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Interviews

Wallace Roney: Fulfilling the Promise

By Published: November 28, 2005

I think when people hear advanced artists like Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Tony Williams, or Max Roach, or Herbie--I think their ideas shouldnt be thrown away. I think they should be utilized.

Trumpeter Wallace Roney has been working in jazz for over thirty years. He made his recording debut at age fourteen and played in the bands of Tony Williams, Art Blakey, David Murray and Herbie Hancock—just to name a few. A bandleader on his own for many years, Roney has dazzling chops and has composed some classic songs. He's never led a bad group, and when I saw him at Chicago's Green Mill in late August, the band was dazzling—powerful but supple, densely layered but capable of immediate transition.

Roney's most famous mentor was, of course, Miles Davis. It can't be denied that Davis' work and example still color Roney's music. His mentoring has also been as much curse as blessing, having forced Roney to endure years of facile, simplistic comparisons to Miles. None of this should obscure the fact that Roney has a fine body of recorded work as a leader. In recent years—to some extent under the radar—he's produced a run of especially superlative recordings. 1996's Village was the end of his long assocition with Warner Bros., but his 2000 album No Room For Argument (Stretch Records) was, to these ears, his finest album to date; 2004's Prototype and the new Mystikal (both on HighNote Records) have continued Roney's streak of great CDs. I spoke with Roney about the new record, his bandmates (including wife Geri Allen and brother Antoine Roney), his ideas about jazz and life in general, and his struggles to make his music heard.

And yes, about Miles.

All About Jazz: Let's jump right into talking about your great new CD Mystikal. I love the playing of your bassist Matt Garrison and your drummer Eric Allen. They both also appear on your last album, Prototype. Tell me how you got involved with them and what you like about their playing.

Wallace Roney: Okay. I met Matt—first of all, you know Matt's the son of Jimmy Garrison—years ago. I was getting ready to open up at the Vanguard and he just came up to me and introduced himself. He said he would love to do some playing. That was 1994. And then in the year 2000, I did a gig with him; I played with Herbie Hancock and Herbie had Matt on bass. And when Matt started playing, I was just floored. Terri Lyne [Carrington] was the drummer, and I thought those two had a great, creative chemistry. But Matt—what I heard in Matt was a person with creativity and chops and a boldness that's rare among musicians. And that's on acoustic bass. When he plays electric bass, he's able to play the same things. I met Eric in 1976; we went to high school together. Even then, Eric was one of the best young drummers that was coming out. We had a chance to listen to a lot of music together, a lot of great musicians. Eric's actually been on the scene since 1981, but I think he was eclipsed by the media blitz on, you know, the other people. It had nothing to do with his playing; it's just the media focussed on whoever was playing with whoever they considered popular.

AAJ: So you did this new album in one day—actually, one day in May just a few months ago. It must be nice that HighNote could get this record out so quickly in a world where musicians often see their records released at least a year after they're recorded. Were these mostly first takes? Did you do a lot of takes of this material?

WR: These were mostly first takes. Yeah, I am happy that HighNote is able to do that. I've been through a lot of record companies and before, I didn't understand what [label head] Joe Fields' commitment to the music was. I see it now after being around other companies. I realize this cat is really serious; he'll do what he can to help make your record—you know, the record you're trying to do. In the beginning, when I was making records, I was in a different place than I am now.

AAJ: Let's talk about the title track of the CD, "Mystikal. I think it was of your best new compositions; it has a lovely, expansive theme that's been playing in my head for the last few weeks. You and your brother really cook on your solos, and I like how the six minutes of the tune pack so much emotion and drama. Tell me something about this song, how it was composed.

WR: Well, you know, it's funny—how things are composed is less important to me. What's more important is that it finally becomes a fruition and it's there. What I was trying to do was play something that had the embodiment of sweeping, soaring spirit; something that is tangible that can't be explained. That's what the word is. You're trying to make the music be the embodiment of what you're trying to say.

AAJ: A song like "Mystikal feels like it's exactly as written as it needs to be, meaning it has a framework and some melodic content, but it's not overwritten. I never hear composition overwhelm playing on your records.

WR: That's good; I'm hoping what you're saying is that the composition serves as inspiration to what we're going to play. So they become one.

AAJ: It's not free improvisation; these are tunes, but the tunes are not straightjackets. They're structures for human beings to embody.

WR: Well, when we approach it, we approach it totally from a free point. We're reacting. We're reacting to what we just announced musically.

