Tower of Power Interview

August 21, 2018

East Bay Grease – Tower of Power’s first album

If you think You Ought to be Having Fun, even though the phrase You’re Still a Young Man (or woman) no longer fits you, but you know What is Hip, and you want to go Down To The Nightclub to get a Soul Vaccination, than you should head to the Soul Side of Town. That’s the name of the album that Tower of Power released in June to celebrate their 50thAnniversary. It became their first Number 1 on Billboard, debuting atop the charts for both Jazz Albums and ContemporaryJazz Albums.

Downbeat says of the album ” this 50th-anniversary recording affirms the trademarks of the meticulous 10-piece ensemble: a razor-sharp horn section of distinctive saxophone drama, versatile lead vocalists, song titles demanding the listener join in the fun and just enough variety to avoid predictability.”

Here’s a cut.

Tower of Power is popular enough to sell out two gigs a night during four-night stands at the Dakota each year. They’ll be appearing at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday and Friday, August 23rdand 24th where you can see them on the Leinie Lodge Stage. I had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with founder/leader Emilio Castillo a couple of weeks before their appearance. The following version of the interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

When you first thought of the idea of having a band what was your inspiration? What made you want to do that?

(Slight chuckle and pause) Well, I got caught stealing a t-shirt. My dad told me, “You’ve got to come up with something to keep you out of trouble or you’re never coming out of that room again.” Well, the Beatles had just come out and I said, “I want to play music Dad.” We started the band that day, and then we learned how to play. We did it completely backwards.

How did you recruit nine other people to be in the band?

Well, when I started we were just a little four-piece and started playing rock n’ roll. It wasn’t until we’d been playing for a couple of years that I really learned how to play and started to get into soul music. I saw this band called the Spyders, and they had a horn section. The next day I hired a trumpet player, that was Nick Gilette, and I got addicted to horn players. Next thing I knew I had five horns. (Editors Note: Steve “Doc” Kupka, baritone sax and co-writer with Castillo of the band’s songs, joined the band on August 13, 1968, which is the date the band notes as its beginning.)

You’ve managed to keep a strong horn section for over 50 years. Congratulations on that as well as a great rhythm section. How is it you’ve managed to stay so tight, when there’s been a number of personnel changes over the years?

You know, it was a trademark for us when we first started. Like I said, I was patterning us after the Spyders, and that was their signature, they were soon tight. So back in the day, that’s what we always did. You’re going to stop it on a dime, you’re going to start together, do these things just really tight. We’ve been doing that for so many years. Now, we play so much that we keep it tight.

It is unusual for such a large band to last so long. What do you attribute that to?

These days, I tell everybody that God did it, I just showed up. For the first half of my career, I made every mistake possible known to man. God got my attention, I sobered up, we started praying together, and things have been better ever since. The other thing is, we make the music exactly the way we want it to be. We stopped chasing trends years ago. We went through a little period about ten years into our career where the record company was trying to get us to change the way we sounded. They wanted us to sound like other bands. We tried to do that, but always sounded like ourselves, and for a while, thought that was a curse, but when things dried up for us, I told the guys, let’s just make the music the way we make it. As soon as we did, things got better. We realized it’s not a curse that we don’t sound like other guys, it’s a blessing.


The Tower of Power Horns have a long history of providing background for many other artists. How did that come about?

Early in our career, we got a call one night from Nick Gravenites, who was a singer for Big Brother& The Holding Company. He used to do a lot of gigs with Mike Bloomfield, and we used to play with them a lot. He called us up and said, “What are you doing? We’re over at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco.” This was the middle of the night. He said, “Why don’t you guys come over. We’ve got a song that would sound good with horns.” We went over there, and made up some parts, it sounded good. We walked out and he gave us some money. We were like, “What’s this for?” And he said, cause you came over. A couple of months later, same thing – middle of the night, Carlos Santana calls. We knew him. We’d played lots of gigs with him, and he said, “We have this song, Everybody’s Everything, and think it would sound real good with horns. Why don’t you guys come over to CBS Studio and let’s see what we can do.” And we did, made up some parts, and within a week it was on the radio.

It was a big hit, and everybody’s going “Wow, Santana with horns, who’s that.”  Word got out and before you knew it, Elton John was calling us, and we were just playing with everybody. There’s a lot of guitar players, billions, but there’s probably only five horn sections in the world. We happened to be five-piece, and tight, and people like it.

