The All Originals Jazz Series

July 31, 2014

Steve Kenny Interview, Part 2: D-I-Y Jazz

Photo by Andrea Canter

Steve Kenny. Photo by Andrea Canter

Since the closing of the Artists’ Quarter at the end of last year, a few of the area’s jazz musicians have taken a do-it-yourself attitude when it comes to performing. Zacc Harris is now in the third year of Jazz at Studio Z, having started the trend of producing a series a couple of years ago. Jazz Central, which is run by musicians, has expanded its offerings to five nights a week. And now Steve Kenny is producing The All Originals Jazz Series. I posted an interview with Steve a few days ago in which he talked about one of his groups – Group 47. This portion of the interview is about his work producing a jazz series at Studio Z every Thursday this summer. Each of the featured artists have played at the Artists’ Quarter with some regularity. Tonight’s perfomance features Dean Magraw’s Red Planet as the fourth of ten performances.

LE: You are involved with many projects these days.

SK: The All Originals Jazz Series, Group 47, Illicit Sextet, What Would Monk Do, and the Steve Kenny Quartet, which is starting to get more gigs. There are 4 bands that I’m actively involved in and have projects in planning. Of the four bands I’m the only common musician – four different units. This is feast or famine. I’m so happy to be in that situation. It took a suspension of disbelief and relentless pursuits to get these bookings. On top of that, the concert series is going on.

LE: How did the All Originals Jazz Series come about?

SK: There are a couple of things. On the one hand in the Twin Cities we have a number of organizations that provide small arts grants, MRAC (The Minnesota Regional Arts Council), for one. From a strict financial side this (series) wouldn’t happen without the legislature appropriating funds and without a wider commitment to the arts. Minnesotans are putting their money where their mouth is, and supporting small-scale arts. Small grants are available that non-professional fundraisers can apply for to fund raise. That’s one thing. Kudos to them.

The second answer goes back to when I first came on scene in mind to late 80s with my band mates (Editor’s Note: the Illicit Sextet). We’d all gotten music degrees or minors at River Falls in Wisconsin. It’s a local college with strong music program. Not as big as the U of M, but definitely in the running. I’ve got a little pride in my alma mater.

LE: So many of you went to school together?

SK: We came out of school and had learned about not just jazz, but composition. It’s a real focus of the school, bringing in internationally renowned composers and exposing people to experimentation. In that fertile ground we (my band mates & I) made the decision to be a composer’s collective, giving us a reason to keep composing music. In those days that was a strange thing for a jazz band locally. There had only been one other band in the Twin Cities that was similar – Natural Life – to me they’re in running for one of the all time greatest jazz bands. I have seen unbelievable videos of that group. They were really good, played originals, but were off the scene in the late 80s. It was in that vacuum that Illicit sextet was formed, the only band playing originals for years and years.

LE: Now there are many.

SK: This jazz series is a celebration of the fact that during the years I was off the scene due to chemical dependency – 15 years – the landscape had changed considerably. Every band was doing originals. The Illicit Sextet is host of the series – we claim our place. We’re so happy that nowadays that the average band almost can’t be a jazz band without a book of originals. To underline how things have changed, in the final week we have the Adam Meckler Orchestra. We have in our midst a big band entirely focused on originals.

LE: What will you do next?

SK: On the horizon, I’m starting a partnership with Black Dog to curate a Saturday night jazz series there.

I’ve already signed up Fat Kids, the Atlantis Quartet, some of the usual bands. We have such an amazing number of established excellent bands in the city that this type of thing is possible. Little by little each group gets more of a following. Which is important, since we don’t have the drawing power of a club – where the club itself has drawing power. So we have to increase the band image of individuals and ensembles to draw sufficient numbers on a Saturday night.

Every Saturday night, there will be some serious jazz happening at the Black Dog. It will be produced in cooperation with my production company and the Black Dog, to step up marketing and compensation.

The All Originals Jazz Series Schedule takes place at 8pm every Thursday evening at Studio Z, East Fourth Street, Suite 200, in Lowertown Saint Paul – 275 . ($10)


July 31: Red Planet

Aug 7: Mississippi

Aug14: Chris Lomheim Trio

Aug 21: Steve Kenny’s Group 47

Aug 28: Atlantis Quartet

Sep 4: Bryan Nichols, Chris Bates, JT Bates

Sep 10: Adam Meckler Orchestra



Steve Kenny’s Group 47

July 28, 2014

Veteran trumpeter/composer Steve Kenny is one busy musician. He’s currently playing in The Illicit Sextet, The Steve Kenny Quartet, What Would Monk Do, and Steve Kenny’s Group 47, the last of which is celebrating the release of an album, Straight to Vinyl, at the Icehouse this evening. Besides Kenny, the group consists of four college aged musicians: Will Kjeer, piano; Thomas Strommen, sax; Adam Tucker, bass; and Alex Burgess, drums. This group of young lions exhibits the creativity and cohesion usually found in groups with much more experience.

Steve Kenny. Photo by Andrea Canter

Steve Kenny. Photo by Andrea Canter

I had a chance to talk with Steve about Group 47 and the All Originals Jazz Series, a ten-week series he is curating at Studio Z every Thursday during the summer. This post will cover Group 47, while our discussion about the Jazz Series will be posted later this week.

LE: You’ve become quite the busy person these days.

SK: That’s true. Maybe it’s a perfect storm or maybe it’s the way I like to operate. I’m thinking ahead to the things that will be happening in Jan and Feb right now. That’s way, when the dates roll around it’s easier to book people, a studio is already booked if I need it. I had it figured out in the 90s and now back to that thinking that way.

LE: Why such an approach?

SK: I like to play some pretty serious music in public at least one a week, and that takes lots of planning. I play trumpet, and for that particular instrument, people don’t call you. It might be different for a rhythm section player. People don’t call trumpet players for modern jazz gigs, so I figured out you have to be very creative. And now, with the club scene getting more challenging, it takes more self-promotion and effort to make sure there’s a show every week or every couple of weeks.

LE: How did Group 47 come about?

Group 47 at the late, lamented Artists' Quarter

Group 47 at the late, lamented Artists’ Quarter

SK: It came out of the fact that for 5 or more years, I had the privilege of playing the early gig at the AQ. The group was known by a variety of names. The way things progressed; it started as a loose, jam session, and as years went by there was a tendency to push away from pure jam to incubating some kind of group. Then we found out the club was going to close.

