“ It's not that it's easy being an artist, but what is easy? Something worthwhile does require a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of dedication and I'm glad that I'm an artist... ”
By Russ Musto
For the better part of nearly five decades McCoy Tyner has remained the most pervasively influential, highly acclaimed, widely imitated jazz pianist in the world ' universally acknowledged for the invention of a style that continues to be uniquely personal, powerfully passionate and consummately creative. From his early association with the great John Coltrane, through his most recent work with the venerable vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, Tyner has determinedly delivered to adoring audiences music that is both consistently challenging and spiritually uplifting. An unusually soft spoken, honest and humble individual, he graciously agreed to devote some time from his busy schedule to discuss his art with AAJ.
All About Jazz: You've been using different rhythm sections recently after an approximately 15 year association with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott. Does your choice of new band mates reflect a (subtle) change in your approach to creating new music?
McCoy Tyner: It's a gradual process, which is only natural. It doesn't have to be drastic, but I'm definitely hearing some different things. I think that the group that I had before was a really great group, but sometimes one has to make a change and move along with your' development. It was good for the amount of time that it existed, really good. Everybody was very talented, but sometimes you have to move, especially after twenty years. That's a long time.
AAJ: Sometimes you have to change your environment just to be in a situation where you can change.
MT: That's right. As my old agent Jack Whittermore used to say, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained.'
AAJ: How did you decide on the new players? Are there any younger (or older) musicians you might be considering for your band?
MT: That all depends. It's something that's hard to predict because you don't know what you'll be hearing a year from now, or two years from now. If it's working then okay you stay with it. If it's growing and if you feel comfortable and it's not inhibiting then it's worth it to keep the band together. Right now it's a good move.
Eric Harland was with Betty Carter for a while. She was a school. She reminded me of Art Blakey. She really trained people who played with her She was like a teacher, the same with Art. We were overseas, actually we were in Lebanon, it was part of a European tour. So Betty was on the show and I had a chance to hear him (with her). I'd heard about him. A friend of nmine is in Texas, which is where Eric is from. Betty went down there and made a gig at a concert and he heard Eric and told me, 'Yeah, he might be kinda good with you.' So I kept that in mind and I happened to hear Eric on that gig and I said, 'Oh yeah. I think he's right.' I was looking for something like that.
AAJ: Throughout your early and middle years as a bandleader you usually chose a saxophonist as the other main melodic voice in your small groups. Recently you've been utilizing vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in that role. Is there a reason for your preference of the vibes instead of saxophone these days?
MT: Bobby and I are musically very close. We came up in the same generation. We recorded together in the past. We moved around some of the same people . . . Naturally there are differences, in a sense, but we have a lot of things we can associate with together and we has a lot of fun; past, present and maybe the future. It's not a regular thing. He's got his own band, I have my own group. I was just in Brazil with my big band. Then I may have a quartet sometimes. It all depends on what happens. Bobby and I don't work together all of the time, but we do work together quite often. We do a lot of things together.
Last year Michael Brecker played with me New Year's Eve at the Iridium and he's done some other things with me and there may be some gigs coming up. Joe Lovano was with me, and Kenny Garret, not together, but separately at Yoshi's, because every year I do an artist in residence (there) for a couple of weeks. It's been ten years and he still wants it to happen.
AAJ: Your other regular working unit is the big band. How often do you get to play with the larger group? Who does the arrangements?
MT: It's not a problem, but we don't work that much. We've been to Europe (like) three times. We just came back from Brazil, they wanted the big band in particular. We were down there, played one concert, then came back. I'm looking for a corporate sponsorship so we can tour the states. We've played in Mount Hood, Playboy Jazz Festival. We've played a lot of cities. Chicago Fest we played recently, but not back-to-back gigs. Unless we're on a tour and that usually happens in Europe. We've never done a tour in the states. So we're thinking that one of these big corporations like where we are now [Starbucks] could sponsor us. Maybe if I drink enough coffee (laughs).