AAJ: On the CD, "Mystikal follows your version of Wayne Shorter's "Atlantis and I think the two work well together. There's a restlessness and sweetness to them both—a spiritual quality. "Atlantis is all layered sound: there's Fender Rhodes and, I think, Clavinet—it has that Stevie Wonder sound.

WR: Herbie. Herbie was before Stevie.

AAJ: Well, Herbie Hancock was before everyone when it comes to all that gear, wasn't he? There's also acoustic piano, in any case. I think these layered keys are a real trademark of your sound. "Shadow Dance from Prototype has a similar layered blend of keyboards. Tell me what you like of that kind of recorded blend of electric keyboards and piano.

WR: Well, your focus is the piano. But the piano doesn't have everything. But it has enough to inspire everything. But then you've got an actual Clavinet or an electric piano to warm it up a little bit, to make it shimmer like a jewel. You're using the keyboards as an extension of the piano instead of as a pop sound.

AAJ: Speaking of "Shadow Dance, to me there's something accordion-like in its head with that harmonized blend of you, Antoine Roney and Don Byron.

WR: Well, don't think there's anything wrong with that. I don't know if that's what we were going for. It doesn't matter. I think what matters is what it conjures up in people's heads—your head or anyone else's. Just the fact that it can conjure up something is a blessing.

AAJ: Another thing about that layered sound is that these instruments appear and disappear on one track. On your cover of "Just My Imagination, for example—there's this beautiful interplay between you and Geri Allen's piano. She accompanies you to the point where it's really a sort of duet, and then she plays a solo that, because of the way the record's mixed, seems to turn into a Fender Rhodes—the acoustic piano's gone and in its place is the Rhodes. Do you think about this when you're arranging? Do you say, "I want the piano to be prominent here, and fade away here?

WR: I think she does. And I think that's why I asked her to be there: because she does think like that. Because I think like that, but I don't have to say much, because there are people there that are just really that expansive on their instruments.

AAJ: Val Jeanty is all over this record on turntables, whether she's playing vocal samples, cutting or just adding sounds to the overall blend. She was pretty prominent when I saw you live as well. You also worked with DJ Logic on the Prototype album, and I think you were working with turntablists way before you ever recorded with any.

WR: That's right, with Val.

AAJ: Tell me what turntables add to your music and what you like to hear from them: what sort of things you like them to play in your group.

WR: Turntablists are what's happening in pop music today, in pop culture. It's what people are hearing, and I always try to stay open to what they're hearing—what's being felt today. Because you can't help but be influenced by that; you walk down the street and you're hearing sounds. So she and Logic were very important. Val's the one on No Room For Argument as well.

AAJ: Right, she did the vocal samples that are on that record.

WR: Yeah, and the chants. We've got African chants on there; there's a lot of things going on there. With that one, she was a good way of vocalizing what we were trying to say musically; she was able to put in messages of spirituality, things that are relevant that are in our music. So as we're playing it, as you feel it, she feels it and expresses it that way through the turntable. She became an important aspect of what you're doing.

AAJ: Everything she's doing sounds so musical to me. Not to suggest turntablists aren't musicians—I think they are—but she's really good. She's always listening.

WR: Well, she's Haitian, and she's a drummer.

AAJ: "Stargaze is another great new tune. It's pretty funky, has a little of that old Chic "Good Times riff in it, and a typically searching Wallace Roney theme. I love how the rhythm section shifts and changes in it—it's not just straight groove. During your solo, the whole band, especially Matt, gets freer, gets away from that riff, and then things tighten up for Geri's piano break. Songs like feel like they'd be different every time you play them. Do your tunes always change in each night's performance?

WR: Yeah, yeah, they do shift and they do make different turns. That song has, again, another searching quality through the melody. And we got a rhythm going on with the bass playing this groove, and I got Eric almost playing an almost straight-ahead beat against it—you know, like "Papa Jo [Jones] playing on a sock cymbal [imitating the sound], "tett-a-ttuu, tett-a-ttuu, tet-a-ttuu. Only he doesn't go with the "tett-a-ttuu, he just does the last part, the "tttuu, ttuu, ta-ttuuu against the bass, and it's killin'! It sounds great! The thing that I do is I tell them that I don't care what we play. We're going to approach it from the best of what our music has. We must have interplay with each other. It must groove, or it must swing. Whatever. People say "swing, but I interpret "swing to mean it feels good, it grooves. That's no different from what funk players do when they're funky.

