Growing Up Jazz: To The Roots

Photo by Angelika Beener

March is Women’s History Month, and personally, there isn’t a more fitting honor than talking to my mother for Alternate Takes’ Growing Up Jazz series.  As many of you now know, jazz has been my lifelong soundtrack.  There aren’t many things (if any) that have influenced me more than the artists and recorded music I grew up listening to.  For this series, I wanted to dig deeper — beyond my own experiences — to the source of my influence.  Through this candid interview with my mom, I’m able to have a greater appreciation for the gifts that have shaped my world, and hers.  From her culturally rich neighborhood, to the musicians who would have everlasting effects on her life, to her close relationship with her uncle, Thelonious Monk, my mother sat down for a rare interview to discuss the roots that are still impacting us, generation after generation.

Lyman Place…

Courtesy of Robert Gumbs

“Lyman Place was a very unique block,” Mom says of the one street long block, which she grew up on, in the Bronx, New York.  “There was so much talent.  You had people like Elmo Hope and Leo Mitchell. You had rock ‘n roll writers like Genie Kemp, who wrote ‘Church Bells May Ring’.  You had Larry Locke, who wrote a tune for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and producer Phil Spector was in my sixth grade class.  And we had lots of music venues in the neighborhood.  The two neighboring streets were Freeman Street and 169th Street.  On 169th Street there was Goodson’s Town and Thelonious played there. Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith… they all used to play there.  A few blocks away, there was The Blue Morocco, where Nancy Wilson and Gloria Lynn and a lot of folks used to perform.  Then there was the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue, which was about four blocks up.  Everything was within walking distance.  Miles Davis played at the 845.  Thelonious would come by, but I think it was kind of a joke that he would never sit down and play, but he would participate as far as his presence, and it was a hang.  My friend Robert Gumbs, who was about the age of 17 at the time, and a couple of his friends were actually responsible for having regular jazz performances there.  They convinced the manager to bring in this type of music.  So the neighborhood was pretty rich.  And then Maxine Sullivan…”  Pausing, as though not to go on and on, mom seemed to be having her own revelation about just how much history ran through this four or five block radius.  “Tina Brooks grew up not far from me, on Boston Road, a few blocks up the street,” she continued.  “Then there was my junior high school, Junior High 40. A lot of musicians went there like Jimmy Owens and Larry Gales.  [General] Colin Powell went there, too.”

Growing Up Jazz (With Monk)

“That was my normal with Nellie and Thelonious,” she says of growing up under the love and direction of a jazz icon. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in other children’s houses, either. That wasn’t really allowed, so I didn’t start seeing any differences until the rare occasion when I would, and their houses just seemed… strange…. boring.  They didn’t seem very lively.  There was no house that I preferred to be in besides my own.  Most children want to go here or there, but everybody wanted to come to our house.  I can still remember seeing Nina Simone coming down the hall and sitting on the couch and my father making some of his smothered onions.  He could take the simplest food and make it so tasty.  I remember the laughter.  It was very normal, until people would speak to me in the street, and people would say, “How’s Monk?!”  Then we would see him in the newspaper.  But even going to the clubs, it was just Uncle Thelonious playing.  I can still remember my sisters and brothers and I, all seated there, and I can still see Coltrane in the kitchen area eating a peanut butter sandwich, and not really having very much to say.  But being the niece of Thelonious, it was always like it was their pleasure to meet us.  We always felt like we were somebody.  We were on equal par in that way.  Family was everything, and he made sure that everyone knew that.”

Monk’s Music

“One of my fondest memories is of “Played Twice”.  There are some [songs of Monk’s] that make me feel a bit melancholy.  When I would play that song, I would ‘play it twice’ and many more times.  And I used to like to dance to it, and one day — we very rarely asked him to play anything, he would just sit to the piano and we would enjoy — I asked him to play that for me, and then I started dancing to it. After he saw that I was enjoying the dance, he just took it out!  He just kept playing it, and he just started laughing and I started laughing… that was a real fun moment.