Dennis Mackrel has done quite a bit of the arranging. Steve Turre has done some arrangements and I have. But even if I have a song . . . like Dennis arranged 'Passion Dance' and a lot of songs that I've written. I don't compare me and him to Billy Strayhorn and the Duke, but he knows a lot of things about my harmonics and my style.
AAJ: Your piano style is so orchestral a good deal of the framework is there already.
MT: Yeah he tapped into that and he did a very good job on the arrangements. But the guys in the band tell me they know when I write something and arrange it. They say they can tell the difference, but it's all good.
AAJ: You've recorded with violinists Stephan Grappelli and John Blake in the past, as well as with string sections on a few occasions. Do you have any plans to perform and/or record with a 'classical' orchestra in the future?
MT: Well when I was with Blue Note, Verve-Polygram came up with the idea that I do something with an orchestra. John Clayton did the arrangements. So what I did ' I did Burt Bacharach ' some of it was Burt Bacharach ' not all of it. What we did, john and I ' we changed some of the structures, the chordal structures, without losing the identity of the song. Like it was still 'Alfie' or 'A House Is Not A Home,' which is one of the nicest songs Burt had written over the years, that I liked before I even met Burt . . . It's a beautiful tune. Burt I think liked jazz when he was coming up. He's studied jazz musicians, but I don't think he ever considered himself a jazz musician. He said that when he found out ' Tommy LiPuma told him ' (I had the chance the chance to some other composers, Tommy gave me some choices, but I chose Burt) ' he said 'I wonder what this guy is going to do to my songs (laughs). I said 'Burt, you know I wouldn't destroy your music, man.' He was really thrilled and John did some wonderful charts.
AAJ: Which, if any, classical composers did you study in your early years? Which do you still enjoy listening to?
MT: Well, actually Stravinsky. I liked his writing. In the jazz idiom, Duke Ellington and Oliver Nelson. I met Quincy (Jones) after I came to New York. When I was a kid there were some other composers. Debussy. I liked some of his stuff. I also studied. I had a beginner teacher who taught me and some of the kids in the neighborhood beginner piano. My mother gave me a choice. She said, 'Would you like to take singing lessons or piano.' I'm glad I chose piano. Could you imagine me singing (laughs)? Everybody would leave. I sang in a choir, but I had 29 other people. I had my notes, so I didn't stick out like a sore thumb. I had a choir teacher who was Jimmy Smith's first wife. She was my junior high school choir teacher ' she loved music . . . But, I chose piano, luckily that I did. I couldn't wait to get home and practice, but the guy who taught me then, he said, 'I've taken you as far as I can go,' because he was a beginner teacher. Then I got an Italian teacher, Mr. (?) and he took me through Bach and Beethoven. Chopin. The book full of classical composers and it was nice, because what it does ' it doesn't teach you to create, but what it does, it shows you the possibilities of what you can do with the instrument. Of course I practiced everyday after school. I couldn't wait to get home. I didn't have a piano for about one year. I started when I was thirteen. My mother didn't buy me a piano until I was fourteen. My father said, 'Piano! How do you spell it.' (laughs). He wanted me to get a real job. I said, 'Hey, I'm a teenager what do you want from me.' But when he came to see me in the club he said, 'That's my son up there.'
I like Rubenstein. Arthur Rubenstein. I like the way he plays the instrument. He's a powerful little guy. He's sensitive and he has amazing ability on the instrument ' agility dexterity I should say ' but, he can be powerful. I saw him bouncin'. . . I know that feeling, when you're trying to get that power.
AAJ: Who are some of your favorite pianists performing today?
MT: I've always like Mulgrew Miller. And John Hicks. The guy from Texas, young guy. (Cedar Walton?) There's a lot of guys out there playing. I just don't go out that much anymore.
AAJ: How do you feel about being the most imitated pianist in jazz?
MT: I wish I had a dollar . . . (laughs). Well, I appreciate that. I'm glad I was able to contribute something to the artform. But, I learned that from listening to Bud and Monk. And Art Tatum. They all sounded different, but they were all amazing. What they did was amazing. You could identify them by the sound of the instrument. The sound, the approach. So I think that that's a good indication. And I used to like Bud and play a little like him. And Monk. They used to call me Bud-Monk when I was coming up, but I knew that I could never be them. So what it showed me was to be yourself. 'Let yourself come through,' that's what I tell the young guys.
