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Larry Ridley: Them's That Teach Can Do

By Published: November 29, 2007
LR: That's true, that true and I have so much respect for all those people. And Duke Ellington, you know. Just being on the bandstand with that man, you can't even tell people what that was like. I remember one situation I was playing at the Rainbow Grill with him, it was a smaller version of the band and Duke would always let the band start playing. This was really my first experience of working with the band, and Joe Benjamin had been involved in an automobile accident coming through the toll booth on the turnpike in Jersey, and so Mercer called me and I ended playing the gig up there. Actually that was my first time, and when Duke sat down at that piano the band was cooking, I mean with Harry Carney and Cootie Williams and Russell Procope, you know you couldn't miss with that.

When he sat down to that piano it was like—at least this is what I felt—it was like magic. It was like the whole band, we became an extension of his fingers on the keyboard. I tell people that and it's hard to explain, and people say "Aw, you're crazy, but you know it was a very emotional kind of thing to feel that happening. You knew why he was the maestro and the great Duke Ellington, because there was no doubt about who was in charge and yet still everybody had the freedom to be themselves. That was one of the beautiful things about the way Mr. Ellington was, that he incorporated all these virtuosos in the band and playing in that band, and playing the bass and having to be on the bottom with a Harry Carney, man, you can't even describe to people what that was like. I mean it was so much in terms of hearing the tone, hearing the emotion that he put into each and every note. It was just like you just get on a jet plane with a good pilot and you just go along for the ride and enjoy [laughs].

AAJ: I'm sure through the years your own teaching style has incorporated, consciously and subconsciously, all the things that you've learned through your years of experience.

Larry LR: Well I hope so and I thank God for giving me the opportunity and I just try to live every day trying to do the best I can and staying away from negative situations and people, and just trying to keep my eye on the prize as far as the music is concerned because the music is greater than all of us. If I can just instill that in the people and convey it to any level of humbleness ... because we've got some great talent to come out of my Rutgers program like Steve Nelson, David Sanchez and Adam Cruz—and, oh man, there's a whole bunch of guys like Dave Schumacher and ...

AAJ: Ralph Peterson.

LR: Ralph Peterson. The alto player who passed away, Chapin, Tom Chapin; really, really great talent who was unfortunately taken away too early, because when I first heard this kid I said, "Wow.

AAJ: Yeah, Ray Drummond had him in his band for a minute, too, but he was an all around musician, he was multidirectional. He was covering a lot of ground. Okay, is there anything that we haven't talked about here for the article that we should get to?

LR: I guess that I did mention about the Jazz Research Institute at North Carolina Central University, so that is something that I'm very excited about too, and the topics that we covered in that were dealing with the African/American community, jazz and the church, the historically black colleges and universities and their jazz programs and marching bands. We covered a lot of bases with all that, the media, so we'd just like people to go to our website, and keep abreast of what we're doing.

AAJ: The racial aspect of jazz as black music no longer seems to be the pressing issue that it was back in the sixties and seventies. Do you feel that the young African/American community is being made aware of what a great legacy this music is as part of their heritage?

LR: Well that's the beauty that I have found in working on this project and dealing with the historically black colleges, because one of the things that I started when I became the executive director of the African/American Jazz Caucus was I got tired of hearing guys talking about that folks are stealing our music and this, that and the other, and we're not getting access to the kind of PR that really lets people know that this is still our legacy and part of our heritage.


So I started this student all star big band to get some of the cream of the crop from the historically black college to commit to a blind audition. We have a professional panel that chooses them, I have a great committee of jazz band directors from the historically black colleges and universities who have been working their butts off and really pulled this thing together, and we've been performing and you'd be surprised how many young African/American kids are involved and know about the music. But the thing that gets the commercial PR is the hip-hop, which is not negative, totally, because we're also doing some interaction and interfacing with the hip-hop community in a positive way.

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