David Hazeltine: Milwaukee's Best Becomes One of New York's Finest
New York is a tough town. To be seen and heard among the scores of would-be jazz musicians you have to possess talent that is beyond the everyday and a voice that sets you apart from the crowd. Since settling permanently in the Big Apple in 1992, pianist David Hazeltine has done just that. He's consistently in demand as a sideman, works regularly with the hard bop sextet One For All, and leads his own ensembles to boot. Over the years, he's gigged with an all-star listing of jazz celebrities too numerous to mention, while racking up a solid body of work as a recording artist for a number of labels including Criss Cross, Sharp Nine, and Venus. As good-humored and fascinating as his music, Hazeltine willingly sat down for a recent telephone interview to converse about some of his most recent endeavors.
All About Jazz: Well David, your new record on Sharp Nine, The Classic Trio-Volume Two, again finds you working with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Louis Hayes. How did you hook up with those guys to form that trio?
David Hazeltine: We did a couple of sidemen dates together before the first trio record.
AAJ: Do you guys work a lot together as a trio?
DH: We get a chance to play. Between the trio and Lewis' quintet I'm around him a lot musically. Now Peter and I play with in other configurations, such as One For All. The three of us together don't play that often, I would say about once or twice a year other than the record dates. But it's such a high level of musicianship that it kind of all happens when we do it anyway. I mean, the first time we got together would not be all that different from the third time. Although, if we did play regularly over a period of time that would take it to a new level. But, I think with us used to working in so many different configurations, when we do get together, it's not apparent that we don't play together [very often].
AAJ: So, what are your thoughts about the new record?
DH: I'm happy with it. I actually like the material on the new one more than the first one. There were things on the first one that I had written a long time ago and had been playing for a long time, so it seemed like a natural thing to record them because I hadn't recorded them before. And this one is all new material and so that's always adding something to it, but maybe the last one felt a little more subtle because it was so familiar. But, the new one has new things. "What the World Needs Now" is one of my favorites on the set and the way that came about was because that groove that Louis plays is just tremendous. He's done that with some records that I've made with his quintet. He does it on the end of "Sweet and Lovely" on the first trio record. So I asked Louis, "What tune do you hear where you'll just play that groove the whole time?" He said, "Let me think about it." So, about a week later he called me back on a Sunday afternoon and said he had just finished watching some gospel show and they were doing "What the World Needs Now" and he said, "What do think about that?" So, I started working on it and I'll never forget when we rehearsed it the night before the record date. It just was exactly the way I thought it would be with Lewis playing that special groove that he plays. It's pretty amazing. It's a glorious pad to play on top of, like heaven.
AAJ: You have such a knack for taking pop tunes and turning them into viable jazz vehicles, such as the great arrangements you did of "I Say a Little Prayer" on Mutual Admiration Society and Earth, Wind, & Fire's "Reasons" from How It Is. How do you come up with those ideas?
DH: You know, I want to say that I grew up on those tunes and in a way I did. But I usually don't think of a tune from that time just to do a tune like that. But I'll hear a little idea on a part of it that seems like a good idea, and then I sit down at the piano and work it out from the idea. Like "Reasons" wasn't necessarily one of my favorite Earth, Wind, & Fire tunes, I mean it's a good song, but I heard something in it. I heard this little ascending bass line and worked it out from there. And "Betcha By Golly Wow" I heard this little bass line also on it that is carried throughout different parts of the tune.
Writing is not an easy thing for me. I spend a lot of time getting it exactly how I want it. I consider myself too picky sometimes. I throw a lot of things away. I've got a stack of cassette tapes full of the beginnings of tunes. Someday my dream is to cull them all and extract some of the things because I've found through the years that the real trick to writing for me is to actually invest time into the original idea and that is very difficult to do. On the other hand, I've written tunes at the last minute, like "We All Love Eddie Harris" for One For All. I wrote that in the car on the way to the date and during the whole date was writing out the parts.
AAJ: Speaking of One For All, what's it like working with that terrific band?