At that point, it became: let’s see if we can bootstrap something that can exist outside of the club. Right around that time I met Will Kjeer on street. While I was warming up outside, and he walked up and introduced himself, claiming he was a pianist who could play jazz. I started asking what tunes do you know, to find out how successful it would be to bring him up. After talking, I said come on down. He came down, and played great. I asked him if he would come back, and every time he returned he was better. As he got his wherewithal, his true abilities came out – holy crap. After a year, he’s improved so much – it’s crazy. He plays as well as anybody in town and this is a piano town.

LE: How did you find the other players in the band?

SK: When playing free gigs, a lot of established players aren’t going to play. Many did come down, but I was looking to shift to a steady membership for the group. As I approached players who sat in every week for the next 6 months, the membership changed according to whoever was willing to play. It was happenstance. Good ones stayed, what we ended up with was the group. It’s a band that can play on the same bill with any band in town and I’m really proud of it. And they’re monster players, the likes of which people don’t even know yet.

LE: How did the concept of the album originate?

SK: With Will joining we started writing. Six months before club closed we changed the name of the group. Then we booked studio time, played the Dakota, a college concert and other venues. We got enough material in recording sessions for Straight to Vinyl.

Straight to Vinyl happened in bassist Adam Tucker’s studio, where they have a track record of doing vinyl. We decided to record in the round, originally to 2 inch analogue tape and then to vinyl. There is no actual editing, just selecting the order of songs. No editing of beginnings, ends, no pitch correction. Ignoring the CD format because it’s a dead format. Except for radio stations, many devices no longer have CD drives. We made sure that the release is available in every digital format, iTunes, Wav files, CD baby, MP3, etc. Scary digital precision is also available. And of course the vinyl version with nice artwork, real liner notes, all the touch feely things we like about vinyl.

Note: Steve Kenny’s Group 47 will be celebrating the release of Straight to Vinyl at the Icehouse in Minneapolis Monday evening, July 28 at 10pm. Copies of the album will be available for sale.

You can also hear the group as part of the All Originals Jazz Series at Studio Z on Thursday, August 21st at 8pm.

Interview with Paul Bollenback – 10.30.10

June 12, 2012
Paul Bollenback

Ed Note: This interview was first published in Bebopified on November 11, 2010, before I started this blog.  Since Paul is coming back to play at the Artists’ Quarter on June 15 and 16, I thought this would be a good time to re-publish the interview here:

Like every young guitarist of the 60s and 70s, Paul Bollenback was enamored with rock and roll. Then he heard Miles Davis and delved into fusion.

While living in Washington, DC, he was exposed to more traditional jazz, as well as organ jazz, and studied composition and performance. He made his first record with Gary Thomas in 1987 and met Joey DeFrancesco in 1990, establishing a relationship that lasts to this day.

After being named Musician of the Year for the Washington Area in 1997, he moved to New York City, where he now resides.

Paul dropped by KFAI on Saturday morning, October 30. This is a slightly edited version of the on-air discussion we had.

LE: How are you? 
PB: I’m great. It’s great to be here in the Twin Cities.

LE: You’re kind of a regular visitor.
PB: The gentleman who’s responsible for first bringing me here brought me to the studio today. John McCauley was Jack McDuff’s manager, and he’s responsible for first bringing me here. We calculated that I first came here, I think it was 18 years ago last night, to play a show with Jack and Joey DeFrancesco. I was in Joey’s band. It was a two-organ show. I met John and he was kind enough to bring me back to play at the Hotel Luxeford, for those of you who remember when they had jazz in there. I’ve been coming back ever since. I love it here. Great people and wonderful audiences, and there’s some really great musicians playing here. Tonight I’m playing at the Artists’ Quarter with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. You’ve got the Peterson family dynasty – it’s great.

LE: Tell us a little bit about how, as a guitar player, you decided to get into jazz.
PB: I was basically a rocker. I really liked Carlos Santana, and at a certain point I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, all those early heavy metal groups. I really liked the groove and power and the energy of it. A friend turned me on to the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. That was a thrill because I’d never really heard anybody play guitar like that. I’d heard all these soulful, really good guitar players, but John was a different scene. That kind of led me to Big Fun, which is an electric Miles Davis record which had John McLaughlin on it, if I’m not mistaken, which led me to Bitches Brew, which kind of at the same time got me into fusion – Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

At some point in this, my family moved from New York to Washington, DC, and that’s where I really got turned on to more traditional jazz. The first person I met when I got to DC is a great bass player named Edward Howard. Probably the thing he’s most well known for is playing bass with Roy Haynes for about 15 years, through the 80s up into the 90s. We had a friend who had a room full of records, a 10×12 room, three sides of which were covered in vinyl – all kinds. We’d go there and play and hang out and listen to music all day. That was really my first exposure to jazz other than the fusion stuff.

LE: How did that appeal to you as a guitar player who grew up in rock? What was it about jazz that appealed to you?
PB: Well, it intrigued me. When I was in high school, must have been 9th grade, there was a jazz band in the school I went to in Tarrytown, New York. It always amazed me that these young guys would come in, and they’d have music in front of them and play this stuff. I didn’t know what it was. “What is this that they’re doing?” I couldn’t do it. I was playing blues licks and trying to make my way through it. But I think that was one of the things.

Another was that my dad was a huge fan of the big bands. He really liked Benny Goodman in particular. He liked Stan Kenton a lot, and we had Harry James records and Benny Goodman records lying around the house. I’d put them on now and again, just out of curiosity. I’d be listening to one of my Beatles record and see one of these records and think, “What is this thing?” and put it on. I’d hear this “du did-it dee” and think wow, that’s interesting. But, I didn’t really like it when I was nine [laughs]. So it’s been kind of a progression.

LE: And you seem to have spent a lot of time in B-3 organ groups.
PB: Some people plot their path, and for other people it just happens. When I was 18 and living in DC, my friend Ed introduced me to a great piano player and composer named Lawrence Wheatley, who turned out to be a great mentor for me. Once I actually got a place of my own, I lived a couple of blocks from him. I used to go and play with him all the time. He was quite a bit older than I was. But he was one of those guys in DC who had played with everybody when they came through town. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had played with Charlie Parker. He was of that era.

