Larry Willis: Reaching and Teaching
In a career spanning five decades, Larry Willis has amassed one the most impressive resumes in jazz, including tenures with Jackie McLean, Hugh Masekela, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Carla Bley, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Cobb's So What Sextet and Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, testifying to the high esteem in which he is held by his peers. Yet despite a substantial discography including scores of sideman appearances and over twenty dates as a leader, the gifted pianist/composer is only just beginning to receive the critical and popular acclaim his talent so richly deserves. Here he shares some of the wisdom he has gained through his wide ranging experiences.
All About Jazz: Well let's start with clearing up the confusion about your birth date, as it is given as different years in different editions of the Encyclopedia of Jazz and other sources. You were born in New York City on December 20th of what year?
Larry Willis: 1942.
AAJ: It is often stated as 1940.
LW: Well I can explain that, I think. When I was with Blood, Sweat and Tears, there was a questionnaire sent to the band members that was supposed to go into the Encyclopedia of Jazz and evidently they mistook a two for a zero. And that's how that all started. But Ira Gitler was supposed to have cleared that up.
AAJ: Well Ira evidently did take care of it. The information is given correctly in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia, however All Music Guide and some other places continue to list the "older" Larry Willis.
LW: Right. (laughs)
AAJ: You grew up in New York and became part of the City's burgeoning sixties jazz scene when you were still a teenager. How did you come to the piano and jazz?
LW: Well first of all my brother, my late brother Victor, was a classically trained pianist and a graduate of the Guilmant Organ School.
AAJ: So there was a piano in the house?
LW: There was a piano in the house, but I was never really interested in it until my last year in high school.
AAJ: And you went to Music and Art (High School), but you didn't go there to study piano?
LW: No, I was a voice major.
AAJ: What finally attracted you to the piano at that point? Did you hear somebody?
LW: Yes, there was a guy by the name of Joseph Bullard, who lived in the next building on my block and my brother had just bought a stereowe're going back to hifi nowand one day this guy came over and brought this record, it was called Milestones, and I liked the way the pianist (Red Garland) played. Then I started to hear jazz in high school with guys like Eddie Gomez and Jimmy Owens and people like that.
AAJ: These were your classmates there?
LW: Well yeah, not necessarily the same year, but we were in school at the same time.
So I just started to tinkle around at the piano and it tweaked my interest and when my friend Joseph Bullard brought Kind Of Blue over, that was it.
AAJ: And that was Wynton Kelly that sealed the deal?
AAJ: And we can still hear that in your playing.
LW: Well, the apple don't fall far from the tree. (laughs)
AAJ: You continued you education at the Manhattan School of Music. Did you remain a voice major of become a piano major?
LW: No, I became a theory major.
AAJ: You've been known as a composer as well as a pianist for most of your career. You began writing while still at Manhattan and your first recording with Jackie McLean (Right Now!) featured a couple of your compositions ("Poor Eric" and "Christel's Time"). You were still quite young, but you had already hit a stride as a composer.
LW: Yeah, I was 22 years oldwell actually I started playing with Jackie when I was nineteen and the first record I was on was like three years later.
AAJ: Was Jackie your first outing into the jazz scene?
LW: Yes he was.
AAJ: Did it open your eyes to the big, wide world of jazz?
LW: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
AAJ: What was the scene like at that time? Would you call it thriving?
LW: Yeah it was thriving. First of all just in my neighborhood there were seven or eight clubs that had jazz seven nights a week. You'd go up the hill to Branca's and there was an organ trio playing there and there was Small's Paradise that always had bands and Count Basie's and Wells and the Club Baron and Minton's Playhouse. You know there was a lot of that activity going on right in my own community.
AAJ: Who were some of the piano players you heard around that time that inspired you?
AAJ: Later on you went to play with Hugh Masekela, which was one of the earliest examples of a kind of "world music" group. There wasn't much of a crossover influence between jazz and African music at that point.
