Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety
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.
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?