Now you have a brand-new album that debuted at # one on some of the charts as soon as it came out. It’s a great album. I’ve been a fan since the early days, and to me it’s very classic, yet has some modern touches. How did that come about?

The band, from The Soul Side of Town

It took a long time. You know we’re a working band. So we have to go in and out (of the studio), but the last three years we worked on it the most. We did two albums. We have one waiting in the wings. It’ll come out in about a year. I worked with Joe Vanelli, who produced all those great records for his brother Gino Vanelli over the years. He’s a skilled producer and engineer and he pushed me on every level – harmonically, rhythmically, and technically. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made in my career.

It really fulfills, all the way through. How many of the songs are in your current show?

We’re doing four songs right now. We usually do two a night.

You play that song, Diggin’on James Brown. I have to tell you, there’s a high school here in the area with a big R&B band that plays that tune, so your inspiration is an inspiration for young people today.

Yeah, you know that’s become a big song for a lot of bands. There’s a lot throughout the world. There’s a lot of bands that are Tower of Power clone bands that take my song titles to name the band. There’s a band called Soul Vaccination, and another called Souled Out, one called Soul With a Capital S. They all play Diggin’ on James Brown. And then there are marching bands, large stage bands, and jazz bands in high schools and colleges that are also working up our arrangements, so that’s been really nice over the years.

You mentioned that you’ve enough for another album. How long will we have to wait for that?

Well, we’re still touring behind this one. At least a year I would say. We also recorded a live DVD and CD. On June 1stand 2ndwe celebrated our 50thAnniversary in Oakland and we filmed that in HD. When we get off this particular leg of our tour, I’ll go to L.A. and work on that for a bit. Once we get the mixing done on that we’ll do the video editing, and come out with a two-disc package, so we’ve got a lot of stuff coming out in the next couple of years.

I sure appreciate your taking time for this interview and am looking forward to seeing you on the Leinie Lodge Stage at the Minnesota State Fair.

I appreciate it. God Bless. Bye Bye.

(Editor’s note: To close, and just for fun, here’s a classic instrumental from the band)

Russell Malone: Being Himself

June 24, 2016
Russell Malone between sets

Russell Malone between sets

Self-taught guitarist Russell Malone has a very clean, elegant style, and is equally at home playing ballads or swinging. When he was in his 20s, he joined the band of organist Jimmy Smith, and went on to join Harry Connick Jr.’s big and. He then worked with Diana Krall during much of the 90s and early 2000s, appearing on three Grammy winning albums with her, as well as on Roy Hargove’s Grammy winner Crisol, and on a couple of albums with pianist Benny Green. Malone most recently appeared in the Twin Cities with Ron Carter last Fall. He’s released a dozen albums of his own since 1992, all of which have been well received.

As part of the 2016 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Malone will bring an all-star quartet to Mears Park on Saturday, June 25th, at 6:30pm — Rick Germanson, a frequent visitor to our town on piano, Luke Sellick on bass, and acclaimed drummer Willie Jones III. I had a chance to see Malone and his quartet during the 2015 Jazz Cruise, where he was sitting in with a number of groups in addition to leading his own. He was gracious enough to grant me a few minutes time in between sets. This is a lightly edited version of the interview.

LE: What was your very first musical memory?

RM: Growing up in the church, hearing church music. That was the first music I heard before I got into jazz. My mother had records by groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, and just hearing the people in the church sing those songs. It was very moving music. Not sophisticated, but very moving.

LE: What drew you to the guitar?

RM: Hearing the gentleman in my church perform. This old man, that I never got to meet, but I saw him (regularly). Keep in mind that I already had a love and a fascination with music. Even at the age of 4 years old I was aware of the different types of emotions and feelings and reactions that you could get from people through playing music. I was aware of that, which always fascinated me. You could play music and you could connect with total strangers. Somebody you don’t know would hear you and then they laugh, they cry, you get these different types of reactions. That’s so powerful.

The gentleman brought the guitar to church, and I was fascinated by the way that it looked, going to church one Sunday and seeing it perched against one of the pews. This interesting looking object that was totally foreign to me at the time sitting there perched up against the bench, And then there was this cable that extended from the guitar into this box, which was the amplifier. The whole getup was just so fascinating, and then when he started to play and I heard the sound and knew that whatever I was thinking musically, or feeling musically, that would be the vehicle that I would use to express those thoughts or feelings. That’s how I became fascinated with the instrument.

