AAJ: You were one of the first AfricanAmerican bandleaders to consistently employ a percussionist in your groups? Through the years the conga players in the group have fluctuated between adding African, Brazilian and Cuban flavor to your music. Would you talk a little about the relationship of the drum to your piano playing and composing?
MT: I used to play conga drums. I had to put that away because at some point it started to affect the joints in my fingers. When I was a kid this guy came from Africa and he taught African drumming and assisted African dancing. Saka Acquaye was his name.
So I said I play a little conga drums. So I had to put tape on my fingers, after a while I said this is crazy. But it was good. It was really, really good to be around those guys.
AAJ: At the time you were coming up Philadelphia seemed to produce a remarkable number of extremely talented musicians? What was it like there musically during your formative years?
MT: Philadelphia at the time was so musical. There were so many great musicians there. I was very fortunate. You know, Bud moved around the corner from me, my mother's shop. We used to follow him around, get him to play. Before he went to Europe. Richie was on the road with Max, Max Roach-Clifford Brown band. He got an apartment around the corner from me and they didn't have a piano. So my mother did hair and the lady who was the superintendent's wife said, 'There's this guy around here and he's a great pianist but he doesn't have a piano. Can he play on your son's piano?' So I asked my mother what's his name and she said 'Bud Powell.' So, I lunged. I said, 'Sure he can come around anytime he wants.' He scared me one time. I was in my mother's shop practicing and Bud was outside listening. I said, 'Oh my God! What's he thinking.' I was very fortunate though. The older musicians were great.
AAJ: Red Garland also lived in Philadelphia around that time.
MT: Yeah, yeah. It was Red and Philly Joe and Steve Davis, my ex-brother-in-law. They played a lot together. Red and Philly and Steve and John (Coltrane). A lot of the cats. Johnny Splawn. All those guys. Red was wonderful. I loved that guy
AAJ: I can hear what you might have heard in his playing at the time. How he might have influenced you.
MT: Yeah, oh yeah. He was very inspirational. He had a very happy sound. Beautiful, loving I love his sound. I've got a picture of him; I've got to find it, me and him hugging. He was a little guy. He was a small guy and I was . . .(laughs)
AAJ: You first received widespread attention as a member of the Jazztet. Benny Golson is one of jazz's most lyrical composers and Art Farmer was one of the music's most lyrically creative players. What effect did your experience in that group have on your playing and composing?
MT: Yeah Art was something. That band was wonderful. It was a wonderful band. I learned a lot. Not only is Benny such a great composer and arranger, but such a wonderful person on top of it. Those guys helped me so much when I first came to New York. I had met John when I was seventeen, that's when I first met John. But, I'd met Benny, Benny was from Philly, came from Philly and I played piano for him, he needed a pianist and I think he had heard about me, so he asked me to play on a concert. Then he called me not too long after that.
AAJ: So, you moved to New York to join the Jazztet?
MT: Well what happened, here's the story on that. After Benny left the concert, Tioga that's the area where it was at, up in North Philly. So after he went back to New York, he called me and said, 'I'm going to San Francisco, I'd like you to go with me.' You know, make the gig. He said me and Curtis Fuller, and we'd pick up Lenny McBrowne and Leroy Vinnegar out in California. So I said 'Wow, yes, yes.' Because I had never been that far away from Philadelphia and all the way to San Francisco, I said 'I'll take it.' See America. So we were there. I think we were about three weeks in that club (inaudible phrase) and then before we closed Benny told me 'Look, Art Farmer and me are forming a band together. Curtis is interested and we were wondering if you want to be in the band?' I told him, I said 'Look Benny, I love being in the band,' but I had committed myself to John, whenever he'd leave Miles, he wanted me to join his band. And I had already made (the commitment), because i had already played with John when I was seventeen and we knew each other, like family (you know), it was really that close. His wife, my wife, you know like a family, he's like my big brother. I never had a big brother (laughs), so he was like a big brother to me. I was a kid. So, when he'd come to Philly when Miles wasn't working I worked with him. Him and Sonny Stitt, whoever came in. At that time I had that kind of gig. So anyway, I told Benny, 'I can't.' This was after we'd done Meet the Jazztet. I had told him though in the beginning when he asked me to join his band, I said 'Benny I can't.' But he understood. But they were a little upset because we had done the first record together and it was a wonderful band, a wonderful band.
Then when John left Miles, I didn't join him 'til three, four months after. Steve Kuhn did the first gigs. And then he asked me. He said, 'What are you going to do with it.' Are you going to (you know) ...' Because they were friends (Coltrane and Golson). They grew up together. (laughs) It was a tough situation for me and them. But they knew. After a while, Benny said, 'I know.' After they heard the music with John, they knew that's where I belonged.
I love jazz because I am a singer and jazz inspires me.
I was first exposed to jazz when I was a baby. I grew up in a a musical family.
The best show I ever attended was Dianne Reeves with Romero Lubambo in Rio de janeiro, and Youn Sun Nah at the Vancouver
Jazz festival in 2010.
The first jazz record I bought was Sarah Vaughan.
My advice to new listeners is keep your ears and heart opened for good music.