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Interviews

Paul F. Murphy: Playing Universally

By Published: April 28, 2010
AAJ: Absolutely. Getting outside of the box was the biggest thing playing-wise: finding a way to conceptualize playing differently and hopefully uniquely; creating instead of reproducing; playing something as opposed to just playing the drums. And, in order to do that, finding a way to connect playing to something other than playing ...

PFM: Finding a way to draw the connection to the universe and the human spirit and condition.

From left: Paul Murphy, Larry Willis

AAJ: What has helped you understand the universe and the soul to allow you to connect your playing with these things?

PFM: I would say my love of drumming has always outweighed my lust for financial gain and that has allowed me to keep my mind open and clear and sustain a pursuit of knowledge and skill. I have also found that family has become more and more important and influential. I decided long ago that I was going to be far better off studying, playing and recording what I believed in instead of living in a situation where I would have probably ended up dead.

AAJ:Did this decision allow you to pursue and study music and drumming to a higher level?

PFM: My current job as associate director of Georgetown University facility management and operations allows me to live a stable life in an environment surrounded by the study of humanities and technology. It allows me to be as free-thinking and playing as I need to be—or want to be. I still practice every day. I still play and record the best of my musical endeavors with my best friend, Lawrence Elliot Willis. And, I teach extremely selectively.

AAJ: The ability to be free and forward thinking is very important. It seems as if that mindset is basically required in order to be a part of—or even conceptualize—the kinds of things you are talking about. And that mindset is always a part of the path to innovation. Being considered a pioneer in music and drumming, what qualities do you believe are necessary to be an innovator?

PFM: An innovator has to do at least one of two things: you can either advance concept or you can advance style. You have to change or move one or both of these things in a new direction. And it takes belief. You have to believe in what you are doing, you have to be determined to do it. Motivation, determination and continuous pursuit are a huge part of success as an innovator and success in general, but success does not necessarily equal innovation. Success often defines commercialism—not all the time—but in order to be new, you have to think new. You have to think and be outside of the box.

I believe, too, that technique is the mother of invention. Technique and the study of techniques are what lead to innovation. It doesn't just happen. You need to have an understanding of all the world's music and what makes them different and the same. In order to advance style, you must have a good functional knowledge about past and current styles and in order to advance concept you must understand past and current conceptual movements.

AAJ: "Technique is the mother of invention." Clear examples of this are players like Jimmy Lyons

Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
1933 - 1986
sax, alto
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Dewey Johnson, Walter Davis Jr.
Walter Davis Jr.
Walter Davis Jr.
1932 - 1990
piano
, John Tchicai
John Tchicai
John Tchicai
1936 - 2012
saxophone
, Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
and Clifford Jordan
Clifford Jordan
Clifford Jordan
1931 - 1993
saxophone
, all of whom you have played and/or recorded with and all of whom are viewed as innovative players who changed and/or contributed to the progress of jazz. Each of these players had/has a serious command of their instrument. Can you talk about the process of developing your technique to get to that kind of level?

PFM: Well, I studied for 11 years with Joseph Levitt, who was at that time, the principle percussionist of the National Symphony and director of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Throughout the years, during my study with Levitt, I was introduced to Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa
1909 - 1973
drums
, Louie Bellson
Louie Bellson
Louie Bellson
1924 - 2009
drums
, Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
drums
, Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
, Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
drums
...

AAJ: Not only met but played or studied with.

PFM: Right. I also spent a lot of time playing all different forms of music from symphonic to orchestral to marching to R&B and rock and roll. At the age of 17, I was introduced to bassist Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
1921 - 2010
piano
, from Ellington's band who was instrumental at a very important time in my development as a player and the direction I would end up taking in music.

AAJ: What happened in the development of your technique "beyond?"

PFM: Sitting in a parking lot outside the Blair Mansion Inn, where I was playing a society gig with Billy [Taylor] and pianist John Phillips, while sitting in Billy's 1965 Ford LTD, Billy stuck in an 8-track cartridge and asked me, "Do you know who these cats are?" We listened for about 25 minutes. I said no, he told me, "This is Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
, Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
1933 - 1986
sax, alto
and Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
b.1937
drums
. These are the cats you need to know. This is what you play."

AAJ: What put you as "one of those cats?"

PFM: My concept of playing time; the way I moved time.


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