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Interviews

George Cables: The Pianist’s Dedication to the Group

By Published: October 14, 2013
AAJ: That was a very transformative time in the history of jazz.

GC: Yes, and when I graduated high school, the legal drinking age in New York was eighteen, so I could go to the Five Spot and hear Thelonious Monk, who was there for months at a time, maybe on a double bill with Mose Allison
Mose Allison
Mose Allison
b.1927
composer/conductor
, or I could hear Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
with Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
, and Jackie Byard, who was playing piano, but would also play alto saxophone. And on my high school prom night, I went to the Jazz Gallery and saw saxophonist Pony Poindexter. I also heard Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan on the same bill. Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
was playing that night but had already finished by the time I got there. Then we later went up to the Hickory House, where Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland
1918 - 2013
piano
was playing.

AAJ: Did you ever go to Birdland?

GC: I went there later, I got to Birdland, and that's where I saw Trane with the great quartet. That was a phenomenal experience. Of course, I wasn't hearing them the way I do now. But it was very exciting.

AAJ: When and how did you start playing with a group?

GC: Well, I heard some guys who had gone to the High School of Music and Arts, and they really played well. There was the great Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
b.1944
drums
, and two other fellows, Bernard Scavella and Leroy Barton. I was impressed. So we got together with a guy named Artie Simmons and later Cliff Houston, and we played in my and Artie's parents' basements.

One summer before that, I got involved in a neighborhood musical production. We were doing excerpts from West Side Story. We got a trio together for that. That might have been my very first experience playing with a group.

But when I was with Billy Cobham and those guys, Leroy's father was the first black official in the 802 musician's union and helped us get into the union. Artie Simmons was our nominal leader. We started getting gigs at dances, and after a while, we got hired by more experienced guys like Rudy Williams, who played trumpet and saxophone. (He wanted me to play organ, but I never could get into that.) We managed to get our group, which we called the Jazz Samaritans, into a competition sponsored by Jazz Interaction. We won the first competition, and as a result, we got a gig somewhere, and then Billy got a gig at the Top of the Gate, and that was around 1967- 68. Billy of course was on the gig, and there was Eddie Daniels
Eddie Daniels
Eddie Daniels
b.1941
clarinet
, and Johnny Coles
Johnny Coles
Johnny Coles
1926 - 1997
trumpet
. So that was something special. These guys were true professionals.

AAJ: So you moved up in the jazz world, playing at the Top of the Gate, no pun intended.

GC: I should add that there was a fellow named Jimmy Harrison, who was very important in my beginnings. Billy Cobham left, and then we had Lenny White
Lenny White
Lenny White
b.1949
drums
, myself, and Clint Houston. We used to do the productions Saturday afternoon at Slugs. Then Jim would call Lenny, Clint, and myself to do a gig in Westbury, and we did something with Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
1944 - 1989
trumpet
and Booker Ervin
Booker Ervin
Booker Ervin
1930 - 1970
sax, tenor
. Woody then recommended me to Jackie McLean, and shortly after that Woody called me and got me into Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
and the Jazz Messengers at Slugs.

AAJ: Were you thrilled or nervous to play at that level?

GC: Both! I was excited, I was nervous, but I felt better because Woody Shaw was there, and I had some experience with him and knew that he was on my side. Woody and I were about the same age, but musically, he was much more experienced than me. So he would give me encouragement and suggestions.

Moving Forward with the Jazz Greats

AAJ: What were your first recording dates?

GC: My first recording date was with Paul Jeffrey, Billy Hart
Billy Hart
Billy Hart
b.1940
drums
, Larry Ridley
Larry Ridley
Larry Ridley
b.1937
, and Jimmy Owens
Jimmy Owens
Jimmy Owens
b.1943
trumpet
in 1968. We did it for Savoy Records. Shortly after that Billy Hart got me hooked up with Buddy Montgomery. Then in January of 1969, I started working with Art Blakey, his group with Billy Harper, Woody Shaw, a trombonist whose name I can't remember, and Buster Williams
Buster Williams
Buster Williams
b.1942
bass
on bass.

AAJ: So, around 1969-1970, you really started playing with the legends. You've worked closely with Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, Art Pepper
Art Pepper
Art Pepper
1925 - 1982
sax, alto
, Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
and a host of other jazz giants.

GC: Yes, but first I gotta talk about Buddy, Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
's brother. Wes had passed away around that time, but Buddy went on. He was a great musician, and played vibes, but he was really a pianist, and a much better one than me! He knew exactly what was going on with me! And I was influenced by the way he worked. When I ran into a problem writing and composing, I thought of Buddy and something he wrote called "For Wes," and that helped me solve the compositional problem I was having.

OK, now I'll go back to Art Blakey. Being in his group was a real musical education. In fact my entire life has been a musical education. In jazz, you learn a lot on the fly from the guys you play with, and being around these people who had changed and shaped the music and given it direction was a great learning experience for me. So working with Art and the musicians around him was special. And then, working with Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
was really something! So I worked with two of the great drummers. And in between, in the summer of 1969, I worked with Sonny Rollins, Buster Williams, and Tootie Heath. Sonny Rollins called me in for a rehearsal, which was really an audition, at George Braith
George Braith
George Braith
b.1939
saxophone
's place on Spring Street. He asked me if I knew "Love Letters," which I didn't, so he ripped out the music right away. I played it, and he asked me "OK, let's do it in D-flat." [a very difficult key signature on piano—Eds.] And then we did "Night and Day" in E-flat and then E major, which wasn't my strong point! But he liked my playing anyway.

At any rate, they all had something I could learn from. Especially the drummers. I started out with the best of them: Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Art Blakey, Max Roach, and then on to Roy Haines, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, and then I got to play with Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
1914 - 1985
drums
, and Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
drums
. So after all that, I took the drummer so much for granted, that when I encountered a new one, I had no idea what to tell them to play! I just assumed they already knew [laughter]!


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