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Bennie Wallace: Disorder at the Border

By Published: January 2, 2008
Then towards the end of the '40s, he switched to a Berg Larsen mouthpiece. It was a different sound, a deeper sound. ...And I always hear a real relationship between his saxophone playing and the cello. First of all, he's not what you would call a blues-based player. Now it's politically correct to say it's not jazz unless it's coming from the blues... Hawkins doesn't come from the blues.

AAJ: Where did he come from?

BW: From my years of listening to him, the seed of Coleman Hawkins is the Bach cello suites. ...Listen to the record he plays, "I Thought About You on a Kenny Burrell record [Bluesy Burrell (OJC, 1962)]...they start out with Burrell playing the melody, well Hawkins plays the introduction and then plays these obbligati behind Kenny Burrell. He doesn't directly quote Bach cello suites, but structurally there's just such a relationship. ...I used to know a guy at Sam Goody's. And Coleman Hawkins would come in there and he never went to the jazz section, he was always in the opera section. One day my friend asked him, "Would you like to come look at our jazz records? Hawkins said, "No, I make those. [laughs] You really hear a real European classical influence in his playing.

AAJ: What makes your playing linked to him and also different?

BW: I don't think that any serious jazz saxophonist isn't linked to him. Even Lester Young—he was linked to it by being the antithesis of it! [laughs] But he was still linked to it. I love a lot of saxophone players. If you look at my record collection, there are so many saxophone players that I've been influenced by and love, all of them eventually directly or indirectly come from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young...and Louis Armstrong in a sense. And Hawkins comes in a sense from Louis Armstrong, and they played together with Fletcher Henderson.

AAJ: What other kinds of things, aside from this project have you been up to lately?

BW: I'm the Artistic Director for a new non-profit up here in Connecticut called Back Country Jazz. And we're producing jazz concerts. The original idea was to produce jazz concerts like chamber music concerts, where there's little or no amplification in a nice acoustic setting where you can really hear the instruments. And I'm hiring my favorite musicians.

The formal idea is to perpetuate the music of the artists that are the present day state of the evolution of jazz. By that I mean people that really invoke their own personal statements from the tradition. We're not bringing in the best guy imitating whoever's dead, or no repertory stuff... I'm bringing up the people who I think are the masters. The ones I can afford anyways. The ones that are nice enough to do it...we're doing one on Dec. 2nd, which is Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, Peter Washington, Herlin Riley and myself.

AAJ: This is in Greenwich, Conn.?

Bennie Wallace ></a><strong>BW:</strong> Yeah, it's an art gallery in walking distance from my house here in Greenwich, the Seven Bridges Foundation. They actually gave me the idea, the seed for me to start this non-profit. So, I have a great Board of Directors, who is aggressively trying to raise the money to do this. What we want to do is to present concerts in the area, which we're already beginning to do and then to take it to schools and inner cities. We did one little concert over at SUNY-Purchase for the jazz department back in April. And we're talking to people about doing more educational events. I want to bring Mike Longo up to do teacher training with people that are teaching jazz; Mike has a wonderful system of teaching Dizzy Gillespie's rhythmic concept from all these years as Dizzy's Musical Director.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> So, you're still hopeful about kids coming to this music?<br /><br /><P><strong>BW:</strong> Well, kids are coming to this music, that's the thing. There are so many young fine musicians out there. I'm worried about what they're going to have. Although, you never know about fashion. When I was a kid, everybody just thought it was going to get better and better and it fell apart. Now we think it's all falling apart and maybe it'll come back together again. We really need to keep it alive. There's so much jazz education that misrepresents the music and there's so much music out there today.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> The European classical tradition—would you say that has also influenced your thinking, writing and playing?<br /><br /><P><strong>BW:</strong> I was trained as a classical clarinetist. When I went to college, I was trained to be an orchestral player. The first music that really got my attention was the Brahms clarinet sonatas. The way those things are constructed, there's a certain flow to them that seemed like totally unconscious, but was very conscious. It was Dizzy Gillespie, or like Monk, sounds kind of loose but it's not. Old Testament.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />And then when I was in high school, I played a Stravinsky unaccompanied clarinet piece which turned my head around. And then in college, I never performed it but I studied the Bartók contrasts for clarinet and that's when I discovered harmonic concepts that I could put to my music. Those lines had harmonic implications to me that I kind of took into jazz. That was a huge kind of detour for me at that point in my life, really getting into those 20th Century harmonic and melodic concepts.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />One day I heard Ed Beach's radio show and he was playing Don Byas and Ben Webster and Zoot Sims and Duke Ellington. And I said,
Selected Discography

Bennie Wallace, Disorder at the Border: The Music of Coleman Hawkins (Enja-Justin Time, 2007)
Bennie Wallace, Moodsville (Groove Note, 2001)

Bennie Wallace, Bennie Wallace (Audioquest, 1998)

Bennie Wallace, Twilight Time (Blue Note, 1985)

Bennie Wallace, Plays Monk (Enja, 1981)

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