’s place, so I got a chance to play with Jimmy Cobb, and it’s really good circumstances. Of course, we were not with Miles together when his band finally was in the breaking up process. Jimmy did this first tour with Miles with this new band going like four or five weeks, maybe six weeks, something like that. We got to be on pretty good speaking terms—not just verbally, but musically, you know—and I always looked forward to playing with him because he represents a certain style of drums that I don’t get a chance to hear or see every day.
And, again, it’s not to limit his concept or pigeonhole him, but there’s a certain mindset that that genre of drums had: they were very oriented to the dynamic of the drums. They had the treble over here on the right and one on the left, and they were clearly different cymbals and they had different kinds of effects for me. This was real hot swing. A mindset that that era of drummers brought to the table: Philly Joe Jones, Charlie Persip.
EI: You played with Philly Joe Jones, at least recorded with him some later on. Did you play with him in the early days at all?
RC: No, much later, I did about four records with him and Red Garland.
They brought a dynamic, this kind of loud-soft dynamic to the drum solos. I mean, Jimmy never played a loud drum solo and he’s always in the same context as the volume of the band, you know.
I’ve done gigs with drummers whose solos are so overwhelmingly louder than the bands and I say, “Man, you’re not at home. Why would you do that? Why would you play so far above the volume of the loudest part of the band? I mean, nobody’s playing but you. Nobody’s going to drown you out because they’re out waiting for you to swing. Whatever they want you to do, they’re waiting for it. They’re not in your way, so why don’t you play your solo at mezzo forte?”
“Oh, man, it’s my solo.”
“Oh yeah, tell me about it.”
EI: Oh, man. You mentioned Red Garland. Tell me about Red Garland. I love him so much.
RC: You know, he was such a casual man. I think in terms of how comfortable he was personally. Not that he played piano with his legs crossed and a cigarette dangling and this kind of casual, but he played casually and what came out was pretty intense.
I had to define a picture for him, it’d be like an old glove. It’s kind of like when you go up to the old fashioned sports arenas and stuff like that where they have the trophies and stuff, see an old fashioned baseball glove in there—that’s like Red Garland, you know. No webbing, just old fashioned knit that fits perfectly, you know.
EI: Contrast Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.
RC: Wynton was much more aggressive musically. I mean his sound was aggressive; Red was kind of casual, much more gentle and, again, I don’t say those in the pejorative sense at all, but Wynton’s pulse was much more aggressive in terms of, “Take this.” Red was saying, “Okay, well, maybe this is okay,” but, of course, it was perfect.
I played Wynton’s last gig before he went to Toronto or Canada and had his final seizure, man. Paul got sick and I did the night with him. He left the next day for Toronto, Canada, and the story was that he had a seizure in his hotel room and there was no one there to help him get out of it, so he passed away.
EI: Oh, that’s terrible.
RC: Yeah. a really nice man. Wy-ann-toe-in.
EI: …What’d you just say?
RC: We’d call him Wy-ann-toe-in. Wynton.
EI: Somebody else you brought up to me that just isn’t the first musician who comes to mind when I think of you is Kenny Dorham. You were talking about Kenny Dorham a little bit.
RC: We made a great record called Ease It with Rocky Boyd, a tenor player from Boston who left us a long time ago; Walter Bishop Jr., me, and Pete La Roca. We’d done other things together, but this is kind of Rocky’s entrée to the jazz scene from Boston, playing like Trane, you know. It’s for a Canadian label, Fred Norsworthy was the producer’s name.
It’s since got sold to a couple of different labels and got reissued under different label names, but it’s called Ease It. It’s a good record. Rocky Boyd played really well, came to New York, and got too fast for him and it didn’t do him any favors.
But the thing about Kenny Dorham: he’d write the drum parts out.
RC: Like Cedar would do: there’s a real drum part, there’s a real bass part with certain notes and rhythms, certain locations. He wrote it out. It’s like a score, man. This is the bass part, not just alphabetical letters, you know: add F7, Bb—no, this is the line you gotta play.
EI: And you like that?
RC: It’s interesting, man, for me to see how these guys dictate lines when I’m playing for the harmony, playing for the melody, you know. And his music was a real challenge for me because I hadn’t played many parts in the jazz genre that were specifically to the bass. I mean, parts! It was a real wakeup call that it’s possible to write the guy’s notes and have it be okay. He played really well. I enjoyed listening to him play, besides.
