Cedar Walton and Dexter Gordon

i didn’t know Dexter Gordon and never got to play with him, but he is nevertheless a significant part of this story for me.

Cedar Walton

Cedar Walton

i was most fortunate in being befriended and in getting to know the great Cedar Walton. Jazz Messenger supreme, inarguably he is one of the all-time hippest, slickest, classiest, most brilliantly soulful pianist-composer-arrangers in the history of Jazz. his name and sound are synonymous with this music. he’s one of the people who’s made the music what it is today.

i really blew it, royally, for each of my first two opportunities to speak with the man. my initial faux pas occurred at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, where i heard Cedar Walton many times, with his quartet, which included Bob Berg, Tony Dumas and Billy Higgins. also i heard Cedar at the Keystone Korner with the Timeless All-Stars, and on a special new year’s eve engagement by an inspired Jazz Messenger reunion: Eddie Henderson, Jackie McLean, Billy Harper, Curtis Fuller, Cedar, Dennis Irwin and Art Blakey.

when i finally gathered the courage to approach him it was probably 1979, so i was 16. on an intermission at the Keystone, Cedar was speaking with a very attractive young woman. i had blinders on to the fact that he was engaged in meaningful discourse, and just walked right up and interrupted ‘do you give lessons?’ – i didn’t even say excuse me or try to introduce myself, just the direct question and looking up at this man hoping for a safe landing.

‘no’.

‘oh… thank you!’ i said and walked quickly back to my seat. it still hadn’t hit me how clumsy and rude i’d been, all i could think was ‘i spoke to Cedar Walton!’

the next time i suppose went better but not by much. it was 1982 and i’d moved to New York a few months earlier. i wore my blue jeans to the Knickerbocker Cafe to nurse one glass of grapefruit juice from the bar all night which got me entre to stand right behind the piano and listen to the Cedar Walton and Ron Carter duo. they had made an album called ‘Heart and Soul’ and were playing much of the same wonderful repertoire and arrangements.

one of the songs they played that night, not on their duo recording, was the standard ‘Wonder Why’. i knew that i had an L.P. of the Jazztet playing the song, one of Cedar’s first recordings as a sideman, from 1959. ‘i’ll mention it to him’, i thought to myself in trying to get my opening line together, hoping for a reasonable excuse to speak with Cedar. really within it all, wanting to get to befriend him and ask him to somehow explain his musical wizardry to me.

i actually introduced myself like an adult, but i just wasn’t making a very good impression with the dirty jeans and self-maintained haircut. so i pulled out my ‘A’ material, ‘i heard you playing ‘Wonder Why’, i have the record of you playing it with the Jazztet, ‘Big City Sounds’.

‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. ‘no, really’ bright boy continued, ‘i have the record, ‘Big City Sounds’, on Argo’.

for the second time, he responded succinctly ‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. i could see that he was becoming annoyed. ‘thank you for the great music’. ‘you’re welcome’.

now here’s where Dexter Gordon helped my standing with Cedar Walton, and as i said earlier, i didn’t even know him –

Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon

the same year, i went to the Village Vanguard to hear Dexter Gordon’s quartet, and as was my way, i introduced myself and asked him if i could sit in. yes that was either very nervy or stupid, but i was far too insatiable to play with the real cats to even be afraid. ‘we’ll see how it goes, i’ll let you know’, said Long Tall Dexter to me in the kitchen at the vanguard. i bugged him more on the intermission. same stall from Mr. Gordon, which was graceful of him, when obviously i should have just been glad to be there listening, not pestering the giant to let me jam. but what he finally decided to do about me, proved to be a defining moment in my musical life…

at the end of his second set, i was sitting near the drums. anyone who’s been in the Vanguard know exactly where i’m talking about. Dexter, who was a physical as well as musical giant, comes over to me and he now knows my name – between me saying it each time i asked him if i could play with him, and the fact that Dexter had of course played with my namesake the great trombonist Bennie Green, he had my name in his mind, and he said in his deep voice ‘Benny Green, you want to play the piano?’ enunciating each word. i’m just looking up at him, shaking a little with nervousness (careful what you ask for) and slowly nodding my head.

