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Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety

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The story of bassist Lonnie Plaxico starts out like a classic tale. Local kid makes it out of Chicago’s projects by learning to play an instrument, finding himself, and making music his life’s work. He goes on to play bass with a Who’s Who list of musicians, including a long tenure with one of rising star vocalists, the dazzling Cassandra Wilson.

But nowadays, Part II of that tale smacks of cold hard reality. A sharp musician with a vision tries to get some acclaim with his own band. Without “star” appeal, the picture is clouded by a music industry that can be callous and often political, unmoved by talents that aren’t well-known names. And hell, the leader is a BASS player, no less – not standing out front with a horn. And then there’s that tag: Jazz.

Intimidating.

Disheartening, perhaps, but this superb bassist is undaunted. Plaxico is putting all his efforts into leading his own band, in spite of the obstacles; striving to bring his music out. And he’s making strides.

Plaxico is about to release a new CD, this time on a major label. Mèlange will be out in August. It features his working band, with some additional horns, and almost entirely own music. It’s his sixth recording under his own name, but the first for a major studio. It’s a big step, he says, in the long process of trying to gain respect and get a bigger public presence.

Plaxico’s sturdy bass has been adorning the music of a jazz greats since his teen years. At age 40, he’s still an in-demand bassist, but he wants to step forward with his own thing. If the CD is any indication, that thing is strong. It moves along displaying different influences, R&B, pop, funk, jazz. It’s accessible, yet very creative and funky. Not unusual from a guy who started out playing Chicago’s R&B circuit as a youngster.

“I never let go of the early influences,” he says. “So when I write I just try to put it all together. I’m not trying to recreate what happened in the 50s. I feel like nobody can do that anyway.”

He’s played with Von Freeman, Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, Dexter Gordon, Jack DeJohnette, Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie and many more. A sideman’s dream. But this bassist longs to be a leader. “If I could work my band, I’ll turn down any gig right now. I don’t care who it is. Even if it’s for a small fraction of the money I can make,” he says.

It’s a tough haul, though. He says that without big names in his band – and he insists on working with his regulars – it’s tough to get nightclub owners to give him a look, even if they know his name. And the bass is not a flashy enough instrument for them either.

Plaxico also blames some of the older musicians for staying too much in the old tradition, not being interesting to young audiences, and thereby being unwitting assistants to the problem of getting music out to the people.

“You’ve got to move ahead. I feel like jazz got killed. The musicians just try to hold on. And that’s not what the masters did,” he says.

So the struggle continues. But Plaxico is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. He says he has the patience and strength to do it. This new, vibrant CD could be a big stepping stone.

He says the music is highly arranged, but it moves and grooves from end to end. It’s tight, sharp and slick.

“When I write music I try to envision what I don’t hear people doing. To try to make it different. When people come and hear my group, they’re hearing me. They’re hearing something totally different than all the other bands that I played with,” says Plaxico.

Indeed, the CD is not straight ahead jazz. Bit it is NOT smooth jazz and an effort to get recognized that way. The songs are engaging and the band is very tight. It’s good stuff, with shifting rhythms, good solos and a strong concept. It may not be as daring as 1970s Miles that wanted to break away from tradition, but it’s a sweet CD. And don’t expect to see a lot of bass solos because the leader plays that instrument. He stays in the rhythm section, knocking out his strong sound with stellar technique. As he says, he doesn’t want just a platform for bass solos. He wants his music to speak. It does.

From a family of musicians, Plaxico started toying with the bass at an early age and is mostly self-taught. That includes learning to read music and arrange it. By the age of 12, he taught himself to play the electric bass and ventured into a music scene renowned for its mix of jazz, funk and blues. By 14, he was performing with prominent Chicago jazz figures. In 1980, Plaxico moved to New York and began to appear with major artists. His first extended gig was with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers between 1983 and 1986. He’s featured on numerous albums including the Grammy Award-winning New York Scene. In 1986, he joined Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition and stayed until 1993. His collaboration with Wilson spans 15 years, off and on.

Plaxico took time out to talk recently with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz (AAJ): How cool is it to be on Blue Note? It’s a much bigger label and there are not too many bass players out there fronting bands. Is that a big step for you?

