Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety
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.