‘well There It Is…’ says Dexter, motioning with his long left arm back towards the piano. everyone is still in the club. i walked up to the piano, trembling, and managed to play two tame choruses of a song Dexter had played earlier that night, ‘The End of a Love Affair’. i got up from the piano, ‘polite’ applause from the audience, and Dexter, who had stood there the whole time, let me know i was cool with him, ‘Benny Green, you’re gonna be aaaallright’.

Cedar was at the bar. i went once again to try to have a conversation with the guy who was probably my third childhood musical hero after Monk and McCoy Tyner. ‘say young man, you sounded good up there’. from then on, he treated me as a musician and encouraged me.

i asked Cedar for a lesson every chance i had. after repeatedly asking him over the years, once when we were both touring in Japan at the same time and met up backstage in Tokyo, Cedar offered, ‘let’s get together for that lesson you’ve been wanting. when will you next be in Los Angeles?’ he and his dear wife Martha lived on the west coast for a few years in the mid 1990’s. we made plans and he picked me up at the hollywood roosevelt hotel and drove me to his house – which was practically 40 minutes away! he didn’t charge me any money. ‘just watch my hands, and when you see me do something you want to ask me about, just stop me and say ‘that!’ and i’ll show you’. that’s just what we did. sweet Martha prepared broccoli rabe for us, but for some reason i had explained to Cedar earlier that i was going to need to leave soon to be back in L.A. for my show that night. Cedar then drove me all the way back, which meant 2 round-trips for him that day. then he and Martha came and hung out that night at my trio gig at the original Catalina’s bar and grill.

every time i’d see Cedar Walton after that occasion, he’d remind me of how i exited their home apparently oblivious the fact that Martha had actually cooked for us, that somehow he felt my action represented in effect that i was the artiste who was so self-absorbed that he couldn’t sit still for a home cooked meal. he would really let me have it and ‘lay into’ me if an audience of others were around. he’d retell the story to them – i couldn’t escape my history.

when Cedar passed, i phoned Martha. when i finally apologized for my blatant immaturity in having been oblivious to her spiritual and culinary offering on that day so many years ago, she just laughed and said ‘oh, but you were fasting. we understood!’ beautiful people. they really loved each other.

thank goodness for Cedar’s recordings. no one plays or writes so pretty and sexy as he, but we will bask in the light of Cedar Walton’s musical splendor forevermore. by nature of how he thought and lived, his music is forever fresh and filled with sunshine! we need his musical gift of everlasting pure joy and Love now and always, more than ever before.

BISH, MY NEW YORK FATHER

Walter Bishop

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.

BUHAINA: ENTERING THE CLUB

Art Blakey

my first time hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York was in the early summer of 1982, at the Jazz Forum. the place was jam packed with hipsters and elegantly attired folks who seemed so exclusively ‘inside’. a new arrival amidst such established community, i felt quite alone within myself, but i KNEW that just as with putting on a good record at home, as soon as the band started playing, i’d feel connected and that my soul would instantly feel every bit as welcome here as the insiders and musicians in the audience who all seemed to recognize and acknowledge one another conspicuously, making sure everyone could see that THEY were upper crust, and if not onstage with Art, still somehow ‘important’. you could not help but want Art to think you were cool, or at least have everyone believe you were part of his inner circle. if you knew you didn’t have it goin’ on like that, you’d try to stay in the periphery of this strongest of auras. as always at a Messengers show, there was a buzz of unparalleled anticipation throughout the room. it was ALIVE, it was SO alive and potent, this presence, this wholly Jazz atmosphere. oh boy it was a deep thing to be around Art Blakey. there is nothing else like this; i want to say to anyone reading this who wasn’t around in those days, you can trust what i’m saying, it was just about surreal, the vibe in the room before Art even showed up, every time. now when he got there, well, it was ON, everyone knew this; everyone. somehow, every time Art was playing, there was such an unspeakably strong communal feeling in the room, it was somehow collectively felt, understood, that everyone was in store for some mighty powerful magic. no one in the audience seemed to have a particularly casual attitude — it was an event — i swear, there was this anticipation in the air that you immediately submitted to and became a part of. i can honestly say there was an air of Jazz history about to take place, and we were all going to receive this wave of sunlight and be left with a sense of profundity.

