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Wallace Roney: Fulfilling the Promise

By Published: November 28, 2005
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.

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