LE: You’ve talked about being a young man and transcribing and playing other people’s solos to learning how to play chords. How did you know you had a sound that was yours?

That’s a good question. I think everybody has their own voice, their own identity. They may not know that when they’re younger, but when you’re younger you want to be validated and you want to be liked. I’ll use myself as an example. There was a period when I felt I needed to play certain types of songs and play things a certain way because I wanted the approval of other people. I wanted them to like me.

After a while, this happened when I reached my mid-thirties, I came to the conclusion that no matter how much I loved my mentors like Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and all the people I grew up listening to, no matter how much I loved them, when it came to being Russell Malone, I’m the best there is. No one can outdo me at being that.

It’s kind of like getting to the point of realizing your parents aren’t perfect. You don’t have to make the same choices that they made. You don’t have to like everything about them. You don’t have to like everything about your heroes. That doesn’t mean that you don’t love them or respect them, but you don’t have to make the same choices in life that they made. That same thing applies to music. You find yourself on stage with some of the guys you came up listening to, like Kenny Burrell or George Benson, if you’re on stage playing with them, what are you going to do, play like them or play like you? Nobody wants to hear that.

LE: How did you know you had reached that point where it was your sound, where it was distinct from others?

RM: Well, once I realized I didn’t have to make the same musical choices, I learned to accept myself. You have to accept yourself warts and all. If anybody else doesn’t like it, that’s not your problem. You can’t let that be your problem. You have to let that be their problem.

LE: Were you doing things in terms of the use of your instrument?

RM: Just playing like me. Just accepting my sound. I’m never going to sound like those guys. You have to accept that. I’m never going to be them, but I am going to be me. I’m the best there is at being me.

LE: Thank you very much for your time. I know you have a full schedule here on the ship.

RM: My pleasure.



Regina Carter. A Life Journey in Music

November 14, 2015

imagesRegina Carter may be the most popular jazz violinist playing today, having recently won the 2015 Downbeat Reader’s Poll for violinist. As a youngster, Carter played in the youth division of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and took master classes from both Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. Carter moved to New York City in 1991 as a relative unknown, and got work accompanying such artists as Aretha Frankly, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, and Dolly Parton. She played with Max Roach and Oliver Lake and toured with Wynton Marsalis in his Blood on the Fields tour. In 1995 she released her first album as a leader, and since then has released eight more, including one with pianist Kenny Barron.

Paganini's Violin

Paganini’s Violin

In the early part of the new century she was invited to Italy to play a concert using Paganini’s Violin, made in 1743 and bequeathed to the city of Genoa. Carter was the first jazz musician and the first African American to play the instrument. Afterwards, she released an album of classical music entitled Paganini: After a Dream. In 2006 Carter was awarded a MacArthur Fellows Program grant, which is often called a “genius grant.” The awarding committee noted her mastery of improvisation, and her wide range of musical influences. Carter has released a series of albums that reflect her journey in life: Motor City Moments, an homage to her hometown; I’ll Be Seeing You, a tribute to her mother; and Reverse Thread, a collection of modern and traditional songs of Africa.

Her latest release is Southern Comfort, which explores the music of her grandparent’s South. Her grandfather was a coal miner in Alabama, and she takes on music from the coal-mining world of the Appalachia’s, which she discovered through research at the Library of Congress. There she searched the field recordings of renowned folklorists such as Alan Lomax and John Work II. The album includes tunes such as Honky-Tonkin’ by Hank Williams, and traditional songs such as See See Rider and Miner’s Child. While researching her personal history, she did some DNA testing and discovered that she is part Finnish, which will undoubtedly provide her with more potential material.

I was able to talk with her in January of 2015, when we were both on The Jazz Cruise. The following is a slightly edited version of that talk.

LE: As I understand it, violin was not your first instrument. How did you go from piano to violin?

