For forty years, Bennie Maupin has played with the giants of jazz, starting with Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, and Marion Brown. A call from Miles Davis put Maupin in the line up that recorded his most earth shaking albums including Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), Big Fun (Columbia/Legacy, 1974) and On the Corner (Columbia/Legacy, 1972).
His instantly recognizable bass clarinet prowled the lower clef like a barracuda. After working with several Herbie Hancock projects, including his long term associations with the Headhunters, Maupin uprooted from NY to move to LA. While living a charmed life as a band member, his projects as a leader have been equally unlucky. The classic Jewel In the Lotus (ECM, 1974) has never been released on CD, and Manfred Eicher isn't returning calls. His two projects for Mercury in the late seventies are lost under the staggering number of buyouts involving Mercury's ever vaster parental conglomerates. Suffice it to say a used vinyl version of one of those albums, Slow Traffic Move Right (Mercury, 1976) is currently on eBay for $175.. 1998's well received tone poem on Intuition, Driving While Black, disappeared with its record company.
Now seeking to turn it all around, Cryptogramophone's Jeff Gauthier has released Penumbra, a gorgeous, accessible view into Maupin's current musical mind, an acoustic quartet that charms and challenges, and fully delivers on the promise of one jazz's living giants.
All About Jazz: How did you start playing?
Bennie Maupin: I played piano basically by ear when I was seven or eight. Some people had a piano at our house because they needed the storage space. They had migrated from the south. My parents had a house and we had enough space and they asked if they could leave the piano there. I learned how to play it to some extent. It was all by ear, but I just loved it. It was one of those old player pianos, you put the roll in there and you pedal it. That was my first act. After awhile I got so I could play things that I heard on the radio. Then they got a house and they took they piano, the piano was done, and the interim period between middle school and high school that's when I started playing clarinet. Then when I got to high school I wanted to change over because I thought I really wanted to play saxophone. The clarinet really gave me something that I needed. I didn't realize that till years later, some of the better saxophonists, they've all played clarinet.
AAJ: When did you pick up the bass clarinet?
BM: Not until I moved to New York. I played the Bb clarinet, and after a while I backed off on my classical saxophone studies. I felt I'd pretty much absorbed as much as I needed. I felt that I needed to polish some things I'd gotten from Larry Teal, and that's what I started to do. He taught me flute, and that helped immensely to put the energy into a different instrument.
As I said, Yusef Lateef was a big influence on my multiple instrument thinking. So, I definitely wanted to play the flute. He helped me translate things from the saxophone to the flute. I also went to the Detroit Institute of Musical Art and studied piano and harmony and theory and things that dealt with understanding how to compose. The bass clarinet didn't come until '65-'66, because I'd only been playing it two or three years before we recorded Bitches Brew. I was working on it all the time. I'd already heard Eric Dolphy. I met him when he and Coltrane came to Detroit. I had great opportunities to spend time with Trane and with Eric, just in listening situations. When you're really young, sometimes you don't need a lot of exposure to something because you can absorb so much of it so quickly. It's really about quality not quantity.
I only met Eric one time, but Eric gave me a flute lesson. They were there in Detroit for about a week. I went to see them every night. I always managed to find the money some kind of way so I could get in there, because I wanted to hear that music. Some kids were trying to get a pair of Nikes and go see the basketball game, I didn't give a shit about anything but being able to get in there, get my seat, get my apple juice, listen to this music. That's all I cared about.
AAJ: What was Dolphy like?
BM: He was beautiful to me. I tell people this story all the time. They played the most beautiful music. The first night the music was a complete shock to my system. It stimulated me so much, I came home after they finished playing and I couldn't go to sleep until the sun came up. I was in my bedroom and I was still hearing this music. My life was so buoyed up by what happened there. I'd never heard music like that before. I never knew people could play with that kind of energy before. I'd never been in a room where that happened. It transformed my way of feeling about what could happen. One night at the end of the night, John and Eric, they were standing there talking to people because there were always a lot of musicians around. I met John when I was 18, and I played with him when I was 18.
He'd come to Detroit, just kind of breaking through his thing, you know, left Miles, started his own band. He was a giant in a whole new venture with his own band, and he hung out with the Detroit guys that I knew. Guys all older than me, some of them had places where we'd have jam sessions, and Coltrane always came, whenever he was free. He'd always come out and drink herb tea with us and jam with us.
One night, I was down in the basement jamming. It was John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson, I think Charles McPherson may have been down in there, and I was in there and scared to death. But it was heaven. Cats were playing, and I was just enjoying so much the camaraderie. There was no competition going on, everyone was just playing a little bit. Coltrane was playing the soprano. He told me later, "I'm trying to develop something here with the soprano, I like it, but it's a real difficult instrument to play. I'm saying to myself, damn, after all the music I heard him play, he says it's difficult! Those things enabled me to have one-on-one contact with a lot of the really great players.
So, Eric was one of them this particular night. He came off the bandstand and was standing there talking to people, a couple of people were in line before me. By the time they said what they wanted to say, gave Eric his props and everything, talked about his music, asked him a couple of questions, it seemed like all the musicians knew each other and had friends in common that weren't even there. It was really deep; you think about it, there was no internet then. I came up to Eric, stuck out my hand, said "Hey, Mr. Dolphy. Told him my name, said I played saxophone and had started taking flute lessons. And he was holding his flute, and he just thrust it out at me and said, here, play something for me. I just took his flute. I'd just been playing a few months, I'm just learning key things you need to know about it. Eric Dolphy gave me a flute lesson for about 35-40 minutes. Showed me how to hold it. Taught me where to direct the air. Showed me how to roll it back and forth. Made me aware of the positions, and what to really listen for, it was amazing.
He was the most patient, generous person. He and John were like that. That's just how they were. I never asked John a question that he didn't answer for me. If he couldn't answer it, he'd point me in a direction so I could possibly find the answer for myself. He was a very analytical person. He always responded whether it was a musical question, or a question about something spiritual. He was deeply involved in a lot of serious things, in terms of the development of his own spirituality.
The evolution of that led to A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), and the incredible things that are so much a part of his great legacy. It was a wonderful night, being there at that time, meeting Eric like that. They played the rest of the week, and then I saw him again later when I moved to New York. I went to a place called the Half Note that was a really famous place. And the guys who owned it pretty much let John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins play there anytime they wanted. They could play weeks on end if they wanted to, that's just how it was, it was open. If John wanted to come in and work out some music for a couple of weeks with the band, it was cool. They loved it, man. And people would be in there every night. It would be packed.
This particular night I went, and John was there with Elvin and McCoy and Jimmy Garrison, and Eric came in. I said, "Oh boy, this is really going to be special tonight. And it was, it was magnificent. When I saw them, and they looked at each other, because they were absolutely best friends, it was like, "Oh wow, here comes my man. They went off into stuff, they played so much music that night people were just jumping up and down, and applauding, and shouting. It was like electrical in there.
Shortly after that he left, Eric went to Europe and of course, passed away. Those moments are golden moments for me, because I got to see these two tremendous human beings and unique musicians who had this very forward view of what music could be and they were challenging themselves constantly to reveal something that they were experiencing. It changed the way I thought about everything, not only music, but about life. It's a great thing to be born at the right time.