Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety
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?
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.