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Larry Ridley: Them's That Teach Can Do

By Published: November 29, 2007
So I said this is a good idea for me to do and that's why I majored in music education and not just a straight bachelor or music degree, because I saw that it was an opportunity and I've always felt that jazz needed to have a similar type of thing and that was really the catalyst for me getting involved in jazz education, because I always felt that the music academy, quote-unquote, was not going to ever accept jazz a legitimate art form or music because there was always this thing about, "Oh do you play legit or "Do you play serious music. And I said, "Of course I'm serious. [laughs] People come up to me and say, "Oh you have such wonderful technique, you must have studied legitimately. I said, "Well I think so. And they would be ranting and raving about this that and the other thing.

AAJ: And you got your post graduate training with Thelonious Monk.

LR: Thank you. And that was one of the best schools. That's one of the things I've always tried to incorporate, and that's why I brought in people like Kenny Barron and different ones because there are many schools—and this is not a negative knock at any of these institutions that have jazz degree programs—but I read some of these ads that they put out and they say come and study with some of the greatest jazz musicians and I look at some of the names and I don't know who these people are or who they performed with.

AAJ: Like guys who played with Stan Kenton for three months in 1952.

LR: [laughs] Or even less than that; lesser names than Stan Kenton. But you know, as the jazz education thing has taken off, it has become a niche market for people who aspire to play jazz and what have you, and the whole jazz education thing has just grown like topsy. Some of the programs that I've seen, you sometimes question the credibility of them because one the main things they fail to keep incorporated is that whole spiritual aesthetic of the music, which is the feeling of the music that comes from Mother Africa through the whole African/American experience. You know there's so many attempts to revise the history of the music and to promote people who have backing from record companies or other sources to be given some sort of commercial success, and I think about some of these great musicians, many of them never studied, but interestingly enough there were a number of people that came through the historically black colleges that were some of the top musicians. You know Cannonball Adderley and his brother Nat came through Florida A&M ...

AAJ: All the way back to Fletcher Henderson.

LR: Oh yeah, there's a whole list of these things. I did an article once for Local 802, a couple of years back during Black History Month. Michael Elsimer asked me to do an article and they had a chart of all the people that came through various historically black colleges—Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, Noble Sissle, I mean just a whole bunch of folks.

Larry AAJ: Which also helps counter the argument of the "noble savage playing this music. That somehow if you didn't come from the street you couldn't play real jazz.

LR: But the thing was, was that these guys were in the street, but they were also in school. It came from the source.

AAJ: Right, but it wasn't just intuition that made them the great—not just the great musicians, but the great people that they were.

LR: That's right, and every now then when I see Nancy Wilson she talks about her days at Wilberforce. You know, there's just so many. Alvin Batiste from Southern University down in Louisiana, there's so many people that we can name, and the jazz bands, like the Alabama State Collegians, you know, they were just like the Fisk Jubilee Singers. These historically black colleges have always had to fight to get economic resources just to keep the doors open, and those bands went out and did the same thing—you know there's always the mention of the Jubilee Singers from various historically black colleges—but the jazz bands always did the same thing. At Tennessee State they used jazz as far as the marching bands and everything. And so it's always been a part of, but it's never been that much on the radar.

AAJ: Well how do you feel since Rutgers really kind of broke the barrier to make it where actively playing African/American jazz musicians became part of academia and passed on the tradition to students in the classroom, rather than informally on the bandstand and that is now the way of the world? How do feel, like you opened a Pandora's box or are you the proud papa of a system that is now producing more jazz musicians than we can find work for? Not that your generation could find enough work either, but we have a lot of people who can really play now, but with very little bandstand experience outside of the school, which is not to say that that is not legitimate experience to play in a school ensemble directed by Reggie Workman or Charles Tolliver, but it's certainly different than the way things were.

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