Anyway, the summer I was 18, he had this regular three-nights-a-week gig. It was an organ gig – organ, saxophone, drums. And he’d say, “Why don’t you come down and play?” Of course, I was thrilled. I wasn’t getting paid, but these guys were top-notch players in DC. So I learned a lot playing with them. And I got my first taste of an organ group. I also really liked that record George Benson had done, Willow Weep for Me. I think it might have been Lonnie Smith on the organ. [LE: It was.]  It’s funny because it was on vinyl and I don’t even remember the cover. But that was the first jazz guitar that I heard and I thought, “That’s what I really like, what is that?” And the organ, too, the way it was in there. Needless to say, a few years later, when I met Joey DeFrancesco and he was looking for a guitar player, it worked out.

LE: As a teacher, you talk about the importance of musicians knowing how to sing the melody. Can you explain that a bit?
PB: There are a couple of things. Certainly, if you can’t sing, and I don’t sing well [coughs], you can still hear. The idea is that you can’t really play a song unless you know the entire song, which includes the melody. I think that educationally, in the 1970s and early 80s, I feel that what was being taught in schools was a lot of harmonic knowledge. Here’s the chord that you’re playing and the scale that you play over it, and that’s how you make it work. But, in actuality, if you take that approach every time, all of your music is going to sound exactly the same. And you really don’t want that.

If you know the melody, you know what the tune is about, and if you know the lyric –  especially if it’s a standard, you’re obliged to know the lyric – you know at least what the song is about. And if there’s a backstory on the song, that’s even better, because it informs how you would play it and what the song means to you when you play it. If you have a choice in what you play, and if you’re a leader you do, then you make your choice based on how you relate to the tune, and if it says something to you then you can actually create something with the audience in terms of the ambience of the tune. If you don’t know the melody and you don’t know the lyric, then there’s no way you can play the tune. So being able to sing it helps to solidify it in your mind.

LE: I’ve heard or read similar statements before, but mostly from older saxophone players, so you’re the first guitarist I’ve heard say that. It certainly makes perfect sense, even if a musician can’t sing.
PB: Absolutely, I’ve got this whole thing that I learned from a guy I studied with in Baltimore when I lived in DC. His name was Asher Zlotnik. When I studied with him, he must have been in his late sixties. He was pretty brilliant in terms of ear training. His whole thing was, if you can’t sing it, you shouldn’t be trying to play it. So he had me working on all these basic things in terms of being able to outline chords, outline harmony, being able to sing bass lines, and it helped my understanding of music as a language, and so I try to teach that to my students.

It takes a while to really have the whole thing come into play. I’ve found that most of the people I work with as a sideman have incredible ears. They have great pitch. The only way to develop that, if you don’t have that naturally, is to work on singing these different things.

LE: So when you hear someone playing something, you can think, “That’s an A-flat and I can play this with an A-flat.”
PB: Yeah, in a general sense.

LE: You’re a pretty busy guy.
PB: Fortunately, yes.

LE: That’s always a good thing for musicians. Is the Tuesday night gig at Smoke [in New York City] a regular thing?
PB: Well, it’s not really my gig. Organ player Mike LeDonne has been doing it for quite a while. He’s got a regular band that he uses, with Pete Bernstein, but Pete, of course, is very busy playing guitar with everyone, including Sonny Rollins, and a lot of time he can’t make it, so Mike will call me to come in. Since it’s about eight short blocks from where I live, I can walk to the gig. And I’ve been doing that a lot lately. That’s been nice. He’s had Vincent Herring playing alto saxophone, and a variety of drummers. McClinty Hunter, Rodney Greene, sometimes Joe Farnsworth will be there. It’s always fun to play with Mike. He’s another great organ player.

Paul Bollenback and Chris McNulty

LE: I’ve been aware of him for a number of years. He put out an album some years back that I believe was recorded live at Smoke. You also do gigs on your own and with Chris McNulty.
PB: Yes, we’ve had a…    Well, I should say, we’re married. I usually don’t put it out there just because, “Oh, it’s his wife,” or “That’s her husband.” We do quite a bit of work together. Chris just got done with a month-long tour of Australia, then went directly to ten days in Russia. I did a portion of the Australian trip with her and then we were doing a trio with Andrei Kardokov, a great piano player, all over the Eastern part of Russia, the Finnish area.

LE: For those folks who travel to New York, or elsewhere, where can they find out about your schedule?
PB: Best thing is to check my website, which just my name, Paul Bollenback, dot com.

LE: And if they can’t find your CDs in the local record shop, they can go there.
PB: Chris and I actually started our own small label. It’s not signing anybody, for all those hungry musicians out there looking for a label. We did it for us because we wanted some control over our product, and to be able to move it in the way we wanted. It’s called Elefant Dreams and you can link to Elefant Dreams Records from my website. You can order both of our CDs through that.

LE: Well, you’re at the Artists Quarter tonight. Starts at nine. Two sets?
PB: Nine and elevenish. The music is not ish, it’s very strong.

LE: It’s with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums.
PB: We’re having a ball. Lots of interaction. I mean we’re really stretching it out, playing a variety of tunes. Lots of standards. Makes the idea of rehearsing easier. We’re taking different treatments to them, different styles.

LE: And are you doing some of your originals?
PB: We may do some tonight. I brought some with me. Really, as a leader, I don’t plan a set. I know a lot of guys prepare a set list. Joey DeFrancesco never had a set list. We’d never know what he was gonna play – he’d just start playing and you better know the tune.

LE: That’s where that ear training comes in.
PB: That’s right. Gary Bartz was the same way, and Gary Thomas as well. We’d rehearse five or six hard tunes that he had written, and then he would never tell you what he was going to play. He’d just start and you jump on [chuckles]. I like it because it keeps it fresh.

LE: Let’s close off with something from your albumDouble Gemini.
PB: That’s my second album. It came out in 1997. This particular tune, “Open Hand,” was written here in the Twin Cities when I was playing at the Hotel Luxeford, it was probably 1996. I had such a nice time. People were so nice that I just wrote this tune. So this has a relation to your town. It features Joey De Francesco and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums.