Lonnie Plaxico (LP): Yeah. It’s a big step. I’ve been in New York for 20 years now and I’ve done five CDs on a smaller label. Being on Blue Note, I think, can get me the exposure to get me over the hump. Because a lot of festivals and a lot of jazz clubs – if you’re not on a major label, they pretty much don’t even look your way. So, I’m happy to be on Blue Note and presenting my music on that level.

AAJ: Seems like even some of the legendary bass players don’t have too many records under their own name. They’re sidemen, mostly.

LP: A lot of it is the nature of the bass, being an accompanying instrument. It doesn’t lend itself to being out front, like a saxophone. Also, I think a lot of time the record companies look more for the flashy instrument. Most bass players I speak to, they want to lead a band but [the bass] has stayed in that role for so long, it’s hard to break out. So to have the opportunity to write music and get it presented, to where you can work on it... if you don’t have a band, it’s pretty hard to do.

AAJ: The new CD, is that all original music?

LP: I did one tune by Tower of Power. [“Squib Cakes”]. All the other stuff is original. I did all the arrangements. I love writing music and playing different styles of music also. I mean, for me, it’s in my blood to be a bandleader. Not necessarily being out front, in the sense of, like, playing the melodies or whatever. More as a composer.

AAJ: There’s different styles on the CD. Funky, jazz... does that kind of reflect your background?

LP: That’s my background. I started out as an R&B musician in Chicago and I got into rock and different styles of music. Jazz was probably the last thing I got into as a teenager. I moved to New York and it was pretty much that way [jazz]. But I never let go of the early influences. So when I write I just try to put it all together. I’m not trying to recreate what happened in the 50s. I feel like nobody can do that anyway.

AAJ: Have you done a lot of arranging?

LP: I’ve done arranging since I was in high school with local bands, R&B groups. I always liked changing up stuff and trying to make stuff exciting for the audience. I love arranging.

AAJ: How do you feel about the CD?

LP: I feel good about it. I’ve been in a lot of bands in New York and I’ve traveled a lot and when I write music I try to envision what I don’t hear people doing. To try to make it different. When people come and hear my group, they’re hearing me. They’re hearing something totally different than all the other bands that I played with. I try to write and present myself with what I think – when I play with other people — a change from what they’re doing and try to envision all that stuff in my own music. Along with the stuff that they might do.

AAJ: Do you feel like you pulled that off pretty well?

LP: I’m feeling very confident in what I’m doing. I know there’s still a lot of places to grow in, but I feel like I’m making an attempt to not just go along with the jazz program. Just straight ahead, like traditional. I’m trying to get where I have a lot of variety in music and try to bring in the younger audience also.

AAJ: That’s your regular working band [Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor sax; Jeffrey Haynes, percussion; Lionel Cordew, drums; George Colligan and Helen Sung, keyboards] with some extra horns [Tim Ries, sax, and Lew Soloff, trumpet]?

LP: You have, like, the all-stars and the guys that’s coming up. [The latter group] are gonna be the musicians that’s on the gigs, the basic gigs that don’t pay a lot. So my way of supporting them is also to use them on my CD as much as I can. The industry is so political, if I want to have a gig in a major club, they will not let me use those young guys. So I feel like, I need to help them as much as I can to get their names out there, because it’s not a friendly atmosphere in the music business when you just come to town. Promoters, they don’t want to hire any new musicians that you have. They want you to get the all-star group. Most people who are an all-star are trying to do their own band, so they really don’t want to play with you either. They’re frustrated because they can’t get their own gig. Unless you’re on the gig. So, I mean, it’s crazy.

Festivals, I mean, they’re more concerned with who’s in the group than the music. If you get band of all-star musicians, the music suffers.

AAJ: You started young.

LP: Yeah. I started professionally when I was 14.

AAJ: When did you pick up the bass, as a real young kid?

LP: My older brothers were musicians. They had a band. They stored the instruments at my parents’ house, so I used to sneak and play the bass guitar when I was about 10. This was in Chicago. I grew up in the Projects. Back then, most people played an instrument. So it was no big deal to see a kid 10 years old or 12 years old who could play. So they would just tell me, ‘Leave it alone.’ It was not like: ‘Wow. You have musical talent. I’m surprised.’ I mean, that was normal back then. And so, my brother would hit me, ‘That’s not your instrument. Leave it alone.’ But then my parents, when I was 12, they noticed I kept sneaking to play the bass, so they got me one for Christmas. And that’s how it was. That’s the only thing I’ve done in my life is play music.