EI: What about Donald Byrd?
RC: Donald Byrd’s kind of like a soul player for me, not that he wasn’t a good player, but he had a nice weight to his sound, kind of like Houston Person or Gene Ammons, as opposed to the lightness of Kenny Dorham or Dizzy Reece, you know, or Idrees Sulieman, go way back now.
EI: Right. Well, I love him, Sulieman.
RC: He played alto, by the way, really well.
EI: No way. Really?
RC: Absolutely. He’s on those early Prestige records playing alto, yeah.
Anyway, I like listening to Kenny because he just had a different air about his weight. Donald Byrd was much, much heavier, you know. Maybe it’s because playing with Pepper Adams so much, because Pepper Adams played a really heavy saxophone—musically heavy, but the way!
EI: Blue Mitchell?
RC: I first worked with him for Riverside, The Velvet Touch. I had a chance to really listen to him play in the studio and I really appreciated the sound he got.
Horace worked all the time back then, and so did Miles, so I seldom heard him play live because I was either at home trying to rest or going to the next gig, you know, but I certainly loved his playing. He and Sam Jones were from the same area down in Florida, you know. But he sounded wonderful, man.
EI: Freddie Hubbard?
RC: Uh, I’m kind of mad at him because he’s not here. He should be right here, he should be sitting over there, man. Why isn’t he sitting over there? And they never got around to making that happen.
He didn’t make it happen, nobody else but Freddie Hubbard did that, and I’m mad that he didn’t care about his life enough for whatever reasons to allow him to still be here. I’ve heard him play just incredible trumpet, man, something that I’ve heard no one, no one else even attempt to do the things I heard him do. And I’m very upset that he’s not here.
EI: I heard he had a brilliant mind as well.
RC: Well, you can’t sound like that and not have a brilliant mind. I’ve knew him for about 25 years or so, and we never spent any time off the bandstand. It was always on the job. Sorely missed.
EI: Lee Morgan?
RC: Again, I never knew Lee. Those guys: I never hung out with them. We were at the studio, they were into other kinds of social scene, you know. That just wasn’t my interest or my time.
I’m trying to play the bass, man. I can’t do that hang over there, I’m trying to find these notes, man. Get away from me! I enjoyed playing with him.
EI: There’s a great record that only came out later with you and Wayne and Herbie and Bobby Hutcherson and Higgins called The Procrastinator.
RC: I know that record. I’m finding more of these records that I’ve forgotten about. I found three I made with Gene Ammons in 1972, ’74 record I’ve had: me, Kenny Burrell, Ben Riley, and Gene Ammons: wonderful records.
Lee Morgan, that reminds me of the time I was working with James Brown was at the place called the Royal Casino in Camden, you know that place?
RC: I mean it’s gone by now, but James Brown was working there with his band. He had a big record called — it’s a ballad with a string section…
EI: “It’s A Man’s World?”
RC: Yeah. And I was hired to do the bass part for the strings. like four or five nights in Camden, so I drive to my house, went to Camden like an hour and a half away, make the gig, and drive right back. This same weekend I was recording with Lee Morgan and Dexter Gordon and a drummer out at Rudy Van Gelder’s, and Ike Quebec was doing the production, was producing the date. You know Ike Quebec?
EI: Yeah, sure.
RC: And Lee was strung out and he’d go out to the recording room and he’d just kind of nod off, and also he’d wake up and say, “Wrong note, wrong note,” in the middle of the take, you know. And this went on for three or four takes.
EI: Oh, no.
RC: And it’s getting later and later, and I got to be at the Camden at 7:30, man, and we’ve been there since noon and he keeps doing it, man, and everyone’s getting frustrated and it’s getting really obscene, man, and I’m saying, “Look, man, I gotta go. I gotta go to work. One more take and I’m gone, man.”
So he’s finally got it done and I’ve gotten to the gig about 10, 20 minutes before the downbeat, and Mr. Brown and everybody’s in place an hour before. They wanted to rehearse all that shit in uniforms, and that wasn’t what I signed up for but that’s part of the gig, man so I’m already according to their schedule 20 minutes late. And that’s not okay! So now I’ve got to the stage, got set up , and yada yada yada. And we’re at 20 minutes before show time, so I finally said to Mr. Brown, “This won’t happen again. Date went late and I hadn’t planned on that happening, my apologies, and I’m ready to go to work.” And he said, “Okay with me.” He did a soundtrack that I played on shortly after that.