LW: In terms of what Hugh was doing, we met at Manhattan School of Music and Hugh was basically at that time was aspiring to play like Clifford Brown. We would go to jam sessions and he used to have a little band with Eddie Gomez and Henry Jenkins and some other South African horn players like Morris Lornburg (?) and George Guagua (?), who were both students at the Manhattan School Music, along with me and Hugh. When Hugh decided to leave school and form his own band, we kind of got it together and I was the pianist that he wanted. So we kind of meshed together and hung out a lot and I learned a lot from him about certain forms and South African music. And at the time, because he had just married Miriam Makeba, I was around Miriam all the time and she was also a main source of my education in African music.
AAJ: You managed to put that knowledge of different forms to good use later, when you became a member of Jerry Gonzalez' Fort Apache Band.
LW: Some of it yes, but understand, I grew up in Harlem and Harlem was a melting pot of a lot of different ethnic people. I heard the conga drums in my ears all my life. I don't know if I knew technically what they were doing, but it just felt good.
AAJ: So you had an unconscious or subconscious understanding of Latin rhythms just from growing up around them.
AAJ: Also, early in your career, you were a pioneering fusion musicianI guess we can call you thatas a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
LW: Yeah. One of the things that attracted me to the band was the band being heavily influenced by jazz music, you know, and coming along there were jazz players such as Freddie Lipsius that I methe's also a Music and Art-erone of the founding fathers of Blood Sweat and Tears; and Lew Soloff of course.
Oddly enough when I was at Manhattan School of Music I got to meet a guy who took a very keen interest in me and that was the late Jules Colomby. Jules had a brother that was born on the same day as I was. And I got to meet Bobby and, you know, we shared a lot. We had a lot of common ideas about what music is. And there was one word that my teacher John Mehegan used to always use and the word is eclectic and at the time I saw music moving from the jazz or bebop genre over into that. You know, you had records at the time by people like Ramsey Lewis and certainly Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! by Cannonballall of these things were considered fusion, as far as I'm concerned. Blood Sweat and Tears actually took it a dimension further because it would tap into all kinds of forms, speaking of the word eclectic. They recorded things not only riveted in the blues and on BS&T Two they did a version of a piece of music by Eric Satie. They were all over the place, but with good taste because they had very, very excellently trained, gifted musicians. People like Randy Brecker. And I mentioned Bobby Colomby. Bobby basically started out as a jazz drummer. As a matter of fact, Max Roach gave him his first drum set. So that involvement and a common interest at the time.
AAJ: You mentioned Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!. You eventually went on to play with Cannonball. What are some of the things you learned playing with Cannonball?
LW: It changed my life. Cannon used to say, we have a comprehensive band. One of the things that I think I have learned from Cannon is, as he would so eloquently put it, is being able to get music "across the footlights." He would say that there are a lot of really great players that can really play the music well and play their instruments well, but just don't have that other gear that gets you across the footlights to reach the people. Cannon definitely had that kind of charisma and he was an extremely intelligent man who could talk about and identify and be involved in all kinds of conversations on almost any level. So when I started to have my own band, just being aware of your stage presentation, being able to dress hip and being able to talk, hopefully, on an intelligent level with the audience, you're playing for. And Cannon was certainly quite capable of doing that.
AAJ: And then you went on to play with Nat Adderley, who somewhat continued the tradition?
LW: Absolutely, absolutely.
AAJ: Through Nat you also began your pedagogical career. You followed in his footsteps there.
LW: At Florida Southern College, certainly. We did a lot of clinics. I was also on the initial faculty at the New School.
AAJ: Do you enjoy teaching? Do you think that this new world of jazz educationeven though it's taken the place of something that was invaluable, that is learning on the bandstanddo you see something positive in the way it works now.
LW: Not really, and I'll tell you why. In most of these universities that have jazz studies programs, the faculty does not consist largely of jazz musicians, so the information that these kids are getting is coming from a far more technical academic form than from a organic form that would come from a jazz musician as a professor. It is my contention that you can't teach this music as a science because there are too many schools of thought that are valid that go into this. So you can't departmentalize this stuff the same way that you would other forms of education. Unfortunately are either taught or headed by people who come strictly from the academic world and that's not going to work.
