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Bill Mays: Inventions, Conventions and Dimensions


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This title is more than a rhyme: it's an attempt to capture some of the legendary versatility of pianist Bill Mays. "Inventions" refers to his unprecedented, working jazz trio of piano, trumpet, and cello. "Conventions" is a nod to his invaluable contribution to the annual meeting of the International Society of Bassists (in 2013, he played 21 rehearsals and 24 concerts during the week). Finally, "dimensions" reflects his multifaceted musical accomplishments, which include soundtracks for TV and movies—for example, his tune "Gemma's Eyes" will appear in The Fifth Estate, the 2013 Dreamworks thriller about Wikileaks. Mays is probably best-known for his studio work and touring with Sarah Vaughan, as well as composing, arranging, and playing and recording in every configuration from solo to orchestra.

Mays is also famous for his flawless and fluid technique, great imagination, and wit. But despite his four-page, single-spaced discography, he is relatively unknown outside the velvet walls of jazz. This interview, conducted on a jazz cruise, explores some reasons for that, especially in light of his five-decade career.

All About Jazz: We were lucky enough to have breakfast with Phil Woods this morning.

Bill Mays: Just now?

AAJ: Yes, just now. We had a lovely time, and I asked him if he had any message for you. He said that you should get a real job.

BM: [Laughs] Yes, Phil's sense of humor is legendary.

AAJ: I've always thought that you're under-famous. You've had an unusually long and successful career, but many people have little idea about the variety of things you've done.

BM: Well, there's the fact that I stayed in Los Angeles until I was 40. While I played jazz whenever I could—and made some records during that fifteen years- -the bulk of my time was spent in the studios.

AAJ: Doing what? Sweeping?

BM: Windows, mostly.

Back in those days, there were TV shows like Sonny and Cher and the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell, and they had 20-25 piece orchestras, and dancers, and rehearsal pianists that worked with the choreographers. There was a whole TV industry with shows like Knots Landing, Dallas, and Knight Rider, all of which I played on.

The shows were scored every week, with maybe a three to six-hour scoring session for an hour-long segment. There were films being made and soundtracks being recorded in Hollywood all the time, so I worked on movie soundtracks a lot. Now a lot of that work has gone to other countries, or it's being done on synthesizers, so orchestras are small.

Anyway, I did jingles and commercials and rock n' roll records. I played with the Mike Curb Congregation, and Donnie and Marie Osmond. I played with Michael Jackson before he was Michael Jackson. I played on five of Barry Manilow's hit records. I worked with Phil Spector on a Leonard Cohen record—with that "wall of sound," he was like Noah, wanting two of everything.

So people don't know a lot of my history; they might just know that I was a studio musician. I also got typecast as an accompanist because I played for so many singers.

AAJ: You mentioned Sarah Vaughan. How about a good memory of your time together?

BM: Sarah sometimes took requests from the audience. One night someone asked for one of her hits, something she hadn't sung in years. Reluctantly she said OK, looked insecurely at the band, and bassist Gus Mancuso said, "Don't worry, Sass, I know all your material, I got you covered." Half into the tune she forgot the lyrics, and turned and looked hopefully at Gus. He smiled, while slapping his bass on 1 and 3, and shouted, "A7...D7...Bb7." Sarah fell down laughing and couldn't finish the tune.

AAJ: I can imagine! What other singers did you work with?

BM: Peggy Lee, Frank D'Rone, who's on the ship somewhere, I gotta find him. Frank Sinatra. Anita O'Day.

AAJ: I'd like to rewind a bit. Please explain how the music was done for a television show.

BM: In fact, that was my entrée to studio recoding work. I started out as a rehearsal pianist working on the Oral Roberts Show—yeah, he had a choreographer team, husband and wife, heterosexuals. They were the only non-gay choreographers in Hollywood at the time, so Oral Roberts had them.

A side note about Tommy Wolfe, who wrote "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most." He and Russ Freeman were also rehearsal pianists. When Russ stopped using heroin he wanted to distance himself from the jazz world, so he stopped playing jazz, pretty much completely, and worked eight hours a day, five or six days a week, as a rehearsal pianist. I probably got recommended for the job by Tommy Wolfe.