It's got to sound good. I don't even care if you're playing as free as you want. In terms of the rhythms, we've been given the lessons of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. And Max [Roach], Art Blakey, Roy [Haynes]—how you can be creative rhythmically. Then we as artists, as melodic players, must be as creative as we can. So that makes "Stargaze no different than playing "Nefertiti. We're playing off the groove, whatever it is, whether it's a straight-ahead groove, ostinato, an African groove—well, they're all African grooves anyway. African bass grooves.

AAJ: We have to talk about your Slick Rick cover on this CD, "Hey Young World, with its reggae pulse. Once again, Eric Allen has fantastic time on this one and your solo's got a perfect mixture of slow, medium and fast licks. But this is Antoine Roney's greatest moment on this CD to me; he nails his solo on tenor. He's such a great player, and a good writer, too: his tune "Then and Now on Prototype is a great song. Tell me about Antoine; what are his greatest strengths as a player?

WR: Well, Antoine is, again, another musician who's overlooked, probably because people want to be spiteful. But he's one of the best creative musicians out here, and he always has been. He's a great musican and great artist; those are different things. A great musician is a musician who can do anything they're supposed to do. A great artist is someone who can go beyond that. It's possible to be a great artist and not a great musician. and it's possible to be a great musician and not a great artist. He's both. Matt Garrison is both. These guys, you put them in a professional situation, they can easily be first call. But they can go way above that. Antoine is definitely one of those artists that never plays the typical thing. He's always reaching for another side, and it's not by accident; he can play the typical thing, but so many other people play it too—that's why it's called "typical. That's what Antoine brings to this music. He's a creative artist and a great writer—I wish he would write more. I think he is doing a lot of writing again.

AAJ: Speaking of his song "Then and Now —that song demonstrates another side of what you do, the more so-called straight-ahead bop or post-bop stuff, without any electric touches. Sort of like your version of Kenny Dorham's "Poetic on the new CD. On "Then and Now, you and Antoine seem to really savor playing through those changes. Do you enjoy playing that stuff as much as it seems?

WR: Well, here we go again. It's the same thing! That's why I do it. I'm trying to say it's all the same thing. It's the same approach. People might not understand it, but if, in the middle of my solo, Geri or [keyboardist] Adam [Holzman] put a splash of electric keyboard on it, it might easily sound like "NiceTown or "Shadow Dance. To me, I'm not not playing what you call straight-ahead jazz when we're playing, say, Slick Rick's tune. I'm playing the same thing! It's the same prerequisite. It's just the melody or the bass line might be different than straight 4/4. But straight 4/4, walking bass, doesn't mean it's not creative jazz.

So the bass can be walking, the bass can be playing a groove like in "A Night in Tunisia or a groove like something Parliament played. It's what you do with it—that's what I'm trying to say. And in terms of the instrument you use, it's how creatively you use it; sometimes it's not appropriate to hear something where the bass is walking all four notes and the beat is electric. Sometimes it's more appropriate to have a more acoustic wash to it. Sometimes you can do that on a tune like "Cyberspace and it'll have a different feel, but that's why you have these options! They're called options.

AAJ: It's all just music. I think the problem is that in jazz writing, we writers are stuck with the vocabulary we have, so you end up with declarations like "this is a bop tune. This is a funk tune. It might be helpful to the listener, but it does compartmentalize everything to the point where it must be exasperating to the artist to read that sort of statement.

WR: Well, it's interesting you say that because I halfway agree. I agree that it bores us when you say, "this is a bop tune, "this is a such-and-such tune. But if you say it's funky or it swings, "this tune swings, you can describe it that way instead of saying defiantly that it's this kind of tune. Because all the tunes have aspects of what you say about that one tune. They all swing! They're all funky. They're all advanced. They're all spiritually based. But you can say that this one has this kind of feel to it. It does get funny to me when people have to explain a song in terms of something else that they heard before. "This sounds like such-and-such. We know those things; let's see how creative the writer can be—let's see him go deeper and say what it sounds like to him instead of who it sounds like.

AAJ: Well, I personally don't have much interest anymore in reviewing a record and saying, "oh, it sounds like Herbie. It sounds like Herbie's Mwandishi band. Because of course it does, because anything that follows that would; we're talking about an enormous vocabulary that he established. It's like saying someone playing rock with minor sevenths and a middle eight section sounds just like the Beatles.

WR: Right, or like saying Mwandishi sounds like Bitches Brew. Yeah, it's like that—but what does it sound like past that to you? Do you hear the instrumentation? That to me is better than putting it in a bag and saying it's like, ah, Weather Report. Fine, what about it? Did you a get a soprano soaring over the texture?