AAJ: Thankfully, there is a movement towards hiring people like yourself. In New York particularly, at least, where the faculty is so readily available, the city being the home to so many working jazz musicians.
LW: Well yes, here.
AAJ: You're speaking more of the those times and places where many jazz programs operated under a principle which basically proved the old adage that those who can't do, teach.
AAJ: From your work in Florida, you've begun doing some more ambitious work. You've written and arranged several orchestral jazz works? Do you find that rewarding?
LW: It's quite rewarding in several aspects. Music is so locked up in sound and the fact that having access or being able to write for larger ensembles has certainly been rewarding and another aspect has to do with society. For so many years, jazz musicians have been pushed over into a certain kind of boxyou can't read, you don't have technical skills, you don't have orchestration skillsand they never consider people like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and how agile minded they were in that arena. I just want to at least show the world that some people of color that play this music can jump over into that world, too. Because at the end of the day a C7 chord is the same the C7 chord to Johann Sebastian Bach as it was to Charlie Parker.
AAJ: You've developed an international reputation as a result of this work. You've not only performed your orchestral works in universities here, but also in Israel and elsewhere around the world. You're working more on the international scene these days. What are some of things you're seeingbesides that traveling can be a drag?
LW: (laughs) Yeah, we don't even have to go there. I see a broader interest in this music, outside of the United States, from younger people, than ever before. For example, I just came back from a European tour with the trio and the audiences were just absolutely, astoundingly receptive. And oddly enough, in most cases they were mostly young people. It's quite rewarding to see, as far as I'm concerned.
AAJ: You also had a Russian interlude in the middle of the tour. What did you see in Russia?
LW: A lot of cold weather (laughs). We played two nights at this club in Moscow, called the Composers' Club and there again there was a lot of audience participation and I would say a good percentage 35 years old or younger. Russia is a very, very interesting place. Because they go back, Russian society goes back, at least culturally, for a long, long time, but they are also a part of the world that we live in today and there is a lot of corruption and politics has a tremendous influence on how things are done there. You know, in essence, nothing's changed. It's extremely expensive to live there, you know, because they've got money now. It's weird, we tend to think, a lot of us, who have had any touch of Russian history or know anything of Russian history, we're still looking or still feeling Bolshevism and I guess that some of that remains, but under Bolshevism the Russian people were very, very poorbut now that's not necessarily the case. You know, you see a lot of mink coats walking down the streets of Moscow. But Moscow is just one place there. We didn't get a chance to go there this time, but the first time I went to Russia, I played the Jazz Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, which is absolutely beautiful; it has some tradition to it. St. Petersburg is just a wonderful beautiful place to visit, to see. It's actually in many respects, as it is called, "the Venice of the North." It's clean and it's beautiful and there's wonderful antique architecture there. Moscow is a horse of a completely different color. It's dirty and there's a lot of bullshit that goes on there, but all in all I had a great time.
AAJ: You'll be back in New York playing soon withyou have a longstanding working relationship with trombonist Steve Davis, who was schooled by Jackie McLean ...
LW: Just as Jackie schooled me. Yeah, I'm coming to New York to play with Steve the 5th and 6th of March.
AAJ: You also use Steve on your own recordings. He's part of your band, you're part of his band. You do have a recording contract these days with High Note Records, we're happy to say. You are recording regularly these days. You're seen as a leader, certainly as a veteran from who younger players, who hold you in high esteem, can learn much. What are some of the valuable lessons that you have learned that you try to impart to younger musicians?
LW: The first is to be able to trust and use your ears. Because if you can't hear the music you're supposed to play, there's no other way to internalize it, to make it yours and have it regurgitate from you that is very, very personal and has to do with your own story. Respect for the music is something that I really, really, really try to push with the younger players and to get them to do as much homework as they possibly can because, as I mentioned before, there are so many valid schools of thought under the umbrella of this music that we call jazz, that need to be explored and the more that you explore them the broader your musical vocabulary becomes. So I try to encourage that as much as I can.
