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Wayne Escoffery: Past And Future

By Published: October 1, 2007
The Reluctant Monk

AAJ: When you got out of Hartt, you continued to make your mom happy by getting a full scholarship to the Thelonious Monk Institute. Talk about that.

WE: What I initially was hoping to do was to come to New York. Even after high school, all my friends went straight to New York. I had some friends who played jazz with me in New Haven, and they all went to the New School or Manhattan [School of Music]. I was spending a lot of time with the Jazzmobile, so I really wanted to come to New York. But I got a full scholarship to go to Hartt, so I went to Hartt. After that I was like, "OK, great, I'm done. Now I can go to New York." Then J-Mac told me to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute. He said, "I think it would be good for you." I didn't really want to do it, but I said, "OK, I'll audition and if I get in, I'll decide then what will happen."

So I started making a tape. But then I started having second thoughts, thinking, "I really [don't] want to do this. I want to go to New York now and play." I told some of my friends, and then J-Mac called me in his office. He said, "I know you're having second thoughts about doing this. You really should do this. You should go, you should get a Masters, you'll be able to study with all these people. You should do this. Now is the time for you to do this stuff." I trusted what J-Mac said. It meant a lot to me. Everything he said meant a lot to me. I auditioned and I got in.

AAJ: What happened as a result of going to the Monk Institute?

WE: A lot of great things happened. The way it works is they select a band. So you're a band in a college with full access to everything, which was great. In addition to that, they bring guest artists up every week. So I was able to get private lessons and we were able to deal with these musicians in an ensemble environment. [Saxophonist] Benny Golson, [saxophonist] Phil Woods, [pianist] Barry Harris. [Bassist] Ron Carter was one of the artistic directors and the band coach. Every weekend, Friday and Saturday, you'd have an intensive study with him for about five hours. Just Ron Carter telling us what the deal is.

In addition to that, we'd do tours with the group. One summer, we did a tour and had [pianist] Herbie Hancock on piano. So our ensemble had Herbie on piano! Our pianist, Richard Johnson, would play a couple of tunes each concert, then Herbie would play the rest. So in addition to be able to study with all these great jazz musicians and meeting a lot of people in the business, I got to go on the road with Herbie Hancock for two weeks. It was really an incredible experience.

When I moved to New York City, one of the first things I did was call every single person that I met while I was in the Monk Institute to say, "Hey, I'm in New York City. Just letting you know that I'm here. Give me some gigs." [laughs] [Pianist] Eric Reed, who came to the Monk Institute to do some stuff with us, was the first person I started working with. I was in his band when I first got to New York City, for the first two years or so. I'm sure if I would have just come here and not gone to the Monk Institute, something would have happened, but not in the same way that it did. The Monk Institute was really a great thing for me to do.

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Finally in New York!

AAJ: So now you're in New York, playing with Eric Reed. How long did that association last?

WE: Approximately two years. We did a CD called Happiness (Nagel Hayer, 2001), we did some tours. I also met [drummer] Carl Allen through the Monk Institute and through playing with Eric, and then I ended up working with him on different projects. Eric's CD Happiness was on the Nagel Hayer label, and Frank Nagel Hayer dug what I was doing. I had a project that I was working on and I ended up getting signed to Nagel Hayer. My first two CDs are on Nagel Hayer.

Wayne Escoffery

AAJ: Did you move to New York in 2000?

WE: Yeah. Maybe the summer of '99.

AAJ: By 2001, you had your first record out, Times Change (Nagel Hayer, 2001). Were you also playing with the Mingus Big Band then?

WE: Yeah. I think I hooked up with the Mingus band around 2001, just when that first CD came out.

AAJ: How did that happen?

WE: I was good friends with [drummer] Jonathan Blake and [trumpeter] Jeremy Pelt. They were always telling me to come down and sit in, so I would. Sue Mingus [wife of the late composer and bassist Charles Mingus] seemed to be pretty nice to me and thought I sounded OK. Then on one Thanksgiving—which is always the gig when it's hard to get [players] there—they were playing at the Fez. She called me and said, "Do you want to come and play the Mingus band?" I said, "Hell, yeah!" The first time I played it was Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. It was all subs. All guys who didn't mind playing on Thanksgiving and happened to be in town. Tain, [pianist] Dave Kikoski, all these bad dudes. [Saxophonist] Vincent Herring. That was my first time. After that, she gradually would call me every now and again. For the next year, probably, I was doing it maybe once a month. When 2001 came, I was pretty much a mainstay.

AAJ: Once you got that gig and had a record out, was it a steady upward progression from there?

WE: One of the good things about the Mingus band is that you're playing with so many different musicians. You're meeting people all the time, so that's been great. Sue has three groups and they're all very busy. I met [trumpeter and arranger] Don Sickler at the Monk Institute and got reacquainted with him, and he has this project that he's been working on for two or three years now—the Ben Riley Monk Legacy Septet. He asked me to play in that group. For the past year, I've been playing with the [trumpeter] Tom Harrell Quintet. I'm the newest member of that group. So yeah, pretty much every year after that, I've been working more and more. I'm blessed and lucky and really happy.

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