This meant going to the studio where Roberts filmed the show and working with the choreographer, who would say, "We're going to do this song, so play it in this key, in this style, and I'm gonna teach the dancers their steps." So it was drudgery. It was well- paid drudgery, over and over again.

You'd also be asked to compose. He'd say, "At this point we're going to go across the room, in this kind of feel—write some music that works for us to do that for 30 seconds." You'd have to be a quick study and come up with something.

I probably worked six, seven, eight hours a day, four or five days a week. My sketches would go to an orchestrator who would then translate them for orchestra—like a 25-piece orchestra. A guy named Mike Lang, a friend of mine in LA, was the pianist on those sessions. He couldn't make it one day, and recommended me. They said "Well sure, Bill's been doing the rehearsal stuff," so I went in and did the session, and that was the beginning of it.

Gradually, I started to get calls from other composers. And contractors were the middle people between the composer of the film and TV show and the musicians' pool. There was a contractor for each show and each studio had their own: Paramount Studios had Carl Fortina, Sandy DeCrescent was at Universal. Harry Lojewski was at MGM, and he would have a list. He'd know that Bill Mays could play piano, harpsichord, and pipe organ—this was pre-synthesizer, when I started doing studio work—and Bill's a great reader, and he's great with the conductor. And Pete Jolly is great at this, and he also plays the accordion, and there's Clare Fischer, who has the big Yamaha electric organ. They had your specifications and your strong and weak points.

They wouldn't call you directly. There were two answering services that would put out a call like, "John Williams has a movie date at Fox next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 9:00 to 12:00 and 1:00 to 4:00—here's the orchestra list—and Bill Mays is number one, or Clare Fischer is number one, and if you can't get them, then go to the second one.

That's the way it worked. It was a business. You knew the composer's name, the studio, and the time. You didn't know the name of the film, you didn't know the size of the orchestra—you didn't have any music in advance. You just walked into the studio.

The music contractor was the one who filled out the payroll info, called the ten-minute break every hour and shooed you out if you showed up late, saying "You do not keep a 60- (or 20-piece) orchestra waiting!"

AAJ: And you had to make up some transitional stuff, right?

BM: I would do some writing as a rehearsal pianist. But when you go in to record a soundtrack for a TV show or a movie, a composer had already written a score and sent it to a copyist days in advance. You walk in, you go to the piano. There's a folder on the piano with cues, individual parts—a cue could be anywhere from five seconds long to three or four minutes.

AAJ: So you sight-read your part into the final product?

BM: Well, there'd be a rehearsal. You might make anywhere from one to five takes on a cue, depending on what was needed, and if there were any mistakes. Or you might record a cue, and the director hears it back immediately and says "it's a second-and-a-half too long—taper it off a little."

Anyway, I worked on hundreds of TV shows and movies and did that pretty constantly. I was with Sarah Vaughan in '72 into '73 and doing studio work while I was with her. Since we worked all the time on the road, I'd do an occasional date when I was home. As things picked up in the studio for me, it was one of the reasons I left her. I just stayed in LA and did studio work. Probably played jazz four nights a month.

At that time, Bud Shank was playing out a lot, and Shelly Manne, and they also did a lot of studio work. Also Howard Roberts, the guitarist.

AAJ: Sounds like a lot of fun.

BM: It was a great life! I had the best of both worlds—made a lot of dough. I left it in '84, and came to New York. I happened to have the gig with Gerry Mulligan as I was transitioning.

AAJ: Why did you leave such a great life?

BM: I was tired of it. I'd gone through a divorce, I was tired of doing studio work. I saw that I could stay there the rest of my life and do it, and I just said, "I want more."

I knew I'd never get a chance to play with Al Cohn or the Village Vanguard Band or anybody if I'm not there.

AAJ: So you got there.

BM: I got there. And I got to sub for Kenny Werner— he was the pianist at the Vanguard for awhile, and I was the first-call sub for a long time. And then Michael Weiss was the sub, and then Jim McNeely was back, and I got to work with Al Cohn a couple of times. I also got to work with Mel Lewis and a lot of trio settings. I had the gig with Mulligan for a few years, and left. I got Bill Charlap on the job, and then I think Ted Rosenthal followed him.

