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Charles Gayle: Always Reaching

By Published: May 2, 2006

AAJ: When the new thing came in, that sounded good to you?

CG: There is a misconception about this new thing. The new thing came in, a couple people played it, but it wasn't to jump on. A lot of things were changing at that time. Ornette was the first one out there, but he wasn't the first one to play that music. I would say he was the best representative as far as it being worldwide, because he was great. But what happened was in the late '50s, there was a sort of a movement going on in the African neighborhoods, the social rights movement. And it started to change the music. Now, that's just my interpretation of seeing and growing up in all of that. And some of the freer music, not completely free, was in the church, and it was also in the bars, some of the blues bars when they were letting it all hang out. It wasn't exclusively that music because it was blues, but they'd always have some free parts in it.

I heard some people play it before it became national. I think a lot of people in different cities can say that. But if you want to put it that way, I was in it from the jump. Even playing bop I was freeing up. I knew the changes, I could play, but I was still playing free. I mean I could insert freedom in there, I'll put it that way. I know a trumpet player who played when we were growing up and he come to jam sessions, and he couldn't play a note of them tunes, and he was free and played. Of course, people wanted to get rid of him, but he did. I knew a drummer who was doing it. They weren't into Ornette or nobody. I'm sure they knew him, but it was about them. Most free players couldn't play changes. When the music did switch, most of them really didn't play changes. A lot them went straight to playing free. It became a music in itself.

AAJ: Did you find many people to play with at that time?

CG: No, but I was branching out. I played two musics. I would play straight, you know, piano bars, playing on gigs. I would play piano, sometimes bass. If I had a gig or situation to play free, I'd play free. It was basically me and two other people playing free where I came from. We were a trio, and then eventually we got this trumpet player and he played free. It became a quartet. I came to New York in the mid-'60s, got some gigs, got to know people. I worked with Eddie Gale, Ronnie Boykins. I found Rashied Ali. We hooked up a few times. We were running together.

AAJ: When you were living outside, did you get access to a piano at all?

CG: No.

AAJ: When did you get back on the piano?

CG: When I'd go to gigs I'd play a little piano, but I didn't have any chops at all. I just sat down and played, probably shouldn't have. I'm the first to say it. I started to get a little more into it about the time that first solo record came out, five or six years ago. I started to look at piano a little more. I still don't have a piano. I have a keyboard. When I finally got inside out of that lifestyle and finally found an apartment, then the Knitting Factory asked to make a record, and I actually I wanted to get the record out, which was maybe a little premature, but I wanted to push myself to play piano. I said, well maybe if I get something pretty good, it'll give me the thing to go on and then I'll keep on pushing for it. I can't just keep waiting around.

I don't know, in a way that might be short changing people when you do things like that, but I just had to do it. I apologize to anyone who doesn't like it. I didn't mean to do it like that, but I had to do something. I was also thinking about when I get older what I'm going to do and I've reached it. So whether I was going to be playing saxophone and if not, I would have the piano ready. That motivates me to do it.

AAJ: Given the performances on Time Zones, you must have played a lot since then.

CG: I have a chance to practice, I have to say. I have a nice keyboard. It's a little weighted. It feels close to how a piano feels. I practice the best I could, considering I practice two instruments. It's coming. I don't know where it's coming or if it's good or bad, but I'm trying to work at it. To get back in it, I listened to players from the '40s and the '30s, and some in the '50s. Just to get the homework done, just to play catch up. I don't even know if people consider me a pianist, so I don't know what to say.

AAJ: Do you play piano with groups anymore, or do you mostly play solo?

CG: All the gigs I've had since the first record have been solo. I wanted to be a solo pianist initially. When I started playing it was my goal to do that, only because "Fatha" Hines and Tatum and James P. Johnson could play like that, and I said, well, I'll do it. That was my goal four, five, six years ago to be a solo pianist. I also know that would limit me playing clubs, but I don't even know how practical it is to think like that now, or even if I'm good enough to be a soloist. But it's going to go where it's going to go. I'm not holding on to that so tight. We'll see what happens.

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Download jazz mp3 “What's New” by Charles Gayle Trio
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Download jazz mp3 “Time Zones” by Charles Gayle