A Fireside Chat with Reggie Workman
“ I used to study the Hindu philosophy... one thing that it taught me was that when you reach beyond a certain point, you leave a lot of people by the wayside. You move away from a lot of people and your society becomes a lot smaller... ”
Why would someone leave the John Coltrane Quartet? That question still stigmatizes Workman forty years after his departure, overshadowing his impressive collaborations as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (with Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan), and with Yusef Lateef, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Archie Shepp, and Freddie Hubbard. So I asked. The following is my conversation with Reggie Workman, a groundbreaking bassist unfairly labeled 'avant-garde' and the before mentioned Trane water he has carried for far too long, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
REGGIE WORKMAN: Because of environment. The environment probably prompted me to want to be a part what it was because music is a part of the environment that most of us grew up in. It was quite unlike it is today. There was a lot of live music, a lot of live venues for new music, a lot of great musicians who lived in the communities around Philadelphia, a lot of theaters, a lot of activity that would encourage a younger person to be a pert of the scene. I started as a very young person, eight or nine years old, studying piano and I think my parents recognized that. So that is the way I started as a young person. My parents probably recognized how music was a part of our community and put me in touch with some lessons and from there it grew. Now, that I look back on the situation, I realize how much the culture has to do with the evolution of a people. A lot of our institutions as a young person in the school systems and so forth didn't encourage too much cultural evolution, but that was a natural thing in our community. I think my parents recognized that and in developed from there. I stopped dealing with piano when I was about twelve years old, thirteen. The sports in the streets called me and so I got involved with that and left piano to grow into another area of life. I had a cousin, who recently passed, encouraged me. He used to stand me up by his bass and showed me how to play it and I liked that sound. Eventually, I went looking for it and so I started to play the bass in my final year of junior high school. They didn't have a bass, so I ended up playing wind instruments until a bass came, just before I graduated. Then from there, I moved over to high school, where I got an instrument and eventually got my own instrument and have been studying it ever since.
FJ: Give me your impression of Lee Morgan.
RW: Lee Morgan and I grew up together. We both grew up around Philadelphia and so we played a lot together around the scene. We knew one another. We knew the same people. He had a giant record collection, so we used to hang out a lot. He went to a music school in New York. We often crossed paths. He was a delightful person and tremendous talent.
FJ: Wayne Shorter.
RW: That happened during the time when Wayne was just growing into himself and I was in New York. A lot of musicians convened on the scene in New York from all over the world, Wayne coming from the New Jersey area. We often ended up on the bandstand together even before the Art Blakey days. Then as we grew, we all ended up in the band together. All the people who you heard in the classic Art Blakey ensembles often would see one another in New York over the years and during the years prior because of just what the scene was. There were places to work. There were jobs. There were jam sessions. There were reasons to be crossing one another's path.
FJ: And Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter in the frontline along with you and Blakey in the rhythm section is why that band is so highly thought of.
RW: Of course, everyone was significant as they always have been. As you grow, you get an idea of who's who. They are not just significant because they have been embraced by the system. They were significant because they had something to offer when they were very young musicians and they always have had that gift throughout their career.
FJ: And the same holds true of your association with John Coltrane?
RW: Our association wasn't brief. John Coltrane spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, where I am from and therefore, we saw one another long before I joined the group. Even through the late Sixties, we spent a lot of time traveling and making music together. He was developing and I was developing and our paths crossed for a while.
FJ: You must have been asked this numerously through the years, but with such a kinship, why did you leave the band?
RW: I'm a bit tired of those questions. I left the band because my father was dying and I had to leave New York and go back home and take care of my family, number one. Number two, John and the rest of the band was growing very fast and John had decided that he wanted to try another voice in his bass chair. He had been listening to Ornette Coleman, who had Jimmy Garrison in the group and Coleman suggested he try Jimmy and he did. That was a great union. Of course, Jimmy was very compatible with everybody in the band.
FJ: So no regrets?
RW: I think we have an idea of what is in store for us in life and what you can achieve and what you want to do. So be it. It is like any other profession.
FJ: With convincing albums Summit Conference, Cerebral Caverns, and Altered Spaces, why haven't you recorded more?
RW: Looking back on that situation, I realized that while a lot of people were spending time developing and honing their skills for composing and developing a band, I was busy helping somebody else with their program as being a supporting artist. You can start down that path and before you know it, and this is a good thing to say to the younger musicians, you will find yourself moving down that path and there is nobody that pulls your coat, you haven't developed what you need developed as a bandleader, as a composer, as a person who is shaping the way the music is going as far as what the industry considers significant. That is what I see happened in my life. Later on in life when I realized that, I decided that it was time for me to change, but of course, when I was prepared to make that change, I had already been through quite a few groups, quite a number of groups, so my ideas were a little different from the average person who was stepping into that arena and that was not always sellable in regards to the industry's whims. I realized that as you grow your society becomes smaller so you don't expect to be among the stars in the industry when you want to do something different. That is what happens to the person who decides to stick to their guns and do that. During those days, it was a little bit different than it is now. The message was different. If you are a follower of the music, you will hear those people who made different moves and who evolved. If you are an intelligent person, when you listen to the growth of each one of those musicians, you will understand where their mind is because everything is apparent.