AAJ: I think you should use the word "begat" in there somewhere.

BM: It does kind of fit.

AAJ: Steady work is such an anomaly for a jazz musician.

BM: There were a lot of jazz musicians in the studios back then, like Bud Shank, Shelly Manne and Joe Porcaro, Chuck Domanico Chuck Berghofer and Mike Lang. Everybody was afraid to leave town and go out on a tour because the contractors would call and say, "Can you do MGM on Tuesday and Universal on Thursday?" And if you were gone... you couldn't.

Near the end of my time in LA I started turning down studio dates on Fridays to stay home and rehearse with my band. I had a band with Ernie Watts and Abe Laboriel, the bassist, with Steve Schaeffer on drums. We would gig throughout LA. So if a contractor wanted me on a Friday, I would say I was busy, but wouldn't tell him why.

So there was a lot of all kinds of work. It was a golden era. It really was.

AAJ: I bet you have some good stories from all those different experiences. Can we have a sample?

BM: During my studio years I often was called to play the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. It was a lengthy TV affair, lasting over 24 hours. The big band would play dozens of acts, sometimes getting a quick rehearsal during commercial, or often sight-reading the charts. It was challenging, and given the live aspect and the long hours, everyone's nerves were stretched.

Several hours into it Pia Zadora, who had just recorded an album, showed up to sing "The Man Who Got Away." We were afforded a few minutes to rehearse her chart. She had, amongst her entourage, a personal assistant who would express the diva's needs and desires, as if Zadora couldn't speak directly to the band. I played the solo piano intro as written. Pia, standing only five feet from me, said to her P.A., "Please tell the pianist to play the intro exactly as written."

P.A.: "Ms. Zadora would like the intro as written."

Me, to P.A.: "Please tell Ms. Zadora I'm playing the written notes of the intro exactly as the arranger has scored it." Intro played again.

Pia whimpers: "Tell the pianist something's just not right."

P.A.: "Ms. Zadora says something's just not right."

Me: "Perhaps Ms. Zadora would like me to forget the written notes, and, using the chord symbols provided, do something a little different."

That was relayed, replayed, and rejected, and it was requested the notes be tried again.

I did, but petulant Pia shouted, "I want it as written, note for note."

To which I offered, "Please tell Ms. Zadora I'll play it again, exactly as written, every f**king note!"

The P.A. turned to her and said, "You heard him."

AAJ: That's a riot, whether people know who she is, or not.

BM: When I moved to New York I hooked up with Emil Charlap—now retired, he was the film contractor in New York. Maybe I did six or seven movies a year, instead of two a week. I got to keep my hand in that. I guess the last movie I did was Julie and Julia.

AAJ: You were on one of my favorites, Fargo.

BM: Yes, I played piano and celeste, as I did on Julie and Julia. You know the celeste?

AAJ: That tinkly fairy sound?

BM: It's four octaves, and it produces that sound by a hammer striking a metal bar. Its most famous application is in the Nutcracker Suite, in "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." If you listen to the sound track of Julie and Julia, you'll hear the celeste in unison with the orchestra. In Fargo, it's used in any number of ways—it can be a solo instrument or played in unison, to add a little color and icing on the cake.

AAJ: I don't think the celeste was used in that infamous wood- chipper scene. .

BM: No. It's used in the very beginning—the theme is DA-da-da-da- DOOH... [sings]. In fact, I do a program called "Mays at the Movies" where I play some stuff from that album. The theme from Fargo isn't on that recording, but I incorporate it into the program since I played on the soundtrack. People get a kick out of knowing that, and also hearing what can be done in a jazz way with that theme.

AAJ: Tell me more about your movie work.

BM: The last movie score I played on before I moved to New York was Gremlins, and Jerry Goldsmith was the composer. There were three keyboard players—we had piano, I think we had celeste and harpsichord, and we had synthesizers. But the movie I did that had the most keyboard players—in fact, the whole score—was written by Lalo Schifrin. It was called Roller Coaster It was a horrible movie about a serial killer blowing up roller coasters— Judy and I still couldn't get through it the other night, when we tried to see it again—but Lalo wrote a great score. There were eight or nine keyboard players. We did it at Universal. He used pipe organ, harpsichord, tack piano, celeste, piano, Fender Rhodes. Don't know if we had synthesizers.