RC: Well, piano was accident. I had two older brothers and they were both playing piano. The oldest played piano and trumpet and the next oldest one piano and clarinet. They said that one day I walked up to the piano and started playing one of the pieces my brother had been practicing. The teacher was there and said “How does she know that? Who taught her?” They were shocked and said they didn’t know I could play. So she tested me and found out I had a gift to hear music. So my mom enrolled me in piano lessons. But… I like to create, so I never learned my lessons. I’d go in and say “Here’s a tune I wrote.”

LE: How old were you at the time?

RC: Two (chuckling)

LE: Oh my goodness

RC: So my teacher said, “Let’s take her out of lessons. Let her create her own, I don’t want to kill her creativity. When she gets older, maybe I can come back.” Then when I was four Suzuki (method of teaching) was offered for the first time. She called my mother and said told her to enroll me in Suzuki violin because they teach by way of hearing first. She thought it would be great for me. I fell in love with violin, the whole method, and here I am today (laughing) a hundred years later.

LE: You learned classical music first. How did you go from European classical music to jazz?

Carter's homage to her home town of Detroit

Carter’s homage to her home town of Detroit

RC: In high school, my best friend Carla Cook, who’s a wonderful singer, and I met in ninth grade, and we sat next to each other in Spanish class. She’d come to school and talk about Eddie Jefferson and Miles. She was a big Eddie Jefferson fan. I had no clue about who any of these people were. So she’d bring records of Stephane Grapelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Noel Pointer, and that was my first introduction to this other music, other than European classical music.

LE: As played on violin

RC: Yes, and I was thinking, “Wow, you can do this on violin? Well count me in.” (more laughing)

LE: At the show last night you mentioned Stuff Smith (a pioneer of jazz violin). Are there artists before Stuff Smith that you learned about?

RC: Well yeah. When I was doing research there was Papa John Creach, even out of the South there were a lot of slaves playing the fiddle for entertainment. Even doing the research for my latest record, Southern Comfort, I was learning about those artists. It’s just been part of the music, the evolution.

LE: Once you started to play jazz, was there anything different about technique, or the way you thought about music, from the European classical approach?

RC: Every genre of music is like learning the slang of your own language for a different language. If you want to fit in, you have to learn that slang. So I just had to learn the slang. I’m still trying to learn it. It’s a little bit different vocabulary, and the way you approach it, so I had to really listen and try to learn the way they pronounced words and the pattern of how they said it. So I approached it just the way I learn a language.

LE: The albums that you’ve put out have all been somewhat thematic: one with your Mom’s favorite songs; one for your hometown of Detroit; one for Africa. Now you have Southern Comfort. Is there a particular reason you take that approach?

I'll Be Seeing You is filled with some of her Mom's favorite songs

I’ll Be Seeing You is filled with some of her Mom’s favorite songs

RC: In the beginning, when I was signed to a label, I wrote most of the music for the first album and most of the second. That was on Atlantic, and when I signed to Verve, my A&R guy said, “No, we don’t like your original music. It sounds too much like the music that was on Atlantic.” They thought that theme records gave the publicity department something to work with. Then, I took about a year or so off, after I got the MacArthur grant. My mother died right before that, so I had a lot of life changes, and asked myself, “What do I want to put out? What do I want to say?” So I guess the theme records are my journey, trying to figure out who am I? Why do I play? What am I doing here? Because, I think we all have a purpose here.

LE: You mentioned the MacArthur grant. What did that allow you to do? It has no strings to it, as I understand.

RC: That was really hard to accept at the beginning. (laughing) I though what? No one ever just gives you anything. In the beginning it gave me time off to maybe mourn and to figure out what is it that I really want to do, without anyone telling me what I really have to do. That’s really powerful. And… I think that’s when the search really started, so that’s what my music, and my records, look like now. I’m finding out (the answers).

NOTE: This is one of the songs on Southern Comfort

LE: On Southern Comfort, you looked back at some of the music your grandfather heard, was there anything that was particularly surprising that you discovered?

Southern Comfort, Carter's latest release.

Southern Comfort, Carter’s latest release.

RC: What I discovered was that some of this music I thought I had heard, maybe it was something form my grandmother. I didn’t know my grandfather. He died before I was born. So I when I went back to (my grandmother’s) house with my grandmother and all of her sisters, and we’d just be thrown in a bed with a bunch of our cousins. No bathroom, just an outhouse. So it’s a really different way of living. Someone, not necessarily my mother or grandmother, would rock me to sleep at night, and they’d sing these songs. So some of these things I’d hear, and I’d think, I know that. But then we’d travel and go to Europe and people would say, we know that song. All kinds of cultures came (to the United States) and migrated to the South. That’s what make up the Appalachia sound.

