Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer
AAJ: Were you still in high school when you first got the call to go with Mercer's band?
KG: I had just graduated from high school. It was the summer. They wanted me to come and join the band, and I thought I was going to go out for a few gigs, but I ended up staying for three years and a half. It was a great experience. It was importantI won't say the most important, but it was very important for me to learn how to play with 18 musicians. I had opportunities to travel with that band. It was my first time going to Europewe went to Luxembourg. And I actually met [trumpeter] Cootie Williams. He came out of retirement, and I got an opportunity to play with Cootie. I would be sitting at the piano playing standards and Cootie would say, "Cookie, baby, what are you doing playing those songs? Write your own songs." It was good to be around Cootie, and people like Dave Young, who took the chair of [saxophonist] Paul Gonsalves. I didn't realize that at the time, because when you're young you're just trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it gave me an introduction to Ellington's music first-hand, rather than just hearing it on records.
AAJ: How did your parents respond when you said, "Mom and Dad, I'm going on the road with Duke Ellington"?
KG: They were like, "We thought you were going to school." And I said, "I am." The deal was I was supposed to go for the summer, and that summer turned into three years and a half.
AAJ: Did you move to New York City after playing in the Ellington band and deciding that New York was the logical next step?
KG: I used to hang in New York after we would play our concerts. I would come and hang out and try to hear music. One time I was hanging out and I met Marcus Miller, although I didn't know who he was at the time. He playing at a club called Seventh Avenue SouthI think it was Randy and Michael's [Brecker] club. There was a bassist who I didn't know about, and it turned out to be Jaco [Pastorius]. I had a chance to play with Jaco and Marcus and [drummer] Lenny [White] and all those guys while I was still in the Ellington band. I was still 18. Finally, when Mercer was getting ready to disband the band, I was contemplating whether I wanted to go to Detroit or come to New York, and I decided to come to New York and check it out. I was rooming with [pianist] Mulgrew Miller and [drummer] Tony Reedus. Mulgrew was also in the Ellington band during that time. He left the band and came to New York first.
AAJ: Twenty years later, it sounds incredible that your roommate trio was Mulgrew Miller, Tony Reedus and you. But I guess at the time you were just three guys trying to make it, right?
KG: We were just three guys trying to learn how to play music. We're all still friends to this day, so I guess it wasn't so bad. [laughs]
AAJ: How long after you made the move to New York did you go with Mel Lewis?
KG: They were having auditions. I think [saxophonist] Steve Coleman had just left. I heard it and thought, "I can read [music]," and I think called [saxophonist] Dick Oatts or one of the guys in the band to say that I'd like to come down. I think they'd already selected who was going to play, but I said I'd still like to come down and read the [band's song] book. So I had to read the book right on stage, and I got the gig. That was a bread-and-butter band, and it was a great band.
AAJ: For a guy whose career started in the late 70's and early 80's, it seems interesting that your first couple gigs were in big bands. People always think of that era being over by then.
KG: I caught the tail end of that. Playing in the Ellington band, doing double bills with Count Basie's band. When I came to New York, that was all I was doing[saxophonist] Frank Foster's big band, [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton's big band, [drummer] Charlie Persip's big band. It was a way for me to meet a lot of people and get a chance to play. When I was coming through, a lot of people came through big bands because that was all there was. Of course there was Art Blakey, but that was pretty much covered and there weren't that many other bands that you could play in as far as small groups. So I played in big bands and tried my hand at Broadway shows and decided that that wasn't what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play in a smaller situation. But I definitely played in a lot of big bands, and I learned to play the flute and piccolo because I wanted some security. So I was looking towards that. I started studying with [clarinet teacher] Leon Russianoff, who all the students from Juilliard studied with. And I came in as a saxophone doubler. It was a start.
AAJ: You mentioned having to get things together with 18 musicians when you were in the Ellington band. What did you learn from that kind of playing that you still use now?
KG: The main thing was blending. I learned how to blend with musicians. When I first joined that band, they taught me about phrasing and how to hear the horns. When I started playing with Freddy Hubbard and [trumpeter] Woody Shaw, I already had an idea of how I was going to blend and play with them as a front line, as opposed to just sticking out.