EI: Well, I guess this is a question about the continuum of the music, like soul music on one side and oh, uh, the more, I don’t know, Eric Dolphy on the other side or something. Do you have a comment about the scope of the music? I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but anything you want to say about that?
RC: Comparing Eric to the soul guys? They’re different boats, you know. One thing about that: I never worked a gig with Eric other than with Chico Hamilton’s band, and the band broke up and I was already living in New York and Eric had moved to New York and Chico went back to California for a while before he moved back to New York. Eric was working at the old Five Spot with Mr. Davis and Booker Little, was it Ed Blackwell?
EI: Yeah, Ed Blackwell and Mal Waldron.
RC: Yeah, I didn’t play any gigs with him. I only had experience with him through the studio, and what social life we had was, Eric was trying to learn how to cook. He couldn’t cook shit — nothing, man — so I say, “Eric, come to my house. My wife will show you how to cook some real basic meals for you.” So he says, “Okay, okay.” And he came by and cooked some. She taught him how to cook some real basic meals. We never shared the bandstand.
EI: Well, let me put it this way. When I brought up Roland Hanna and classical music earlier, I felt like you were like, “Well, careful: he wasn’t playing “‘Round Midnight” in a Chopin style,” you know, so there’s something about black music or like American music that needs a certain aesthetic.
Playing funk for you has always been fairly natural, I suspect.
RC: Playing what?
EI: If you are doing a funk session, a CTI funk session, you’re in there, you know. Of course. And that’s a different feel than Miles Davis jazz, which is a different feel from some avant-garde music, like…
RC: …Don Ellis and Jaki Byard.
EI: Yeah, exactly.
RC: It’s all interesting music. With those guys who knew my reputation somewhere else, I could come into their house and make the music work.
And I’m careful about this answer because what I’ve never liked happening is that a label would invite one guy to do one tune to boost the record sales…they hope!
With Jaki Byard or whoever, those guys thought that I could make their project believable or more musically successful. They weren’t using my name on one track to sell the record, you know, and they thought that my other experiences in music could make their music viable. Beaver Harris, he had a band called 360 Degree Experience in Music with Dave Burrell. You know Dave Burrell?
EI: Yeah, sure.
RC: Good record, good band. We made a couple of tours in Europe and in the spring with all the mud and stuff and the rain and Belgium and all that kind of tents and stuff. It was stupid, but it was a good band, and Dave played really good. I saw recently his name last week. Is he still in Hawaii or something like that, man?
EI: I don’t know where he is, but he’s around now.
RC: At the time, he was teaching at Hawaii or something like that, you know. His favorite tune was “Margie Pargie” or something like that, and Beaver Harris was into Max Roach and J.C. Moses’s style of playing, was really a good drummer.
EI: I read somewhere that you played trio with Barry Harris and Beaver Harris, but I didn’t know this could be true.
RC: I’m not sure that’s true, but I know Barry and I did do a few gigs live, but not very often.
Beaver was Pittsburgh, him and J.C. Moses. Good drummer, man.
EI: I like J.C. Moses.
RC: Good drummer. I used to call him “Jack-o’-Lantern” because he had these front two teeth missing, but boy he played good, man.
EI: Yeah, you mentioned Pete La Roca; I love his playing, too.
RC: Yeah, they came out a record with Charles Lloyd recorded at a place called Slug’s with me and Gabor Szabo and Charles Lloyd. Nice record.
EI: Well, people worship that Charles Lloyd record with you and Tony.
RC: Of Course, Of Course. Really?
EI: Oh, because of you and Tony on it.
RC: We’d just come back from the Paul’s Mall in Boston to make that record — George Avakian’s project, who was staying right over here.
EI: I visited Bob Cranshaw; he’s not too far from here either.
RC: Down the street, man, like 10 blocks.
EI: And he has a picture of you right in his practice room.
RC: Really. [chuckles]
EI: It’s like the only picture he has there of any bass player.
RC: Wonderful player, man, wonderful player.
EI: Yeah, for sure. Well, maybe if you’re up for it, how about some saxophone player word association? Cranshaw makes me think of Sonny Rollins.
RC: Um, I met Sonny Rollins, he was working in Philadelphia with Spanky DeBrest, you know that name?
EI: Yeah, sure.