AAJ: What's a tack piano?

BM: It's an upright piano where you put thumbtacks in the hammers that strike the strings; it gives you that old Western barroom piano sound. And it's a great sound. [Mike] Post and [Pete] Carpenter used it on Magnum P.I., a TV show I played on. They used a tack piano in unison with guitar to get a very unique sound. Composers use all kinds of interesting techniques.

Remember that horrid little "Chucky" character [1988's Child's Play]? I played on one of those movies, and again it was Lalo Schifrin who did the score. He used a Yamaha console piano manufactured in Japan. That piano has a middle pedal that's a mute—the Yamaha corporation made that piano for apartments in Japan that had very thin walls, so people could practice and not disturb their neighbors. It gives a very non-piano, weird sound.

Lalo had that piano in the studio; I'd never played one before or since. He had me keep the piano muted, and they put three mics down inside with a lot of reverb so the sound is other-worldly, and you don't really know what it is.

I'll tell you another interesting use of the piano, on a movie called Sphere. The score was by Eliot Goldenthal; we recorded it in New York maybe ten years ago. It had a nine-foot Steinway grand—a $125,000 piano—with a big orchestra. But I didn't play one note on the keyboard.

You know that thing that covers the keys on a piano—every piano has one, it's called a "fallboard?" He had me playing in rhythmic unison with the cellos, the basses, and the low tuba and trombones. I had the sustain pedal depressed so that all the notes were sounding sympathetically, and my hands on the fallboard, slamming it down with the tempo and in unison with everyone else.

AAJ: So you weren't actually playing the piano—you were playing the fallboard?

BM: Isn't that unbelievable?

AAJ: And that was in Sphere, with Dustin Hoffman?

BM: I don't remember. I never saw the movie.

AAJ: Wacky!

BM: Yeah. Just another day at the office! But we were joking in the studio that you have a $125,000 piano here, and you're treating it like that.

AAJ: I was thinking about how eclectic you are when I saw you playing such wonderful stride. Not many jazz pianists will do that.

BM: Many don't know how. Many don't care to.

AAJ: It's very demanding, technically, no?

BM: It's like playing a classical piece. A fellow asked me how much of the rags was improvised and I said, very little. "Grandpa Spells" was almost note for note, and I also did "Black Beauty"—that's a Bill Dobbins transcription of an Ellington solo, and it's ver-noteum.

"Carolina Shout" I take a few liberties with, just rhythmic liberties, but it's pretty much James P.'s original version [James P. Johnson was a pioneer of the stride style]. That's an interesting one because there are six different sections to it. It's a great piece of writing, and a bitch to play. It's the kind of piece where you start learning the left hand separately and then the right hand, about this fast (snaps, slowly)—and eventually you play it like this (sings it, fast).

I think being a studio musician was great on a number of levels. It taught me how to listen to other instruments, which you have to do as a jazz player, phrase with them. Also, being an accompanist—if you're a good one, you're breathing with a singer—you're playing as little as possible while being supportive.

When I worked with Sinatra, it was a few concerts. Bill Miller was his longtime accompanist; they had decided to try him conducting, so I got the call to come play piano. Bill didn't work out as a conductor, so they put him back in the piano chair where he operated best, and got Frank Sinatra Jr. to conduct.

Anyway, I digress. When I went to the first rehearsal, there was an orchestra, and we were playing all those great Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle and Billy May charts that I'd heard for years. And now I'm in the middle of the orchestra, hearing it live. That was really heaven!

There was an entry for some song, and I had chord symbols, and also had some written-out stuff. I added a few little things, and Bill Miller said, "Simplify it—way less!" But Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, liked elaborate intros sometimes and let me stretch out. Every singer's different. You learn to be flexible.

So: I think the studio work, the accompanying, all helped me be a better comper behind horns in a jazz setting. And my church experience as a kid, playing in the choir—that helped too. I love playing duo, I love solo, trio, I love playing with horns. Nothing I prefer over another. I like to do it all.