AAJ: Did you consciously set out to develop a unique style?
MT: Yeah, I think I just ' when I say consciously ' I think it was inside. I think your sound is inside you. that's what I tell younger guys. You really can't force it. If it's not there what are you going to do.
AAJ: You're left handed. Do you think effected the development of your style?
MT: Yeah, I'm lefty, so don't mess with me, man. I got that left hook and uppercut (laughs). That could have been. One thing I did kind of say. Our mind is very unique. One side of your mind operates one side of your body and the other side of the mind operates the other side of the body. So, why not think of each hand as a mind? So that's why.
AAJ: You were one of the first AfricanAmerican bandleaders to consistently employ a percussionist in your groups? Through the years the conga players in the group have fluctuated between adding African, Brazilian and Cuban flavor to your music. Would you talk a little about the relationship of the drum to your piano playing and composing?
MT: I used to play conga drums. I had to put that away because at some point it started to affect the joints in my fingers. When I was a kid this guy came from Africa and he taught African drumming and assisted African dancing. Saka Acquaye was his name.
So I said I play a little conga drums. So I had to put tape on my fingers, after a while I said this is crazy. But it was good. It was really, really good to be around those guys.
AAJ: At the time you were coming up Philadelphia seemed to produce a remarkable number of extremely talented musicians? What was it like there musically during your formative years?
MT: Philadelphia at the time was so musical. There were so many great musicians there. I was very fortunate. You know, Bud moved around the corner from me, my mother's shop. We used to follow him around, get him to play. Before he went to Europe. Richie was on the road with Max, Max Roach-Clifford Brown band. He got an apartment around the corner from me and they didn't have a piano. So my mother did hair and the lady who was the superintendent's wife said, 'There's this guy around here and he's a great pianist but he doesn't have a piano. Can he play on your son's piano?' So I asked my mother what's his name and she said 'Bud Powell.' So, I lunged. I said, 'Sure he can come around anytime he wants.' He scared me one time. I was in my mother's shop practicing and Bud was outside listening. I said, 'Oh my God! What's he thinking.' I was very fortunate though. The older musicians were great.
AAJ: Red Garland also lived in Philadelphia around that time.
MT: Yeah, yeah. It was Red and Philly Joe and Steve Davis, my ex-brother-in-law. They played a lot together. Red and Philly and Steve and John (Coltrane). A lot of the cats. Johnny Splawn. All those guys. Red was wonderful. I loved that guy
AAJ: I can hear what you might have heard in his playing at the time. How he might have influenced you.
MT: Yeah, oh yeah. He was very inspirational. He had a very happy sound. Beautiful, loving I love his sound. I've got a picture of him; I've got to find it, me and him hugging. He was a little guy. He was a small guy and I was . . .(laughs)
AAJ: You first received widespread attention as a member of the Jazztet. Benny Golson is one of jazz's most lyrical composers and Art Farmer was one of the music's most lyrically creative players. What effect did your experience in that group have on your playing and composing?
MT: Yeah Art was something. That band was wonderful. It was a wonderful band. I learned a lot. Not only is Benny such a great composer and arranger, but such a wonderful person on top of it. Those guys helped me so much when I first came to New York. I had met John when I was seventeen, that's when I first met John. But, I'd met Benny, Benny was from Philly, came from Philly and I played piano for him, he needed a pianist and I think he had heard about me, so he asked me to play on a concert. Then he called me not too long after that.
AAJ: So, you moved to New York to join the Jazztet?