LE: Thank you so very much for stopping by. I understand you’re off to do some recording now.
PB: Yes, something having to do with the Peterson dynasty, but first, breakfast. More coffee.

Lila Ammons: Fulfilling a Musical Heritage

April 22, 2012

Twin Cities vocalist Lila Ammons has a rich musical heritage. Her grandfather was Albert Ammons, the famous boogie woogie piano player, and her uncle was Gene Ammons, whose big, soulful sound on the sax was a mainstay of 50s jazz. Lila studied classical music and performed in operas, recitals and oratorios throughout the United Staes and Europe before turning to jazz and blues. Though she’s lived in the Twin Cities for about fourteen years, she spends much time touring Europe. She and vocalists Vicky Mountain and Dorothy Doring have performed together as Sisters in Song. Recently, Ammons has begun to sing around town with a quintet, and is now getting ready to release a CD. This lightly edited interview took place during my radio show, Rhythm and Grooves, on April 7, 2012.

LE:  You grew up in Chicago and actually started out in classical music.

Lila Ammons: It was very much a big part of my family. My dad was really into oratorio singing and opera and when I was a child. He used to listen to Ezio Pinza and all these Italian tenors.  I used to plug my ears and think how could he stand this, you couldn’t even understand the words. Actually, it was all early training. I think they were trying to steer us into a different direction, because they recognized our musical abilities. The last thing they wanted was for us to follow our uncle and grandfather’s footsteps into the sinful world of jazz and blues.

LE: How long did you take classical training?

LA: Let me see, I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, Masters at Manhattan School of Music, and then I spent 12 years pursuing big track opera.

LE: How does the classical training help you in singing jazz and blues?

LA: I would say from a technical standpoint, it’s given me longevity, because I know how to take care of my instrument, and that’s very key.

LE: How did you make the decision to go from classical music into other genres?

LA: (Chuckles) It was something that was secretly in the back of my mind. I had started singing R&B in Junior High School, much to my mother’s dismay. She was very unhappy about that. I was a classical pianist and violinist. Did that for 12 years. Studied in Northwestern’s Prepatory School for piano and was in the orchestra for 8 years as a violinist. I then went to college and totally got out of music for the first two years and then I was beckoned back to music. The conservatory there was stressing classical, so I got caught in the stream with the other trout. (hearty laugh)

Of course, my parents were very, very happy about that, but I still wanted to go to California and still wanted to be a studio musician, but they were like, no, no, no, got to New York, we know more people there. So I ended up at a conservatory and got caught up in it, but in the back of my mind I was very curious about this heritage that I had recently discovered. I had started in the background doing some research about my grandfather, and really discovered who he was and then located people like Barney Josephson (Ed note: Owner of Café Society in NYC) and John Hammond – just on a fluke, because I had found a book in an old used bookstore on West Broadway in NY, and I recognized the name from an album my dad had of my grandfather’s.

And from there I started making phone calls and in the back of my mind I was thinking, by age something, this, this, this. If this doesn’t go there, that’s okay because I want to look back into my heritage. And so in a way I had a master plan. I fulfilled the classical thing for my parents. My mother passed away and I felt I could do my own thing at that point.

LE:Tell us about your heritage, in case folks don’t recognize the name Ammons.

Lila's Grandfather, the boogie woogie master.

LA: My grandfather, my dad’s father, was Albert Ammons, who was a pianist, born in 1907. At the early age of 17 he began to became a noted boogie woogie player. He, along with a couple of others, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis became the Boogie Woogie Trio. They were picked up by John Hammond, the famous impresario. He discovered Billie Holiday and all kinds of people. He brought them to New York City and presented them at Carnegie Hall at the Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1938. The concert had all kinds of luminaries, including these three, and they became wildly successful, and went on to perform at Café Society. That was another very interesting place in musical, and political, and social history. That place was a hotbed of a lot of things. (Ed note: It was the first integrated nightclub in the United States.) My grandfather also had his own group, the Rhythm Kings, and then he went on to do lots of great things.

LE: He was very well known. And then one of his sons was Gene Ammons, one of my favorites. A big toned saxophone player.

Uncle Gene "Jug" Ammons.

LA: One of a kind, one of a kind. In fact, from Chicago, at 17 he was one of the lead tenors for Billy Eckstine, along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. That band was a hotbed of early bebop. It was the early incubator for bebop.

LE: How did you come to be touring Europe so much?

LA: I’m now involved in an international tour with a German pianist who is a specialist in boogie woogie and classic blues. Through a whole bunch of circumstances in 2007, the two of us came together. I put together a concert in celebration of my grandfather in 07, and brought together a lot of incredible early heritage players including Butch Thompson, as a matter of fact. I had this concert in Chicago commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Albert’s birthday, and after hearing me sing a tune, Axel Zwingenberger, the German expert, invited me to join his tours in Europe, so I’ve been doing that for four years now.

LE: The lead-off cut on your upcoming CD is an old Helen Humes hit, one of those songs that was blending the boundaries of jazz and blues at that time.

LA: Absolutely. Bee Baba Lee Ba. Jive Talk (chuckles)

LE: As you went about producing the CD, how did you choose who would be on it?

LA: The producer is Michael Wimberly, he’s a fantastic percussionist, travels around the world, produces documentaries on different instruments. I went to school with him years ago, and we’d wanted to do a project together. He’s worked with a lot of people. I called him up one day and said, Hey I want to do this project, and told him what kind of stuff I wanted. We talked about this for a year and he hand picked people that he knew that he thought would be perfect.

Houston Person

LE:Who’s on the CD?

LA: Well, on tenor sax was Houston Person. I’m just so honored that he was there. He comes from that Gene Ammons/Ben Webster kind of school.

LE: Smooth and big-toned.

LA: Yeah, so that worked out so perfectly. We have James Wideman on piano. He’s worked with Joe Lovano, and Kevin Mahogany and lots of folks. A gentleman named Onaje Allen Gumbs, (also on piano) whose name is maybe not as familiar to people, but he’s played with Buster Williams, Betty Carter, Nat Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Woody Shaw – lots of folks. A Sweet sweet sound. Leon Dorsey has played bass with Dizzy, and Jon Hendricks and lots of folks. Steve Williams was Shirley Horns drummer for 25 years. Another nice sweet sound. Then we have Nioka Workman on cello, that’s Reggie Workman’s daughter. She’s doing all kinds of things with India.Arie and Kanye West. We have Marvin Sewell on guitar. He plays with Cassandra Wilson, David Sanborn, and he’s got his own thing going. And Michael Wimberly does percussion.

