First Recording/John Coltrane
AAJ: Your album debut has an impressive cast, and features Zoot Sims, Art Davis, Hank Jones and Harold Mabern (splitting piano chores). Do you remember the set list? You were still very young; did you get any guff from your fellow musicians? This album was never released, and besides being a shame for us listeners, did it affect your outlook towards the business? Has anyone ever explained why this album was not released, then or now?
AQ: This record was also arranged by Andy Lalino, who managed to speak with some important people who'd heard me perform at the Gretsch Drum event at Birdland. That night was very successful for me; someone had decided to spend the money to introduce me to the world as a child prodigy.
Andy decided to contract the musicians and Joe Newman was contracted as music director, so he got for the date Zoot Sims, Art, Davis, Hank Jones and Harold Mabern. Hank was not able to do the second session because he was still working for NBC, so he was replaced by Harold Mabern.
The set list I don't remember, but I know there were a couple of Joe's and Zoot's tunes added to the date.
I did have a problem a few times within the date, but they were not with the musicians, they were more with Joe Newman. Joe was the type of guy who always stayed on your back about keeping the time up, play strong and keeps the beat steady, and that's all I could hear.
I was only twelve years old, so from time to time my muscles would get tired and Joe would say, "Let's take a break, so the kid can take a rest and get his chops together, but the record turned out in the end to be perfect.
AAJ: The next event in your life could definitely be seen as a "graduation of sorts. While still in your teens, happenstance found you once again at Birdland, this time as John Coltrane's classic quartet was recording their live album, Live at Birdland (Impulse!, 1963). Elvin Jones had you sit in with the band midway through first set. Do you remember the set list? In some respects, now, jazz has become more rigid in an audience's expectations of what encompasses a show. To your knowledge, were people responsive to your presence on the bandstand?
AQ: I remember this night so well, because the Terry Gibbs Quartet was the opening act for Coltrane, and I remember Alice McLeod was playing piano with Terry's group. Of course later she became Alice Coltrane.
This is where George Braith first spotted me, which led to my joining his group soon after. During this special night Elvin sat me at his table with his wife and put a coca cola in front me, before he headed for the stage, I was no more than three feet from the band, where I could see both feet and hands working.
I never knew what Elvin had in mind, but all of a sudden Elvin got up from the drums while John was playing and said, "The kid has to learn, and he picked me up, sat me on the drums and said, "Now play!
People were responsive to the way I played, because they realized I knew what I was doing, and it would just be a matter of time before building up my muscles. Thanks to this special night at Birdland, I was at the top of the list as one of the youngest jazz musicians in the business in 1963.
The set list consisted of the same tunes as found on Live at Birdland, and one of the tunes which was very popular was "Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria. I can't recall what tune it was when Elvin put me up on the drums.
AAJ: Did you ever play with or keep in touch with any members of the band after that?
AQ: I use to call Elvin just about every day, and he was responsible for getting me a brand new set of drums from the president of Gretsch drums at the time, Mr. Phil Grant. McCoy and I have been talking about getting together for many years, but things haven't as yet materialized.
I used to go down to Pooky Pub to hear Elvin's group after he left Coltrane, and he had Joe Farrow on tenor and Junior Booth on bass and sometimes Jimmy Garrison.
I was part of Jimmy Garrison's band before he passed away, which included George Braith, Ronnie Mathews, Juantine Faulks and me on drums. I use to see Jimmy a lot because he was living in Horace Silver's building, I believe on 87th Street, before Horace moved to Los Angeles.
AAJ: You were now working with Wild Bill Davis in an organ trio. Was this your first time playing with this instrument and did you find you had to alter your touch at all for the music being produced?
AQ: No not really because the first organ player that I ever worked with was Richard Levister from Mount Vernon and he was a part of the Jimmy Hill Trio in which I replaced the drummer.
AAJ: In general, do you find you must change your touch depending upon the instrumental line-up of an ensemble?