AAJ: Mostly self-taught?

LP: Yeah. When I got into the acoustic bass, in Chicago, I took some formal lessons with Steve Rodby – he plays with Pat Metheny, he’s from Chicago – and a bassist named Larry Gray, and another bass named Bill Yancy. But it was nothing really extended, because I already knew how to play music. They were, like, fine-tuning me and turning me on to different things.

AAJ: Did you take training in school?

LP: No. Pretty much self-taught. But like I said, I had people around me, always there to offer help in any way they could. I was very lucky. Because some people, they just opened up to me. I could name hundreds of people, who have tried to inspire me or help me in any kind of way they could.

AAJ: So your early playing was based on what you heard growing up, R&B and that kind of thing?

LP: R&B, which is a good method. When you play in an R&B band, it’s not about reading music. You have to remember all the Top 40 songs by the weekend. Then you play in a social club, or in a lounge. But you had to play everything that was on the radio, note for note. It was not about reading music. Today, a lot of young musicians don’t have that opportunity. They go straight to college. When I work with a lot of young musicians it’s hard to communicate with them on certain levels because they only have a formal education, so they can’t relate to certain things. They’re great musicians, but they missed out on a lot of live playing.

AAJ: They can’t think on their feet.

LP: Yeah.

AAJ: So you were out there playing as a young kid professionally.

LP: Yeah. That’s the way everybody used to do it before me. It’s not that way any more. There’s no clubs for music anymore. The younger generation, they are into the rap music and the sequence. So the band era is pretty much over.

AAJ: At that time, in Chicago, bands were pretty common?

LP: Yeah. Every block in my neighborhood had a band, playing in the basement or in the garage. So it was battle of the bands in high school. On TV you saw live music. There was no video. Everybody could relate to a drum set or guitar or keyboard. Today, people relate to rappers or a DJ or a dancer.

AAJ: You didn’t go to any other training in college or anything like that?

LP: I went to college for three weeks. I knew from Day One that I was reliving my high school experience, which was terrible. The music department was terrible. I was already working and I didn’t think that school had anything to offer me. It was like an extension of my high school. I just made up my mind. I said: OK. I’m going to quit anyway, so do I want to spend three more months going here, or just do it now? So I just quit. And my parents, they understood. I came to New York with Wynton Marsalis two years later.

AAJ: How did you get into the jazz thing and how did you get in with Wynton?

LP: A friend of mine told me that Wynton was looking for a bassist. So I sent him a tape and he told me to come to New York immediately. That was like Christmas Day of 1981. I was married at the time, with a kid. I had to tell my wife that I had to go there. I split. I didn’t split and leave her with the baby. They came with me eventually. From there I went to Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie,

I met [saxophonist] Steve Coleman in Chicago when I was in high school, cause he’s from Chicago. I was roommates with Steve Coleman at the time I was playing with Wynton. So I was in two different worlds of music – one guy that was kind of traditional and one guy trying to break all the rules. So I was exposed to a lot of stuff.

AAJ: Prior to getting that call from Marsalis, were you into jazz?

LP: Yeah I was playing with [venerable Chicago sax stalwart] Von Freeman for about a year in Chicago. I was about 19 when I was playing with Von Freeman. And I was still playing R&B gigs. There was a singer in Chicago by the name of Oscar Lindsey and it was a supper club, gigs he would do. I did that for about a year. Herbie Hancock used to play with him, and Jack DeJohnette. He was like an old timer in Chicago. He passed away maybe five years ago. A Billy Eckstine type of singer. Immediately, I had to learn hundreds of old standards. So I got a lot of experience playing with singers when I was there. Chicago has a lot of traditional jazz there. Before I came to New York I already knew a lot about the traditional music. I was into the Oscar Peterson trio and Ray Brown.

So when I came to New York, a lot of older musicians were surprised that I knew all of the old standards. I used to work with older musicians. Coming to New York, I used to pride myself on knowing old songs. I would challenge older musicians on what they knew. I’d ask them if they knew this song. And they would do the same to me. And if I didn’t know it, I would write it down and learn it. Because in Chicago, you get pulled off the bandstand if you didn’t know a song. I mean real quick. They take you off the bandstand. So you better know your music and songs. Or pick it up real quick.

AAJ: Who were your musical influences in those young years?