MT: Well what happened, here's the story on that. After Benny left the concert, Tioga that's the area where it was at, up in North Philly. So after he went back to New York, he called me and said, 'I'm going to San Francisco, I'd like you to go with me.' You know, make the gig. He said me and Curtis Fuller, and we'd pick up Lenny McBrowne and Leroy Vinnegar out in California. So I said 'Wow, yes, yes.' Because I had never been that far away from Philadelphia and all the way to San Francisco, I said 'I'll take it.' See America. So we were there. I think we were about three weeks in that club (inaudible phrase) and then before we closed Benny told me 'Look, Art Farmer and me are forming a band together. Curtis is interested and we were wondering if you want to be in the band?' I told him, I said 'Look Benny, I love being in the band,' but I had committed myself to John, whenever he'd leave Miles, he wanted me to join his band. And I had already made (the commitment), because i had already played with John when I was seventeen and we knew each other, like family (you know), it was really that close. His wife, my wife, you know like a family, he's like my big brother. I never had a big brother (laughs), so he was like a big brother to me. I was a kid. So, when he'd come to Philly when Miles wasn't working I worked with him. Him and Sonny Stitt, whoever came in. At that time I had that kind of gig. So anyway, I told Benny, 'I can't.' This was after we'd done Meet the Jazztet. I had told him though in the beginning when he asked me to join his band, I said 'Benny I can't.' But he understood. But they were a little upset because we had done the first record together and it was a wonderful band, a wonderful band.
Then when John left Miles, I didn't join him 'til three, four months after. Steve Kuhn did the first gigs. And then he asked me. He said, 'What are you going to do with it.' Are you going to (you know) ...' Because they were friends (Coltrane and Golson). They grew up together. (laughs) It was a tough situation for me and them. But they knew. After a while, Benny said, 'I know.' After they heard the music with John, they knew that's where I belonged.
AAJ: Were you already tailoring your style to Trane's music?
MT: I think John picked me because he heard something. He told me about Elvin. I did't even know who Elvin was. I knew who Hank was, but I didn't know who Elvin was. And Thad. I met Thad later. But he said, 'This cat Elvin Jones, I think he's (something).' Because we had some other drummers before that, but he thought Elvin would be the best drummer and he was right. He was the best drummer (for the group). So he heard certain things in your playing. He heard some things in your playing that he liked. Otherwise, just like with Jimmy (Garrison), he heard, you know. And my brother-in-law before that, they played together in Philly, because Steve (Davis) was on the original gig . . . but then when he heard Jimmy, because Jimmy was with Ornette and he wanted that kind of free playing, too.
AAJ: Your first record with the band for Impulse was Africa Brass. You had already had an interest in Africa before that.
MT: Yeah. This guy was studying political at Temple University, Saka, and it was during the sixties. It was about identification, historically. You wanted to culturally identify the roots. A lot of people were doing it at that time. It wasn't all about politics. Some writers made it out to be political, but just like anything else, you want to know about your history. It doesn't mean you're political. To (some writers) everything had to be political. I told them I wasn't playing music because of that. We were playing because of the cultural identification. Not even that. We're just playing music because we're musicians, basically. You want to talk about identification, okay. But it's not because of politics. I never liked politics that much.
AAJ: You were also once a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. What was that experience like? How did it affect your playing?
MT: Yeah, he was an eventful cat, he always kept something going. He was so heavily rooted. Lee Morgan and I grew up together, so a lot of those songs . . . it was like for instance before I played with Max (Roach), (I played with him for a week in Philly), we knew a lot of the songs already. So when he came thought I knew a lot of the songs because i was playing them. But, like I was saying, Lee and I came up together and he kind of wrote in the Art Blakey style. That was just him. He was a very funky trumpet player and knowledgeable.
AAJ: Who was in the edition of the Messengers you played with?
MT: Let see it was Slide Hampton, Bill Hardman, this young guy Frank, I think it was Frank. He got killed. (Frank Mitchell'tenor player). Yeah, young guy. He was in the band. Juni Booth was on bass. Then Billy Harper joined the band. That was after (I was with) Trane. You see what happened, after John. After I left the band they had a tour, I did a tour of Japan called the drum battle with Elvin, Art Blakey and Tony Williams. They called it the jazz battle, the drum battle. So you know I was around Art, we were around Art a lot. So he asked me, you know, he wanted to join his band. So I said well, you know (?) ' I said okay. I stayed with him about seven months, something like that, because I was already working on doing my own thing. And we didn't even record with that band. It's not documented. But we had a lot of fun. One time we were playing in L.A. and he was, his sound was so surrounding you. I felt like I was levitating. I thought the band, I tell you, I thought I was up in the air because the sound was (swoosh). All those years of playing! Elvin was the only guy I knew who could do that. He had a lot of respect for Art. We all did.