AAJ: Yeah, or it's like, "oh, here's the Miles part; no, wait, now it sounds like Bird. And that's jive.

WR: Yeah, it's there, but who cares? You care because those guys mean something to you. But you know, when I met you at that show [a Roney Chicago gig in late August] and I said to you, "don't write nothin' jive, the reason why was that the band is out here starting to try to do something. And you get marginalized so much anyway. And then you don't get written up, and then after five or six years, people start to understand what you're trying to do. And when someone says to a writer, "go and cover it, the first thing people do is want to squash it by writing something. And I'm thinking, "man, we haven't even gotten off the ground yet! I'd rather have someone write nothing than to squash the first efforts.

AAJ: Well, I don't want to write nothing but nice things. But I don't see showing up at a gig just to write something off. It's not like there are many millionaires in this business.

WR: Thank you. And I dug what you just said: you don't want to write just nice things. If we went up there and we're sloppin' all over the place, shit wasn't happening, or even if you didn't like it—it's cool. And, you know, the industry doesn't really like artists that are trying to do something other than what they put you in a box about.

AAJ: I think you are one of the luckiest and unluckiest musicians. Because it's great you had an association with Miles Davis. We'd all like to have met him, and any musician would like to have learned from him. But this man looms so large that people who have never heard a jazz record knows who he is, and you've had to spend a lot of years being compared to him. The idea being that if you ever knew him, if you ever played with him, you must sound just like him. And people write what is easy to write. So it's something you've had to cope with; how do you do it?

WR: The funny thing is you're right: I was lucky. I got a chance to study with—or be mentored by, or hang with, however you want to say it—one of the greatest artists of all time. And to be around him—it was just too cool. You say, "okay, this is what life is all about, right here. You're listening to the greatest music in the world, you're hanging with the greatest artist ever—everything he does, when he just opens up the door [laughing], you know what I mean? And then on top of that, you're watching all this stuff, and he says [adopting Miles' raspy whisper], "come here, come here, Wally. And you come, and you're just hanging, and he's showing you stuff. He'd take time from being superhip to be ultrahip with you, you know? And you're learning all this stuff, and he's showing you stuff that you could never get from anyone else, because no one thinks like that. Except you! Because that's why you're around him. That's the other part; the reason why I was allowed to be around is because, out of all the musicians around—and he definitely heard what was around—he felt that I was a kindred spirit. He said that to me; he said, "you remind me of me so much. The why you look at me remind me of the way I used to look at Dizzy. You want it—and if you want it that bad, I got to give it to you.

I remember Tony Williams said that about Miles' nephew Vince: "I could tell by the way he looked at me that he was going to be a drummer. So I just hung, and Miles would say, "listen to this, and he'd play me something and explain it, or he'd tell me stories. And man, I'd get back on my gig with Tony, and even with Art [Blakey] at the time, and I'd be trying it, what Miles had taught me. And the stuff'd be so bad! Everybody'd be like, "wow! Where'd you get that from? Sometimes I'd be like, "what? It didn't even dawn on me. Not like I didn't know, but it was natural.

AAJ: You were absorbing stuff very quickly. How to play and how to be.

WR: Tony just loved it. After a while, it became like a three-way dialogue between me, Tony and Miles. It was too hip. Miles was telling me how to play between the phrases, all these things, and Tony was responding to it. I was taking my phrases and reworking them these ways and man, we were having a ball. Miles would then say [doing that Miles rasp again], "what did Tony do? What did Tony say? Then he'd just laugh. We had a good time, man, and I thought life was going to be like that forever. And technically, it should have. But it all came to a head when the people who were jealous of that kind of interaction found a way to make the people feel that was not necessary or shouldn't be honored—because after he died, I kept going. I kept going in the creative way that I was dealing with from being in that environment.

I think Miles felt that maybe I had the ears or the heart or the creativity to try to take what he did and expand it, take it further. And that's what I'm trying to do: I'm trying to take his ideas further. Put my own signature on it, but take it further. I think when people hear advanced artists like Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Tony Williams, or Max Roach, or Herbie—I think their ideas shouldn't be thrown away. I think they should be utilized. I don't think you should just copy it and only pay that homage to them. I think you should use it! You should use the ideas, and try to do something, especially when they're gone. It's not like they're dead and so it's over. That's a good way to kill them.

AAJ: Well, their ideas are so revolutionary at the time, but in their wake the vocabularies they create are like air: if you try to avoid it, you suffocate yourself. It should become a part of everyone's vocabulary.

