Marvin Sewell: Stepping Up to the Plate
GC: So now you're going to community college. Were you going to community college, or just involved in the program?
MS: I was involved with the program back in the '70s, they had this thing called CETA jobs. I don't know what the acronym means, but Ronald Reagan cut that stuff out quick.
GC: Of course.
MS: [Laughs] I was involved with that, so I was still in high school. But I was playing with the Malcolm X Community College big band playing guitar, trying to learn how to read and accompany, so I got a lot of direction from a lot of people. There's a few...I don't know if too many people know of these guys...Elmer Brown on trumpet, he used to play in Jaco Pastorius' band. Vincent Carter used to head the big band.
GC: Did you know Lonnie Plaxico back then?
MS: No, but I had heard of Lonnie. It's kind of a funny thing, because this guy O'Donnis was studying with Lonnie, so the information that he was O'Donnis (Mike Smith) was getting from Lonnie, I'd get from him. He'd say "man, Lonnie told me to transcribe this entire Paul Chambers bass line on this John Coltrane record." I said "oh really? dig that" and stuff. So that's how I basically knew Lonnie indirectly. One time I saw him drop by Michael's house to get something or pick up something, but I didn't know him in Chicago. I met him in New York.
GC: So after high school, what did you do?
MS: After high school, I got accepted into Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University. I got there as a composition major. Which was cool, but I changed my major after a couple years. I'm glad I held that major for about 2-3 years because it gave me some ideas on improvisation and composing, and it got me access to private piano lessons.
GC: Now had you ever played piano before college?
MS: No. The only experience I had playing piano was this one time, playing piano at a friend's house, and I just start banging on it, just playing notes and pretending. I think I did it for two hours. I didn't know what the hell I was playing, just hitting stuff and listening to the sounds.
GC: You had never played piano before?
MS: Never, never played piano before. I started my piano formal lessons in college. I took two years of group piano, and then for the next maybe 3-4 years I studied with Felize Gonz. Basically he kind of read the Riot Act to me, he said "if you're a composer you should be able to do score reading, be a great sight reader, you should be able to play piano. That's why you're here." We were painstakingly trying to read through those Bach chorales. And he had a particular technique of reading through the chorales and stuff, not just all four lines. He would have be read just the tenor or the bass, put it in different combinations.
So you'd be able to read horizontally, then you put it together vertically. Because I think the chorales are harder to read if you take a couple of lines at a time. It's because a lot of times with the chorales if you read the whole thing vertically, you can hear what's going to happen. He had me play in the beginning, my first year, little Bach preludes, stuff out of small parts of music, this book called "Modern Classics" and stuff. I remember learning a Tchaikovsky piece. Little things like that.
The following year he gave me a Chopin polonaise to play. The one in C minor. I can distinctly remember having a look on my face like "damn," and he looked at me and said "you're not a beginner anymore." I had asked him, I said that I wanted to hear pieces that interested me. He's the person who introduced me to Brahms' music. He gave me pieces out of Opus 116, The Fantasies. To me, that's a great set of pieces to actually learn how to take a theme and actually develop it. All seven pieces are based upon a particular theme, or some type of downward or upward motion or some type of movement or counterpoint or rhythm. All seven pieces. I don't think any of his sets of shorter pieces are like that except the Fantasies.
So it was a great selection. I think that the first piece I learn was Opus 16 No.6, then No.3 which is more difficult, then No.4. Then later I learned the rest of them. They were great pieces to start with and learn about what's going on. Then I'd play Scriabin preludes, Mozart, and Beethoven, which I had difficulty playing. Things like that, basic piano repertoire.
GC: What kind of things were you writing as a composition major, and did your development on piano affect your writing?
MS: Yeah. Things that I was writing with composition at the time...we were dealing with a lot of rhythm. I was taking a composition class for commercial writing, television commercials and things like that.