DH: One For All is just a killin' group. You've got these high level musicians that just play your stuff better than you can even imagine it.
AAJ: I was fortunate enough to catch you guys playing at the Labor Day jazz festival in Detroit last year and really enjoyed your set.
DH: Somebody told me they heard the broadcast on NPR and said it was tremendous.
AAJ: I would concur. Now, you also have a fairly new quartet record out too for Criss Cross entitled Blues Quarters. That's another fine set.
DH: That's a great context for Eric Alexander. Now that group plays together quite a bit. Eric and Joe Farnsworth and I play a lot together.
AAJ: Well, let's backtrack just a bit. Tell us about your early experiences with music.
DH: I started on the organ and started taking lessons when I was eight years old. I begged my parents to buy an instrument and they figured out how to do it and were nice enough to do it. But actually, years before that, both of my parents worked and so I would stay at the neighbor's house before and after school. So, their daughter was taking piano lessons and just hated it and I would always play their piano. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew I loved to play that piano. So it had started years before.
When I was twelve I met this blind organist by the name of Will Green; my mother found him somehow. I had been through a series of teachers and was kind of "out running" my teachers. Just before that, I had got into jazz. My older brother was in the service and when he came back he came back with all these records, like Miles at the Blackhawk, and he was playing that stuff constantly and I just hated it as a kid. Then, something happened when I was about ten or eleven and I started to listen to his records, like Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and just started to love it. Then, I got interested in Jimmy Smith, because I played the organ. My mother brought home by total accident a Jimmy Smith record and that was it for me. And so that's what started getting me interested in playing and then we found this teacher. He showed me this very hands-on approach to playing music. He wasn't a theory guy per se, but he would just show me how to play stuff and at that time it made me sound good right away. Who cares if I wasn't being original, I didn't know how to be original anyway. Until this day, I think of teaching that way. You know, I've been involved in teaching a long time and one thing I'm a firm believer in is that approach in learning to play any music. You start by playing the pieces all put together and take the puzzle apart that way, as opposed to trying to put the puzzle together not even knowing what the hell the pieces are. It's about the sound and you copy that sound and then you hopefully evolve that somehow. So anyway, by the time I was 13, I was working professionally and then when I was 16 I met Brian Lynch and started to play with the younger and pretty hip guys in Milwaukee.
AAJ: You mentioned your involvement with jazz education. Where do you currently teach?
DH: Right now I'm teaching at the Berklee College of Music. I go there once a week and teach there on Mondays. Prior to that, the ten years I was in Milwaukee, from about '82 to '92, I chaired the jazz department at the conservatory there.
AAJ: Before we close here, tell us about any favorite records or musicians who have influenced your own work.
DH: One of my all-time favorites is Miles Davis' My Funny Valentine. I used to sing all of George Coleman's solos before I realized that what I should do is learn to play them. They were just so beautiful to me, I mean I just spent years listening to that record and completely wore it out. Oscar Peterson's The Trio is my all-time favorite Oscar Peterson record without a doubt. And then there is a Cedar Walton record that he hates and I have always loved and it's called Firm Roots. Then, in "different flavor land" I definitely like Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. I love Stevie Wonder. I like Steely Dan and I think the new record is killin.' I haven't done anything yet with it, but I figured out how to play "Almost Gothic" because it's such a beautiful tune and I'm thinking there's got to be something I can do with it. I've learned a lot of stuff from Earth, Wind, & Fire, just little harmonic moves that are kind of out of the mainstream of jazz players and there's a lot to learn from all kinds of music. As far as classical, Chopin and Brahms are favorites.
AAJ: What about Brazilian music?
DH: Oh, definitely. Joao Gilberto is somebody that I adore. In fact, Jon Hendricks told me more than once that Gilberto was the only singer that he liked and Hendricks is one of my favorite singers and I've worked with him quite a bit.
AAJ: Well, David, thanks so much for taking the time to chat this afternoon.
DH: Sure, my pleasure.