WR: It should be. And we should be trying to add more words to the vocabulary, we should be extending it. But we should definitely use it. I think some people get hung up on that; they pay homage by just playing someone's solo. I'm not talking about that—I think you should do that at home. I think you should take what they do, then take it further; let's keep this building growing. I'm determined that I'm going to do that. And other people will do some other things, and maybe you can utilize that too. But maybe by my doing this, I'm doing some other things—and finding new things in a way that is more natural and deeper than just by cutting off what went before.

AAJ: I think it would be hard for a creative musician to try too hard to not play something; it's not very natural to think about avoiding things while playing.

WR: Well, it's easy for some of them not to play certain things because they didn't have to work at it to figure out what it is. That's the other thing. Work is always something that people run from and that some people are encouraged to run from. Seems like the journals encourage you to be lazy. And sometimes the lazy way is to try to be completely different. I know that's a word that people like to use, but I think instead of being different, they should try to be better. I think better is better than different! Trying to be better, trying to take something further. Even if you can't go any further with something, what comes out of trying is the next thing. Or the next logical extension of what's happening.

AAJ: Well, we all like a new sound, but a self-conscious novelty doesn't tend to last long.

WR: No, I don't think so. It doesn't have any place. But I do think there are always new sounds that come out of developing. That's what life's about. It's not about destroying something—if you keep destroying what was before, you don't have anything. You're starting over all the time. At least that's the way I see it. I was reading something Herbie was saying. He was saying that it's taken him a long time to remember that he's a human being first, not a musician. That's great, because he's talking about the evolution of people—but on the other hand, he wouldn't be the Herbie that he is now if he hadn't been what he's criticizing people for being now. He said, "I used to be the person that was music all day, every day, and had these musical goals. But if he didn't feel that way before, then he wouldn't have sounded like he did, say, with Miles Davis.

AAJ: That's a common way for a person to feel, though, at two different ages of his life.

WR: Yeah, but I think he's influencing people to not work very hard, and if he didn't work so hard, he wouldn't have been in those situations. And that part has to be honored. Miles Davis, it seems to me, was a person who lived life with a purpose. John Coltrane was a person that lived life with a purpose.

AAJ: Yeah, well, sure! Coltrane might have had the greatest, most focused purpose of anyone I can think of offhand.

WR: Maybe. Maybe Miles was just as focused. Maybe people just didn't see it that way.

AAJ: I can't even compare them in way where I think less of one of them. Coltrane got sick and died, so his whole work seems like one marathon burn towards a certain point, and then it was cut short.

WR: Ain't that what life is, though?

AAJ: Yeah. But some lives are longer than others.

WR: But I'm talking about life itself, and evolution of the world, and universe; it's one long evolution towards something. That's what I'm starting to figure out.

AAJ: Actually, after getting this philosophical, I always feel stupid getting back to mundane questions. It's that larger stuff that blows my mind.

WR: But that's what it is to me in music. I think you're trying to honor a purpose. If you're just going to play, wake up and do a job and be proficient, that's cool. That's your mission, I guess. But I think that if you want to make your music, make what you do mean something, or achieve something that's more than something marginal—even if most of the world won't hear it, you would like that it has some sort of effect on the universe.

AAJ: Yeah, especially when life seems so short and music seems so precious.

WR: There you go. So that's what you're waking up in the morning to do. To keep trying to upgrade what you have in your life. And in your life, music—if you're an artist, that's one of the best parts of what you have to offer! It's not that you get up, and walk, and go to the bathroom—your contribution to this life might be a universal, sonic thing! And you're going to try to make it the greatest in the world. You're trying to make it honor something.

AAJ: Well, otherwise, as a musician you're sort of a mere timekeeper. Either way, you're playing for two hours that night on a bandstand.

WR: Well, we should keep encouraging that kind of thing. And we should discourage the ones that are just jiving around—if they're jiving around. I always think, what if one day we all set aside two minutes and asked the whole world to sing one pitch at the same time for thirty seconds? Everybody included. All over the world, everybody get up and go, "hmmmmmm —whatever the pitch is. Maybe it'd have to be at a certain amount of decibels, so everyone would have to sing this loud. Everyone, the person next to you, people driving—you know what I mean? Put it on the air; what would that sound like?

AAJ: Everyone would simply ascend.

WR: You dig? And that's what you're trying to make your music do!

AAJ: Unfortunately, the cynic in me says that people would spend the next ten years fighting each other on what that pitch should be. But if it could happen, the human race would grow angel wings and we would float away.