LE: You said you had some ideas on the kind of music you wanted to record. What did that involve?

LA: I thought about tunes that I really loved. I have such a broad number of influences, from Joni Mitchell, to Pete Seeger, the Isley Brothers. I was influenced by so many different sounds. So I chose some contemporary tunes – I was really into the Jazz Fusion era – I’ve got Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and a George Duke tune, “Love Reborn,” that Flora Purim did with him, but I’m doing it in a totally different way. Then I’ve got some swing, one of which is my uncle’s tune, “Close Your Eyes.” I did some ballads, “If You Could See Me Now,” and “The Nearness of You,” one of my signature tunes, and “Nature Boy.” And then I’ve got some Brazilian, which I love. It’s in final production, packaging, and all that right now.

LE: It will be released sometime this summer?

LA: Hopefully, hopefully. Fingers crossed. (laughs) Lot of factors are involved.

LE: Who is in your working quintet when you play in the Twin Cities?

LA: Dean Brewington is on sax. He knew my uncle. Dean was my very first friend here. I moved here 14 years ago from NYC. We actually ran into each other in a parking lot. We hit our cars – ran into each other (laughs) At Groth’s music store. (more laughter) So thank you Groth. Then I’ve got Tim Zorne on drums, and a young pianist, Ted Goddbout, a fine young pianist. We have Ben Kelly on bass, who will not be with us tonight, so we’ll have Jim Chenoweth – a lot of people know him.

LE: You mentioned playing in Europe a lot. How do the audiences there react?

LA: As I said, there I’m specializing in early classic blues – Bessie Smith, Georgia White, and Helen Humes…  Europeans still have a love and appreciation for that music that goes beyond belief. They remember that and come up to me, often in tears and recount stories about the first time they heard Albert and during the war when they heard this and that, and where they were when they first heard it and how much they appreciate my being there. I’m so grateful that I’m there to receive this for him! Somehow it’s out there and transmitted to him what he’s done to touch so many people.

Mickey Murray – Soul Journeyman

February 4, 2012

Mickey Murray on stage at the Cedar Cultural Center. Photo by Ben Clark

In some ways, the story is familiar. A promising artist is signed to a major label, but the label is sold, or the signing agent leaves the label, or another act’s hit overshadows the new act, leaving the act without a champion or the support of the label. The promising act gets sidelined, goes back home, and either retires, or continues as a journeyman artist.

Mickey Murray’s story has some of that narrative, but it is also unique. Murray had already had a million-selling hit, Shout Bamalama, a song written and originally recorded by Otis Redding in his pre-Stax years. Murray was then signed to King Records, which was looking for an artist to bolster their lineup since James Brown was about to leave.

It was 1968. Soul music had captured the hearts and feet of American teenagers, and quite a few adults. Murray’s dynamic performance of Shout Bamalama resulted in him opening for Aretha Franklin, performing at the Apollo, and touring with Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, and others. It also made him a contender for keeping King Records on the charts. He signed with them in 1969 and recorded the album, People Are Together.

The title song was to be the first single, released in 1970. When the song was taken around to taste-making black disc jockeys around the country, they wouldn’t play it. The lyrics, “Take a pinch of white man, wrap him up in black man,” were too provocative for the time. Deejays were afraid of being fired by the white owners of their stations.

King Records was sold shortly thereafter. The new owners lost interest. Too bad. The album is a solid performance of funky music, occasionally lightened by the smile in Murray’s voice. Murray’s rasping voice and the album’s solid arrangements simply epitomize Southern Soul.

With no backing from the label, Murray accepted his fate. He returned to his hometown (North Augusta) and continued to perform. The album eventually achieved legendary status among soul music fans, going for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.

Then the crate-digging owners of the Minneapolis indie record company Secret Stash got involved. Their specialty is limited-edition vinyl releases of forgotten gems, many from other countries, and a few funk ‘n soul numbers from the United States.

In January they re-issued the album in vinyl, their specialty, and brought Murray, who is now 73, out of retirement to perform at the Cedar Cultural Center. Backed by a six-piece band, which included Secret Stash owners Eric Foss on drums, and Cory Wong on guitar, Murray performed with passion, vigor, and excitement. Murray would often take some unexpected turns as he got into each song, repeating words or phrases, to create tension and release, and calling for solos from the band. It was classic soul. His enthusiasm and energy was contagious, to the delight of the audience, many of whom weren’t born when he recorded.

Mickey Murray backstage with a fan - DeeJay Father Time . Photo by Ben Clark

Afterwards, he regaled fans and friends with stories of being on the road. I had a chance to talk with him in the Cedar’s green room. Still excited over the performance and his reception, Murray’s words tumbled out and around as he humbly talked about his background and his involvement with Secret Stash.

LE:  When did you first realize that music was going to be an important part of your life?

MM:  Music has been in my life ever since I can remember. Me and my brother Clarence started out in grammar school singing gospel music. Then we started singing around Augusta, and North Augusta. Then every summer when we’d get out of school, when I was in high school, our manager would go down to Brunswick, Georgia, and set up a house for the summer for us. And we’d work out in the different rural areas like Saint Palmas Island, Jacobs Island, Jacksonville, Florida, Saint Augustine, Florida. Come out through Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. Every summer.

LE:  How old were you when you were doing that?

MM:  I was in high school, so I’d say I was fifteen, yeah.

LE:  When did you switch from singing gospel music to more secular music?

MM:  In 19…  59. Mr. Raymond Dean, the band teacher at Jefferson High School took an interest in me. He had a band that was practicing…  School was out for the summer, and he would take a band down there two or three times a week, and practice them. And he liked me and he’d come by and pick me up, and take me down there and practice me up. Since I’d been singing gospel, I didn’t know nothin’ about these type songs. I didn’t know how to set the tempo, I didn’t know how to do this, do that. He explained everything. And then one day, he told me, he said he had a man (ed note: Sam Gantt) interested in me, and he told me he wanted me to come down to school at night and go through my little routine, and I saw this man in the corner. And when I got through doin’ my thing, he begged for me to come over, and when I went over, he didn’t even introduce himself to me. He said, “You wanna sing with a band?” and I said, “Yeah.” From there I went with the Zippers band.

