A Fireside Chat With Henry Grimes
“ It didn't happen until about thirty years or so after that. I wasn't thinking of how long it was taking. I was just trying to gain perspectives. It was a way of imposing self-isolation. ”
There once was a man from Philly named Henry Grimes. After studying at Juilliard, this bassist played alongside Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Gil Evans, Roy Haynes, Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Sunny Murray, Anita O'Day, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor. In 1967, at the peak of his assent, the man disappeared.
Thirty-five years later, Grimes was found by a fan of the music living in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. With no bass, the call went out that Grimes expressed interest in playing the instrument once more and William Parker answered the call. Since, the bassist on such monumental recordings like Albert Ayler's Spirits Rejoice, Don Cherry's Symphony for Improvisers, and Sonny Rollins' Our Man in Jazz, has been playing the instrument he helped define for generations of musicians in Los Angeles and New York. The journey of Henry Grimes is an interesting one. The disappearance of Grimes is a puzzling one.
But the reemergence of Grimes is the best story to come out of music in years. I spoke with Grimes shortly before a trip to New York, his second since leaving in 1967. The following is my conversation (unedited and in his own words) with a musician who defines just what a true musician is, never failing to live a musical life, even if the music is in silence.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
HENRY GRIMES: When I was younger than eighteen, I would say about twelve years old or even before that, it was a love of swing music, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey. Later on, it was Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and all the quality musicians of those schools. I knew them for years and just trying to contemplate what they were playing just led me where I am.
FJ: Have you always played bass?
HG: No, I played violin, then I took the tuba in high school, tuba, English horn, percussion, and then the bass.
FJ: When did you pick up the bass?
HG: Thirteen or fourteen years old in high school. First, I used to play violin and then I switched to bass, playing in orchestras, but by the time I got out of high school and into Juilliard, I was a bassist. I was enrolled there for two years. The school was great. I was studying a lot of harmony and theory writing, base studies. I took a lot of orchestra training playing for opera singers. That I sort of enjoyed and during that time, I played a little opera music. It was very interesting.
FJ: The violin wasn't for you?
HG: I liked it, but it just was something that I didn't like about it. Maybe it is just that I am not a violin player. I'm a bassist, so that must be what it is.
FJ: Why did you leave Juilliard?
HG: It was certain difficulties with financial and transportation. I was commuting between New York and Philadelphia everyday. I just had to give that up. Now, I am in New York again, but that was the first time I was in New York. The second time, I was beginning to play with musicians like Sonny Red and playing at Birdland and going through the whole scene that way.
FJ: Philly, at that period, was a bastion for the music.
HG: I think it was as far as musicians. There were a lot of musicians that were coming up. It wasn't so vibrant as far as getting the musicians work and letting a lot of free expression of the music occur, but there were a lot of musicians who did make it occur like Jimmy Garrison, John Coltrane, and a lot of other musicians. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker used to be somewhat familiar with Philadelphia.
FJ: How did you get the Sonny Rollins gig?
HG: About my second or third time in New York, I worked with Anita O'Day and Gerry Mulligan's groups. I met Sonny Rollins and he enlisted me for his group. The music was great. Sonny is a great teacher without realizing it. The reception for the music in Europe was tremendous and also here too. I know that when I first met Sonny, he was working with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, their group. I sat in with them in Philadelphia and that is how I knew him in New York after that. The reception for his music was very great. He really knows how to play this music to crowds. He is very good that way. There were a lot of positive things happening for the music.
FJ: You also had a close association with free jazz cult figure Perry Robinson, featuring him on your lone session as a leader, The Call (ESP), as well as Robinson's Funk Dumpling (Savoy).
HG: We used to do a lot of dates at that time.
FJ: And you also did some sessions with Cecil Taylor.
HG: Oh, yeah, Cecil has always been very impressive to me. He is sort of this wild pioneer that would sort of come up to the piano and play more notes than there are on the piano. Musicians like that, you just don't stand up there, you study. That is what happens when you are standing up there playing with them, you just don't stand on the bandstand and play music and forget about it. You have to study certain things that you learned then and there. That is really beautiful about Cecil and other players like that. Cecil is definitely one of my favorites.
FJ: What attracted you to free jazz?
HG: I had an idea about what free music was and so I guess having an idea, it automatically enlists you into what a lot of free playing musicians are. That is what happened to me. Before I could realize anything, they were all kind of interested in what I was doing. Before I could even recover from my own surprise, I was in with Albert Ayler, Denis Charles, Mingus, Cecil Taylor, and on and on and on. I really enjoyed playing free music. The freedom of expression, that was the main point with me. The expression, you just have free will to play just what you feel. Your own free will dictates to you to play. There were no other influences that could override your own influences to play free music. I encourage a lot of classical musicians to get with some jazz musicians and see what it is to develop free music. The free music of jazz outweighs a lot of expressions in other music because it is moving forward and ahead and it has very much to do with free sounds and things that have never been heard before, being done.
