Why would someone leave the John Coltrane Quartet? That question still stigmatizes Workman forty years after his departure, overshadowing his impressive collaborations as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (with Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan), and with Yusef Lateef, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Archie Shepp, and Freddie Hubbard. So I asked. The following is my conversation with Reggie Workman, a groundbreaking bassist unfairly labeled 'avant-garde' and the before mentioned Trane water he has carried for far too long, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
REGGIE WORKMAN: Because of environment. The environment probably prompted me to want to be a part what it was because music is a part of the environment that most of us grew up in. It was quite unlike it is today. There was a lot of live music, a lot of live venues for new music, a lot of great musicians who lived in the communities around Philadelphia, a lot of theaters, a lot of activity that would encourage a younger person to be a pert of the scene. I started as a very young person, eight or nine years old, studying piano and I think my parents recognized that. So that is the way I started as a young person. My parents probably recognized how music was a part of our community and put me in touch with some lessons and from there it grew. Now, that I look back on the situation, I realize how much the culture has to do with the evolution of a people. A lot of our institutions as a young person in the school systems and so forth didn't encourage too much cultural evolution, but that was a natural thing in our community. I think my parents recognized that and in developed from there. I stopped dealing with piano when I was about twelve years old, thirteen. The sports in the streets called me and so I got involved with that and left piano to grow into another area of life. I had a cousin, who recently passed, encouraged me. He used to stand me up by his bass and showed me how to play it and I liked that sound. Eventually, I went looking for it and so I started to play the bass in my final year of junior high school. They didn't have a bass, so I ended up playing wind instruments until a bass came, just before I graduated. Then from there, I moved over to high school, where I got an instrument and eventually got my own instrument and have been studying it ever since.
FJ: Give me your impression of Lee Morgan.
RW: Lee Morgan and I grew up together. We both grew up around Philadelphia and so we played a lot together around the scene. We knew one another. We knew the same people. He had a giant record collection, so we used to hang out a lot. He went to a music school in New York. We often crossed paths. He was a delightful person and tremendous talent.
FJ: Wayne Shorter.
RW: That happened during the time when Wayne was just growing into himself and I was in New York. A lot of musicians convened on the scene in New York from all over the world, Wayne coming from the New Jersey area. We often ended up on the bandstand together even before the Art Blakey days. Then as we grew, we all ended up in the band together. All the people who you heard in the classic Art Blakey ensembles often would see one another in New York over the years and during the years prior because of just what the scene was. There were places to work. There were jobs. There were jam sessions. There were reasons to be crossing one another's path.
FJ: And Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter in the frontline along with you and Blakey in the rhythm section is why that band is so highly thought of.
RW: Of course, everyone was significant as they always have been. As you grow, you get an idea of who's who. They are not just significant because they have been embraced by the system. They were significant because they had something to offer when they were very young musicians and they always have had that gift throughout their career.
FJ: And the same holds true of your association with John Coltrane?
RW: Our association wasn't brief. John Coltrane spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, where I am from and therefore, we saw one another long before I joined the group. Even through the late Sixties, we spent a lot of time traveling and making music together. He was developing and I was developing and our paths crossed for a while.
FJ: You must have been asked this numerously through the years, but with such a kinship, why did you leave the band?
RW: I'm a bit tired of those questions. I left the band because my father was dying and I had to leave New York and go back home and take care of my family, number one. Number two, John and the rest of the band was growing very fast and John had decided that he wanted to try another voice in his bass chair. He had been listening to Ornette Coleman, who had Jimmy Garrison in the group and Coleman suggested he try Jimmy and he did. That was a great union. Of course, Jimmy was very compatible with everybody in the band.
FJ: So no regrets?