when Art would enter the venue, the smell of his ‘Grey Flannel’ cologne would literally fill the air, but you DUG it, you wanted it to overwhelm you, you were there to FEEL something. and there you are, you’re in the magic. you are in the right place at the right time for Jazz. ‘they see you before they hear you’? well, with Art, you’d smell that Grey Flannel and of course it would draw your attention to Art’s dominant presence, but even more than that, if you were at all hip and therefore it was NOT your first time hearing Art live, sense of smell being such an associative memory catalyst, you’d be awakened and even MORE vividly reminded of the truly timeless, thriving Jazz atmosphere you’d been blessed by through Art and the Messengers before, and believe me it was a continuing saga being represented by the Jazz Messengers; you’d feel Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan in the ROOM, man. Art was SO deep. one could fascinate in his most colorful, charismatic personality there ever was, but the MUSIC — with Art and the Messengers, you felt so utterly connected to the greatness of the past as well as witnessing yourself submitting to the unmistakable sense that THIS, the music played tonight, what the cats WITH Art were puttin’ down, was where Jazz was truly happening on the planet tonight. the Messengers show was the ONLY place to be, or you were kind of a loser, Jazz-wise, at least that’s how it was for THIS messenger. playing with Art, you were driven to reach so much deeper to project your sound than you’d thought you had it in you to do with any other drummer, and all the while Art was giving shape and sweeping, glorious dynamics to the tag-team sequence of one soloist’s closing statement giving way to a clarion entrance of the next cat. Art said that our improvised solos should, as in writing a letter, have a declarative opening statement of some sort; a greeting or salutation, this becomes a main body or the core, and then a strong closing which the next cat gets right up in and takes charge from. the thing is this: you’re SAYING something — it’s a MESSAGE. and dare i explain how it swung? Please listen to a Messengers record, listen to “Free For All”, as Art said on more than one occassion, ‘seeing is believing, but HEARING is a M.F.’

somehow i’d arranged with the club owner, Mark Morganelli, that if i stood and left the seating at tables and what i remember as being a particularly long bar (where i’d eventually be introduced to the man himself by his pianist the great Johnny O’Neal – thank you, dear old friend, for this) open for paying customers, i could attend shows at the Forum for free. and you know what? it was always real Jazz in there, Mark actually had exceptional taste in the real deal he brought in the Jazz Forum; strictly the greatest Jazz musicians he could afford, all i would say were branches of the Thelonious Monk-Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker-Bud Powell tree. i arrived early and took my place, a perfect view of the piano keyboard (my appointed eventual destination, that was where my head was already at). oh yeah i was just a punk kid shabbily dressed with no hairstyle or swagger whatsoever, but i tell you i REALLY, really was committed to the marrow of my bones that i would be a messenger one day. so i was there, with my sony walkman bulging out of my down jacket pocket, ready to check and do my homework — profile was not an issue, i was there to be invisible and receive what was for my own self the gospel truth. in hindsight, i will now say that i was already a messenger in my heart, i felt and was deadly serious, yet i was green as a baby tree frog.

there was space for me just past the far end of the bar from the elevator entrance. the Messengers began to show up, mostly individually, maybe there’d be two cats together, but it was pretty much a ‘One By One’ procession of the best dressed young brothers you ever saw. three piece suits, pocket squares, tie bars, italian shoes… what’s funny now as i write this 30 years later, is that us young folks who were showing up to listen and marveling at the entire oeuvre of the Messengers with Art as the generator of this fire, this sophistication, would speak in hushed tones, ‘those cats have $400 suits; they got it like THAT!’.