WR: Yeah. That's what the music's about and that's what you're trying to do with your music. That's it.

AAJ: Again, it all seems so trivial now to get back to smaller matters. Here's one you might disagree with. I would never accuse you of making easy listening music. There's nothing smooth about your jazz. But I think there's a sense of serenity, a sense of hope and optimism on this new record. I don't think you've ever made negative music, but No Room for Argument sounds urgent to me almost to the point of being pissed off. Is there a difference? Are you feeling more hopeful?

WR: I think there's everything in music, again. With No Room for Argument, I'm very proud of what we were trying to do. And that's on Mystikal, actually, too. Let's say you're pissed off because the people do not accept the fact that this world is not fair. That's an opening statement. Well, the following statement might be, what should we do about it? Maybe that's the next record. And then the third statement might be, what would the results be if we saw it in a fairer way? And you say, well, we'll feel a lot better. So maybe that's what this is saying. One record says, this isn't right; the next record says we're trying to evolve to be a higher people, and the one after that says, if you let us evolve, we can operate like this, and it'll be beautiful. You still retain all the strength of a revolution. Every record can't be the same yelling—but it can have the same message. Coltrane's A Love Supreme sounds different from Crescent to me. But it's the same intention.

AAJ: And that's what you want in record albums, anyway. A body of work that holds together but isn't remaking the same thing over and over. Which I think sometimes is what people want musicians to do.

WR: But then they wouldn't be happy with that. It wouldn't say anything.

AAJ: Your albums often feature a great blend of other people's compositions with your own. Besides the Roney tunes, there are jazz compositions like Kenny Dorham's "Poetic, Wayne Shorter's "Atlantis, Slick Rick's "Hey Young World, the Temptations' "Just My Imagination, Al Green's "Let's Stay Together, and maybe best of all, André "3000 Benjamin of Outkast's "Prototype. You've got good taste in songs. Tell me what motivates you to do a song for an album. What attracts you to it?

WR: Well, here I go with my thing again: because we don't live on this world alone. So you hear someone else's stuff, and it's a reflection and it inspires you. If I started to play only my own songs, unless I really had a mission, for me it would all start to sound the same. It's more reflective of the world to step outside my writing. So I'll ask Antoine to bring something in and I'll shape it. I'll do a ballad, but sometimes you don't want to do the pop ballads of the Tin Pan Alley era. You might want to do the pop ballads of this era, and do the same thing that Bird did with 'em. And that's what I tried to with "Just My Imagination and Al Green tunes. Not all those tunes are going to be great for the way I hear music, but I try to pick tunes that have a certain kind of feeling or mood—then I can shape and put my feelings to it harmonically and rhythmically. It's no different from what Bird did with "Embraceable You. That's a pop tune—Gershwin.

AAJ: Those tunes that jazz musicians are supposed to do—now players do them because other jazz musicians have done them. It's sort of a jazz rule. But initially, it was just doing a song you liked.

WR: And those songs I do speak to me in a certain way, probably the way "My Funny Valentine spoke to Chet Baker or "It Never Entered My Mind spoke to Miles. They're relevant in that way. Not that you'd never do those other tunes as well, but now, as you would say, the vocabulary has broadened. You can't say, "well, they'll never write another tune like that, not since 1939 —that's not true. They kept writing; people wrote tunes outside of what we do as jazz artists. It's just whether you find it worthy enough to do something with it; some people might not, some might.

AAJ: No one I interview ever even listens to their own records. But I still want to ask: do you have any favorite albums you've done?

WR: These two are my favorite.

AAJ: The last two, Prototype and Mystikal?

WR: Yeah. Right now. But what I'm thinking about doing next is going to take things forward further, to expand. If they allow me to do something else—because the reality is if the record doesn't do anything, then the record company will say, "why should we put money behind doing it? We're not just benevolent, not just handing out money. I understand that now. It's a cruel thing, and I wish that jazz musicians could be subsidized so they can let their art be pure—but, you know, it's always art versus commerce. And I'm on art's side.

AAJ: You're doing a lot of shows lately, and when I saw you recently, I was so impressed. You've got such a listening band. Are you enjoying playing out live? Do you ever surprise yourself with what you play?