AAJ: Well you certainly listened to your teacher's admonition in regards to being eclectic, at least in regards to your taste. You listen I know to a lot of different music and we can hear that in all the little elements that come together to be that one big thing that is Larry Willis. What do you try to put into your music? What are the different facets of your storytelling technique?
LW: Well first of all, for me for the most part, has to have an element of dance. You have to be able to tap your feet to it in some form or another and just to keep myself open to whatever the possibilities are and never to let my taste in music to be confined and predetermined. The piano helps me in that direction because one of the things that my teacher used to joke about, but it's so very, very true is about the immense dimensions that the instrument has and he would put it this wayhe'd say, "Well kid, every time you sit down at this instrument the odds are 88 to ten, and they don't get any better." So if you shut yourself off, you can't go anywhere. And every time I sit down at the piano, the more I learn about it, the more I don't know. And that keeps my interest in this music in all forms. I'm trying to be not just a better pianist, but the best complete musician that I can be.
AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
Paul Murphy and Larry Willis
LW: Well, yes. One of the things that has been a tremendous joy for me and we just hope that this can just continue and grow... I have a very, very interesting and very good musical relationship with a great drummer by the name of Paul Murphy and I think that we are on the cutting edge of something because when we go into the studio to record there is nothing that is prewritten or prearranged. It's a total attempt at improvised music just based upon trusting and listening to the other player and I'm very, very elated about all of this because that is one of the elements that keeps my mind as open as I possibly can.
AAJ: I had the pleasure of reviewing one of those efforts a while back and I always say that it shows just how open you are. I think if I were to play one of those recordings for one of the self proclaimed members of the "jazz police" they perhaps find the Larry Willis they think they know, but if they made the effort to listen closely enough they find that it is indeed the very same Larry Willis.
LW: Same guy (laughs). Haven't gone anywhere.
AAJ: I'd imagine it must be cathartic for you to be able to get out from under all the rules and just be able to play?
LW: Yeah, but the only way that you can do that is learning and understanding the rules in the first place because nothing positive can come out of breaking the rule just because you can. You know there are reasons for it and overpriced (?) freedom. It's just been a revelation and something that we're going to continue and hope to build on. And hopefully we can get out here and play a few concerts and have people experience from a standpoint other than putting on a CD.
AAJ: Anything else?
LW: No just looking forward to continued work with the orchestras and the quintet and with the trio. And I just want to continue growing.
AAJ: Among the orchestral works you did a "Sketches of Spain" concert featuring your arrangements with an Israeli string ensemble. Have you had the chance to perform that here in the States yet?
LW: No. Russ, you know as well as I do, getting gigs in the States now is tantamount to trying to find a needle in a haystack. The interest in this music that keeps everything on an even playing field does not happen here. Even the jazz festivals that come up during late spring and summer, they're not even jazz festivals any longer. The jazz talent that these festivals will hire, you're talking about a very limited number of people and they're usually from another generation. Most of these festivals are basically music festivals. You'll find Gladys Knight and the Pips at a festival that is under the umbrella of jazz.
AAJ: Which wouldn't be such a terrible thing if you could find Larry Willis playing at a festival under an umbrella other than jazz.
LW: Absolutely, but you see that playing field is not level.
AAJ: Somehow jazz musicians are taken advantage of for their open mindedness towards other music in that they will share the stage with other types of artists at their festivals, but are never invited to open for rock of R&B acts.
LW: Because at the end of the day the bottom line comes down to money; certainly jazz represents less than two percent that is played or sold in any kind of economical reason.
AAJ: Well on that sad note, we'll call it an interview.
Jackie McLean, Right Now! (Blue Note, 1965)
Woody Shaw, Live Volume 1-4 (HighNote, 1977)
Jerry Gonzalez & The Fort Apache Band Rumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1988)
Larry Willis, Solo Spirit (Mapleshade, 1992)
Larry Willis Sextet, A Tribute to Someone (Audioquest, 1993)
Paul Murphy/Larry Willis, Foundations (Murphy, 2009)
Page 1: Eldon Baldwin