LE: Now are you moving on to another project?

RC: I’m trying to dig in deep now with this Finnish part, to see if I’m really Finnish. If I am, then I want to check out that part of my family.

LE: There’s some pretty amazing Finnish music. Lots of fiddle music.

RC: Oh I know, I know (laughs)

LE: Well, thank you so much for your time.

RC: Thank you.



Rhythm is Rhythm: An Interview with Percussionist Scott Horey

March 17, 2015

UnknownDr. Scotty Horey (B.A., M.M.A., D.M.A.) is a Twin Cities  percussionist, drummer, who has performed nationally and in Central and South America as a solo percussion artist. He currently teaches and lectures at the UofM, Morris, is Principal Percussionist of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, and the drummer for RisingSide, a Minneapolis progressive rock band. Horey will be performing at Studio Z on Saturday March 21, accompanied by Bethany Gonella flute; Trent Baarspul, guitar; Ted Godbout, keyboards; Karen Kozak, electric fiddle; Douglas Brown, bass; and Charlie Engen, drums. What follows is a slightly edited version of a brief interview we conducted over lunch one afternoon.

You are a solo percussionist. Most people would think in terms of a drum kit, but you do more. Please explain.

I think of myself as a solo percussion artist, so I play a lot of drum kit and marimba. A marimba is a pitched percussion instrument, like a xylophone, but its bigger. It’s pianistic and I find that with those two instruments I can express myself.

You have a show coming up.

The show is called Signs of New Vitality. I have some original compositions and some other pieces featuring some of my colleagues collaborating with me. It’s Saturday March 21st at Studio Z (Ed Note: 275 East Fourth Street, Suite 200, Lowertown Saint Paul). You can see Jazz at Studio Z (Ed Note: The Dave Hagedorn Quintet) at 7pm and then my show at 10pm. You can get discounted tickets to go to both shows.

What kind of music will you be presenting?

Well, it’s my music, original pieces or pieces I choose by other composers. I describe it as a mix between, contemporary classic, progressive rock, and jazz fusion music.

What do those types of music have in common?

A lot of people ask me that. Hopefully it gets cleared up after attending one of my concerts. As a percussionist you always play a variety of styles of music. Over the yrs you learn how to combine. For me those styles completely express myself. My compositions take components of each style. I love the dynamic and rhythmic approach of jazz, and the forms of the tunes. Progressive Rock has a little more aggressive edge to it, with a drier and more aggressive drum sound, and maybe some simpler harmonies. Classical music has more elaborate pre-written parts as well as some counterpoint. I have a classical flautist playing on the project. I’ll also perform some solo marimba pieces that fit in the musical.

One style of marimba

One style of marimba

Do you compose on marimba?

I try to sit down at the piano. I play at a very basic level, which forces me to play simple harmonies, but most of it comes from rhythms, which I get from the drums – rhythmic ideas and odd time signatures. Then I like to find harmonies on the piano. And then the flute of course is one of my favorite instruments. I can usually hear flute playing in my head.

How does it work to express yourself in solo performances?

I do consider myself somewhat of an individualist. I feel like a very reflective person, and enjoy solitude. I enjoy spending time with myself, whether on my yoga and meditation practice, which is part of my music practice, or just the simple act of enjoying the sound of my instrument late at night by myself. That informs my inspiration. It’s kind of my personality type that transmits when I’m on stage. I love being on stage by myself. I can tell people my story. I think that sends a lot of emotional power. It makes it even more exciting when I collaborate with other musicians, which is part of this show.

You’ve done some shows in South America. What is it about those shows that, though you may not be able to speak to an audience vocally, you can communicate with your music?

That’s one of the reasons I play instrumental music. I love instrumental music and I want to say, with Latin America in particular that I love the culture and I feel at home in Latin Amrican culture. They really value emotional expression and are warm and love music. Love watching a new performer and have a high degree of appreciation for it. I think because my music is really sentimental, very open hearted, and there’s a lot of grooves and rhythms to it, it works very nicely and the LA audiences enjoy my performance.

Even though you aren’t necessarily playing Latin American rhythms.