AAJ: Can you describe your composing process? What inspires you to write a song? Do you just sit down a whip up a batch when you have a record date?
MT: In most cases that's the way it's happened. If I have a record date I write for it. But, I have written . . . like 'Fly With The Wind,' is one of my favorite songs and 'Search For Peace,' I just wrote off the top of my head. But most of times when I've got a record date I know I've got to write some music, that's what I've got to do. I've written a few things just when I felt like it. 'Fly With The Wind,' I was in Cleveland, Ohio one day and that song just came into my head. I started out that way. I had a r & b band when I was a teenager, like when I was about fourteen I had a band with a few of my school guys. I had a seven piece band and I wrote for the band. I knew how to write and then my compositions would go on forever. I said, 'Man I'm writing a symphony here. When am I can shorten things.' I just kept on hearing things and writing. Like three tunes in one. Then you've got to mark them. (laughs) But I learned that, that was just a period.
AAJ: I read somewhere that you played in an r & b band with Ike and Tina Turner?
MT: That was a mistake. Azar Lawrence (who was in my band) played with Ike and Tina Turner. If I had worked with Tina Turner I wouldn't have forgotten it. That was a mistake someone wrote. Just like the Africa Brass Session, if you look it says McCoy Turner. I said, 'Wait a minute. First I played with Ike and Tina Turner, now my name is Turner.' They never corrected that. If you buy Africa Brass now, it still says Turner. I told them, I said 'Wait a minute man. You got my name..."
AAJ: You continue to mine the classic jazz repertory and the Great American Songbook. What is it in a particular standard that makes you choose it to improvise upon and record?
MT: I like some of them, not all of them. Some have a good structure, that means you can utilize them and maybe make some substitutions for certain chords. And have a strong melody, a melody that sticks with you. And it's personal, too. Why a guy likes a particular song. There's no real formula to that, except that he likes it. It means it touches you.
AAJ: Did you work as an accompanist for singers when you were coming up?
MT: Some. Ernestine Anderson, not Ernestine Anderson, yeah Ernestine Anderson, I worked with her for a while, but only when she would come to Philly. A Steve's wife, my sister-in-law, she was a singer and I would accompany here, because we were in Cal Massey's band. Cal Massey had her singing in the band and C Sharpe was playing alto, Tootie Heath on drums, Jimmy on bass. He introduced me to John, Calvin did. That's how we met. He was quite a composer. Yeah he wrote.for Bird, 'Fiesta,' and for Carmen McRae.
AAJ: During the sixties and seventies your music was an inspiration to many people (particularly AfricanAmericans) both politically and spiritually? Do you feel that jazz can again play a similar role in raising the consciousness of its listeners?
MT: The music definitely had a strong spirit(ual component). You see John came out of that kind of thing. His grandfather was a minister and mother played piano in church so he would spend time (in church). And then he got interested in Eastern religion. I think basically he was a very spiritual person, so the music had that. And then I was raised in Christianity and switched to the Islamic faith, but I don't think it's just one religion I think it's you as an individual. I think if you, no matter what religion you are, if you're a spiritual person it just comes out.
The thing is, the band, John was the leader of the band and he set the pace and direction, but he also listened to us, so he saw things and played also according to what was around him. So we sort of listened to each other and complemented each other. We had freedom, he never inhibited us, he didn't want that to happen because Miles gave him that kind of freedom when he was in Miles' band.
AAJ: Quite often you used that freedom to 'lay out.'
MT: Yeah, well when he first told me about strollin' I said, 'I can't sit here and do nothin'.' But then again, he was right. Because dynamically it made sense. For me to accompany him his entire solo didn't make as well. So what we'd do, we'd get him launched and then I'd drop out and he could take it from there, because the dynamics were up here, so it goes up. And then Jimmy would drop out, so it would be him and Elvin. But it didn't start out like that. Then it made sense, because I'd say 'Man, he just played a 45 minute solo. Suppose I had to play those 45 minutes.'