AAJ: All?

BM: Almost all. I don't enjoy big bands anymore. I turn them down when called. Not that much fun.

AAJ: Because?

BM: I guess I want to have more of my voice out there than I get a chance to with a big band. I did a lot of stuff with the Vanguard Band, I've played with Maria Schneider's band a number of times. I worked in Mike Barone's big band out in LA, and Bob Florence's and Bill Holman's.

AAJ: In a big band, you're really just a cog in a wheel.

BM: Yeah. I didn't have that much fun doing the big band on the ship two or three years ago, but that was the assignment: they said you'll be onboard as an All-Star player and there'll be four big-band gigs. But Judy [Bill's wife, photographer Judy Kirtley] would never have forgiven me if I'd turned the cruise down.

AAJ: I was wondering how many other trios exist with piano, cello and trumpet?

BM: None that I know of, in classical music or in jazz. The closest thing would be piano, violin, and cello, in classical music. No, The Inventions Trio with Mays, Marvin Stamm on trumpet and Alisa Horn on cello is weird. Do you know the way it came about?

AAJ: Do tell.

BM: You thought you wouldn't be able to get me talking, right? Alisa's father, Howard Horn, is a respected cardiologist and a trombone player. He grew up with Marvin—they were kids in high school together. Marvin went on to become Marvin the trumpet player, and Howard became the doctor, and gave up the trombone. And Alisa was born, and Marvin and Howard stayed friends all those years.

So about ten years ago Marv and I were playing a concert in Memphis and went to the Horn's house for brunch. Marvin says, "You've got to hear their daughter play." So she played a Rachmaninoff piece—it might have been "Vocalese," which we've recorded. It was wonderful, we all applauded, and I said, "Let's try something. Sit and play that again, and let me come to the piano and play with you." So I improvised on top of it. This time she played it with a big smile on her face.

Somebody said, "Jeez! That's really neat! You should write something, or you should play together." The upshot was her father commissioned me to write a piece. We hadn't yet formed the trio; he just said, "I'd like to commission you to write a piece for Alisa and Marvin and you. Anything you want."

So we agreed on a fee, a timetable was set, and I wrote the "Fantasy." I had some free studio time somewhere, and I took us in to make a recording of it. And it turned out so well that it wasn't just a reference recording. It sounded wonderful. I had been recording for Palmetto—had done about four records with Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, so I went to them with the tape in hand and said, "This is nothing like what I've been doing for you, I don't know if you'd be interested in this." Well, they loved it, and that's how that record [Fantasy 2007] came about.

Now the second trio record, Delaware River Suite (2009), was another commission from her father and another doctor, since the fee went up, and he had to pull in more forces. I put it out on my own label because Palmetto wasn't interested in another one.

AAJ: And what's your own label?

BM: It's called No Blooze Music, Inc., which is the name of my publishing company. I don't really have a working label, I just used the name.

AAJ: Chega de Saudade = no more blues.

BM: No more blues, exactly. The third Inventions Trio record is coming out on Chiaroscuro, and that's the one called Life's a Movie, which includes four cues in search of a film. [Note: the piece is listed as "Suite: Life's a Movie" on the track list, which also features a medley of four Bill Evans compositions, the pairing of "Concierto de Aranjuez" by Joaquin Rodrigo with Chick Corea's "Spain," and three tunes by Thelonious Monk].

Going back to my film background, I wrote a score for a non-existent movie, and the titles of the movements are from the real studio world. There's "The Main Title," the music you hear at the beginning of a film. Often it contains a memorable theme that occurs many other times throughout the movie, and might even become a popular song, like from The Sandpiper.

AAJ: "The Shadow of Your Smile."

BM: Right. The second movement is called "Love Theme: Bittersweet," and is very film noir. I had the Chinatown score kind of in the back of my mind, since it also has strings and trumpet. Very 1940s The third movement is called "Chase," 'cause nine out of ten films have some kind of a chase, and the fourth is "End Credits"—the music you hear as the credits roll. It's a great piece.

AAJ: Now all you need is a movie for it.

BM: I'm looking forward to being on Chiaroscuro. They've got a terrific distribution system.

