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Shortly after that, I went to the Laurinburg Institute down in North Carolina. It's a private black school, the same school that Dizzy Gillespie had went to. That was pretty close to Dizzy's hometown in South Carolina. Dizzy's from Cheraw, South Carolina. This school was in Laurinburg, North Carolina, which is very close to the South Carolina borderline and it was only seventeen miles away from Cheraw. This being an all black school during the time that Dizzy went there, it was the only black school within a twenty-two mile radius. I guess that is how Dizzy got there. So I was pretty inspired by the kids in school. It was the kind of school where you kind of had to be something. Everybody down there was down there for some kind of reason. Either they were good athletes and they were good in sports or they were good musicians or they were very good academically or they had it all. I often tell the story of when I first came to the campus. When I got to the school, it was around lunchtime and all the kids were out on the campus and when they saw the car coming up, they knew it was somebody new coming to the school, so when we stopped in front of the dormitory, I took my trunk out of the car and then I took my trombone out and one of the kids that was standing around said, "Oh, man, we got a trombone player," and that sounded good to me. Nobody had called me a trombone player before. Right away, they wanted me to take out my horn and play something for them and I had never really tried to play anything except what I had been experimenting with, but I did remember these two bars that I remembered from a record that Dizzy had made with Trummy Young on trombone and I did remember the first two bars of Trummy Young's solo and so that is all I played. I took out my horn and started playing these two bars over and over and then kids started clapping with me. That was it. I caught the bug. It was the first time somebody had gathered around me and clapped when I was playing. It was very enthusiastic. They were very supportive with their rhythm (laughing).
FJ: Your most celebrated collaborations have been alongside Jackie McLean.
GM: I met Jackie probably, I thought it was still in high school, coming home during the summer vacation. I was kind of like an early starter. I used to go around the clubs very early, sitting in and everything. I met Jackie when he used to come over to Newark with Art Blakey. Now, we're skipping way up because during the time when he was coming to Jersey, I knew of him before that, but we got tight when he started coming over to Jersey. This is a little later after I had got some experience of playing in a jazz group down in Laurinburg for about four years. When he used to come in town, I used to sit in with him. I sat in with Blakey and him just as a kid. Me and Jackie got kind of tight because Jackie liked the way I sounded and he saw this potential. I was a comer. We kept in touch and it was later on, that I used to come over to New York after I graduated from high school. I started going to Brooklyn and I started jamming at Birdland and all different things like that. I think it was a couple of years before I got with Ray Charles. I went over to Jackie's house one afternoon and we practiced all day and we kind of exchanged tunes and he saw the kind of progress that I had made since the first time that I had sat in with him. It was after I went with Ray Charles and I left the group. I was living in Brooklyn and I ran into Tony Williams and me and Tony got tight. Tony had just got in town working with Jackie in The Connection. So me and Tony got very close talking about the things we wanted to do musically and where our heads were at. We had played a little bit together. So Tony told Jackie about me and Jackie told him, "Yeah, I know Grachan." And Tony said, "Yeah, but Grachan is in town now and he's doing some new stuff." He knew that Jackie was getting ready to form a group. But it was really because of the fact that me and Jackie had shedded together maybe a year or so before that. With Tony's enthusiasm about him calling me in reference to the new group he wanted to form. I guess he knew that Tony's ear was sharp too. So right away, when he called me, it was just at a time where I had been home all during the summer and I had been doing some shedding with Bobby Hutcherson. I had met Bobby when he was working with Billy Mitchell and Al Grey. When I first met him, I was really impressed with Bobby's playing and we exchanged numbers and we immediately started rehearsing everyday together. Bobby and I had been rehearsing together for a couple of months and when Jackie called me between shedding with Bobby and writing a lot of music, a lot of new stuff that I was hearing and working them with Bobby and talking about them with Tony, when Jackie called me, he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing "Frankenstein" and "Ghost Town."
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.