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Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again

By Published: August 9, 2010
Bitches Brew

AAJ: : I don't know a lot about you before Bitches Brew. That's the first time I saw your name on something.

Lenny White with Bitches Brew platinum record

LW: Well, it's the first time my name was on something. That was a real stamp to qualify my being part of a movement, or being a working, recording musician, at 19.

AAJ: Miles Davis looks pretty good on your résumé. How did Miles hear you and pick you?

LW: New York was...well, it still is a mecca. Any qualifications come from being able to make it in New York. Back in the late '60s/early 70's, living in New York, I got a chance to see everybody, and all of us young musicians had aspirations to play with Miles Davis, because Miles was the epitome of hipness, and it gave you a certain credibility that you couldn't get anyplace else.

And so I'd been playing around, and word got out that I was one of the hot, young guys. I had done some sessions with people and the word got out, and I played with Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
1932 - 2006
sax, alto
. Jackie was a great jazz saxophonist in his own right. He was friends with Miles Davis for years. And Tony Williams first played with Jackie McLean, and Miles heard about him playing with Jackie. And so Tony went from Jackie to Miles.

AAJ: So, it was a natural progression?

LW: Well, no, but what happened also was that Jack DeJohnette had also played with Jackie McLean. And after playing with Jackie, Jack, of course, played with Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
and other people, but then he went and played with Miles. So when I got to play with Jackie, everybody said, "Oh, man, you're next, you're going to play with Miles because you got to play with Jackie McLean!" So there was a lineage. And of course I aspired for that to happen; it was a dream.

But I played around, playing gigs around New York and Queens, where I'm from. And I played this gig one night with two drummers. It was an avant-garde kind [of thing], and Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
1935 - 2009
was the other drummer. And there was a trumpet player who was a friend of Miles, and he was playing, so when the set was over, he said, "Man, has Miles ever heard you play?" And I said, "I don't think so!" And he said, "I'm going to tell Miles about you!" And I said, "Yeah, right, whatever, sure."

And the next thing I know, I get a phone call. Miles is calling my house, and my mom answered the phone. And you know, Miles had this raspy voice. He said, "Akhhhhh," and my mom said, "Who is this? Man, if you don't speak up, I'm hanging the phone up," And so then she handed me the phone, and I got an opportunity to talk with him. He asked that I come to his house and rehearse. So I went there. All he wanted me to bring was a cymbal and a snare drum.

And I went. Jack was there. And Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
, Wayne [Shorter]. I think Chick was there, too. And we rehearsed the first part of "Bitches Brew." Do do doo, do do doo, diddle do, do do doo. Doooo, da. Daaa da. Phswww." And he said, "Okay, be at CBS Recorders at 10:00." It was kind of historical, I believe; if not exactly the weekend, then the same week as Woodstock [That first recording session at Columbia's Studio B occurred the morning of Tuesday, August 19th, 1969. Less than 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix concluded his iconic performance, Miles Davis, Lenny White and the others were recording what would ultimately be Bitches Brew]. And then we recorded for three days. From 10:00 to 1:00. Three days. That's it. Juma Santos played percussion. Don Alias played percussion. Jack DeJohnette, myself, Dave Holland, and Harvey Brooks. Bennie Maupin
Bennie Maupin
Bennie Maupin
, Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
, Chick, and Larry Young
Larry Young
Larry Young
1940 - 1978
organ, Hammond B3
played on "Spanish Key." John McLaughlin, Wayne and Miles. That's it. So all the people that tell you that they were on the Bitches Brew session, no. That's who was there.

Tony [Williams] was still around, and Tony was the guy who actually got it rolling, I mean, without him there would be no Bitches Brew.

AAJ: When you talked to Miles, did he ever talk about what Tony was doing with Lifetime?

LW: He wanted [the new recording] to be Miles Davis featuring Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
' Lifetime. And Tony didn't want to do that. So Miles got John [McLaughlin] and Larry [Young], and put them on.