AAJ: That's unusual these days, to hear about a record label with great distribution.

BM: And they're going to produce physical CDs.

AAJ: What a concept!

BM: Of course, they're also going to make it available as an online download.. And I've got another record, Intersection, coming out with Road Work Ahead, a co-op quartet we formed in 1977 and recorded for the Discovery label.

I moved to New York in 1984 and the band broke up. We didn't work again for 18-20 years. We came back together and made another record five years ago. This latest one is guitar, bass, drums and piano. Everyone in the band writes for the band, we all work to book the band, and split the profits evenly.

The other musicians are Bob Magnusson, you know that name, the wonderful bassist, and Peter Sprague, the great guitarist who's worked with Diane Reeves the last few years and has a lot of his own records out on Xanadu and Concord. Jim Plank is a percussionist of 50 years' standing with the San Diego Symphony, retiring in May, and also a great jazz drummer. We've been friends since the early '60s. They're like family. The record is terrific.

AAJ: By now it seems that you've done virtually every setting and configuration. What is your dream next thing?

BM: The one thing I haven't done is make a solo piano with strings album. And I'm going to do it if I have to pay for it myself.

AAJ: There you go.

BM: And not just a string quartet—I want 26 strings. I want to do all the writing.

AAJ: That seems to be the ultimate goal of many musicians. Is it because it seems to legitimize the jazz? I'm thinking Charlie Parker with strings, for example. It puts jazz into the concert hall.

BM: For me it's the sound. I love writing for strings. I'll probably have a harp in there, because harp is such a great color and can play so much more than glissandi. And I've written a lot for harp. I'm not afraid of it. Most arrangers are. It's an instrument that has seven pedals, it's pitched in C flat, and it can be intimidating.

I got over my fear of it. There's a classical trio called Aureole. You know [saxophonist] Tim Ries? His wife, Stacey Shames, is a great harpist. She has a trio with Laura Gilbert on flute and Mary Hammann on viola. I've contributed to three of their albums. One was called Dreamscape: Lullabies From Around the World (Koch, 1999). I found a Navaho lullaby somewhere and amplified on it and wrote a nice piece for them.

Anyway, when I got the assignment, I said, harp? OK, I've never written for harp, but I'm going to do this. So I got Kent Kennan's orchestration book, read about the harp, and consulted with a harpist: Emily Mitchell, Lew Soloff's ex-wife. I took some lessons, which meant I wrote things out and said, "Try this," and she said "This works, that doesn't work, and here's why." And so I became a good harp-writer.

AAJ: Not to harp on it, or anything...

BM: Noooo, not to harp on it. So, strings, harp, probably no drums, probably double bass, somebody who can walk and arco well, maybe a woodwind or two. And maybe it's an all-ballad record. I think people would like that, and I'd like to play it, record it.

AAJ: That sounds wonderful. Getting into a well-done ballad can be like slipping into a hot tub.

BM: Yeah. And there are so many ballads that I love that have great verses: "How Long Has This Been Going On." I love the verses to "More Than You Know" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."

AAJ: One of my favorite things about your playing is your quoting: how you seamlessly manage to tip your hat to one famous tune in the midst of playing another. There are times when you make me laugh out loud.

BM: It slips out, like a fart. Musical Tourette's. You know who's a great, very humorous quoter? Steve Gilmore, the bassist with Phil [Woods]. He puts quotes in places that are just amazing, and they're so funny.

AAJ: Humor and music is a great combination.

BM: Poor classical musicians—they play their asses off on Beethoven or Ravel, but they never get a chance to really "play" like that.

AAJ: And it's not just the musical similarities, it's the words. The lyric of the quoted tune may relate to the subject matter pf what you're playing, but say something rueful and funny in the other direction. One of the reasons I love jazz is that it's food for my brain, as well as my ears.

BM: It might've been Lester Young, but I think it was Ben Webster that I heard this true story about. He was playing a ballad, and he was in his solo, and he stopped playing for six or eight bars. At the end of the set someone asked him why he stopped playing for so long—and he said it was because he forgot the lyrics. I love that.

