my favorite records in the world are the classic era Blue Note records, with the instrumentation of trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass and drums, recorded between the mid-late 1950’s, basically beginning with ‘Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers’, going through around 1968, with what was about the last gasp of this Blue Note quintet era, Lee Morgan’s ‘Caramba’. it’s perfect music for me. when i compose this is often the palette which serves as my muse, imagining Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan in the front line for example, with Billy Higgins’ sizzle cymbal, as my inspiration. it’s reverberating inside me, you are what you eat, and i want to get closer to being inside of this feeling and sound as i grow.
one of these albums i listened to as a teenager in Berkeley was Jackie McLean’s ‘Capuchin Swing’, with Walter Bishop, Jr. playing the piano, contributing two swinging originals for the date. as Miles had done by featuring Red Garland in trio interpreting Ahmad Jamal arrangements, without his trumpet present for tracks on his own trumpet-led recordings, with ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ on ‘Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet’ and ‘Billy Boy’ on the ‘Milestones’ album, Jackie featured ‘Bish’ playing his own trio version of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ at the close of side one of the l.p., with no horns — the ultimate show of respect from a horn player on their own date, to their pianist.
i love that track, and i began to consider Walter as a link to Charlie Parker, Miles and Jackie, that he actually comped for them on their records. he was one of the real cats, but he wasn’t coming to California to perform at that time, i couldn’t go hear him at the Keystone Korner in S.F. as i could Cedar Walton and Horace Silver, also living piano exponents of the Blue Note era and sound.
so when i would fantasize about moving back to my hometown of New York City, prior to hearing Art Blakey at the Keystone and instantly KNOWING i’d be moving, i’d imagine looking Walter up somehow, going to hear him play live in a club, meeting him and asking him for piano lessons.
well, fast forward to the late spring of 1982 in New York, at the Jazz Forum, a loft on the corner of Broadway and Bleeker, where my saint of a big brother, the bassist John Donnelly, and i eventually became two-thirds of the house rhythm section for the tuesday jam sessions hosted by Jo Jones, Jr.. Art Blakey, to whom i was soon to be introduced at this club by his pianist, the incomparably gifted Johnny O’Neal, lived around the corner in a building called the ‘bleeker courts’. here it was! my first chance to hear Walter Bishop, Jr. live — my self-slated present link to the past when i had sat in the sun on the grass lawn behind our family’s home in Berkeley, with my walkman headphones on, dreaming of New York back in the day. Walter was playing the piano with the Bill Hardman-Junior Cook quintet, with Paul Brown (‘Bish’ interpreted his initials as ‘perfectly beautiful’) and the drummer was the son of trumpeter Ray Copeland, Keith Copeland; a sweetheart of a gentle soul.
wow, Walter had this big spread to his chord voicings, the very same chords i’d heard him play on Charlie Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ — but i was hearing the sound bouncing of the wooden floored, brick-walled loft LIVE, in person! wow wow wow! NEW YORK! BEBOP! HEAVEN! i actually felt so much pure Love for Bish’s piano playing, that i was for once NOT shy to meet someone! i introduced myself during the intermission. Walter was so personable and i immediately wanted to learn to speak just like him. honestly, to this day, people try to ‘place’ my accent, and no one gets it right. in New Orleans, they think i have a Brooklyn accent. in New York, they think i have a New Orleans accent. time to set the record straight: Walter’s West-Indian, Sugar Hill Harlem accent has had more influence on the sound of my speaking voice as a man than my own parents’.
he was agreeable to lessons, and handed me an old-school New York business calling card. i phoned and made an appointment. he said the lesson would be $30, but that he would not watch the clock, that the money would be sufficient re-numeration regardless of how long our lesson became. the day came, and i arrived. Bish lived in the manhattan plaza twin apartment complex’s; his building was the 9th ave. one, at west 43rd st. in hell’s kitchen. his apartment was 33Q. he greeting me at the door, a warm smile but also with a serious vibe. he simply gestured to his upright grand piano, and said ‘play something’.
what in the world ELSE was i going to play BUT his arrangement of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ from ‘Capuchin Swing’. in a much softer, higher pitched voice, he leans over my shoulder,’that’s -‘ ‘i know’, i interrupt his voice, ‘it’s YOUR arrangement, from Jackie’s record’. ‘man, you listen to that?’ he seemed mildly incredulous (i imagined it was because i didn’t play something like ‘maiden voyage’, as much as i showed him instantly more than told him, that i was quite sincere in my interest in HIS music, if you dig me). the lesson sort of flew by. it was in fact the beginning of a loving father-son relationship. he eventually would introduce himself by saying ‘i’m his new york father’ wherever we went clubbing together in new york. Bish.
at the close of my following lesson, when i reached into my right front jeans pocket and pulled out my neatly folded $10 and $20 bill and handed it to him, he gently pushed my hand away, ‘let’s not keep it on this level’, he said. huh? what does that mean, i thought? i don’t understand his syntax here at all, so, i hand it to him again and, my voice shaking a little because i simply don’t comprehend the communication. now Bish looks a bit disturbed, and he raises his voice in slight but distinct first-level anger, ‘I SAID, let’s Not keep it on This Level!’. he refused money from me after our first meeting. he was indeed my link to Bebop and the days when Jazz was the mainstream music of New York. he was my friend and my first living hero after my own biological father. he Loved me, and i Love him. i wish i’d spent more time with Bish once my ‘career’ moved into high gear by the mid ’80’s. i loved Bish and we had the best hangs, but i had not yet lost a beloved friend, and didn’t quite grasp that he’d eventually die. i miss how he treated me. it was pure love. writing this now reminds me to do better with the living angels in my life. i Love You Bish.