RC: And Spanky had nodded out on the bandstand, so Sonny called me and said, “I’m working at a place called McKie’s in Chicago. Got a weekend, three or four nights got the, weekend, then I’m coming to New York at the Five Spot to make these gigs. Are you available?” I said, “Yes, absolutely.” So I get to Chicago with me and Roy McCurdy: no piano, just the three of us. And we do two sets the first night. It was Friday and Saturday, Saturday and Sunday or something, matinee and then the night gig. We’d do like five tunes. [chuckles]. Five tunes.
RC: Yes. Then we’d come to New York and worked at the Five Spot for eight weeks. It was great, did make a record called Now’s the Time, and he goes through the keys, he finds a key he likes—ended up playing in B or E or something like that, you know. Great sound, great rhythmic concept, you know.
We did the Milestone Jazz Stars: me, McCoy, and Al Foster had some great times.
EI: How did that group come about? Was that Orrin’s idea?
RC: it was Orrin’s idea, yeah. Unfortunately, Sonny said he didn’t want to do it anymore.
We had sold out every house, our records came out at the same time, so we sold a lot of records also, and here’s a chance to make some record sales even bigger for the next tour. Sonny said he didn’t want to do it anymore, so we didn’t do it anymore.
In any event, Sonny’s rhythmic sense intrigues because he’s playing off the beat, against the beat, ahead of the beat. It’s just perfect the way he phrases those notes, just those phrases and where the beat really is, you know. And, again, I was going to school for free every night, man.
EI: Eddie Harris?
RC: He played good, man. Absolutely, you know. What appealed to me about him was how he was able to develop the skill level to play these fourths anywhere. Not only just to play them, but they’d be the right set of intervals with the right forths over a certain set of changes that would change from tune to tune that would work.
I mean, I’m saying, “How can he hear that stuff so far? How can he happen to hear that stuff that far in advance?” I mean, does he sit down and plot the C7, F7, “I’m gonna put this here or D minor vamp, this fourth…” No, he would just play it, you know, and, again, I never made gigs with him so I could never see him develop that level of development; I’d only see it take shape in the studio.
One of my memories of him is that he never told me what to play. He said, okay, just sitting over there, “Okay, Ron. Yeah, have a good time, man.” I’d say, “Is that okay?” He’d say, “Hey, man, look. You’re there because you do what you do. I’m over here because I do what I do. Let’s just do it good,” so we did some nice records, man, three or four nice records with him.
EI: Stanley Turrentine?
RC: Great, great player. He’s one of the tenor players who I wish guys would hear more of. He had a great range of the horn, great note choices, wonderful sound. He played in tune and he knew a lot of songs. What more can you ask for a guy, man?
And I’m just sorry that he doesn’t have the recognition among saxophone players that he was certainly worthy of, man. We had some great times, man, and again I miss all those guys, man, I’m getting mad that they’re not here.
EI: Wayne Shorter?
RC: I think that musicians like him, but I’m not sure that they like him because he plays so well. Wayne is a fabulous player. They like his songs, and I’m okay with that because they certainly are nice songs, but they have to get past his compositions and just listen to him play on them. His choice of notes, the intensity of his sound, the emotion that he brings to the saxophone solo, if they could just get to that and not worry about “Pinocchio” and “Nefertiti,” if they could just get past that and just listen to him play, I would hope that they would have another awareness of how bad he was — how bad he is.
EI: You told me that when Miles wouldn’t show up, he’d like to play “Limehouse Blues,” which sort of amazes me. I don’t think of that tune when I think of Wayne Shorter.
RC: Really? He played the shit out of the tune. [laughs]
EI: I believe it! Yeah, I wish there were more records of Wayne playing standards because he’s so incredible when he does it.
RC: Well, you know, people just want to hear his writing. I appreciate that, but boy he knows melody. He knows form, man. He’s a very learned guy, you know, and with this broad wealth of knowledge. Part of the stuff is put into the music: okay, how does this song work? His brother Alan was a good trumpet player, Alan Shorter. We did a record together at some point.
EI: There’s one track on The All-Seeing Eye.
You didn’t play with Coltrane, did you?
RC: Nope, I missed him, he was working a lot when Miles was working a lot—with Elvin and Jimmy and McCoy—and we were always on tour. They were probably on tour more than we were.
EI: As far as I know, you didn’t play with Ornette either.
RC: No, he’s on my list. I met his son; I went to a opening of an art show last Thursday, my friend, a sculptor, had a show, and Denardo was there. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but his father was married to Jayne Cortez, you know who she is? Denardo told me Ornette’s 85 years old. I didn’t realize he was that much older than me. But no, we never played together.