LE:  The Zippers?

MM:  Yeah. They’re the band that played behind me on Shout Bamalama.

LE:  When you went with the Zippers, did you tour with them for a while?

MM:  Oh! I went with the Zippers in ‘59, and by ‘60, ‘61, they had us on Broadway. We was on Broadway, for.. Really I don’t know because I was so young, time didn’t matter. I didn’t keep close check on it. I know that we was up there for a while at the Times Square Hotel.

LE:  You were playing at that hotel?

MM:  Yeah, and then from there, me and my band, during the football season, we’d play at after-parties at Georgia Tech, Emery, all down through Alabama, Tuskegee, all the time. And then we’d play all the military bases at least once a month. Then we’d play at Fort Gordon. When we was in town we’d play that every Wednesday night.

LE:  And were you actually from Augusta?

MM:  I’m from North Augusta. See, North Augusta and Augusta are back to back. Augusta’s in Georgia, and North Augusta is in South Carolina. James Brown would call it Georgialina.

LE:  How did the opportunity to record come about?

MM:  Oh, from Miss Carter. I think her name was Mary Carter (Ed note: it was Blanche Carter). She wrote a record before I come along… a big hit, Devil or Angel. I’m not sure of the group, I think it was the Moonglows.

LE:  I believe it was the Clovers.

MM:  The Clovers. Yeah, yeah. My manager took me to her house to audition and she liked me. She told my manager Sam that she wanted to take us to Macon Georgia, and introduce us to Bobby Smith. Bobby Smith is the one that I believe produced Otis Redding in the beginning, a long time ago. She took me up there to introduce me to Bobby Smith, and ah, I did an audition for him, because she had a song that she wanted me to do. When we got to the audition, Bobby Smith told my manager and told her that he didn’t have nothin’ for me at this time. But he would be getting back in touch with Miss Carter later on.

Later on, I don’t know how long it was, I don’t know a week, month, a year, cause I was young, and not keepin’ up with time. Anyway, one day my manager called me and said, “Bobby wants me to bring you to Jacksonville, Florida – you and the Zippers, and he wants you to cut a record.” I got down there and he had Shout Bamalama. I told him I didn’t like Shout Bamalama, and I wasn’t gonna record it. (laughs) We got to talkin’ back and forth and I said, “Well my drummer, that’s his song. Let him sing it. That’s what he sings every night.” Smith said, “I don’t want him to sing it, I want you to sing it.” So, I wouldn’t agree with him, and he told my manager, “Talk to him, talk to him, talk to him.” Sam took me out, and we walked up and down the sidewalk, and everything, and I come to an agreement to do it. And I said, “Well I don’t even know the song,” and they went and wrote the lyrics on a blackboard. I ended up reading them off the blackboard.

LE:  So you had a big hit. You traveled around, opened for a bunch of folks, and then King Records wanted you. What label was Shout Bamalama on?

MM:  SS International – Shelby Singleton’s label.

LE:  After you did the record for King, and couldn’t get it played, what did you do?

MM:  Forgot about it. I didn’t really hold no grudge, or hard feeling toward King, the recording company, cause I would have done the same thing if I couldn’t sell the product and couldn’t get nobody to take it or present the product. There wasn’t nothin’ for them to do but back away from it.

LE:  Did you continue to perform?

MM:  Oh, hell yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

LE:  Did you try to get any other record contracts?

MM:  Well, I cut a couple of things, you’all got it up here too. I did a thing with a friend of mine John Peterson. We produced the thing together, in Nashville Tennessee. Then in ’88, me and Tony Cook, a drummer for James Brown, did Teenapopper, for London. I did Marvelous for London. I got a couple of other things… Ahhh, I did Full Speed Ahead for London. I got a couple of other things.. Sometimes I forget.  Another song is It’s Too Hot in Here. That was by James Brown’s bongo player. I did it with Tony and we did pretty good with it.

LE:  You said earlier that you hadn’t been performing for a while.

MM:  I got into the church. That’s a good thing. And I started singing in the choir. I sing at weddings, birthday parties, family reunions. I do that every now and then, but I don’t put on a show. At a birthday party I might go up there and sing a couple of songs, you know. Sing a song here and later on sing another song. But that’s about it. I ain’t been out there like I did tonight back to my old thing.

LE:  What did you think when Secret Stash contacted you?

MM:  I told them no, I wasn’t interested. I told them I was retired, enjoying myself. I love working in my yard. I love working in my little garden. I love going to church, and I love fussin’ with my wife (laughs). I told them I’m really satisfied. I just wanna keep my wife happy and I came home, and I’m used to her and enjoying her and wasn’t interested. But he (Eric Foss) kept on calling, and then he started sounding convincing. At first I said I got tired of messing with a bunch of crooks (laughs), but then he convinced me that he was straight. Then Will (Gilbert) started calling and started talking with me, and it become like a family thing and we became real close. They started calling every day and I looked forward to them calling and enjoying it. I told my wife, “I don’t know why but I really do enjoy them. They seem like they’re some straight people, and I ain’t seen none. They’re the first straight ones I’d seen.”

On stage with Eric Foss & Cory Wong of Secret Stash Records. Photo by Ben Clark

LE:  It certainly seemed like you enjoyed yourself on stage tonight.

MM:  I really did, but I always enjoy performing. My thing is, when I perform, I put it in me, I feel it. When I sing it and I feel it, I know somebody else got to be feelin it. I put in all the energy and if I don’t feel it, I don’t expect for you to feel it. When I’m on stage, singing, and dancing, and doin’ my thing, and see people smilin’ and clappin’ their hands and pattin’ their feet…. Oh man, that’s my reward. I’m happy as I can be

LE:  Thank you very much for your time.

MM:  Thank you.

Johnny Otis, Godfather of Rhythm and Blues

January 24, 2012

The Blues Saloon Interview– September 9, 1984

Johnny Otis, the bandleader, singer, drummer, vibraphonist, songwriter, talent scout, producer, club owner, disc jockey, preacher and impresario passed away last week at the age of 90. He was rightfully called the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.”

