Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety
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.
AAJ: Who were your musical influences in those young years?
LP: Everybody. Edgar Winter. Rare Earth. Earth, Wind and Fire. Kool and the Gang. The O’Jays. I listened to everything. Santana. The first record I ever bought was “Black Magic Woman.” I must have been 10. Then a friend of mine turned me on to Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus, and I started getting into jazz and learned the history. Return to Forever was one of my first big jazz influences. It was fusion, it was funk and everything. It was closely related to what the teenagers were doing, cause nobody was trying to play Coltrane when I was a teenager. Nobody was doing that at all. Like the teenagers are today, because they pretty much don’t have any music other than rap. So they’re going to be into jazz, traditional jazz, or something. They’re more prepared for knowing about Miles Davis than the high school kids when I grew up. We were playing Starsky & Hutch in high school. We were not exposed to it. The school system was much worse than it is now as far as learning jazz.
AAJ: Who did you look up to on the bass?
LP: Verdine White, he’s the bassist with Earth, Wind and Fire. Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius. Then when I started getting into jazz, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Richard Davis. It didn’t even matter. If I saw a bass on the front cover of a record, I wanted to buy it. I’m just so amazed about the instrument. Leroy Vinegar. I was just trying to learn everything. Then, Steve Coleman told me one day, he said “Why are you listening to all these bass players. All they’re doing is playing what the saxophonist is doing. You should listen to what the horn players are doing.” So then I started listening to more of what the horns were doing. Because the bass players are only playing fragments of what the horn players are doing anyway, when they take solos, because of the nature of the instrument, the range, also, just the physics of the instrument. It’s harder to really play fast on the bass, like a horn player. I started listening more to what the horn players were doing, and the piano, and the guitar. Not much the bassist anymore. You end up sounding like one of those guys, without sounding like one. So I just stopped listening, other than maybe Paul Chambers. Because harmonically, what he did on the bass was so advanced and it’s still advanced today.
AAJ: What was your first fulltime jazz gig in New York after Wynton?
LP: In New York, Wynton. Then Dexter Gordon, Every gig led to another gig.
AAJ: Then you ran into Art Blakey. How was that experience?