AAJ: You were glad to get the break.
MT: Yeah, it was good and then it made sense, because when the band came in after he was finished what he was playing, the band was like yeah, like (wow) fresh air.
AAJ: Despite your reputation for being a dense, very powerful player, there's also a lot of space in your music and a lot of tenderness, too: sometimes all within the same piece.
MT: Yeah John was like that. He played 'I Want To Talk About You' and some other ballads. Then we did the Ballads album. He loved singers. With John, we'd be on the road sometimes and John would start singing (sings) 'O Solo Mio.' But he loved singers. That's why we did the album with Johnny Hartman ' because him and Johnny were together in Dizzy's band. Johnny used to sing with the band. So they went way back, but he just loved singers. Especially good singers.
AAJ: What do you think about current trends in American popular music? Do you hear any r & b you like or don't like?
MT: Yeah, it's very commercial. I mean it's always had commercial appeal, but when I was growing up with a lot of the doo wop groups, there was a lot of music in Philly, Frankie Lymon. There were a lot of guys that came out of Philly. I worked with Solomon Burke. I went to junior high school with him. But it was good music. They were singing love songs. The music was good. It was different from what we were doing, because I was listening to Bud, Miles, Monk, Dizzy. But it was quality music and the lyrics were so nice. I know things change. I'm realistic and I know that things will change, but like I said, there's a difference in the quality. There were some things I was playing with some real r & b tenor players in Philly, honkin' and screamin', but they had the gigs, so I worked. Blues singers . . . My band, I toured a little once with Illinois Jacquet and my tenor player memorized 'Flyin' Home,' and we were on a talent show at the uptown theater and that's how we won the show. That and Benny Green's 'Blow Your Horn,' (sings the solo). That's how we won the talent show. The music was good, it wasn't bad, because jazz ... there wasn't so much of a division between jazz. Jazz players played in those kind of bands and those guys were maybe striving to play jazz. The line wasn't drawn then, but there was quality on both sides. Even pop, regular popular music.
AAJ: Many years ago I read a statement by you to the effect that music shouldn't be the sole focus of an artist's life. I was kind of taken aback by it then, but I think I better understand it now. What are some of your other interests?
MT: What it is is that I think it's good to have (other interests). I felt at the time, because my life was very balanced with family, children; and I felt as though it added to my music, it didn't subtract from it. I always figured that a balanced situation was always healthier. Because like I said I had met Bud, and a lot of the musicians I had met growing up, seemed absorbed in their music so much, it was almost like it drove them nuts. I know that when you love something so much like that it can take you out there. I didn't want to go out there like that, you know what I mean. I'm not saying that I would have, but I think that there are a lot of things in life that can help balance things and I felt like that I wanted a balanced life, that I didn't want music to be the sole pivot.
AAJ: You still maintain a pretty busy schedule.
MT: Yeah, it's pretty busy. Of course, the economy, the way it's up and down a bit, sometimes it effects us, but it hasn't drastically.
AAJ: Do you allow yourself some 'downtime' to get away from the business of working?
MT: Oh yeah. I do. It's important it really is. Sometimes I go away on a short vacation, get out of the city and go someplace. Or sometimes I'll be happy just to be home and sit on my sofa and relax. That for me is kind of a vacation, too. I understand why people used to go to Miami, go South just for the weekend and come back, because that little break really helps. But, I like to stay a week when I can.
AAJ: Is there any other subject you'd like to speak on?
MT: Well music has treated me good in my life. I don't think I would have chosen any other direction. I think that music has added on to my life and I wouldn't change a thing. It's not that it's easy being an artist, but what is easy? Something worthwhile does require a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of dedication and I'm glad that I'm an artist, it's really been fulfilling in my life.
AAJ: Some advice you would give to young musicians?
MT: Oh yeah. Do what comes natural and you'll be happier than doing something that doesn't come natural. If you're doing something that doesn't come natural than I think you'll be an unhappy person for not doing the thing that comes natural. So give it a shot. See what happens.