AQ: This is a very interesting question, because it is the most important one for me. The reason why I've taken so much time and [so many] years to play with everyone that I've played with is because every individual person has something to say. They speak differently and their emotions are different. You can't play the same way with everyone, because it simply won't always work, and there'll definitely be some kind of conflict with the musicians in the band.
If each musician tries to be creative at a certain spot within the music, you are supposed to hear this within an eight to a sixteen bar phrasing, if you're listening. I've learned from my experience of life and as a musician to learn from playing on the bandstand, not going to school. My school was the bandstand.
The musicians used to yell at me years ago and at times say some very ugly things, but they only meant well, funnily enough. They all knew in the long run I could do it, so one would have to take this like a man during these moments, and to keep your mouth shut if you wanted the gig.
The older musicians were like your parents, so you didn't speak back to them in a nasty wayand if you did you knew you'd better look for another gig. There were great musicians years ago and they all could play. Whenever you were on a gig with someone years ago, there was always someone waiting around for something to go wrong, so that they would get the gig and replace you.
AAJ: Your next gig was backing singer Ruth Brown. The rest of her band at that time was the Don Pullen Trio. In this group Don played not piano, on which he was a wizard, but organ. I had known Don's work on piano through his stint with Charles Mingus and his Don Pullen/George Adams groups, never realizing he'd also played organ. I read that it was partially commercial considerations that made him adopt organ for a while. Don was always very forward thinking, with a modernistic progressive bent to his piano playing. What were his chops on organ like?
AQ: Yes, it was Don Pullen's trio, but I didn't know Ruth Brown until Don called me up to join his group. I'm not sure if it was C.I. Williams on alto or Tony Williams from Philadelphia, but we used to play a lot in Gracie's Belmont club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was the same place I was working with Wild Bill Davis and Dicky Thompson.
I really didn't know Don as a pianist until years later when he showed up in Europe with Charlie Mingus, and this is when he got his big break, but he had a beautiful touch on the Hammond B3. I'm pretty sure there's a record out under Dave Hubbard's name, on the Mainstream label, produced by Bob Shad, who did the date featuring Don on organ.
AAJ: I think when one is young the coming or leaving of a job seems a more serious, heavy thing. Did leaving one group to join another bother you? Were they for the most part amicable departures?
AQ: Man, this is one of the most painful things that can happen, because once you're involved in a group it's like being part of a family, and you learn to do things together.
The vibe among musicians is different today than years ago. When I came up, there were musicians traveling from different parts of the country to New York, and if they had nowhere to go after a jam session, they used to hang out all night at Horn & Hardart's restaurant or at Bickford's, and if you had enough money to buy a sandwich, you'd break that into pieces and share that with himthat's what the music world was all about.
Most of the musicians would take another musician home with him and throw an extra mattress on the floor to give him a place to sleep, that's what it was all about until you got a gig.
Most of the time there were not "put-together bands. For example, some of Art Blakey's bands would stay together for ten or fifteen years, the same was true for Horace Silver and Miles Davis' groupsyou didn't leave school until it was time for you to be a bandleader.
Most bandleaders would tell the record labels, "He's ready that's how things were. This is one of the reasons I went out of my way to perform with so many different people, to get my approval that I was ready, for the word to be out there.
This didn't take four years; it took more like thirty-five years, and now I'm putting it through the test. I've always left any group under good conditions. If not, I'd feel guilty and couldn't face the person later in life.
George Braith/Grant Green/John Patton
AAJ: Multi-reedman George Braith was also present at the Birdland Gretsch event. He offered you a place in his band which at this time also included Grant Green and John Patton. This is one of my favorite line-ups which George has had. Did you have a chance to record with George or Grant at all? In looking at an overview of your career there is a wide variety of playing situations in which you participated, but all seemed somewhat based in a sort of soul-groove feel or a progressive hard-bop thing. Was your time with George your first foray into music which went a little further out? George is a definite one of a kind, and like yourself seems in his music to be comfortable with incorporating some of the same sonic base elements. Did your time with all these various artists up to this point add things to your artistic palette or was your artistic evolution more of a solitary inner thing?