Right. I have a lot to learn about that. Rhythm is rhythm is rhythm, whether you’re in India, the United States, or South America.

Horey on Marimba

You can find out more about Scotty Horey at:

For more information about the show, go to:

Strength and Independence: a 1986 Interview with Lesley Gore

February 28, 2015
A young pop star

A young pop star

Pop singer Lesley Gore passed away on February 16, 2015. She was sixteen when she reached number one in the charts with It’s My Party, which was followed by a number of other top 40 hits, including You Don’t Own Me, which reached number two on the charts, just behind the Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand. Later in life she received an Academy Award nomination for co-writing Out Here On My Own for the film Fame. She last performed in the Twin Cities at the Dakota in 2010.

About twenty-eight or twenty-nine years ago she made a memorable appearance in the Twin Cities at a somewhat unusual venue. Donaldson’s, a long-gone department store, was opening up a beachwear department in their location at Southdale Mall. To celebrate and publicize the event they brought in Gore to perform in one of the mall’s inside courtyards.

Though at the time it had been about twenty years since Gore had broken the Top 40, Donaldson’s had made a good move in bringing her in, as the place was packed. A large portion of the audience were women who had come of age with Gore’s hits, many of whom had daughters with them as well. She was wildly received.

The grown-up Ms Gore

The grown-up Ms Gore

Afterwards, fans lined up to get her autographs on 45s, LP covers, and pictures. For about 45 minutes, she graciously welcomed them and signed her name. Finally, she was able to take a few minutes to talk with me. What follows is a lightly edited version of the interview.

How did you get your start?

I made some demo tapes which Quincy Jones heard, and Irving Green, president of Mercury at the time, asked Quincy to record some sides with me and one of those sides was It’s My Party.

How did you like working with Quincy?

Very much. Basically we had our first hits together and he really taught me a lot. He’s a fabulous producer and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to work with him.

How did you go about choosing songs?

The Hits

The Hits

We listened to songs. I had first pick as to what I wanted to record, and occasionally Quincy had something that he felt strongly about. It would be more of a negotiating thing. When we heard It’s My Party we both knew we wanted to play that.

Did you get any sense that 20 yrs after recording it, little girls would be singing it?

No, as I said before, if we’d known it was going to last 23 years, we would have taken care of the trumpet clinkers at the end. You know, there are some bad mistakes on that record, but the spirit was there. No, I didn’t know it would last for 20 years

What is it about that song that appeals? I noticed lots of little girls singing and dancing to that one. I asked a couple of them and they said, “That’s my favorite song.”

I think at that time, and it may apply to young girls today, most of the songs were about girls and guys and a girl wanting a particular guy. There was no room for a girl to be independent and say what was really on her mind. The strength and independence of It’s My Party is something that I know I enjoyed singing for that reason. At sixteen I related to that song very strongly for that reason, because a lot of things did go wrong and it gave me an opportunity to sing about those things.

Strength and Independence comes out in You Don’t Own Me. I saw older women singing along to that.

Vehemently singing along.

As a song, it was stronger in its declaration of independence. How did you come to record it?

An anthem of independence

An anthem of independence

That was written for me by two guys from Philadelphia who literally kidnapped me at a resort in the Catskills and threw me into a cabana near the pool and played me the song. I said “This song is great!” I told them “You’ve gotta be in New York on Monday and play this for Quincy” and that was that.

I know it’s been a long day for you. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

You’re welcome, it’s been my pleasure.


Note: Rocker Joan Jett recorded You Don’t Own Me for her debut album as a solo artist in 1981. In 2012, the song was used in a PSA with commentary from Gore, to encourage women to vote. On a lighter note, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn sing it in the closing sequence of the 1996 movie, The First Wives Club, as seen below.



More Than Just The Drummer in the Band: An Interview with Chip White

February 23, 2015

Chip-White-300x246On one hand drummer Alan “Chip” White is the epitome of a sideman, performing and recording with dozens of artists, yet he is a composer whose songs are more than vehicles for his drumming, he writes lyrics, and he has published a book of poems about jazz musicians whom he admires. White has performed and/or recorded with a wide variety of artists, from Chet Baker, Claudio Roditi, and Jimmy McGriff, to Savion Glover, Irene Reid, Tom Waits, Etta Jones and Houston Person, who he’s been with since the early 90s. He’s also released five albums as a leader since 1994, with artists such as Robin Eubanks, Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, Wycliffe Gordon, and Renee Rosnes playing his original tunes.