 

Timing Is Everything

“I had cooked some fried chicken livers, rice and gravy, and it must have been one o’clock in the morning.  There was no real schedule for anything… we didn’t do clocks [laughs].  But I’ll never forget it was the very next morning, which was really just about five or six hours later, and the food was still on the stove, and I threw it out.  And Thelonious came out of the room looking for the food, and I said, ‘I threw it out; it was out all night.’  And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well I figured it went bad.’  So he said, ‘So you make a turkey on Thanksgiving and you make all that food early in the morning…you eat that all day long, don’t you?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’  So he said, ‘Well, because it was nightfall you thought it needed to go in the garbage???’  And by the time he finished with that I felt silly [laughs].  Because we were actually talking about a few hours, and I had never thought about that.  I thought once you go to sleep and wake up… but when you think about time. He said, “Because timing is everything.”  And timing is everything.

Life Lessons

At a time where misogyny in jazz was so rampant,  Monk was a great admirer of women in jazz.  He also had a great reverence for the women in his personal life.  Musically, he paid endearing homage to his wife (“Crepuscule With Nellie”), his sister-in-law (“Skippy”) and his niece (“Jackie-ing”).  As part of the village who raised my mother, he also took great pride in this role. “He respected women musically, as mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, if you will, and he also respected their musical ear, which a lot of musicians for some reason, didn’t do,” Mom explains.  “I guess just like in sports.  This was before my time, but it carried on to where I would witness it: Whenever he would write a tune, he always took it to my mother for her thoughts.  That’s what he thought of her musical ear.  And so he respected women on every level.  He was also a great protector, and you always felt the security, which is very important in a woman’s upbringing.  It gave me a great sense of security and I always felt that I was somebody. Even in public, the way we would be addressed when we were with him, and without him.  And he carried himself in such a way that he could demand that kind of respect for us in his absence.  So I was always very proud.  He and Nellie would also explain his life to us as children and over and over again as we got older, so even though you didn’t totally understand what they were saying on some levels, when you heard it again… he was constantly feeding.  Because I guess he knew that we would hear a lot of conflicting stories, so no matter what came at us, we were bulletproof… I wouldn’t care what it was.  And even if it had validity to it, it didn’t affect us at all.  The negativity never affected us.  Thinking about it now, that was really something.  But… we were one.  We were strong, and it was like an unconditional love relationship to protect him as he protected us, and it’s just amazing to accomplish that.  They did a hell of a job in our grooming in that way.  And we stood very strong, and we still do to this day.  Through his teaching, we had an understanding of what money was, and what you should and shouldn’t do for it.  He would always say, ‘In life, be careful what you compromise.’  Always know in all directions.  Always, meaning forever and in all ways.  And had he not lived by those rules, he, of course, would not be who he is.  And so he could have made money many, many years before he started making money, but by not compromising, you really win in the end.  So, money comes when it’s right and for the right reasons.  And so in that kind of teaching, people have come to us — not just me, but my other brothers and sisters — with all kinds of ideas to write about him, [or ask about] “family secrets” and all the things they don’t know, which is a lot.  And it’s never been appealing, it’s never been a question or a waver.  It’s almost offensive for you to ask.  To this day, if someone asks a question about him, we’re reluctant to what we give up.  And so that’s in stone.”♦

Drum Composers Series Part 4: Ari Hoenig

Photo by Angelika Beener

There is nothing conventional about drummer Ari Hoenig.  Even as a sideman, he is not your typical drummer, with over sixty recordings to the much-in-demand Hoenig’s credit.  However, Hoenig’s amalgamation of technique, innovation, and creativity are what make him difficult to compare, and impossible to peg.

Since the Philly native’s emergence on the New York City jazz scene in the late 90s, Hoenig has played with the likes of Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Leibman, Joshua Redman, Shirley Scott, Richard Bona and more.  Hoenig also found a long-standing home in the trio’s of two of today’s most exceptional pianists: Jean Michel Pilc and Kenny Werner; the former urging Hoenig early on to make steps toward the forefront.  “He never really gave me any musical advice [per se], but he did build my confidence a lot.”  Jean said, “For one, you should definitely start your own band. I’d love to be a part of it, and even if not, you know, this is something that should definitely happen.”