One reason I'm a big quoter is that I know a whole lot of tunes. When I do clinics I always ask the piano players, "Are you learning at least one tune a week?" and hardly any of them are. At my age, I still learn songs all the time. I learned a new one two weeks ago that I think I'll play tomorrow: "Roundabout" by Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash. I know a lot of music. I like to learn.

AAJ: You're also interested in things outside music, like art and kayaking.

BM: I'm very self-motivated. Someone asked me this morning if I liked to practice as a kid or did my parents have to make me, and I said no, I was at the piano all the time. I had a great classical piano teacher—I started with her when I was about eight or nine, and I don't know how she did it, but she made me want to get to the piano as soon as I could. I was a big practicer.

AAJ: It shows in the fluency of your runs and the strength of your attack. I hear you practice six hours a day when you're home.

BM: I also take what I call a "mini-MacDowell"—like the artist colony? I took a month off last year and a month the year before, and I'm going to do it again. I even put it on my itinerary: the middle of June, I think it is, to the middle of July.

I'm an early morning person in the summer; I get up at 5:00, as dawn is breaking. I love to have coffee out on the patio, watch the sun, hear the birds. At 6:00, I'm in the Music Haus [the detached garage he converted into a piano studio], and I'll work for two or three hours. Then I'll take an hour break, have something to eat, and go back for three more hours. By 2 o'clock in the afternoon I'm done with music. So I'll go down to the beach and kayak or lay in the hammock. It's wonderful

And I don't take any work for that month. Judy answers all the emails and phone calls for me, and she tells them I'm "mini-MacDowelling" and they say, "I hope he doesn't get any on him."

AAJ: What do you want people to know about you that they don't?

BM: I think much of what we've talked about today gives a bigger picture of my background. I'd like people to check out the variety of my music; if they're interested in knowing more about me, I'd love them to hear some tracks of The Invention Trio and then some tracks of the great trio I had with Matt Wilson and Martin Wind.

AAJ: And the duo Sondheim, with Tommy Cecil. That was gorgeous.

BM: Yeah, the Sondheim. We're going to record a Volume Two. We've already got some tunes picked out: "Finishing the Hat," "Rich and Happy," and "Send in the Clowns."

AAJ: I heard an apocryphal story about that last one—that Sondheim wrote it for the actress Glynis Johns, who had a limited vocal range.

BM: [Scats melody quickly] Trying to find the lowest and highest note—that's an A flat [sings bridge]. You know, that's interesting. I think the range on that is an octave and a step—a ninth—very far from "The Star Spangled Banner"! Who was the singer again?

AAJ: Glynis Johns, an actress-singer. Even her Wikipedia entry mentions that she was the one who introduced that song.

BM: We're also going to do "Somewhere," from West Side Story, which is Leonard Bernstein, of course, but Stevie-boy wrote the words. .

AAJ: Yes, that was his first big gig. And to this day, he still beats himself up for the lyrics to "I Feel Pretty," because it's unlikely that a recent Puerto Rican immigrant would be singing "It's alarming/how charming/I feel."

BM: True! [Laughs]

AAJ: It reminds me of Gene Lees, who never stopped getting flak for rhyming "stars" with "guitar" in "Corcovado." Some people never let go of that.

BM: That's funny.

AAJ: And now, as we wrap this up, do you have any advice for kids coming up? Any particular challenges that stand out for you?

BM: Well, one thing I tell people in clinics and lectures is, don't feel like you have to move to New York to have a career. Do come to New York and visit. Stay for a few months, study with favorites you have on your instrument and learn and grow—and then go back to Topeka and Portland and create a scene, or augment the scene. We need more great players in places around the country. There are so many great players in New York City, and not enough work for all of them.

Of course, the second piece of advice is to have a great website with as much media connection as you can so that people stumble across you on the Internet. Because you have to increase your visibility as much as possible, since there aren't that many labels to do it for you. Learn how to use the media intelligently, and I'm talking to myself as much as anybody else because I've had the same website for years. I want to update it and be more plugged in, even though I don't tweet or Facebook.

I'm so lucky to have this new record coming out on a label with a distribution network. Do you know what musicians mean when they say they have a new distribution deal?

Next >
Magic 101



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