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Wallace Roney: In the Realm of Anti-Gravity

By Published: June 11, 2013
"The problem is getting people to trust. To bring these kids out to play. When we get out to play, people seem to feel what they're trying to express. But the club owners, they just want names that they recognize, which is a drag. You try to fight this thing, but it's hard. But I'm fighting it. I ain't stopping. That's the only way the music can grow. Then you look up and those are the cats with the names," he says. "You want the rest of the road to be smooth, so you can contribute. But are you kidding me? How I've been able to stay relevant is a blessing."

Relevant, indeed. Roney, whom Shorter has called "a musical astronaut," is one of the outstanding creators in the business. He started playing the trumpet at the age of seven and never got sidetracked. He had formal instruction from teachers. "I just loved it. You pick up and instrument; you can't play it. How are you gonna learn? If you love it as much as I loved it, you want to get good, so you start studying. At eight years old, I was trying to go through my books as fast as I can so I can sound like I want to hear. I doesn't work like that, but it gives you the blueprint of discipline."

Sigmund Herring from the Philadelphia Orchestra was his first teacher and there were others, but encounters with Terry and Gillespie made an immeasurable impact. "I'm talking about as far as legitimate understanding of the instrument. Clark had been through it all and he would show me things maybe my teachers wouldn't. Teachers just get you to study and if you played the right note, it was fine. Clark would teach you things like articulation and breath control. And different ways to develop your fingers. Dizzy was good for that too. He was always talking about curving your fingers like you're playing the piano. Dizzy knew all the different scales and different fingerings to play major scales. Dizzy was something else. Those guys were better than the conservatory teachers, legitimately."

He had a scholarship to the Settlement School of Music at the age of seven.

He left Philadelphia to attend high school at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. While in school, he sought out gigs. In a brash move, he asked a nightclub owner about bringing in a band for a night each week. Roney was an unknown, so even trough little attention was paid to his request, he gathered a group together and got them playing standards. After a while, he approached the club again and got the weekly gig.

"At that point, you couldn't tell me anything. I was going to do this and I need to study every day because people are coming to hear me and I need to get up to the level of Clifford and Blue Mitchell and all them," he recalls. "I felt like I was playing Birdland or something every Monday. Fifteen years old. For the rest of my time in Washington, I was doing those kinds of things."

He auditioned for the Berklee School of Music and was accepted, but Roney's father was against him leaving home and he was persuasive. Roney attended Howard University in Washington, DC. While at Howard, he was gigging with a band and also went to New York to play on a record by his friend guitarist Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones

"The first band I ever played in was Cedar Walton's band with Bob Berg
Bob Berg
Bob Berg
1951 - 2002
and Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
and Sam Jones
Sam Jones
Sam Jones
1924 - 1981
bass, acoustic
. That's the first band I ever played in. I was 15 or 16. The first person I ever played in New York with was Philly Joe Jones," says Roney. "I went to sit in with Philly at 16. We played 'Confirmation,' and when I got through it, Philly grabbed me and said 'I got a new partner. Here's the partner.' But Cedar was the first one to hire me back then."

While in New York, he sat in with Joe Henderson at the Vanguard and was invited to play the rest of the week with him. "It was great. At the end of the night, I told my father. He told me to come home to finish school at Howard. I came back home with tears in my eyes. But the following year I went on the road with Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim
. After that, that's when it became a roller coaster."

Roney remained at Howard University for a year. He had a gig at a club called the Pig's Foot owned by Bill Harris. It wasn't enough. After a time, he contacted Berklee again and his scholarship was open. This time he went. "I was serious. I wanted to play. I wanted to be around guys that were practicing every day, that were flying. And they were. There's a lot of musicians up there that really want to play."

Having already gigged with some major players, he had a strong reputation. He was asked to be part of a band Art Blakey was bringing to Europe.

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