WR: I always enjoy playing live. The problem is there's a lot of clubs that don't want to take a chance on me, on what I'm doing. That's the problem. So you sit around trying to convince people that this music should be played, should be heard. And then sometimes you can come in and you can pack the joint! But then you come around after doing a European tour and they forget that everyone had a good experience listening to the music and the place was full. They forget, for whatever reason. And that's what makes it hard to keep working. But I've been dedicated to keep working, to try to fulfill what Miles saw in me, what Tony Williams saw in me. After you play with those guys, and they give you what it is they're going to give you—it's your chance to try to do something with it.

A guy was asking me something a couple weeks ago. He said, "Miles gave you this stuff; don't you think it's your duty to find someone else to hand it off to? I said, "no, not yet, because I have to do something with it! You have to take it and start using it! The first thing people want you to do is hand it off, get rid of it. No, man, I got to play, I got to utilize this! Miles didn't just grab anybody off the street. He didn't hear nobody that he liked! Because he was taking it further. But he heard somebody one day, he said, "wait a minute, this cat is trying to go for it. I'm going to help him. He didn't just pick me off the street or just pick somebody. Tony Williams used to tell me Miles didn't give it up easily. There were a lot of guys that wanted to be there. So the mission is trying to take what it is he had faith in me to do and try to do it, like "Papa Jo did for Tony. I remember there was a young bassist who the world thought was great. And he probably was great. And they wanted Ron Carter immediately to mentor him. Ron Carter said, "well, I don't think he's as great as you all think he is. That doesn't mean he wasn't great, but he didn't think so, so he wasn't going to waste his time.

AAJ: I don't care anyway, because while there aren't words for what Ron Carter could teach a bassist, if you're going to be great at something, you'll find some route to accomplish that. No one's life can be dependent on one person that way. If it is true, I feel sorry for everyone, because then life is either one opportunity you get, or one that gets away forever. But that's crazy.

WR: That is true. I definitely agree. If you didn't get this one person as a teacher, that doesn't mean your mission ends. Everybody's part of the whole. I do think, though, people should go out and try to be up under the Oscar Petersons and the Herbie Hancocks or the McCoy Tyners. Even if they can't be around them personally, there is so much to get from a Benny Golson or a Wayne Shorter! Or Johnny Griffin or Mulgrew Miller or Geri Allen. Just try to be around them, and if they don't want you around, just listen to them. Just watch them. That's part of this music too, just being up in the music.

AAJ: Yeah, well, every guy I've ever interviewed says, "I was lucky enough to have this teacher, and so on.

WR: That's the problem with the young scene anyway, today. Some of them trivialize what we do. They say, "well, John Coltrane's dead. Well, what about the people who played with John Coltrane? I see young guys coming to the music thinking all they've got to do is show up. When I played with Art Blakey, or Tony Williams—I never felt like that. I always felt that you had to try to come up to the music. I didn't know whether what I had was enough! And people like Tony Williams will let you know, either by the way he's playing, or by coming to you and saying, "I need you to do this. The cats in my generation were smart enough to think, "oh man, if I want to keep this gig, I need to do this. They could hear when they weren't coming up to that level. You play with Art and you finish the first gig, and if you messed up, you run to your room and grimace about it [laughing].

Some of the young musicians don't do that. First of all, they're all leaders, so they don't know if their talent is really good enough to play with someone else. They never go that far, they're just playing with themselves and thinking that's it. But if they do tokenly play with somebody, and their talent isn't enough, they don't go upstairs and say, "man, I messed up. The first thing they do is go chase girls, or chase guys. Run out, run off the gig. They don't have enough respect for the music or the musicians to say, "man, it wasn't good. I got to work harder. And the most convenient thing for people to say is, "well, such-and-such isn't an Art Blakey. Well, yes we are. Mulgrew is the Art Blakey of the day. Geri might be where Herbie was. And I'm sure when Art was leading the band, some young guy was saying, "he's no 'Papa' Jo. He's no Chick Webb.

AAJ: That's just the old fanboy bullshit. It suggests that those older players were a different species—like Superman.

WR: Well, I might disagree. They were Superman! But I believe they picked other people to be with them in their legion of superheroes! So you got to start digging what Mulgrew or Geri can do. And respect it.

AAJ: Well, yes. And while everyone should own as many Miles records as they can, you can't just sit with your Miles records and declare nothing else is happening. It's not reality.

WR: And you're actually killing the world of music by saying not enough's happening since then. Instead of honoring what is happening.

AAJ: Well, if nobody goes to any gigs, I guarantee there will be nothing happening out there.

WR: Dig that. If you want to cultivate it, encourage it.

AAJ: With the experiences you've had, the trouble getting enough gig—I would be so frustrated and upset. But you don't sound discouraged; you sound positive. How do you keep your attitude?

