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Interviews

Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior

By Published: September 6, 2010
The Move to Philadelphia

AAJ: Were there other leaders besides Cecil Taylor whom you worked with?

Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
did with Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
. My life was becoming very complicated .My first daughter was born with Down's Syndrome when we were living in Ohio. I was not married or really planning to live forever with her mother. It was the Hippie period, and she was studying sort of by mail at the University of Indiana for a master's degree. So when my daughter was born I felt a tremendous responsibility in spite of my basic, spaced-out character. So I persuaded her mother to move to Brooklyn with me, and I was in New York two years and started to do more work, with R&B bands and so on. Also that was when the loft scene was flourishing, I had my own little bands with guys that played under Cecil, like William Parker
William Parker
William Parker
b.1952
bass, acoustic
, Rashid Bakr
Rashid Bakr
Rashid Bakr
b.1943
drums
(Charles Downs), and Joseph Locandro. I wanted to spread my wings, but the situation in New York was very compartmentalized, an unhealthy situation for musicians in many ways. Sort of in, versus out. A great digression from the '60s, when if you could play, you were "in."

So, then my daughter's mom got money to come to Penn for a PHD anthropology and another daughter was on the way. I was very committed to my daughter's happiness and offered to come with her. I thought it was temporary because it was not normal career move for a musician to move from New York to Philadelphia. But, surprisingly, I started meeting people in Philly who were playing all kinds of different stuff. And they liked the way I played, and I met all those older guys who had been around Coltrane, and it was really inspiring. People like Odean Pope
Odean Pope
Odean Pope
b.1938
saxophone
, Middy Middleton, Charles Cunningham, John Glenn, Ed Crockett, Freddie Green
Freddie Green
Freddie Green
1911 - 1987
guitar, acoustic
, and Tyrone Hill
Tyrone Hill
b.1948
. They were very nice to me, and encouraging. And after a year or two, I finally found and started studying with the great Dennis Sandole.

AAJ: Before you get to him, because I really want to focus in on Sandole, who were some of the key influences you encountered in Philadelphia at that time?

BZ: The main one was Odean Pope. He was teaching then at a government-sponsored program called "Model Cities," and he was very nice to me. He passed on some R&B gigs to me. We did a Latin gig together where I played baritone sax. I felt that Odean was a monster of a player and I couldn't understand why the guys in New York never mentioned him. There was a big concert, and he played on the same stage with Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
and David Murray
David Murray
David Murray
b.1955
sax, tenor
. I love Archie, but Odean was clearly the best. Just a month ago, CIMP released Fresh Breeze (2010), an Odean Pope Quartet CD with me, Lee Smith on bass and Craig McIver on drums. It represents those thirty years. He played with my big band, and he was on my Seeking Spirit (Cadence, 1992) CD with Johnny Coles, and others.

At the Model Cities, I also met Tyrone Brown
Tyrone Brown
Tyrone Brown
b.1940
bass
, who played on three or four of my records, and I played on two records with him as leader, with his fantastic string group, doing Tyrone's own music. Those guys were very flexible- they'd play with Sunny Murray, and then they'd play an R&B gig. Tyrone played with Grover Washington and around the same time he played with Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
. It was a different concept than in New York. Philadelphia really embodied the idea of a Black Music continuum that had a wide variety of branches that came from one trunk. Cecil was continually making connections between himself and Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
and Ellington and Monk and Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
. He grew up copying those guys, even though you don't easily hear it, it was his tradition. He even dug James Brown and Marvin Gaye. So he really taught me the connections among all the musicians.

In 1981, a great drummer named Alan Nelson, who used to play with Hannibal and Billy Harper
Billy Harper
Billy Harper
b.1943
saxophone
, brought me in to play with the great bassist/composer Jymie Merritt
Jymie Merritt
Jymie Merritt
b.1926
bass
's band, which included Odean and Julian Pressley, a great alto player. Jymie was the one who got me involved in advanced poly-rhythms and really opened me up to playing cross-rhythms. He was very complex rhythmically. Listen to the piece he played with Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
around 1963 called "Nomo." It's like what Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
b.1956
saxophone
, who is a genius of our age, is doing now. Working with Jymie was tremendous. I had a profound friendship with the magnificent drummer Edgar Bateman
Edgar Bateman
b.1929
drums
, who recorded with Eric Dolphy. I played a gig with him in 1976 and we went all the way to last month when he played his last performance with me before he passed away. We got to record together for CIMP in 2007.

These guys were so encouraging, and that led me to meet a whole other generation. I met Uri Caine
Uri Caine
Uri Caine
b.1956
piano
, when he was a student at Penn. He started playing in my band, and he introduced me to Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson
b.1962
drums
, who's one of the most important drummers in the world. He teaches at Berklee in Boston now, but he lived in Philly for a number of years, so I got to work and record two CDs with Ralph. Then, also at Model Cities, I met what I call the Ornette Coleman gang. I started playing with Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Jamaaladeen Tacuma
b.1956
bass
, in 1976. And through him I met Charles Ellerbee, and Calvin Weston
Calvin Weston
Calvin Weston
b.1959
drums
who were also part of Ornette's band.