Pilc surely knew about what he was talking and would later occupy the piano spot on two of Hoenig’s albums.  Hoenig released his debut album, Time Travels, in 2000, and never looked back.  With eight albums as a leader, Hoenig has been a trailblazer for the new wave of drummer front men, and the ultimate prototype of the modern drummer’s wingspan.

Hoenig is also a flourishing and prolific writer.  Like every drummer in my “investigative series”, I asked Hoenig about his writing process.  His latest album, Lines of Oppression (Naive Records), offers seven original tunes, including the title piece which is a mixture of complex melody, lush harmony, and rhythmic intensity.  The album features previous collaborators and pathfinders in their own right; pianist Tigran Hamasyan, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and bassists Orlando Le Fleming and Chris Tordini.  “I’ve never studied composition formally.  I mean, I’ve always kind of composed stuff just on my own but I’ve never actually had a class in it.  But I’ve noticed that there are a few different ways that people compose.  At least the way that I describe it.  From the melody is one, which is not a way that I do; almost never.  Maybe one song I started from the melody.  I start out with the chords usually…the harmony.  Probably eighty percent of the time, my songs are written with the chords first, the harmony first.  I sit at the piano.  I do play piano a lot.  And I write on piano all the time.  The drum part, as you will, actually never ever gets written.  That’s the very last thing, if it even is.  So, I don’t think about what I’m doing when I play on drums at all in terms of writing.  So, when I sit down and everyone has gotten their thing together, then I just play whatever seems right.  I write a few tunes with the bass line first, as well.  If you listen to any of Dave Holland’s music or…a lot of bass players actually write like that.  Like, a bass line, and then the tune kind of comes around it.”

Before I sat down to chat with Hoenig, I read somewhere that he hated the actual process of song writing.  With Hoenig being the author of one of my favorite ballads, “For Tracy”, I half-dispelled the question when I posed it to him, and was surprised when he confirmed on the matter.

“Oh yeah, that’s totally true,” Hoenig admits.  “The only part that I like about it is finishing.  I like to mess around with coming up with ideas, but as soon as this thing clicks in my head that ‘Oh, I should write a piece, and this should become a tune…’  From that moment until the moment I finish the song, I can’t stand it.  I don’t like the process.  Why don’t I like it?  Because it makes me feel…it’s like a puzzle.  It’s a challenge but it’s more than that.  It’s a personal challenge.  It gets in deeper than you’re trying to just do a puzzle that you know you’re going to eventually do, because you know there’s a solution.  But writing music, you don’t really know that there’s a solution.  Nobody’s worked it out before you.  If you’re writing a piece, you know…so what if it never works out?  I don’t know…I mean, it’s so personalized and it’s a certain amount of angst for me.  I have to force myself to do it. If I want to write a piece, I have to really force myself.  I’ve actually spent very, very little time writing music, and I haven’t written any songs that I haven’t used, except for one that I wrote in high school that is just stupid that I will never use.  It actually only took me five minutes to write.”

Hoenig’s off-center humor and humility augment the intrigue of his musical mystique.  Beyond being a conspicuously skillful drummer with seemingly boundless creativity, he can literally transform the use of the drum in ways rarely seen.  Hoenig’s affinity for melody has been manifested in his mind-blowing ability to create fluid melody lines on the drums, making the “non-melodic” classification of the instrument a misnomer.

