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Posts from the Interviews Category

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his fiercely polyrhythmic playing, Jeff “Tain” Watts has made an indelible impact on the sound of contemporary jazz drumming. While perhaps best known for his association with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Watts is also an accomplished composer and bandleader, with several albums to his name, including 2009’s Grammy-winning Watts (Dark Key Music).

This week, Watts convenes an intergenerational trio featuring longtime collaborator Paul Bollenback on guitar and James Francies on piano. We caught up with Watts at his home in Pennsylvania to talk about his life in Covid and his many new compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing?

Jeff Watts: The music for the show—some music from a few different things. Some music that I’ve already recorded. Of course, like a lot of artists during this pandemic, a lot of unrecorded material, new stuff. You know, you have a lot of free time to compose! I’ve been working on a couple different projects. One is a suite of music that was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship almost three years ago. I proposed to them that I was going to do a musical tribute to the play cycle of August Wilson, who’s from my neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Originally it was about him, but then the more I studied August Wilson and his work, the more I wanted to be less derivative of anything. So as of now, this suite is a broader thing, about Pittsburgh and things indigenous to Pittsburgh, and I’m calling it “Suite to Pittsburgh”. There’ll be a few things from that.

I’ve been writing things about the pandemic itself—a song called “Sanctuary” that’s about being safe. I did something for The Jazz Gallery earlier in the pandemic, where they asked me what I was working on. I had a commission from the University of Michigan, right around the same time the riots were happening around the country, so I have a piece dedicated to George Floyd and how that moved things to a certain point where people felt the need to be responsible for the climate of the country. So I think we’ll premiere that piece. It’s called “Big Floyd and Tipping Point.” That should be very interesting; it has some spoken word, and it should be very evocative of jazz and Mingus and hip hop and a little bit of the vibe of the group the Last Poets.

What else did I write during this thing? Something about the virus—it was an excuse for me to write something in 19/8. I should be premiering a piece originally for the suite, but in the midst of it we lost Ellis Marsalis, so I wrote an elegy that’s dedicated to him.

And then I just wrote something last week. I was watching a documentary about Don Cherry, from 1978, that was done by some Swedish folks. And in the midst of his interview, he’s talking, and he’s like, “Yes, you know America has certain priorities, there’s emphasis on the media, trendy things,” basically saying the climate of America was stunting the “spontanewity” of an artist—and I just thought that word “spontanewity” was cool, so I wrote a new song.

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Billy Hart

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Many know Billy Hart—Jabali—for his resonant contributions to Herbie Hancock’s sextet during the Mwandishi years. Others know him for his storied associations with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, or his early experience performing alongside Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Patti LaBelle. 

But the new assembly of artists—“the new guard,” to use his words—knows the DC-born drummer, composer and band leader as a towering figure with a sound that continues to evolve the music. He acts as a mentor, showing up for multigenerational protégés; an elder, eagerly inviting younger artists to play next to his fire; and a master of the moment, whose Vanguard sets are known to entrance front rows, back tables, service staff, and management alike.

This week, he shares The Jazz Gallery stage with long-running quartet-mates Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street. From his home in Montclair, New Jersey, he spoke with the Gallery for nearly two hours, beginning many thoughtful responses with the same question: “Well…do you want to hear the whole story?” 

The Jazz Gallery: So many artists in New York, and I imagine elsewhere, consider you a mentor. I’d love to hear about one of your first mentors, Shirley Horn—what playing in her band taught you about the music and about leading a band. 

Billy Hart: I still play the drums the way she taught me. Every night. How much time have you got?