So just here in Philadelphia, I've been able to meet so many great musicians. Through Ralph, I formed a wonderful working relationship with the singer composer Ruth Naomi Floyd
Ruth Naomi Floyd
Ruth Naomi Floyd

vocalist
, with whom I performed and recorded for years. Through Ruth, and her brilliant manager Keith McKinley, I got to play on the bandstand and in the studio with such major musicians as Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
b.1961
saxophone
, James Wideman, Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington
b.1965
drums
, Reggie Washington
Reggie Washington
Reggie Washington
b.1962
bass
, Craig Handy
Craig Handy
Craig Handy
b.1962
saxophone
. She was surrounded by great players.

Learning from Master Teacher Dennis Sandole

AAJ: Now, let's get back to Dennis Sandole. I've picked up bits and pieces about him from various musicians who consider him a genius, yet he remains almost a mystery to many people.

BZ: He is a mystical figure.

AAJ: So there you are in the firmament with all these guys doing new things, but yet Sandole pulls you into his sphere. And you're not alone—there's Pat Martino, John Coltrane, James Moody, Chuck Anderson, and many talented and innovative players. They all came to Sandole. But I can't quite get what it is that they got from him.

BZ: That's great! And that probably frames a question that people all over the world probably have. Even in New York, I met people who knew Sandole, and I read that Coltrane studied with him. So when I moved to Philly, one of the first things I did was to look up Sandole in the phone book, but I couldn't find him! It turned out later that he lived in Springfield in the suburbs, and even though he taught in South Philadelphia, he had no phone listing there.

Dennis taught about tonal relationships both vertically and horizontally. He was an Italian guy from South Philly who came up in the late '30s and '40s, and sometimes called himself "Denicio." He was what you call an autodidact, that is, he taught himself music, and as a guitarist, he had the whole orchestra at his fingertips. In terms of making a living, he played guitar with Charley Barnett and the Dorsey Brothers and Boyd Raeburn
Boyd Raeburn
b.1913
, those modern, high level working bands. He somehow developed a profound understanding of tonal relationships, how tones combine, of how tones resolve or not, which is how western harmony and jazz as such came about. He really knew how to create colors with chords, and add real interest to simple progressions and develop polytonal lines.

He was also a master of the art of teaching. He really knew how to impart information. And he was totally non-judgmental, and not about any particular style. He was about tones and about creativity. So he taught tonal movement, and he could do it from the points of view of chords and melody. He could make you hear lines, and the way he would make you hear it is that he would write out these short exercises that would illustrate certain ideas. It's just like if you wanted to teach a child one plus one, you could give him one apple and then another apple, rather than deal with numbers which are an abstraction.

So what Dennis would do is, rather than telling you that this tone can go with that tone, he would write out these exercises, and then you'd have to memorize in one key and play them in all twelve keys. He would say "barbells on the ears." Rather than telling you what worked, he would put it in your fingers and your ears. And each student would respond differently, so he would take them in different directions. Like certain notes don't usually go with some chords, but under some circumstances they might. So then you'd have to play through that in all the keys, so you'd have to hear it and get it in your fingers. So he was expanding your vocabulary.

Some people take Charlie Parker's solos and play them all over the horn. So you learn Charlie Parker's language, and that's great. But what Dennis would do is give you, every week, something you hadn't heard before. We did some stuff from records, but Dennis would write four bars out, and you could spend hours trying to get it. You'd only be in his office maybe 20 minutes. Most of the work you did at home.

He was different with every student. With me, he saw that I was interested in writing, so he had me get orchestration and counterpoint books. He had me take a chapter or two and outline it and read back what I had written. He made me learn it myself. He really pushed me writing-wise. I'll never forget when I was with him a couple of years, and he made me write out this little eight bar figure, and I related it to Stravinsky. And he said, "Yeah, but what you wrote is better than Stravinsky." He made you feel great. And he did that in away with all of his students. He would make you feel that you were the special one. And then the next guy would go in, and he was the special one. He would kick your butt with that material. I got so caught up in it, that I stayed up nights working on it. It was such an exciting time. Then, after a while, I got caught up doing gigs and recordings, but I always wanted to continue learning from him. And I studied with him until the end of his life.

AAJ: You portray the experience so richly, I could almost visualize myself being in the room with him. He sounds like a remarkable teacher who literally made musicians bring out their true potential.

BZ: And if you don't believe me, he has a couple of recordings- very few. One was on Fantasy called The Brothers Sandole (Fantasy, 1999), with his brother Adolph, who was a fine teacher too but not what Dennis was doing. You can see how talented Dennis was from the guys on his records: Art Farmer
Art Farmer
Art Farmer
1928 - 1999
flugelhorn
, James Moody
James Moody
James Moody
1925 - 2010
reeds
, Teo Macero
Teo Macero
Teo Macero
1925 - 2008
producer
, John Porter—great players. People saw Teo in that movie with Monk, and he looked like a clown, but he was a great musician. The material is so modern it sounds maybe like George Russell of that period.

AAJ: In addition to Sandole and Cecil Taylor, have you had any other serious mentors?

BZ: In fact, I guess my greatest fortune has been in the area of mentors—I have been really blessed. In 1999 I was introduced by pianist Joe Locandro to Ornette Coleman—For about four years, I went up to Ornette's loft maybe monthly and he generously shared so many of his ideas about music and life. His approach, which he named harmolodics, is extremely personal as he proved with 60 years of brilliant compositions and improvisations. Ornette's mentorship was totally profound—he showed me things on paper and most often through the horn. Mentors are extremely important in life and art: animals have parents, but only humans can form the special bond of mentor and disciple.


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Download jazz mp3 “Ceremonies of Forgiveness (Part 1)” by Bobby Zankel