From left: Tony Williams, Lenny White, Jeff Ocheltree

AAJ: [laughs] There's a thing about a bandleader—there are different styles of bandleaders. I've heard, from a couple different guys who played with Miles, that he didn't say much, that one of his biggest strengths as a leader was not what he made people do, but what he let them do. Chick [Corea] tells the story of his first gig with Miles, when he filled in for Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
. They only met for a minute in the hotel lobby before the gig, and I think the entire conversation consisted of one sentence of advice from Miles: "Just play what you feel." It seems he was more interested in finding the right guy and then saying, "Okay, now, you do what you want to do, and see how we can fit that in with what we're doing."

LW: Well, that's true. But I know, when we did the Bitches Brew record, he did give me some direction. He said to me, "Jack's going to play the rhythm, and I want you to play all around it. You play whatever you want to play, but I want you to play around it." And for me, that was the beginning. I've done a lot of different things with more than one drummer, and I try to create the image, the audio image, of one guy with eight arms, as opposed to two drummers. And I think it comes from Miles saying that to me. He said, like, "Let Jack play the rhythm and I want you to play all around it, and make it do this and spark."

And it was really cool, you know, to give this young guy this opportunity to do that. Because he could have told me, "Play the rhythm and let Jack play all around that." Chick told me a story, too. He said that he got into the band and he went to Wayne and everybody, and just asked what changes they were playing on these tunes, and nobody would tell him anything. And Miles would never say to him what the changes were. And he tried to find out the changes. And so then he just decided to work within the framework and do whatever he heard. And Miles said, "Yeah, that's what I really wanted—that's why I didn't tell you what to play, because I wanted to hear what you would do with the music, and take it someplace else."

AAJ: That's how a Zen master does things.

LW: Even as a director of movies' I'm quite sure Martin Scorsese would say to Robert De Niro, "Well, here's the idea." As a matter of fact, Martin Scorsese said something to that effect. In Taxi Driver [in the role of the man in the cab spying on his wife], Scorsese gets into the cab, and Robert De Niro's driving the cab, and he's [Scorsese] supposed to look up and see his girlfriend up there. So he said that he got into the back seat and he was waiting for Robert De Niro to give the line, and he kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and he said, "You're supposed to give the line!" and he [De Niro] said, "Well, no, Marty, when you get here, you have to make it convincing." He [Miles] didn't have to say anything with certain guys. Certain musicians or actors will bring to the table something special to make the scene or the music emanate. And if you have to tell somebody what to do, it's one thing. But if you just give them minimal direction and let them go on and create something, most of the time you get something special.

AAJ: But you can only do that with somebody who's got it to begin with.

LW: Well, you do that with people that are in tune to whatever vision you have. You know, you pick people that have vision. Or somebody that you'd say has the same kind of viewpoints on things. You pick those kinds of people. And then again, you could have situations where you pick somebody that has the opposite [viewpoint] of what you would think, because that's what you want to get. It's about what you want to get as a producer or director, you know. You pick people that way. And usually it'll work to your advantage.

AAJ: I heard a story that during the recording of Bitches Brew, Miles was acting a lot like a movie director does when you're doing improv. He would just do the setup and he would get a group of guys...

LW: We were in a circle. We were actually in a circle. And we'd play, and Miles would stop, and start up the rhythm again, and he'd point to John. And John McLaughlin would play. And he'd stop, and he'd point to Wayne Shorter, and Wayne would play. That's how we—if you listen to Bitches Brew, when you hear the points where someone plays and there's a soloist, and then it stops, and then it starts up again, that's what was happening.

AAJ: That stop time thing gives it such a dramatic push that you have to be paying attention to know what's happening with it. It's not background music.

LW: You could think of it as... if you have an ensemble of actors and the scene is to have a conversation with all of the actors, and then you stop and let one of them have a soliloquy, and then the other actors [say], "Yeah, right!" and "Tell me more about it!" and "Tell me more!" And it happens, and that's what you get. That's the way it was recorded.

Improvising is a part of life. It just so happens that musicians use their instruments to improvise. Boxers do that every time they box. Baseball players do it every time they play baseball. Not necessarily politicians, because they have their speeches, and they don't really go past— they're pretty cut and dried. But then again, great politicians are able to improvise when the crisis comes. When crises arise, they're able to improvise for the betterment of everybody.

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