He was born Johnny Veliotes in 1921,  the son of Greek immigrants. His father was a grocer in the black community of Berkeley, California, and as a teenager, Otis decided he’d rather be black. In a 1991 interview with the Sand Diego Union-Tribune he explained his decision, “When I got near teen age, I was so happy with my friends and the African-American culture that I couldn’t imagine not being part of it.”

Otis’s first hit was a 1946 big band version of Harlem Nocturne, a moody number featuring a film-noirish saxophone. Here’s a YouTube recording.

The drummer/vibist was a big fan of the Basie sound, but discovered, like so many other big band leaders, that the market wasn’t supporting sixteen piece bands after World War II. He pared down the band, added electric guitar, hired some singers, and became a leading proponent of a new type of music – rhythm and blues.

Along the way he discovered an amazing number of performers, often through talent shows at the Barrelhouse Club. Artists like the Robins (who morphed into The Coasters), Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, Big Jay McNeely, Etta James (who also passed away last week), and others owe a large part of their careers to working with Otis.

Otis was also a songwriter, with a number of hits on the R&B charts of the early 50s, including Every Beat of My Heart, which was originally recorded by the Royals (who became the Midnighters), and was later recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips. His biggest hit was Willie and the Hand Jive the throbbing 1958 rock & roller. Here he is performing the tune on his TV show.

Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a producer and songwriter.

I was lucky enough to see Otis twice. The first time was at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in 1973, where his revue included Cleanhead Vinson and the great Joe Turner. Even from a far-off vantage point, his delight in showcasing the musicians was evident. In 1984, he brought the Johnny Otis Show to Wilebski’s Blues Saloon in Saint Paul, where I was able to get a short interview with him before doing my radio show later that night.

LE: How did you come up with the idea of presenting a revue, with a number of different acts?

An old poster, found on the blog Guitar Snob

JO: I was always impressed with the variety show method of presenting acts. That is like at the big Orpheum theater with a girl singer, and then a vocal group and a tumbling act. I liked that because of its variety. And then the minstrel shows had a lot of fun, and a lot of blues and a lot of boogie, and a lot of comedy. And when I got in a position, I got my first hit record, I said I’m gonna try that, cause I have a feeling that the public likes that, and I did it in a blues context, a blues jazz context.

LE:  That first hit, was that was Harlem Nocturne?

JO: Yeah

LE: Didn’t you have some of Count Basie’s people playing on the session?

JO: Basie was always paternal, and he knew how much I loved him and he always helped me. He gave me arrangements out of his book. He loaned me his men, like Preston (ed note: Preston Love, alto sax) and I were childhood buddies but he was playing with Basie at the time. Eli Robinson, the trombone player. Jimmy Rushing, the singer, he loaned them to me to make a record date. But you know I though all those elements were going to make me a hit, and they didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. It was Harlem Nocturne that made the hit.

LE: Wasn’t that was something that you had to pull out of the air, because you had extra time?

JO: You know, it was my first record date, and when we finished the three sides I had prepared I said, Hey, Rene (ed note: Otis Rene, label owner) we’re through and we have twenty whole minutes left. He said, “Wait a minute, what do ya mean.” I said we did three sides in quicker than four hours. He said, “No, it’s four sides in three hours, so hurry and get out there and do something else.” So we had that in the book, and we recorded it and it was just a happy accident.

LE: Your R&B revue has served as a proving ground for a lot of young artists and a lot of people who’ve become stars. How did you find the folks that you used in the revue?

JO: Oh, Little Esther (Phillips) I found in my back yard in Watts. I was the Chicken Man, and she used to come and help me catch chickens. One day we were laying under a tree sipping some lemonade, after she’d caught the chicken sfor me, and she started singing. It just shocked me, so I took her to my club, The Barrelhouse, that night, and she won first prize, and I wrote a song, we went to the studio and recorded it and she became a hit.

Etta James I found, my manager called me one afternoon. We were in San Francisco and he said there’s a girl down here wants to sing for you. I told him “Tell her to come tonight.” She grabbed the phone and said (imitating her), “I want to sing for you now.” She came up to the room with two other young ladies, and she sang and it was so pretty I took her home with me and we recorded Roll With Me Henry, it became Dance With Me Henry and was a great hit.

And then one afternoon in Detroit we did a talent show at the Paradise Theater, and during that show I found Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and the Midnighters (See previous post for a Hank Ballard interview), and a lot of other marvelous acts, but you couldn’t record them all. Big Mama Thornton I found in Texas, and Ernestine Anderson I found in Los Angeles, and Linda Hopkins I found in Oakland, California. I, I remember them pretty well right now, because we’re about to do a big reunion, a Johnny Otis Reunion at the Monterrey Jazz Festival this month, on the fifteenth. I had all these people signed and sadly, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton both passed away. They won’t be with us, but all the rest of the people will be there.

LE: So you’re just continuing the process of keeping the traditions alive and finding new talent.

JO: I was involuntarily retired for ten years, because the music died out. That is, the music will never die out. The demand, the commercial demand for it dried up. And then, about a year and a half ago, it got good again, so we all got together, and we’re all traveling, and I’m really thankful to be back in the game.

LE: I’m aware, personally, I’m a little bit younger, of three, rather four phases in your career, I guess now. One was the hit of Willie and the Hand Jive.

JO: 1958

LE: And then there was the record of the Monterrey Jazz Festival

JO: 1970 – fourteen years ago

LE: And then there was the series of albums that you’ve done with people such as Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan.

JO: Yeah, Louis Jordan, Cleanhead Vinson

LE: How did that come about?

JO: Well, I had a recording studio. I had just built a fine studio. In fact, Columbia built it for me, and I thought, “Look at my old partners, living here in LA, and nobody’s recording them.” So we made records and I’d supply them with records and they go out and sell them on their gigs. You know, records keep you alive, and it was thrilling for me to word with Cleanhead Vinson and all those great men.

LE: Well, it’s good to see you back recording again and on the road again.