His latest CD, Family Dedications and More, is another album of strong, melodic compositions coupled with a CD of poetry. White has written each song in honor of a musician or family member, and then uses the song as a background for the short poem he’s written for that person.

I first met Chip when he appeared with Houston Person at the Dakota in Minneapolis a few years ago. Since then he’s sent me copies of the albums in his Dedication series, featuring songs and poetry. Recently, I met him on The Jazz Cruise, where he appears each year with tenor sax player Houston Person. We sat down for a few minutes in one of the ship’s bars as he talked about his background, meeting Houston Person, his poetry, and his music.

How long have you been drumming?

Well I got started when I was a kid. I was born in Manhattan (1946), uptown in Harlem, and my parents moved to Peekskill when I was small. My father was a marching band drummer. He worked in a hospital but was very much into rudiments. His brother, my uncle, was one of the best snare drum champions in New York. As a kid I started following them, and when I was nine years old, my dad asked “Do you wanna play with us? If you do you have to practice an hour every day. I’ll be your teacher and when I’m your teacher I’m not your father.” I said okay, and it took me about two, two and a half years, where I got to the point I was playing well enough to start playing parades with them. I made $15 a parade, and we were doing three or four a weekend, and the next thing I had a bank account, and I was eleven years old. I said this is a good start.

How did you get into jazz?

I wasn’t into jazz yet. I’d heard some Miles, and I heard a little Coltrane and thought wow. I didn’t not like it, or like it, it was just different. I was into R&B. I came up with Little Richard, James Brown and Motown. I loved that, but the more I listened to jazz, the more I got deeper and deeper into it. The other music was nice but just seemed to stay there. This kind of grew.

An early discovery in Chip White's jazz education

An early discovery in Chip White’s jazz education

I had a great music teacher in high school. We had a big band and he turned me on to Clifford Brown. I said “How come I never heard of Clifford Brown?” and he told me he died in a car accident. Then he gave me a copy of Monk’s Dream, so I started getting into Monk, I was a senior in high school and he took us to hear the Basie Band at the World’s Fair in 1964. That was the band with Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Thad Jones. Later I played with Benny Powell, and Frank Wess, and I studied composition with Frank Foster, which was one of the things that helped me.

Then we had a band in high school under the direction of our music teacher, and we had to join the union, which was funny cause we were 15. We started playing all these union places and the union man came around. He said, “You guys sound good but you have to be in the union,” so we joined, which was even better for us. I was playing with my music teacher and his father, and then started getting calls from the union guy.

Did you study jazz drumming in particular?

It’s a completely different style of drumming than parade drumming. I was good at parade drumming, and almost didn’t want to give it up but realized if I wanted to play jazz I needed to study. After my father taught me all he could, there was a local guy who was a real good jazz drummer. He was an excellent teacher and I studied with him for a number of years.

Then I went to Ithaca College for a year and realized I didn’t want to be a classical musician. It was good, though because I had to study piano. Then somebody told me about the Berklee School of Music, where I studied with Alan Dawson. In the meantime I had heard Coltrane with Elvin and McCoy for the first time when I was a senior in high school. At that time I was really getting into it. I was fortunate to hear Miles and Monk, and Bill Evans. The good thing about living in New York is you don’t have an excuse if you don’t know what’s happening.

When did you start playing with Houston? How did that come about?

Kim & Marion. Working with them proved provident.

Kim & Marion. Working with them proved provident.

I met Houston somewhere in the early 90s. I had a rehearsal studio at the time. The lady I was with was a choreographer and we did a musical together. I wrote all the music and the libretto. We put in on in the East Village for about a week, but didn’t have the 250 grand to go off, off, off (Broadway). After working for a year on this show, directing the band and everything I thought, “Man, I’d like to be a sideman.” A friend of mine, Cecile Brooks, said, “Houston’s looking for a drummer.” It just so happens the next day some friends of mine, singers Kim Kalesti and Marian Cowings were working with Bill Charlap who wasn’t well known at that time. We did some school concerts together and Houston was on those concerts. So I said, I got your address yesterday and here we are on this gig, and he said, “Okay, well I’ll call you sometime.”