On first experiences in jazz

I’m from Washington, D.C. My grandmother lived in an apartment across the hall from the best jazz saxophone player in town, at that time. And I would have had no way of knowing that—or even caring because I wasn’t interested in the music on that level, at that time—but my grandmother was late coming home from work. This guy’s wife didn’t like the fact that there was somebody loitering in the hall, so she came out to see what I was doing. When I told her I was waiting for my grandmother, she said, “Well you can’t wait here. You can come in my apartment.” Then her husband came home from work, this guy Roger “Buck” Hill. He was the great tenor saxophone player in town. I had my drumsticks in my back pocket, and he said, “Oh, you’re a drummer.” And he gave me two Charlie Parker records; one was Bird with Strings, “Just Friends”—on the other side was “If I Should Lose You,” and the other one was “Au Privave” and “Star Eyes.” They were two 78 records [laughs]. This is how long ago that was.

So I went home and put the records on. Before that, my favorite music was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. And what’s interesting about that for me, is when I finally got the chance to hang out with Tony Williams, he felt the same way. His favorite group was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. So anyway, I heard this music. And for some reason, it grabbed me. I can’t even say why because most of my friends were listening to vocal pop music. So I started listening to the records and I ended up putting together a piecemeal drum set, and started playing with the records. Over a period of a couple of years, I guess I got better at it. That’s when I somehow discovered that this music could be heard on the radio—and on the radio they would advertise live performances. So I decided to go to some of these live performances. I didn’t really tell my parents, so that was a problem—because I wasn’t allowed out that late at night. And I was staying out so late, but I still had to get up and go to school in the morning.

Getting Started on the D.C. Scene

So I got to the point where I started asking people to let me sit in. And nobody would let me sit in. They thought it was a joke. They thought it was funny that this little kid was asking to play. And they would say, “Well you can’t sit in now, but maybe we’ll let you sit in in the last set.” But the last set in those days was really, really late. The gigs didn’t even start until 10, so the last set might be 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d have to go on home and deal with my parents, and then go to school. And they still wouldn’t let me play. They wouldn’t let me sit in. So I ended up calling this saxophone player back, and I said, “Man, I been trying to play and they won’t let me play.” So he said, “Well I’ve got this Saturday afternoon gig. You can come down and play with me.” And I know he didn’t really wanna do it. He hadn’t heard me play. He just remembered giving me the records, and that had been two or three years before. He just was being nice. So he let me sit in.

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Ben Williams

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Late in May, Ben Williams woke up early. He sat in front of a mounted speaker and framed photo of Prince and spoke frankly—rhythmically—from his Harlem bedroom to roughly 16,000 Instagram followers and countless others who might care to listen. “I don’t write that much,” he says. “I’m not really a poet. But these words just kind of came out.”

The DC-native bass player, composer, and casually-reluctant bandleader has accrued associations with such figures as Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Maxwell, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Before the lockdown, he issued his third release as a leader I Am A Man (Rainbow Blonde Records), and first release as a singer. The album features Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, Kris Bowers, Jamire Williams and Justin Brown, as well as special guests Kendra Foster, Niles, Wes Felton and Muhsinah. 

I Am A Man teems with thematic development, both musical and emotional, at once richly layered and expressively direct. Ahead of his livestream performance at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 6, Williams sat down remotely with the Gallery to discuss collective intuition, storytelling and his recent and evolving artistic awakening. 

The Jazz Gallery: So much of your ethos is based in groove. And that presents the concept of repetition. You are a master of using elements of repetition to create story structure inside it and also against it. Can you talk a little bit about how you lean on some of that, conceptually?

Ben Williams: That’s a really dope way of putting it. I never really thought of it in those terms, but I know exactly what you mean. As most people know, the bass’ primary function — in most cases, although it’s a little different in jazz—is to provide a rhythmic support or groove. Most of the time, the groove involves something repetitive, whether it’s something rhythmically repetitive or it’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again—like a version of a theme. You can think of a groove as a theme, an idea. Sort of the heart of playing the bass is to find variations of this theme we’re playing, and to tell a story but inside this thematic idea. That’s kind of how I operate, on a larger scale, with ideas. This last project is very much based on a small idea that I’ve extrapolated to different topics, and these topics become songs. 

