Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke
AAJ: Can you tell us a little about your work with Benny Golson, Milt Jackson, and the other masters you played with, coming up?
ML: I had been a sideman for many, many years. I was so lucky in those early years. When I came here to New York in the late '70s, there were so many masters still around, and I got to work with a lot of them. The Art Farmer-Clifford Jordan Quintet, Sonny Rollins, even Benny Goodman, way back, when I was about 25. I worked with a lot of traditional jazz guys like Ruby Braff and Vic Dickenson, and then I moved on to Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, and played with Bobby Hutcherson.
So I've done a wide spectrum of playing, and I'm probably one of very few in my age group who's covered such a wide of a spectrum of styles. I knew about all the swing stuff and Benny Goodman from my experience with the Widespread Depression Orchestra. It was a perfect school for all thatI learned all the tunes. I knew how Teddy Wilson played, Earl Hines and Hank Jones. I knew how to bridge the gap between bebop and swing so that I could play me with him and not tick Benny off. The swing guys then didn't like Bird, really. They didn't like Bud Powell. If you sat down and played like Bud Powell, you'd be done. The job would be over. So I had to lean different ways, and that's what you learn as a sidemanhow to lean into this and lean into that to make the leader happy and do the right thing for the gig, because it's not about you, it's about himif you want to keep the gig.
When I came here, no one my age had a record deal, except for Scott Hamilton, the tenor player. I recorded with him, and I played with him quite a bit. He was my buddy, and he played a little more traditional than I would have liked to have been playing at the time, but I knew how to lean into his thing, too. That's how I kept that gig. Ruby Braff was good friends with Scott and Warren VacheI played with all those guys from what I call the "trad" scene. All through that, though, I was always into a wider variety of stuff than they were, although Warren is very open minded.
Back in those days, I'd be going to these gigs with these guys but listening to Miles Davis' In Person at the Blackhawk (Columbia, 1961)one of my favorite records, with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers. I'd just be dreaming, thinking "Oh man, I wish I was doing this tonight, but OK, whatever. I'll do this gig."
Fast forward to May, 2012, and Smoke has a Miles Davis tribute, and there I am playing with Jimmy Cobb and not Paul Chambers but John Webber, who sounds very much like him, and Eric Alexander, Jeremy Pelt and Vincent Herring, and we're doing all the stuff from the Blackhawk, from Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961) and Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). And there I was, doing it. All that dreaming and wishing, and my dream came totally true. It felt just the same, and I was just beaming the entire timeone of those gigs where all day long, I couldn't wait to get back and do it again. We did four nights. It was justevery night, every set was just incredible. Jimmy Cobb sounds just as great as he ever did. He's 83. And he has it all. He has the whole package, still: soloing, swinging, accompanying. Comping with him is just a joy, because I know Wynton Kelly inside and out. And that was his man. I've played with Jimmy before, many times. But that was special for me. That was a very special thing. So it just goes to show sometimes dreams can come true.
Playing with Milt Jackson was another dream come true, because I used to go see him all the time. He was a genius. Nobody could play vibes like him before or since. And his was my favorite group: Ray Brown, Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton and Milt Jackson.
Good lord, man, those guys were so great. There wouldn't ever be a moment where you were looking at your watch and thinking about what you had to do tomorrow. You were just beaming ear to ear listening to that music, and you couldn't wait for the break to be over, you wanted another and moregive me more! When they played the Village Vanguard, I went every nightnot one night, every night. I couldn't resist.
When he called me to play the gig, he didn't really know who I was. James Williams gave him my name; he was my buddy, and I miss him. Cedar was the regular pianist in the group, and James Williams would sub for him. But a gig came up that neither Cedar or James could make, and James gave Milt Jackson my name because he knew how much I loved Bags [Jackson's nickname]. Bob Cranshaw, who was playing bass with him by then, knew me, too. Bags asked him who this guy Mike LeDonne was, and Bob said, "You know that guy. He's always sitting in the corner seat in the Vanguard when we play there, every night. The guy with the beard!" So, when I went to play with Bags the first time in Philadelphia, I knew all the tunes. I just sat right in and knew what to do. But at the time, I thought I did terribly. Cedar was my biggest influence then. I didn't want to hear anybody but Cedar. And here I was, trying to fill Cedar's shoes. I was so scared. I got through the gig, but I didn't know what to think. You know, Bags is a quiet guy. He's not a very demonstrative guy, and I was so in awe of him I could hardly talk to him. So, the gig came to the close at the end of the night, and I was actually walking over to him to shake his hand and apologize. And I was in the middle of saying, "I'm sorry," and he grabbed me and gave me a big hug and said, "I got you now! Beautiful!" And that was it. I stayed with him for 11 years.
Eventually, Cedar stopped doing it, and James got very busy, so I started subbing more and more, and eventually I wound up on that gig and being musical directorpicking all the tunes, writing arrangements. He was doing my tunes! And we became like family. I'd call him up and talk about anything, go hang with him out at his house. He was truly my buddy. We'd go on the road together. He'd bring pies. He was a baker; he used to bake piessweet potato pie or pineapple pie, which I never had before, and other kinds, too. We'd be going to Japan, and we'd have three or four pies circulating in business class, giving everybody a piecestewardesses, too. That's what it was like with Bags. It was just a party. He never said one word to me like, "I don't like the way you're doing this," or "I don't like the way you're doing that." Never. Just do your thing, and do it to the fullest.
It was the same with Benny Golson. He never said one thing to me. He's the one who really allowed me to expand my voice, because he wanted that. He wanted you to push, to go to the next level. He was so encouraging to me. I have all these letters from him that he's sent me. He'll send me a present in the mail out of nowhere. He wrote a tune for my daughter. It's called "Little Mary," and it's on my Groover record. He sent it to me one day just out of the blue. I got a FedEx. I had no idea what it was. I pulled it outhere's an original Benny Golson composition written for my daughter, and it's great. And I played through it, and I said, "Oh, my God! I've got to record this right away." What an honor, manthe guy who wrote "I Remember Clifford" and "Whisper Not." He wrote "Little Mary," and now it's in his book. And so my daughter has that for the rest of her life. It's like Duke Ellington writing a song for your daughter. He's a very supportive guy, and he really loves it when you move on to something else. And there's no pressure for it, but he's listening like a hawk.