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A Conversation with Mike Mainieri

Anthony Smith By

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The following is an excerpt from the chapter "A Conversation with Mike Mainieri" of Masters of the Vibes by Anthony Smith (Marimba Productions, 2017).

So you've been working on a new project this week?

Yes, just finishing some overdubs... it's a project I'm involved in with some friends, but I really can't talk about it right now.

Sure.

Also, my daughter and I performed at her school this week. She's a harpist and we performed a duet piece at her concert. She's graduating elementary school.

So you were shedding for that?

Yes, we were both shedding.

(laughs)

I've been in New York for a little over a year, Mike. My wife and I moved here with our kids to embrace a new life adventure.

This is the city I love. I was born here.

I grew up in the Bay Area, and Bobby Hutcherson was the guy who first got me excited about the vibraphone.

Bobby's one of my favorite vibes players. My influences go from Lionel Hampton to Red Norvo, to Milt Jackson and Bobby. In that order.

Good, I was going to ask you for your version of the lineage of the instrument in jazz... who you consider the most important figures, and what each of them innovated.

There are some excellent (unheralded) vibraphonists during the instrument's first era who also made contributions, but Hampton was the Louis Armstrong of the vibraphone. I think Hampton made his debut on a Louis Armstrong recording of "Memories of You." Or maybe that was with Benny Goodman. But in any case, I listened to Hampton as a kid. This is going back to the early forties. I was born in '38, and there was always music happening in my house. We were very poor. We didn't have a phonograph, or a phone. We had nothing but we had a radio and big band music was popular at the time.

You lived in the Bronx, right?

Yes, that's where I was born, in a very poor neighborhood. We had a large family living in three rooms. It was the end of the Depression. My father was taking care of not only his mother's family, but his children and our grandparents also. It was busy in our three-room tenement! Nine people were living in there at time. But the wonderful thing about it was that the whole family was into jazz. They were into the Big Band Era, and grew up listening to Duke (Ellington)... as a kid I would get to hear some of the great bands... whatever was happening on the radio, from Tommy Dorsey to Harry James. A little later on, I guess in the mid-forties, we did manage to get a phonograph, and then my step-grandfather, who was a jazz guitarist, began buying records. He was into Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Some of the first records he bought were like, "The Hot Club of France," with Django, and the Basie Band. I started working at the very young age of twelve years old, and made my first professional appearance with my trio on television, on the Paul Whiteman Show when I was fourteen. As I began earning money I started buying records. Of course Hampton was my original influence on vibes, as was Red Norvo, who was one of the first four-mallet vibraphonists. I had this wonderful album which is a classic now, called "Move," with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus.

I remember that tune.

Yeah, that was a very cool album. You know, for me to go through six decades, this will be a very long interview! (laughs) Ask me the questions you'd like to ask, otherwise I'll just yack for the next two hours.

Which could be interesting unto itself, but I know what you mean. You mentioned that you started playing gigs when you were twelve. Was that always on vibraphone?

Yes mostly on vibes although I was also playing drums. I studied drums with Ted Reed, tympani with Doc Frieze and vibraphone with Phil Kraus during my teenage years as I was thinking about going to Juilliard... I liked being a bandleader and as you can probably guess, there weren't too many vibraphonists that were sidemen in those days. If you wanted to work you started your own band. It really hasn't changed for vibraphonist after all these years. The nature of the instrument forces you to be a leader. Hampton became a bandleader, Terry, and Red. Milt was the main soloist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, not to take anything away from John Lewis, who was an incredible arranger and composer. When I met Milt, he mentioned he looked forward to playing with his own group where he could really stretch out. But the money was performing with MJQ. It was an incredible quartet but it was more subdued than Milt's groups.

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