The phrase “I am a man” was a mantra of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis which is sort of similar to Black Lives Matter [in terms of] famous models that became the mantra of a protest or a movement. “I am a man” was that [mantra] for that particular movement, and it became popular throughout the whole civil rights era, the Civil Rights Movement. So I took that phrase and unpacked it so that I’m not just addressing this one specific protest and this one specific event; I’m really exploring the idea of the phrase itself. It kind of takes me on a road; it’s like I’m trying to get into the head of the workers—the people who were on strike back then—put myself in their shoes, ask myself, “Why did they have to say, ‘I am a man?’” Obviously, that’s what you are, but because of the society and the circumstances they were in, they had to say this because they weren’t treated as such. 

So I bring that phrase into a modern context. I’m thinking about my experience as a Black man, growing up in this country and today, and of the complexities of my existence — the existence of my culture as a whole. So in that same sense, I’m taking that small idea and really exploring it. I’m talking about different subjects like spirituality, police brutality the idea of perseverance, addiction, love. I guess in that sense, it’s like sort of the theme. The basic idea is the groove, and I’m finding ways to explore that idea. 

TJG: You’ve been working with some brilliant singers of supreme range for years now, and recently you started offering listeners your own vocal concept, including what we hear on I Am A Man. 

BW: Yeah. 

TJG: There’s so much history in your music—Black consciousness, American history, Black culture, Black women’s issues—that’s all there before we even hear any lyrics. But there is the added mode of communication through lyrics in words and phrasing. Some lyrics were written for this record, and some existed long before you were born, but resonate. 

BW: Mmhm. 

TJG: Do you feel artists who engage in social criticism and calls to action, in addition to personal reflection, need these multileveled means of communicating their messaging?

BW: It’s important to tell the truth in the best way you know how. Whatever means you have to get there, that’s just what you need to do. That’s what I’m doing with this project. It wasn’t just, “I’m going to start singing now,” being this singer-songwriter who plays bass. What really motivated me to do this was the message. I just needed to make this message as clear as I possibly could.

At the beginning, this project wasn’t really intended to be this album of me singing. A lot of the songs, they started as tunes, but I kind of kept getting pushed in the direction of writing a song; adding the lyrical content I just found was necessary to make clear what I wanted to talk about. Actually, it was going to be more like a special guest [record], and I was gonna have different singers sing songs. But I was inspired, actually, by José James. We were on the road, he heard some of the demos of the songs I was working on and he was like, “Who’s that singing on the demos?” and I was like, “That’s me,” [laughs]. And he was like, “Have you ever thought of singing these songs yourself? You sound good.” Eventually, I found the nerve. I [figured] I’m just going to sing these songs myself because, you know, it’s personal. I thought I could pull it off. That’s what it ended up being. 

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Linda May Han Oh

Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the logistics and preparation required for these musical events online, her favorite digital moments over the last few months, and her views on the current racial and social climate around the world.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Linda, how are you? Where are you?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m in Harlem, in our apartment. Fabian and I live up on 148th Street. We’re good, you know, keeping busy… A lot of fireworks at night. We still have videos due for different people, still doing some live-stream stuff like one with Dan Tepfer this week, I am doing a video for Terri Lyne Carrington’s Big Band project too.

TJG: Do you have a soundproof-ish space?

LO: It’s generally good. Sound is a difficult thing to deal with, unless you have thousands of dollars. Before we moved in we tried a few different things. We put another layer of ceiling with Roxul insulation panels, we put insulation and another layer of plywood on the floor. We even ordered Perspex to put around the windows. We’re trying our best. It’s not easy, but we’re trying.

TJG: The two of you have been prolific, it seems, both individually and together. Livestream events, Zoom events, videos and recordings… Did this start as soon as the cancellations began, or did it take some time to realize that this is what you would be doing for the long haul?