EI: What was it like when you first heard Ornette? Did you like it?
RC: I thought it was misnamed; I didn’t think it was free at all. I thought, yeah, you had the hi-hat going on two and four…what kind of freedom is that? Billy Higgins was going “chang chang-alang chang-alang chang-alang,” the bass player playing quarter notes—I mean, I didn’t get that definition of free, man. The trumpet player and the alto player were playing unison lines that they had to work on; they knew when to start and when to stop.
I thought there were nice melodies, and I appreciate those melodies. Billy Higgins and I became very close. I went to the Five Spot but never knew the other musicians well except Billy Higgins. Ornette never came to my gigs, so we never got a chance to have any serious kind of conversation about things.
EI: Okay. Houston Person.
RC: I miss him.
EI: But he’s still around!
RC: Yeah, but I haven’t played with him since four or five years.
EI: Okay, well, you guys should do a gig together!
RC: Well, we keep talking about it. He’s one of the few guys who knows the verses to all the songs, and will play them if you ask him. He’s the last of that Texas tenor style, the last of the Gene Ammons school of saxophone playing, and, again, I’m sorry that the saxophone players don’t know who he is.
They have to heard him enough to understand how he fills a room with his sound and how he plays the range of the horn; how he plays a ballad with the second chorus not being double-time.
They missed Trane’s message, they missed what Trane was saying. I’m not sure what he was saying, either, but it wasn’t what they played after Trane, you know.
But I think that if the tenor players could just sit down for a minute and listen to a Houston Person record, just try to understand the way they try to understand Trane, they might change their way of playing because one of the results of what he does is a home run. And he’s a very, very nice man.
EI: He’s on my list of people to interview.
RC: I talked to him last night, you know, and I want to visit him, so I got to get that done.
EI: Well, for my last name, it’s someone completely different, but someone you’re very associated with, and I’d just be curious to hear what you’d have to say about Jobim.
RC: I met him on one of Creed’s early dates with Impulse I guess. Is it Impulse, maybe?
RC: Yeah! I explained to him: I know your music through the movie, I know the music, your bossa nova from the movie Orpheus, also the Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto album. I do know the changes to these tunes, man, so I’ll do what I do. If you need to tell me something, I’m not doing something okay, you should feel free to tell me that. He said, “Well, I don’t speak much English, but if you don’t play the right note, you’ll know before I will,” and I got along very well.
Whenever I’d go to Brazil, he’d say, “Oh, there’s a coffee shop.” Hanging out, we’d go have rice and fish for lunch, you know, and I’m going back to work up at the club down there. He’s a very shy person, and he wrote a lot of songs that we don’t get a chance to hear because other songs are more famous, and that’s how that works out, you know, but he wrote some wonderful, wonderful songs that I investigate every now and then and realize: this guy, if there’s the expression “He’s really deep” in Portuguese, I have to learn it, because he’s really deep!
He would just kind of cut me loose. He said, “You’re here because you do what you do, go ahead and do what you do.” When he started hiring me for recording, all the Brazilians came to New York and hired me: Flora, and Airto, Marcos Valle, Luiz Bonfá, Miúcha.
I was trying to figure out what’s the connection between me and those guys based down there. So I finally got down there with Tony and Mulgrew and turned on the radio, man, and those guys sound like me!
So I never got the answer to that, why I fit into their bass line like a glove, to the extent that now I’m the glove, but it’s interesting. And I still plan on going down there, not playing, and just trying to hear guys play and see what is my connection to them that makes what they do or what I do so compatible that they’re going to add what I do to their bag of tricks.
EI: When I’m talking about you to other people, I often mention the Jobim records because you can always tell it’s Ron Carter. I mean they’re not bass feature records, and yet you can tell it’s Ron Carter right away.
RC: I was down there in January doing this tour with Raul de Souza—trombone player, really good player, man, and really funny guy. I’m riding in this car with this young lady, who’s taking us from the rehearsal hall back to the hotel, you know, and she’s got a little Volkswagen with a great speaker in it, man, great stereo system, and this program comes on the air, it’s like Brazilian music show, and the theme song is me and Jobim, “Captain Bacardi.” The speakers sound so great in the car, so let me listen to two more choruses then we’ll get out, you know. Sounded great, man! Wow.