LP: Everybody. Edgar Winter. Rare Earth. Earth, Wind and Fire. Kool and the Gang. The O’Jays. I listened to everything. Santana. The first record I ever bought was “Black Magic Woman.” I must have been 10. Then a friend of mine turned me on to Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus, and I started getting into jazz and learned the history. Return to Forever was one of my first big jazz influences. It was fusion, it was funk and everything. It was closely related to what the teenagers were doing, cause nobody was trying to play Coltrane when I was a teenager. Nobody was doing that at all. Like the teenagers are today, because they pretty much don’t have any music other than rap. So they’re going to be into jazz, traditional jazz, or something. They’re more prepared for knowing about Miles Davis than the high school kids when I grew up. We were playing Starsky & Hutch in high school. We were not exposed to it. The school system was much worse than it is now as far as learning jazz.

AAJ: Who did you look up to on the bass?

LP: Verdine White, he’s the bassist with Earth, Wind and Fire. Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius. Then when I started getting into jazz, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Richard Davis. It didn’t even matter. If I saw a bass on the front cover of a record, I wanted to buy it. I’m just so amazed about the instrument. Leroy Vinegar. I was just trying to learn everything. Then, Steve Coleman told me one day, he said “Why are you listening to all these bass players. All they’re doing is playing what the saxophonist is doing. You should listen to what the horn players are doing.” So then I started listening to more of what the horns were doing. Because the bass players are only playing fragments of what the horn players are doing anyway, when they take solos, because of the nature of the instrument, the range, also, just the physics of the instrument. It’s harder to really play fast on the bass, like a horn player. I started listening more to what the horn players were doing, and the piano, and the guitar. Not much the bassist anymore. You end up sounding like one of those guys, without sounding like one. So I just stopped listening, other than maybe Paul Chambers. Because harmonically, what he did on the bass was so advanced and it’s still advanced today.

AAJ: What was your first fulltime jazz gig in New York after Wynton?

LP: In New York, Wynton. Then Dexter Gordon, Every gig led to another gig.

AAJ: Then you ran into Art Blakey. How was that experience?

LP: That was indescribable. He was real cool and relaxed and opened minded and patient. He treated me like, I guess, he would treat anybody else. I was 22 when I first joined. Immediately he had me on dates. He had me in Japan, in Europe, recording live. I was a part of the Art Blakey All-Stars at 22. I was in Japan recording with Benny Golson, Terrance Blanchard, Curtis Fuller and Wynton. I was part of an all-star band at 22. He could have easily said, like today most people would get political and say “We better get Buster Williams or Ron Carter,” because they have more experience. But he didn’t do that. I mean, he let me go out there and do my thing and learn.

AAJ: Anybody else, like DeJohnette?

LP: DeJohnette and those guys, they were the same breed. They encourage you to be you. It’s unbelievable. Dizzy. They were all fun to be around and be in the studio with. Dexter Gordon, I mean, it was easy. The music demanded the most. They knew if you were really paying attention. They didn’t have to say nothing. It’s a conversation going on through the music. It’s not about speaking to you, you know? They knew you knew, or you didn’t know, just from playing.

AAJ: How did you hook up with Cassandra Wilson?

LP: I met Cassandra at a jam session. My father’s from Mississippi. Immediately she connected. Her father’s from Chicago, but he moved to Mississippi, so we connected right away. Whenever she had small gigs a long time ago, she would call me and then when she did her first CD [Point of View], I was a part of that. We’ve been in and out of each other’s lives since I’ve known her, but always still connected musically.

AAJ: Are you still doing stuff with her?

LP: Not as much as last year, cause I’m doing my own thing now and that’s my priority. I hope that we can do something together, with my band and her band, cause we’re on the same label. We did something in Japan earlier this year, but I’m really focusing on getting work for my band. My music is the total opposite of hers. It’s all in your face. Hers is kind of more mellow. I’m just really focusing on what I’m doing right now. I’m still doing work as a sideman, cause having your own band, in the beginning, there’s not a lot going on. That’s why I’m talking to you right now, getting interviewed. So you can help me let people know. Cause this is my sixth CD and people haven’t really come to me for interviews. It’s a bassist thing, you know? I don’t play the trumpet, so people really don’t pay too much attention.

AAJ: Was that a valuable experience with her? She’s gotten quite well known.