JO: It’s good, I’ve got my son Shuggie Otis, and Nickey Otis with me, and Miles with the West Coast Drifters, and Preston Love and Charles Williams, and Barbara Morrison and Delmar Mighty Mouth Evans. We’re having some fun

Kelley Hunt – Born To Be A Musician

December 12, 2011

Phone Interview – November 30, 2011

Sing Out, Sister

Kelley Hunt is a piano player from Kansas City who has been gaining fans the hard way, through touring. Her piano playing is out of boogie woogie by way of rhythm and blues, with a touch of blues bravado. Her singing is charged with the fervor of gospel (a nod to her gospel singing grandmother), and more than a match to her ferocious piano playing. As a songwriter, Hunt eschews victimhood and addresses social issues, the need for independence and being true to one’s calling. She has earned praise from daily papers and musician’s mags, and has been on Prairie Home Companion a number of times. All in all, the combination of her talents has helped her build a strong fan base in the Twin Cities, where she’s been a regular visitor for the last few years.

Hunt was in town recently to play at The Dakota Jazz Club, her second appearance there in as many years. As a prelude to her appearance, she kept busy calling the blues-oriented program hosts at KFAI. Though I normally host a jazz show, I happened to be subbing for Harold Tremblay, a long time Hunt supporter, on his House Party show, and was fortunate to talk with her. This is a slightly edited version of that talk.

LE: How are you doing this afternoon?

KH:  I’m doing really well. I’m happy to be on the planet, looking forward to coming to Minneapolis, and really enjoying my day.

LE:  You’ve developed a large fan base here in the Twin Cities. I would bet the KFAI phone number is on your speed dial.

KH:  (Laughs). Fortunately, for me. I love KFAI. You guys play such cool, eclectic, interesting music, and I’m honored you play my music. I really appreciate that.

LE:  Well, we’re excited that you’re coming to town and are going to be at the Dakota this coming Friday and Saturday. I’m sure you’re planning a great show for us.

KH:  I sure am. I’m flying my whole band in from LA and Nashville. We had such a great time last time, we could hardly wait to get back. It’s perfect timing for me. I’m excited to be there.

LE:  Before we get into the new album, just to give folks a bit of your background, what was the earliest memories of music for you, especially those that got you interested in a career in music?

KH:  Well my earliest memory of music is hearing my mother’s voice. Besides the fact that my mom used to be a singer at one point in her life, she sang to us a lot when we were kids. I mean, this woman can sing. It wasn’t just humming little tunes.

The hub of Kansas City Jazz Photo by Diallo French

The other thing was, all of the music that my parents and my older brother and sister played in the house.Everything from Kansas City Jazz to blues, to New Orleans music, which is part of my family heritage, to things that my siblings brought home. – Motown, Howlin’ Wolf, great songwriters, Bob Dylan, juicy stuff like Ray Charles… I just was steeped in that from the moment I hit the planet.

LE:  And at what point did you decide that this was something you were going to do for a living, as a profession?

KH:  I feel as though I was born a musician. There was never a time in my memory, as far back as I can remember, when I was really little, that I wasn’t drawn to music, that I wasn’t singing. I started playing piano by ear when I was three. And I started composing my own little songs when I was in kindergarten. It was never a question in my mind. I felt like that’s who I showed up as. It brings me so much joy, and always has that I was fortunate to live in an environment where I was supported in that train of thought.

LE:  What a blessing.

KH:  Completely

The New CD

LE:  Over the course of your last few albums you have become more and more focused on your songwriting. In the new one, Gravity Loves You, you talked about the idea that whatever direction people feel pulled in, that’s what they should do. That sounds a little like what you’ve experienced.

KH:  It’s exactly… It’s exactly what I’ve experienced, and I think that all of us have that pull. It’s just a matter of being aware of it, and also, taking that leap of faith, and jumping into what makes your heart beat the wildest. I think you’re absolutely right. It’s part of who I am, but I think it’s part of who we all are, really.

LE:  It seems that sometimes society puts barriers in the way of jumping towards the things that give us the most passion.

KH:  it can, it can. I think we have to be brave, and we have to be very strong in our convictions, and be able to focus on what it is we want, and to make the best life for ourselves that we can because, I don’t know about you, but I really love to see someone who’s passionate about the way they spend their time, whether they’re a doctor, or a sculptor, or someone who plays music on the radio. I mean it just lifts me up as a human being to witness that in someone else, and I think everybody benefits when we’re living out dreams.

LE:  Certainly, the way you’re living your dream comes out in the joy of your performance. Let’s talk a bit about Gravity Loves You. This one, as you’ve done with a number of your CDs is recorded in analog, not digital.

KH:  Correct. There’s really only one CD that wasn’t done completely in analog, and that was the live CD, Inspiration, that came out in 2000. I’ve always been drawn to that sound, using two inch tape. Not only warmth in the sound of it, but the immediacy of the performance. I love live performance, and when I go into the studio to record, I love to have all my musicians there at the same time. As much as possible, and play that song together, and feel it, and feel the pulse of it. I sit at a piano and I sing at the same time, while I’m playing, because I think that gets to the root of the song. For me, I’m certainly not against recording digitally, and I think it makes a lot of sense when it’s appropriate to do so, but I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to tape. I just like the kind of delicious, rich quality – the sound quality of it. I’ve done both and I think good music is good music no matter how you record it, but I’m so happy that I’ve had the opportunity to do that.

LE:  What can we expect from your show this weekend?

Like an enthusiastic audience

KH:  Well, you can expect that my full band will be there, and we’ll be playing songs, no only off of Gravity Loves You, but some selected songs off of the previous four CDs. The thing that I most love about playing Minneapolis are the audiences is they’re such great music audiences, you know what I mean, and it kind of brings us to life as performers. I mean, we’re going to be there 110% no matter what, but it just gives us that extra layer of… chocolate (chuckles). Jump up there and really go all out for people. They can expect, hopefully, a great time and the goal is for people to leave feeling great – better than when they got there.

LE:  Sounds like it’s going to be great fun. I know you have many fans here. Harold often gets requests for your music when he’s doing his show – even when you’re not in town

KH:   That’s wonderful, I’m thrilled

LE:  It’s so terrific that you support KFAI and recognize the passion that everyone has. It’s a mutual admiration society. Thank you so very much for calling in.

KH:  Thanks so much. Thanks to your listeners, and thanks to KFAI.


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