Gary Bartz has been active on the New York music scene and throughout the world since the '60s, working with such legends as Miles Davis and Art Blakey. To preface our interview, we began by a surprise phone call that I had arranged with Dr.Yusef Lateef, whom Mr.Bartz had not spoken with for some time. This set the tone for most of the following conversation. All About Jazz:
So I'll start out by asking you about your beginnings in music. Was it always the saxophone for you?
Gary Bartz: Actually, I was torn between the drums and the saxophone. But Charlie Parker just took my heart away, so I ended up with the sax, with the alto and always the alto from the beginning. When I first started I heard this music when I was six years old. So at that time, you don't realize what a tenor and what a soprano I didn't even know about a soprano but I didn't know the difference between the alto and the tenor, I just liked what Charlie Parker was doing, I liked what Louis Jordan was doing, so that's what I wanted.
AAJ: You never had a desire to play any of the other instruments as you got older?
GB: No. I mean, the piano, of course, but I think the piano should be taught in school just like mathematics, just like reading, writing and arithmetic. I'd say reading, writing, arithmetic and rhythm. But that should be a prerequisite, because then the quality of music in the world at least in the United States, would be much better, if everyone knew something about the piano and about music, they would know this is not good. Right now, there is so much music out that's not good, but no one knows the public doesn't know.
AAJ: Right. So of course, Charlie Parker was your influence. But from what I've read, you grew up going to shows on 52nd Street. Who else influenced you?
GB: Im not that old.
AAJ: Oh, I thought you were.
GB: (Laughs) No, I came to New York in 1958, and so 52nd Street was gone by then.
AAJ: But you hung out at Birdland.
GB: Birdland was definitely yes.
AAJ: So those shows, outside of Charlie Parker, who were some of the favorite people you were seeing, and maybe some of your more memorable obscure pairings of musicians of that time?
GB: Well, of course, Miles Davis span, but I and just speaking to Yusef brought back a memory of the first time I saw Yusef was at a cabaret down on the Lower East Side. And they used to have these cabarets, and you'd get a flyer. They'd put the flyers out with like rows of names of the most famous musicians, like three rows of names. And everybody wouldn't show up, but they had all these names. And so Chet Baker, Philly Joe Jones, Yusef, Red Garland, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, you know, just all and so you can't wait to go to see all of these people, because I hadn't seen a lot of them at that early age. I was seventeen when I came to New York. So seventeen, eighteen, my teenage years, I used to go see them. The first time I saw Yusef was at one of those places. The first time I saw Chet Baker and Philly Joe Jones, I saw them talking to each other, whispering in each other's ear, and I'm thinking, oh, isn't that cute? Later on I found out.
AAJ: Found out what they were talking about.
GB: ...(Laughs) what they were probably talking about wasn't so cute, but...
GB: because they got up and left and but as a teenager, you know...
AAJ: So your first big gig then was with Art Blakey?
GB: No, actually, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, yeah, 64, (Inaudible). Because I had met Max, and I probably met him in 1954 when I was about fourteen. My dad used to work on the railroad, but he owned a nightclub in the 60s, and he used to take me around to the different clubs in Baltimore, sit in and tell people, You know, my son plays (Inaudible) me up there. Unbeknownst to me, one time we went to see Sonny Stitt at the Comedy Club in Baltimore. And my dad had talked to Sonny and said, Well, my son, you know, he plays. And so Sonny Stitt comes out and says, Well, we have this young man that would like to come and which I did not would like to come up, you know (Inaudible) would like to come up and play. And so he called me up, and my dad went and had the horn in the trunk of the car. I didn't even know about all this. Anyways, so I went up and played with him. And being Sonny Stitt, he took me through all the keys on the blues. And fortunately for me, I didn't know one key from the other, I was just really ear at that time, so I didn't have no problem. So we struck up a friendship from that moment on. But yeah, he used to take me out, and finally bought a club in 1960, which is where I really met Yusef.
AAJ: How hard was it for you to find your own voice at such a young age, being with Max Roach?
AAJ: And not to say like, I am going to play the best Charlie Parker imitation I can play. Because a lot of people now that I see in New York, they can play the best Charlie Parker imitation you've ever heard
AAJ: but I'd rather just listen to Charlie Parker.