Really, about a week later he called me. His drummer got sick at the last minute. I had just gone up to visit my mom. They always say if you want a gig, leave town (laughs). I had gone to visit my mom and we spent the evening having dinner. The next morning I got the call, so it was only an hour (to NYC) so I got in the car and that’s how I met Houston and Etta Jones. Houston was playing brunches at the Blue Note, so that was the first thing I did. That was about 92 or 93. I started playing with them, and Etta Liked my playing and Houston too, so I joined the band.

Here’s a video of Chip with Houston Person back in 1993


Tell us about this series of albums you’ve released – the Dedication Series.

Chip's book, available as ann e-book or from Chip's website

Chip’s book, available as ann e-book or from Chip’s website

The way I got the idea was initially, I started writing lyrics to my own original music. One night I heard some words to my music. I went to the piano and put some words to it. They seemed to fit, so I knew a few good singers and they came over and liked it.  So I started writing the lyrics to my own music. Then I went to Japan for a gig at a private club for two months and started working on a book. I wrote a poem for Duke Ellington, and then Miles, and Bird and Trane. It took me about four or five years, but I’ve put this book together with poems for all these musicians. (Takes out book – I’m Just The Drummer in the Band)

Once I got the book, I was getting ready to do some recordings. I had an album in ’94 called Harlem Sunset, which was critic’s choice in Billboard when it came out. I was trying labels but nothing worked, so I saved up a little money to record. I thought, I have a composition for Duke, and I have a composition for Trane, why don’t I do series of compositions for them on one disc, and the poetry under the music on another. No one is doing that, I far as I know. So that’s when I came up with the first one, Double Dedication. I used an all-star band, Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond, Randy Brecker, Steve Wilson. I found out that if you have good music and have great musicians, you’re gonna have a good result.

Then I did More Dedications with Mulgrew (Miller). Unfortunately he passed away after that. I had Steve Nelson, who was on my first, Duane Eubanks. We did compositions for Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Bobby Hutcherson, Clifford Brown, also Milt Jackson. Milt Jackson was on one of the jazz Cruises, and I gave him his poem. About a month later he shows up at our gig – just a little club in New Jersey. I thought there’s a guy that looks like Milt Jackson, and it was him! He said, “I really like that poem,” and I told him it’s part of a book, so he said, “I’d like to buy that book.” So he got one of the first copies of the book and he asked me to sign it for him. I said to myself, “Well, I think I’m headed in the right direction.”

And the latest one, that you just released.

Yeah, I’m really fortunate, that came in at number 5 and now it’s number 4 this week. I hired a very good radio publicity guy. He does the same thing that a record company guy would do. You need that kind of guy.

Who are the tunes dedicated to on this release?

Chip's latest release, Family Dedications and More.

Chip’s latest release, Family Dedications and More.

It starts off with a tune for Houston, Blue Person. Then there’s a tune for myself – CW’s High Hat, and a tune called The Dance Spot. That was one of the pieces in the musical that I did, going way back. Some of the pieces are brand new, and some I’ve had forever waiting for the right circumstance to record them. There’s a tune Jobim and a tune for Elvin, who I heard with Coltrane. The rest are for my brother, Raymond’s Happy Waltz, and my father, and my mother, so it’s kind of historic. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to do this stuff, and I just spend as much time as I’m able at the piano and at the vibraphone.

Do you have more to write?

Well, the book is finished. My wife is an editor, and she edited it for me.

Have you done compositions for every poem in the book?

No, because there’s a hundred pieces. I do have more than 50 compositions that I’ve recorded on my CDs. I figure if I don’t play my own music, who else will. When people hear the tunes, they’re really hearing me.

You mentioned that you’re putting together your own group to perform.

I’ve been working around New York. I was fortunate to work at Dizzy’s a couple of years ago. I had five nights opposite Bobby Hutcherson, so I wrote a piece for Bobby. I might do something for Benny, I’m just kind of open, and trying to survive. I’m a New Yorker who is from New York. There are a lot people who come to New York, but there are a lot of musicians who came from New York – Max Roach, Stan Getz, Monk was from NY too. Benny Carter.

Well, this has been great. Thank you for taking the time to talk.

Thank you, Larry. I appreciate it.

For more information: www.chipwhite

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



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