WR: I've got heroes in this business. Of course, Miles is the ultimate hero. Roy Haynes is a hero to me. Tony Williams—Tony was a guy who spoke the truth. He played the truth and he spoke it. He didn't let politics enter in to it. Tony was like that and I appreciate him for it. But Roy Haynes did something that was beautiful. One night I was playing with Chick Corea's band with Roy and these Down Beat guys came up to Roy. They wanted to do an article on Roy. And Roy said, "what? I don't want to do an article. You want to do an article on me now when I'm 72 years old—where were you then when I needed you? Back when I was younger, y'all wasn't doing nothing on me! I don't need an article; I know how to survive and live at this point. Interview Wallace and Kenny [Garrett].

I said, "Roy, you're a hero. [laughing] Of course, they went on to do Kenny! But that was cool! Another hero was Dizzy Gillespie. They were doing his 75th birthday thing for Dizzy, and they had everybody mapped out who they wanted to use. And Dizzy said, "wait a minute! Where are these people? And he made them put on the musicians he wanted! And guys like Dizzy are the heroes of the business, and they know. Dizzy played with Bird! He knows what it's like for a musician that is trying to go forward, that is playing truth. Tony was that way, too. Just because someone said some guy's great—Tony would say, "well, back then, in the era everyone thought was so great, that musician wouldn't have been working with us! Nowadays, they're pushing a guy like that, but he wouldn't have got on Herbie's record Maiden Voyage. Funny thing is, maybe now he would! But Tony always talked that way, even to the end.

Visit Wallace Roney on the web.


Selected Discography

Wallace Roney, Mystikal (High Note, 2005)
Calhoun, Native Lands (Half Note, 2005)
Meshell Ndegeocello, Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel (Shanachie, 2005)
Wallace Roney, Prototype (High Note, 2004)
The Lenny White Project, Tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire (Trauma, 2004)
Terri Lyne Carrington, Jazz is a Spirit (ACT, 2002)
Vince Herring, Simple Pleasure (High Note, 2001)
Wallace Roney, No Room for Argument (Stretch, 2000)
Bill Evans, Touch (Zebra, 1999)
David Sanborn, Inside (Elektra, 1999)
Makoto Ozone, Three Wishes (Polygram, 1998)
Dizzy Gillespie, Triple Play (Telarc, 1998)
Geri Allen, Gathering (Verve, 1998)
Wallace Roney, Village (Warner Brothers, 1997)
Chick Corea, Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997)
Freddie Hubbard, Hub Art: A Celebration of the Music of Freddie Hubbard (Hip Bop Essence, 1996)
Wallace Roney, The Wallace Roney Quintet (Warner Brothers, 1995)
Geri Allen, Eyes in the Back of Your Head (Blue Note, 1995)
Wallace Roney, Mysterioso (Warner Brothers, 1994)
Lionel Hampton, For the Love of Music (MoJazz, 1994)
Wallace Roney, Crunchin' (Muse, 1993)
Wallace Roney, Munchin' (Muse, 1993)
Randy Weston, Volcano Blues (Antilles, 1993)
Herbie Hancock, Dis is Da Drum (Mercury, 1993)
Antoine Roney, Traveler (Muse, 1992)
Tony Williams, Tokyo Live (Blue Note, 1992)
Wallace Roney, Seth Air (Muse, 1991)
Tony Williams, The Story of Neptune (Blue Note, 1991)
Miles Davis/Quincy Jones, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner Brothers, 1991)
Wallace Roney, Obsession (Muse, 1990)
Joey DeFrancesco, Where Were You? (Columbia, 1990)
Wallace Roney, The Standard Bearer (Muse, 1989)
Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Road Less Traveled (Concord, 1989)
Tony Williams, Native Heart (Blue Note, 1989)
Wallace Roney, Intuition (Muse, 1988)
James Spaulding, Brilliant Corners (32Jazz, 1988)
Tony Williams, Angel Street (Blue Note, 1988)
Wallace Roney, Verses (Muse, 1987)
Kenny Barron, What If? (Enja, 1986)
Tony Williams, Civilization (Blue Note, 1986)
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Feeling Good (Delos, 1986)
Tony Williams, Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note, 1985)

Related Articles
Wallace Roney Sextet at the Green Mill (2005)
Wallace Roney Quintet: The History of Jazz (2004)
Homage and Acknowledgement: A Conversation with Wallace Roney (2001)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Michael Kurgansky
All others: Adrian Buckmaster



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