Hoenig’s first two albums (Time Travels and The Life of a Day) are completely solo recordings.  Hoenig plays a collection of originals and standards, using the drums to produce aspects of the composition that are seemingly impossible to create.  This is most recently illustrated on his latest album, where the band performs their version of Bobby Timmons’ Moanin.  Hoenig brilliantly takes on the soulful melody of the call-and-response type bluesy classic.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“I started playing melodies on the drums pretty early on,” explains Hoenig.  “I guess [I was] around 18, and I heard Max Roach, for one, do it.  Jeff Hamilton did stuff similar, and another drummer named Earl Harvin who I was really influenced by.  Not so much [for] getting the notes out of the drums, but being able to play a tune on the drums with the basic contour and the ups and downs, and even more importantly, the phrasing.  Just being able to get the phrasing on the drums.  So if you listen to Mack the Knife and you hear Ella [Fitzgerald] sing it, you want to kind of be able to emulate her phrasing.  And just getting the phrasing without even worrying about the pitches of the drums, it’s going to be noticeable, like people are going to recognize that.  So I started doing that, and then I realized that I can actually get some of the notes too, out of the drums, so then I just started developing this system of how I can actually play whole pieces with the melodies on the drums with the actual pitches.  So I realized I can get either a 9th or a 10th from the floor tom to the snare drum and I can get all the notes in between so I can play any tune as long as they’re not really wide ranges.  Sometimes a really high note would have to be played an octave lower [for example].”  Hoenig also confirms that he has relative pitch; an aptitude he inherited, likely from his parents, both classical musicians.

While Hoenig is consistently reluctant to accept much praise in terms of his ability to reconstruct the drums, he is passionate about how invested drummers need to be inside of the music, beyond keeping the time.

“I think drummers sometimes — not the really good ones — but other ones, tend to be able to play the drums, but not really know the songs that they’re playing that well.  So you can be an amazing technician and drummer and have a lot of coordination, and, you know, [be] a ‘drummer’s drummer’, but if you don’t know the music that you’re playing, it just automatically means that you’re not as good.  It just will not make you as good as a musician, and that’s noticeable to everybody.  I mean, melody is something that I hear really strongly on all of the songs that I play, and if I’m playing a session and a gig that I don’t know, I’ll make a point to learn the song, and really know the song.  A lot of songs have the same form, for example, like a lot of blues have the same form but they have different melodies, so if you’re going to compose a solo, for example, on that form, I want it to be different than any other song, not any other form.  I’m not thinking the form like ABA or like blues twelve.  I’m thinking of the song.  And I think the really good drummers do that.  You know…drummers know that, but that’s something that I stress a lot especially with my students.”

Hoenig’s career is as multi-faceted as his playing, with several interesting projects on the horizon.  For one, he has reunited with Jean-Michel Pilc and bassist Francois Moutin to record Threedom (Motema) which is due for release next month, marking the resurgence of one of the most nonconforming and essential trios in today’s jazz music scene.  Hoenig is also currently touring with saxophonist Chris Potter in a series of duo concerts across Europe, where they will perform a set list that is heavily dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Hoenig, who has recorded a fair share of Monk tunes on his albums as a leader, described his unsurprising fondness of the eccentric icon.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“It’s just that his tunes…they’re very rhythmic.  They’re melodies that some would call slightly awkward, which I wouldn’t even say that.  It’s just they have an interesting thing to them which is different than the ones people used over and over and over again.  Or any standards that are written with just chords and melody but no real rhythms in the tunes, so Monk – all the songs have that.  They’re built into the melody.  So it’s not just about playing the melody and the changes, but during the solos it gives the tune somewhere to go.  It’s almost saying like OK, there’s a destination…places to land.  So yeah, Monk’s tunes are especially appealing to me.  [With Chris Potter], we play probably close to half Monk tunes.  It’s fun.  And I actually used to do a duo with another drummer named Andrew Griffith in Dallas, and we did some Monk tunes as well, and for a drum duo I feel like it works really well, and actually with anybody.  Duo with anyone…those tunes definitely speak to me.  They give me a lot of ideas.”

Hoenig’s incessant need to push beyond so-called limits, and reinvent not only himself, but the vehicles used in his expression, also make him an optimal educator.  Hoenig has authored Systems Book 1: Drumming Technique and Melodic Jazz Independence (Alfred Publishing 2011) and writes for Modern Drummer Magazine.  He has also released The Ari Hoenig Songbook, which includes the complete lead sheets of Hoenig’s compositions.

Angst transformed into beauty, indeed. ♦

Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig perform at the Blue Note in NYC on August 30 & 31.  Click here for details.