Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke
AAJ: Getting back to the organ, in your discography you made a record with Michael Hashim in 1991 along with Peter Bernstein, Blue Streak (Stash). It was kind of a forerunner of your organ work.
ML: It was. It might have been my first organ record. Peter was on that and Kenny Washington on drums. Mike and I were together in my very first group that came to New York, the Widespread Depression Orchestra. We did all that Count Basie and Earl Hines material, and it was a great education to be in that group. Mike was sort of the spokesman for the group, and I knew him in Boston, too. We met when I was in school way back there in the '70s. He was going to Berklee, and I was going to New England Conservatory. So we go way, way back. He knew that I played organ. He used to come to my house sometimes when I went home to see my family, and we'd play together with me on organ. So it was natural when he wanted to do an organ record to have me do it, because he knew I could play. Whereas, my record company at that time didn't want me to do an organ record. They were afraid I was going to confuse people, and maybe they were right. I don't know, but if I had, it might have been a whole 'nother thing, because I would've hit the scene before Joey DeFrancesco or before Larry Goldings. I love both those guys. They're exceptional players, but I'm older than both of them by about a good ten years. I might've been the first guy doing it. That might have beenwho knowssomething for me. But at that time, my record company was just trying to put me over as a pianist. I was mainly playing the piano, known on the piano and getting gigs on piano.
The first guy who heard me play organ and really gave me a professional gig was Percy France, who was a tenor player who used to play with Bill Doggett and Jimmy Smith- - great tenor player, local Harlem guy who heard me play and brought me in to play with him every Wednesday at Showman's, which is in Harlem, with Joe Dukes, who is one of the great organ drummers of all time. We did that for three years, every Wednesday, and that's where I really cut my teeth, learning and trying to get it together. He was so sweet to me, always. That was the early '80s. And that's when I bought another organ. It was after I sat in at a gig Jack McDuff was playing in Harlem, and a friend of mine, Jim Snidero was in his band. Jim told me to come up there and play the organto sit in on Jack's gig. I said, "Are you crazy? Jack McDuff's one of the greatest in the world. I'm not going to go." He said, "Come on. Just give it a shot. It'll be fun. Jack's not going to care." So I went, and Joe Dukes was playing drums then. It was like a kind of a sextet with some horns and stuff, and Dave Stryker was playing guitar. I sat in, and I played one tune. And then Jack came over to me and said, "Man, you know what? You sound good on organ. You should be an organ player." And I said, "Wow, man, yeah!" So I went and bought an organ, almost the next day. I called my folks. I said, "OK. I need your help." I found one for two grand. They paid for it, and I put it in my apartment here, and the rest is history. I just kept going with it. Otherwise, who knows? I might've never done it.
At Smoke, I lent them my organ for the first year, because they weren't sure about how it was going to go over, and then they finally bought one. And it's been going for 12 years. It still gets packed. . . . A steady organ gig for 12 years in this day and age? I think if we look back at it later on, it's going to be seen as a piece of New York history. It's like the Vanguard Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. I'm not saying that we're making history, but just doing that gig is a piece of New York history.
strong>AAJ: You've talked about guys who have influenced you, and you've influenced a lot of people yourself on a professional level and through teaching.
ML: I was at Juilliard for four years, and for about the last 15 years or so I've been teaching at an all-day Saturday program for high-school students at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Teaching can be a lot of work. It's not something I want to be a major focus in my life, but doing NJPAC and working with a few private students is nice for me. I love NJPAC because it's teenagers. It's hard on the college level because then it's already kind of late in the game. The kids at the high-school level are much sweeter. They'll do what you say, especially when they hear you play and they hear your name on the radio. They're, like, "Hey, maybe we should pay attention to this guy." I've had so many great experiences there. They can be difficult sometimes, but also you're getting them from square one. They're coming in as a blank slate. You can really take them and mold them. I'm able to shape their styles, to teach them what I wish somebody taught me at their age. That's why I do it. Sometimes, it's true, they think they know everything already, but I don't play any games with these kids. And, inevitably, within a year or twoI've seen it over and overthey come back after the summer and all of a sudden, bam! They're doing it. They know the language. They're playing, and then they're on the road. I see they're heading off to music school, and I say to myself, "I had something to do with that." And they're all out here now. David Zaks, Alex Collins, Brandon Wright, Benny Reid, these are all guys that are out in the scene actively playing. Evan Shermana drummer in the ensemble I teachhe's going to Juilliard, and he's playing great.