LP: Everybody I’ve worked with. I’m sure I haven’t even seen some of the benefits yet. I’m seeing them now. Realizing that I’ve been playing with her for the last seven years, my name is out there, so it’s easier to get an interview, for me, being on a major label and being a part of her band. It should really pay off, not that I was looking for any payoff, but when I think about it, it’s like: Wow, you really put in a lot of time with someone and you’re a part of her success also. So I think it helps out a lot.

AAJ: You guys are playing the festival thing, that’s got to be good. You’re playing George Wein’s festival, that’s got to be good exposure when you get on his circuit. Do you think it’s because you’ve got the new music coming out?

LP: Yeah, and also because we’ve been bugging him since last year. I’ve been trying to get people to hire my band since my last CD, so I follow up on it. They like the new CD. I’m sure being on Blue Note helps a whole lot. It’s all political, but also according to the work that you have done before. I mean, people do know who I am, but it’s still so political. You still gotta go through the back door until things really open up. And I’m willing to deal with whatever I have to deal with. I have the patience and I have nothing else to do.

AAJ: The list of people you’ve played with is certainly impressive.

LP: It’s like, after that, who DO you play with? I mean, if Herbie [Hancock] called me today, I still would rather do my own music.

AAJ: I see you’ve got a release party at the Green Mill [9/28 and 9/29] in Chicago. That’s a hot place. Do you have a history there?

LP: I played once there with my band. Chicago has been totally unfriendly to me. I try to get gigs there and sometimes when you come from a city, people don’t tend to have a certain amount of respect for you. I don’t know why. I was there with Art Blakey, and they be in the newspaper talking about Terrance [Blanchard] and Donald [Harrison] from New Orleans. I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m from this city.” They wouldn’t even mention my name. I’m scratchin’ my head. Especially cause I’m a black musician who got out of the Projects and the city and came to New York. I would think that would be of interest to people, to inspire other musicians.

AAJ: Music was really your ticket out.

LP: Yeah.

AAJ: And you’re all self-taught.

LP: Yeah. Chicago’s one of those cities where you have to leave in order to be successful, because there’s not a lot of opportunity there. It’s probably one of the best places for opportunity to learn. Because a lot of older musicians never leave there, so you can work with them. Whereas in New York, the older musicians are famous and they want people who already know what they’re doing on the bandstand. In Chicago, people are more patient with you, to teach you, because people aren’t going anywhere. They’re not going to call Ron Carter up on the weekend, or Hank Jones or whatever, on a gig. They’re going to call the local musicians.

AAJ: Now your focus is pretty much on your band and getting your name out there.

LP: Yeah and getting the gigs and continue to write and develop and doing what I was doing with everybody else, but being in control of the situation. Be the one who says we’re going to play this song, and get the money at the end of the night. Be the one to decide to do it my way. That’s what I want to do. If I could work my band, I’ll turn down any gig right now, I don’t care who it is. Even if it’s for a small fraction of the money I can make. I’m never going to be rich anyway, doing this, so I want to be happy and pay my bills. That’s enough for me.

AAJ: It’s a tough scene out there now. Do you see that changing in the future?

LP: I hope it changes. It’s hard to really say. I think a lot of it has to do with the musicians being closed-minded, trying to hold on to the traditional music and not explore other things and pull in a younger audience. I hope the musicians try to do something, musically, to make a change. A lot of it has to do with getting people to come into the club. For me, what I experienced as a musician in New York, there’s a lot of people who alienate a lot of people in the audience, the way they play and present themselves to an audience.

AAJ: You know Wynton, obviously, but there’s a controversy between people who think he’s too much in the tradition and too stuffy, versus, maybe somebody like you who’s willing to throw in funk and different elements.

LP: That might be the case, but he’s employing a lot of people. He’s doing a lot of other positive stuff. I don’t feel like he’s changing anything, musically, but what he did was bring more attention to the music. Overall, his positives, to me, outweigh the stuff. I wish he would be more open to let, maybe, Marcus Miller produce him and doing something more. I would think that would be something real special.

You’ve got to move ahead. I feel like jazz got killed. The musicians just try to hold on. And that’s not what the masters did. They continued to grow. But after the 50s, people were holding on. But James Brown came along. Prince. Little Richard. Everybody. The music — you can’t hold on to that. The music is alive.

Visit Lonnie Plaxico on the web at www.lonnieplaxico.com .


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