LO: You know, it naturally happened. Seemed like the best thing to do. As soon as it all started getting cancelled, we thought, what are we going to do? How are we going to stay active? A lot of it is thanks to friends and colleagues who have stepped up. The Jazz Gallery is a great example of that, with all the Zoom hangs and great discussions, all the videos people have been making. It’s the whole community banding together. Thana Alexa, Owen Broder, Sirintip creating Live From Our Living Rooms, Anthony Tidd creating Act4Music, Dizzy’s facilitating events. The Academic Bass Council lead by Steve Bailey. It has taken some amazing people to step up and put a lot of hours into building platforms to keep people connected. I’m grateful for those people, and for Fabian too, watching him with the Biophilia live streams, it takes someone special to say “I’m going to spend hours to figure out how to get these musicians together, compile these videos, make events for people. To stay active, to keep us creating. The Jazz Coalition, Musicares, a lot of praise is owed to those people.

Fabian has been so proactive. As soon as this all went down, he was on top of it with the gear, he’s so curious and tenacious with this stuff. Trying out different things, different software, different ways to optimize the process. I feel very lucky to be his wife and to see him facilitate all of this. I’ve learned a lot of tech stuff from him too, learning how best we can do this, how to substitute a live performance and get a wide audience. We’ve been doing our best to stay connected and creative.

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Miguel Zenon

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since his first gig at The Jazz Gallery in 2000, Miguel Zenón has been an integral part of the Gallery community. Countless concerts, residencies, events… He and his wife even had their baby shower here. The Jazz Gallery, says Miguel, is his home in New York. Currently in Puerto Rico, Miguel spoke with us via phone about how his life has changed since the pandemic, and got us up to speed on all of his new online projects.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making a little time, Miguel. How are you doing? Are the people you know healthy and safe?

Miguel Zenón: Yeah, we’re okay. I have some friends and some family members who have gotten sick at some point, my brother and his girlfriend actually work in a hospital. They got infected but made it through okay. We’ve had a few friends get it too, but nothing major. My family and I are down in Puerto Rico now, and we’re going to spend the rest of the summer here.

TJG: Walk me back to February, when things started to change. Were you in New York at the time?

MZ: I was on tour. The first cases surfaced in the Seattle area, and I was in Seattle that day, which is how I know [laughs]. We were flying around on the west coast, from San Diego or some place. At first we thought it would be fine, similar to SARS or other big scares like that at the beginning. I teach at Manhattan School and NEC, so I went back home, kept doing my thing, checking in with people, making sure everything was okay. At a certain point, it all shut down. In early March I was playing at Birdland with a student band put together by Berklee College of Music. We were supposed to go to Boston after the Birdland gig, but then the school cancelled the concert and told me that things were about to shut down. Everything started closing. Gigs, schools, everything in the states, overseas. It became obvious that this was a different situation.

TJG: So by that point you were back at your place in New York?

MZ: Yeah, and I didn’t travel again. I might have gone to Boston once to teach at NEC before they closed. But then it was all shut down. The red flag, for me, was seeing how far in advance things were getting cancelled. It was early March and all the summer festivals started cancelling. It was obvious that this is going to last awhile.

TJG: What were some major dates that were cancelled? I know you had a Vanguard lineup.

MZ: A lot, a lot, a lot… All in all, I probably lost $40,000 in cancellations. Everything from international gigs, things with my own band, gigs with other people, pretty much everything. It’s going to be the whole year. It’s a lot.

TJG: With all the cancellations coming in, how did you proceed? Did you just watch the emails flow?

MZ: Pretty much. I checked in with people right away. This is such an unprecedented thing. Most venues didn’t know how to deal with it. A lot of times, if something gets cancelled, you’ll get part of the fee, but this situation has never happened in our lifetimes.

TJG: You mentioned you lost about $40k, does that put you and your family in a tough spot? Have you been able to apply for different grants?

MZ: Of course, we’re in a tough spot. But I have some teaching gigs which kept going remotely. Because of that, I was able to keep that income. Also, I’m an artist-in-residence at the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. That was set in stone, and I can do that remotely too. Between those three gigs, I was able to stay above water. And because I was traveling a lot less, I was saving a lot more money. So I was able to balance things out. But there are many musicians who live exclusively off gigs, and those musicians are having a really rough time. Everything got cancelled. If you just live off gigs, you don’t have a lot of options.

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