Early interest in jazz
I got interested in jazz early. One of my first inspirations was hearing my uncle play. He was an accomplished mandolin, banjo, and guitarist, and he used to play all the time. My father played a little guitar, and he had a large collection of records: Django [Reinhardt], Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, boogie-woogie, all that stuff. I started listening to a lot of music. In Connecticut where we lived it used to be very cold in the winter so we would close a couple of rooms off. The phonograph was in one. I used to put on my coat, hat, and gloves and listen all afternoon after school. After I learned to play I started sitting with in the better guys around New Haven and Hartford. They were much better than I was, but it was good experience. They'd play a lot of tunes I didn't know. I tried to play them right on the spot, and I did pretty good. What I didn't know I went home and practiced. I learned a ton of tunes. I used to go to a jazz gig every Friday and Saturday. The guys in the band asked me to sit in. I didn't get paid a penny, but I didn't careI was having so much fun learning. I went to New York to listen. I wasn't quite ready to playfor one thing I was too young. I had some fake ID, and I got in to hear Art Tatum, Bud Powell, the Sonny Rollins trio, Phineas Newborn, Count Basie, Bird, all the great ones in their heyday. I had a Hell of an education.
Chicago jazz scene
I went on a tour with a circus band. It was really funnythey were dancers and musicians, but they were much better dancers. The music was rough, but it got me out of Connecticut. We got stranded in Dayton, Ohio. I called my cousin, a guitarist, in Chicago, and he said, "What's Happening?" That's how I got to Chicago. In Chicago I played with all the great ones: Eddie Harris [Diorio played on Harris' hit record Exodus to Jazz, 1961], Von Freeman, Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace (taught me a lot about reharmonizing), Willie Pickens, Harold Jones, Bill Yancey who played straight bass. I watched Muddy Waters performthat's the blues. I played and recorded with Sonny Stitt and [trombonist] Bennie Green. Sonny liked me, and he used to tell me thingstake your time, let the music breathe. Playing with him every night was a great experience because I would go home after the gig and try to imitate his lines. It was the way I wanted to play.