FJ: Evidence just reissued Great Friends with Sunny Fortune and Billy Harper.
RW: Most of the music that you listen to in this world of music never grows old. The more you listen to it, the more you hear in it because of just what is real in the world. When we did that product, we were taking a group to Europe to tour. I have a sister who is married to a Frenchman and she was working for a company there, Black & Blue, the original label that we produced the record on because of her wanted our group to record for her and we did. It came out, but it was only for Europe. Evidence became interested in it and put it out here. It is not something that will grow old because all the musicians are fresh and everybody is really playing good on it. It is just too bad that it was twenty-something years later before people get a chance to hear what was on your mind and they expect you to still be there. Not so. Everybody has moved onto their own ideas and their own thoughts and their own desires. Consequently, because of the amount of time that it takes for something to come out, that is what happens. Bands fall apart in the interim. That was a lot like when we were working with John. Bob Theile let John put in the contract that if he records for him, the record must come out within 'X' amount of months so that people will not come to you and ask you to play something that is old hat to you. Your mind has moved onto other things in five minutes, let alone five months. When I first joined John's group, people would ask him to play 'Favorite Things' and he didn't want to think about that. He did it because he was that kind of person who could do anything that he wanted to do and make it fresh, but he realized very quickly that his mind and his soul was moving so fast and the message was so futuristic that he didn't want to paint himself into a corner, so he had that put into the contract.
FJ: And the future?
RW: I have a group. I lost the saxophonist who was prime in the group. He had some problems and he fell off the scene. The groups that I have now, they vary because people have different things and I am not consistent enough in the business to keep it together. I am trying to pass my knowledge onto younger musicians and that takes a lot of time and energy along with living life and things that you have to do to keep up with this world. I am hearing certain things. I have certain ideas that I would like to do as far as the music is concerned, but I don't want to just get out there and do it. I want to spend some time with it before we present it. Spending time with it means finding people who have the time to spend with you and that is not easy to do. When you are away from the music, you are not at your best physical state like Tyson couldn't win after being in the joint for a few years. So you are not in the best physical state as far as your performance is concerned, so you become a little reluctant to just jump out there without some preparation. That is where I am right now. Between having had the time when I was very active in the music world and living through a time now, when I am not as active, I would like to be, in my mind, I would like to do several large projects which I have not done many of through my career. I am working on a opera right now. That is the direction that I want to go in. I would like not to spend a lot of energy and time with being a supporting artists for other person's projects because I have learned over the years that that doesn't work. I used to study the Hindu philosophy a lot and one thing that it taught me was that when you reach beyond a certain point, you leave a lot of people by the wayside. You move away from a lot of people and your society becomes a lot smaller according to which direction you are moving in. If you understand that reality, then you understand how to accept the fact that your society is smaller and therefore, the reward is smaller. I have seen some really great rewards. First of all, Fred, I am still on the planet. A lot of my associates are not. I have a beautiful family. I think that is a great reward. It comes back in different ways depending on where you values are, you will realize whether it is a reward or whether it is a detriment.
FJ: So the record opportunities have been there.
RW: Yes, I have, but I have just been really too busy with other things to really concentrate on it. It is about time for me to do that again. I just have not been able to do that. You can see my track record on the net, so you know what I have done. Those two pieces had a significance in that there was a musician who gave me the latitude to move the way that I moved and he liked the people that I chose. I say he, and that was Ralph Simon, who was the A&R man at Postcard at the time. I am busy with so many other things that I am not able to just jump out and make a document. As a matter of fact, Fred, I don't want to make a document under the circumstances as they are now. I would rather not document what is happening at this particular time. I would rather prepare something that is more in tune with where my head is. For example, we did the Summit Conference album. That was an idea that I had as far as presenting myself and get together with the people that are responsible for the cornerstones of this music. The other product was a sequel to that and the next thing would be a sequel to the second. It won't be a record just because someone says, 'Let's do a record.' I'm not interested in that. I am interested in doing something significant as far as my desire and my ideals are concerned. Otherwise, I would rather do nothing at all.
FJ: Compromise isn't in your nature.
RW: There may be only a few people who appreciate it, but I would rather be in the company of those few than the many who don't know what they are listening to or what you are trying to say.