FJ: The Call (ESP) was you only session as a leader. Why did you not record more?
HG: I wasn't offered too many. It is my own doing because I didn't drag my way into a lot of musicians and writers and try to get them to recognize me. That is the kind of feeling I had. I didn't want to be over-ego about it. That is something that I am still struggling with and I have to get over it. That is all there is to it. I don't seriously think that I am not able to play. I just love playing. That is my main impulse. I love it and when I get a chance to do it, that is the only thing that I want to do.
FJ: In 1967, at 31, you dropped out of the scene entirely and for over three decades, your bass remained silent. Why did you stop playing?
HG: I stopped playing in order to eyeball my own perspective better. That had nothing to do with music. As I was waiting, it is a matter of waiting to see if I would run into some way of musical expression like I wanted to. It didn't happen until about thirty years or so after that. I wasn't thinking of how long it was taking. I was just trying to gain perspectives. It was a way of imposing self-isolation. That is the only thing I can think of what it is. Only publically, I stopped playing. I wrote a lot of poetry to make up for it, so I could express myself with words instead of with music.
FJ: As an artist, you must have had yearnings to create and the poetry helped fill the void music left behind.
HG: Oh, yeah, yeah. I was able to do it in my private environment, no audience. I was going through experiments like that. I don't think I am really an introvert, but I think what I really like is to try to have more things to say and more interesting points to make.
FJ: Did you sell your bass?
HG: That is true. I sold it for the money. The only thing is, I didn't make enough money from it. I didn't make enough money from the sale. For one thing, it needed repairs and the repairs were expensive. I just sold it to this violin maker and that was that.
FJ: How much did you sell it for?
HG: It was about five hundred dollars, I think. That was in 1968, when I came down here from San Francisco to L.A. That is when I sold it.
FJ: How did you sustain yourself and make a living?
HG: I did labor work, a lot of casual labor work. I did a little construction and a lot of janitorial work. I did both days and nights. I worked all night. I had a graveyard shift job at a bowling alley. I would clean up this little alley and then later on, I worked in a school, a Jewish school. First, it was in the day time and then it was in the night time, so I would alternate sometimes night time shifts and sometimes day time.
FJ: In the thirty some odd years, you must have heard music around you. Did you ever feel the yearning to play again?
HG: Yeah, I think whenever I heard any and wherever I was, I think I was studying the reaction of the people around me or imagining what reactions they would have about the music at that time. When I really got out of this was when I listened to some CDs of what I had done and I had done all this in the past and that was an amazing experience.
FJ: Why did you decide the time was right for your return?
HG: When I talked to Marshall Marrotte. I didn't want to say no because that is not the answer at all. The answer was that I wanted to play and that's really what I like to do. There I was, but Marshall, a man of understanding, helped me a lot with that. He still does.
FJ: Tell me about the first time you played the bass that William Parker sent to you.
HG: I guess I went over sketches of things in my own mind of things that I knew I had been familiar with in the past, a lot of free music, experimenting with my reaction. I enjoyed doing this in this kind of environment. I just gradually worked it out until it happened. I didn't forget. I couldn't forget.
FJ: How long was it before you felt comfortable playing publicly?
HG: It takes me about three days of solid practicing. If I get in there about three days, pretty soon, I am more and more comfortable. I practice once during the day now, maybe about twice or three times. I just practice different things. I have been practicing a lot of Monk and stretching my fingers on Brilliant Corners and music like that. His harmonic experience is pure genius. You can sit there and seek out your own experience by his harmony and theory.
FJ: You made an appearance at this year's Vision Festival, a return to New York.
HG: It was fantastic. That is the only way I can explain it. It was fantastic. It was a very spiritual experience. I am going to New York tomorrow and I think I am going to be doing more of that playing. I get the same sense of enjoyment that I had except now, it is like, my study is more introspective. It is really enjoyable and a pleasure. It is actually fantastic.
FJ: Any offers to record?
HG: Yes, no definite ones yet, but the way they came forward, it is pretty definite. I think I am going to be playing with William Parker and musicians like Campbell and musicians like that. A lot of musicians now play at top grade levels. There is more of them in New York, but there are some in Los Angeles like Alex Cline and Nels Cline, the Cline brothers, Roberto Miranda, and a lot of musicians like that.
FJ: Your return is the best thing to happen to improvised music in this town in years.
HG: I am glad to hear you say that. It really makes me feel good.