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Interviews

Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues

By Published: January 18, 2010

AAJ: The bands changed. When I first joined the band, there was James Moody

James Moody
James Moody
1925 - 2010
reeds
on saxophone, Mike Longo
Mike Longo
Mike Longo
b.1939
piano
on piano—We did a TV show one time in New Jersey. It was Milt Jackson, James Moody, Dizzy, Sam Jones
Sam Jones
Sam Jones
1924 - 1981
bass, acoustic
and Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
, and me. Sam and I worked together so well, we were going to join Dizzy together, but then Sam got sick. I went to play with Lee Morgan at the Lighthouse, and when I came back, Sam told me he couldn't make it. I was hurt, but I called Dizzy and came on board with him. He got Earl May
Earl May
Earl May
1927 - 2008
bass
on bass—there's a picture of him right over there [gestures behind him]. When Longo left, Dizzy got a guitarist named Al Gaffer, and then he got some young guys who only played rhythm and blues. So we ended up playing rock, that's where the money was at.

JP: What year was that?

MR: It had to be in the 1970s because I was with Dizzy most of that decade.



MR: That's what I liked about Milt Jackson—he always played jazz. He never went another way, he always stuck to his guns. He never turned his back on what got him where he was.

AAJ: You played with Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet for a while.

MR: For one year. Connie Kay

Connie Kay
Connie Kay
1927 - 1994
drums
got sick and I took his place for a year.

AAJ: There was something very special about the MJQ, of course, something more sophisticated than other groups.

MR: Well, they went more classical than jazz, in a way. John Lewis

John Lewis
John Lewis
b.1920
piano
and Milt Jackson played beautifully, and it was wonderful for me because I had never played music that beautiful before. But unfortunately, nothing is perfect. No matter how good it seems from the outside, when you get inside, you find that nothing is ever perfect. Milt and John used to feud a lot. Musically they were great, but they argued about the style of playing—John wanted a more classical sound and Milt wanted to do straight ahead jazz.

AAJ: In a way, the tension between them may actually have helped the music itself.

MR: I can't explain it. All I know is that I couldn't wait for that year to end! It was no fun, and if you can't have any fun, man, I don't want to be there.

JP: What groups did you really enjoy playing with?

MR: Lee Morgan's band. And Milt was great as an individual. And Sonny Rollins—I enjoyed playing with him for a couple of years. I played with Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
for a year. A lot of the groups then were pickup groups: Blue Note would call a bunch of us in to do a record. Or guys would just say, "I want Mickey on my record." But I had a great time playing with Ray Bryant
Ray Bryant
Ray Bryant
1931 - 2011
piano
's trio—that was one of my first jobs. Arthur Harper was on bass. I had a good time with Junior Mance
Junior Mance
Junior Mance
b.1928
piano
, too. That was when me and (Bob) Bob Cranshaw
Bob Cranshaw
Bob Cranshaw
b.1932
bass
first played together. We played in a club in Chicago called The Sutherland. It was a hotel and they had bands come from all over. So they had a group called MJT Plus Three, which included Harold Mabern
Harold Mabern
Harold Mabern
b.1936
piano
, Bob Cranshaw, Willie Thomas, and Frank Strozier
Frank Strozier
b.1937
sax, alto
. The drummer was Walter Perkins. I was in Ray Bryant's Trio and we played opposite them. So one time, Harper got drunk and didn't come down for the last set, so Cranshaw said, "I know the music." So he covered for Harper in our trio, and that was it, we really hit it off, and we played a lot of records together.

JP: Are you still close?

MR: Oh, yeah, we're like brothers. Every time he comes to Philly, he stays right here with me.

AAJ: What's Cranshaw doing these days?

MR: He's traveling all over—he still works with Sonny Rollins. Right now, he's in Miami playing with Gregory Hines' brother, Maurice Hines. That cat Cranshaw is one of the busiest guys in the world.

AAJ: Let's talk specifically about the music. One of the things that's discussed about jazz groups is who sets the rhythm. Now, it seems obvious that the drummer sets the rhythm, but Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
said he was always listening to the bassist.

AAJ: Well, I was going to ask you who sets the rhythm, and does that change from group to group?

MR: You listen to different players for different things. I listen to the bassist for stability. I listen to the horn players, man, for their beauty and for the melodic chances that they take. You find something to listen to that's inspiring, and that's what you listen to. But I listen to the bassist for stability. We're stable mates.

AAJ: So you and the bassist are a pair?

MR: The bassist and drummer are supposed to "lock up." The two of us are "the rock."

AAJ: Which bassists did you have the most rapport with?

MR: Lots of cats. I would lock up good with Ray Brown

Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
, with Sam Jones, Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, Arthur Harper. Arthur Harper was my favorite, because he could solo. Man, that guy could solo.



AAJ: Tell us more about Harper.

MR: Arthur Harper was one of the greatest jazz players—intelligent, too. He and Lee Morgan went to high school together—they both were in the All City High School Orchestra. Harper was a good artist, actor, very talented. He played with Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
. He was his own worst enemy though—he'd do things to hurt himself. But when he was OK when he played, as far as I'm concerned, there was no one like him. And we played together with Shirley Scott
Shirley Scott
Shirley Scott
1934 - 2002
organ, Hammond B3
.


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