AQ: George was really the one to discover me at Birdland and to put my music through the test. I really have a lot of respect for George because he was the one to help me to develop the mind and the sense for putting things together.
When George bought me into his group it had some very powerful guys and I suffered a lot because my chops were not strong enough at the time, but they also took the time with me to get them right.
Try to remember that the Hammond B3 is a very strong instrument, and when you add John Patton to the mix, it's even stronger. Grant Green only wanted to know if you could find a groove. He was all about closing his eyes and asking you to help him find that groove. It used to be funny, because after Grant's solo he would turn around say "You are that bad motherfucker, and I would just smile, because I knew I was doing something right.
George was the one who introduced me to so many people at this time. He's the one who would take me by Elmo Hope's house.
I can remember a gig I did with George at the Blue Cornet in Brooklyn, and he had Larry Young on piano, Ernie Farrow on bass and me on drums.
I was with George when he decided to change his form of music by letting the organ go and then adding piano and bass. After this, George decided to only use bass and drums. He was always the guy to say to me "Free up the time and drop the two and four on the hi hat.
I had this same experience with Joe Henderson. Joe uses to love for the time to flow, without the hi hat on every two and four, that's what I like about Joe Chambers. He's a master at this and whenever I get a chance to check Joe out, I'm sitting right there.
The only recording I ever did with George is part of his private collection, and I think that someone should definitely speak with him to get them out on CD. I was the one who originally helped George to build his club Musart down on Spring St. during the '60s and early '70s.
I can remember Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane use to go there to rehearse and play together, and I also received an offer from Sonny Rollins at this time to join his band at George's place. Many people used to come by, for example Roy Haynes, Janet Getz, Evelyn Blakey, Joe Lee Wilson, Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton. Lots of musicians began to have lofts around this time, were you could play all night.
AAJ: Would it be safe to say that at this point you had appeared more in live situations than you had on record? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
Playing Live vs. Studio Recording/Drum Sound
AQ: Yes, that's true, I never looked at it that way, because I have been having a lot of fun during my life, expanding my horizons with music and musicians, and it really doesn't matter to me whether I'm on record or not.
This gives me more reason to lead a group because I haven't been overexposed this way, and I have a lot to offer, and most of that you'll begin to hear on my own records. I have a treasure chest full of stuff to share with the world that I received from some of the greatest musicians who ever lived; they gave me the material during the years I worked with them.
I prefer to play for a live audience, and if it's being recorded, it's definitely great to capture this if possible, as these are some of the best recordings. This was the case with the live album at the Domicile in Munchen [Impact (Strata East, 1975)] with the Charles Tolliver Quartet in 1972, the same for the Loodrecht Jazz Festival in Holland double record set [Live at Loosedrecht Jazz Festival (Strata East, 1973)]; these were classic recordings which opened doors for me in Europe and America.
AAJ: When reading about rock & roll and sometimes with saxophones in jazz, equipment is discussed. Not as often though with things other than horns, unless it's an article in a trade specific magazine (Drum World etc). Do things like types and brand of stick matter to you? Has the size or configuration of your drum setup changed over the years or with whomever you are playing? I know they are constantly coming up with new materials to make mouthpieces and things with, new types of mics and ways of recording. Have you tried anything new and cutting edge which either didn't work or that became part of your working setup?
AQ: We are living in a world which tells us from day-to-day, that this is better than this. I really don't believe this because the best set of drums that I ever had were Gretsch from the 1960s. The wood they made the drums with at that time was much better than today.
I don't hear a real drum sound anymore on most recordings. What I hear is a drum sound which is put together by the sound engineer. The studio today has modern equipment and the engineers are from today; most don't have a foot in the past.
My sound is coming from only four drums; this is what I use mostly, and my set up never changed. My last recording [I Ain't Looking At You (Enja, 2006)] was mixed by Pete Bernstein and I, and I'm the one to push the levels of the drums up without using any compression on the instrument. I also told the engineer how to set up the microphones to get the sound I wanted.
I don't need an engineer to make my sound for me. I know what I'm looking for, and analog recordings are much better for jazz. Normally digital recordings make everything seem sharp to me, and that's not the sound of the drums that I remember.
I'm a true jazz lover, and I haven't heard anything better today than I did years ago for me to want to change my setup. I remember when you used to be able to get the whole set of drums in a car in 1963 without any problems at all. Now you need a van to go to the gig. It's just not possible to get the drums into a car.
I have been using Vic Firth sticks for many years, which the company has been providing me with, and they're the besta small version of the 7A.
AAJ: You had an opportunity to audition in 1969 for Horace Silver, getting the gig. He had tried a whole bunch of drummers, had you ever heard who had been turned down in lieu of you? At this point in Horace's career he had Bennie Maupin and Randy Brecker in his band. What did the band's book look like? Was Horace still performing his Blue Note hits?
AQ: I prefer not to speak about this, because they were all friends of mine, and this has nothing to do with who fixes this position the best. I feel we all had something to offer and Horace simply decided to accept me over everyone else.
Horace's band book always stays the same. We were still doing tunes such as "Filthy McNasty, "Senor Blues, "Tokyo Blue, "Happy Medium and "Song for My Father, which we had to play more than three times a night, as this is what the audience had come for.
AAJ: Horace was a founding member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Really, one of the original working models for the whole jazz mentor thing, which is still practiced in various forms even today. Looking at the list of all the people you shared the bandstand with up to this point, it's easy to forget that at this time you were still very young. Did Horace show you the ropes at all?
AQ: Yes, he did show me the ropes. This is what you don't have anymore today. Horace was the one who showed me how this business of jazz really works. The first thing you were asked was if you owned a suit, and were you a member of the local 802 union. I was not, so Horace took me down there personally and had me join the union.
You'd also need a cabaret card, which was a card from the police authorizing you as a musician to perform in a place that sold alcohol. This law was banned after I became eighteen, so I didn't really need this card anymore.
Horace Silver's music was the ideal situation in which any young man could get it together, if he could play. Horace would teach you the complete format of a tune, and most of them were written with eight or sixteen bar heads, then you'd play the bridge and solo off the changes. Most young people today are trying to compose off that same format that Horace used back in the '60s. This is how I learnt all about the dynamic behind the soloist and learning how tocreate something with the artist.
AAJ: Horace then disbanded the quintet, and you went to George Benson's band. He's more known for smooth jazz, but at this time he was doing something different. What was the sound of this band? Lonnie Smith was also in the band. Do you find there's more freedom for a drummer in a group whose front line was organ/guitar, as opposed to one consisting of horns?
AQ: First I want to clarify that Horace didn't actually disband this group. What happened was Horace was taking his annual vacation every year for about 2½ months, then he'd call up the guys to start rehearsing so he could return to the road within the fourth month.
I needed a gig during this period, and I'd heard the drummer with George Benson was leaving. It's been such a long time now that I really can't remember how I got the gig, but Ronnie Cuber was there along with Lonnie Smith, and then after Lonnie left Charles Covington replaced him.
George was also singing back then, but he wasn't then known as a singer. He used to admire Ronnie Dyson and Little Jimmy Scott during our travels, hearing them whenever possible. On George's first album, he sang "The Other Side of Abbey Road, which I had the opportunity to perform with him on the Johnny Carson show.
There's another album which we did at his studio, with him singing, but which was never released. Every time I see him we always talk about this record.
People talk about smooth jazz, but back then, this word didn't even exist. It was more of a rhythm and blues-based commercial form of music to reach the marketing world.
I think the organ confines you more than any other instrument, because it's one person doing two jobs, playing the piano and also the bass line, whereas working with a pianist he'd definitely think differently from the bassist.