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Burt Eckoff: A Pianist's Close Encounters With the Greats of Jazz

Idelle Nissila-Stone By

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It’s better to know three songs with a unique and recognizable approach, than try to learn too many at once. Repertoire without concept is not the way to go. —Burt Eckoff
Active in the New York City jazz scene since the 1960s, pianist Burt Eckoff played with many jazz greats, among them Howard McGhee, Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt and Archie Shepp. He is known for exceptional artistry in his work with vocalists Dionne Warwick, The Drifters, Eddie Jefferson, and most importantly Dakota Staton, with whom he had a long association. His formative years playing Rhythm & Blues in Providence, Rhode Island laid the groundwork for his career as a jazz pianist. Albums recorded as leader are entitled Tell Me You'll Wait For Me released on the Japanese label Interplay Records, and Ecology.

Formative Years in Providence, Rhode Island

All About Jazz: Was music part of your life from an early age?

Burt Eckoff: I came from a musical family in Providence. My older brother Eugene took piano lessons. There is a 12-year difference between us, so when I was young he was already pretty advanced, and almost like a young father figure to me. After practicing his lesson he would fool around and improvise, and I would climb up on the sofa and check out what he was doing. My father played violin, guitar and clarinet. He didn't improvise, but was a very good musician. He auditioned on violin for the Boston Symphony and came close, but rather than pursue that avenue, he opened a shop specializing in women's formal wear, called The Sorority House. One night he came home with an autographed photo of Dakota Staton. She had stopped in to buy some gowns. Who would have thought that, years later, I would be working with Dakota and traveling around with her?

AAJ: That's an interesting bit of foreshadowing. What got you to study piano?

BE: When I was five, my parents took me to see The Bells of St Mary's. I liked the theme song of that movie so much that when we got back home, I went to the piano and picked out the melody without too many mistakes. I took piano lessons after that, with Miss Helen Whitney in downtown Providence.

AAJ: What did you enjoy listening to?

BE: Radio was the dominant force for music in the 1940s. We didn't even have a TV until I was 9. Back then, we used our imaginations in a different way because there was nothing to look at. It was more of a hearing society. We had a radio station with a famous DJ, Carl Henry. After school, the first thing I would do was turn on the radio. When I had the money, I would buy records by Ray Charles, Joe Turner, and things on the Atlantic label. I liked Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, and groups like The Clovers. If I heard something on a record, I'd go to the piano and see what I could access on my own by ear.

AAJ: Carl Henry played a lot of up and coming young Rhythm & Blues groups on his radio program. Were you part of that scene?

BE: When I was 13 or 14, I began to notice a lot of records had guitar solos. The electric guitar was relatively new, and that sound drew me in like a magnet. A group of teenagers started a band called Little Randy and the Stompers. Little Randy was Randall Ashe, who played the tenor sax. Arthur Hazard played baritone. I once saw them perform at an assembly at school, and the principal stopped it because the two saxophones were going through motions that could be interpreted as sexually explicit. It was something that a lot of groups did back then. They had to be entertainers.

The pianist in the group was Billy Osborne, who came from a musical family. His father was a fine trumpet player who once had offers to go on the road with Count Basie. Billy Osborne was self-taught, playing and singing all the hits by Ray Charles and Fats Domino. I thought, "They don't need a pianist, but if I could get a guitar, I could become part of that." My father didn't want to be bothered. "You gave up the piano. What will you want next week, a trombone?" He didn't think I was serious enough, but I kept bugging him. Eventually I was able to get hollow body guitar with a little amp as a rental, and I took to it like a duck to water. Pretty soon, my teacher was giving me transcriptions of solos by Oscar Moore of the Nat Cole Trio. Eventually, my father got me the solid body Les Paul TV special model, back then selling for maybe $200-$300.

My featured numbers were "Honky-Tonk" and "Moonlight in Vermont." By the time I was 16 in 1957, we were playing at the Celebrity Club for people who wanted to dance. We played intermissions opposite Max Roach, with Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and Kenny Dorham on trumpet, because Clifford Brown had just passed away. We played everything by ear. Every time Fats Domino or Ray Charles would come out with something, Billy Osborne would have it, no sheet music necessary.

AAJ: When did you start to get gigs on piano?

BE: At age 17, when people saw that I picked things up quickly. In clubs like the Celebrity in the 1950s there were two songs every pianist had to know. One was "After Hours." Every twelve bars there is this—I don't want to say cliché, but there is a certain kind of activity. The coordination between the two hands is tricky. It's something you rarely hear today, but back then it was something everyone in those clubs would request, and I would knock out my own version of it on piano. The other tune everybody had to know was Count Basie's version of "April in Paris" with an extended ending. It was probably the hardest number we performed in terms of technique. But there was something about that arrangement that people loved. They went crazy, especially at the ending. Now, none of that stuff is around anymore. It went out of fashion by the 1960s.

A bassist from Montreal, Carl Palmas, played in our group for a while. Carl also played piano. One day he came over to my place and played the blues in B-flat, adding something in there that I had heard but didn't quite know how to go about doing myself. In the 7th and 8th bars of the 12-bar structure, Carl was adding activity and passing chords that you wouldn't hear in the Rhythm & Blues stuff. I started to think, "Wow, I'm going to hang out with this guy more." He had a record of Bud Powell playing "Night in Tunisia." I didn't have a clue what was going on, but it was fascinating. And then I began to hear people like Horace Silver, whose funky soulful approach was an easy stepping stone for me because it provided a transition into jazz from the basic blues I was playing.

At the Celebrity Club we weren't exactly playing jazz, that's not what we were there for and we didn't have that kind of expertise, but we were playing a form of jazz. Interestingly, a lot of major horn players were playing in Rhythm & Blues bands at the time. Coltrane played with Earl Bostic after he got out of the Navy, Sonny Stitt played with the Tiny Bradshaw band, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson played alto and sang the blues.

AAJ: Were there any artists in particular who influenced you?

BE: A fine pianist in Providence, Freddie Starks, was an early influence. Freddie was a quiet, introverted guy who never left Providence. He came to New York once and didn't like it: Dog-eat-dog wasn't for him. He had a style I would compare to Kenny Drew, Red Garland or Wynton Kelly. Starks was one of those people I used to just observe. He also played valve trombone and occasionally I would be on a gig with him as a guitarist. I used to go over to Freddie's house, look at his notebooks and copy things out. One tune I particularly liked was a version of a calypso called "Hold 'em Joe." Freddie was gracious about sharing his music. When he played I would look over his shoulder. That's how I learned some of my first jazz tunes like "Lady Bird," just by watching. Freddie started recommending me as pianist after awhile.

I have to mention Kenny Burrell, because I was still getting things to practice from my guitar teacher. In a store one day I saw the record Introducing Kenny Burrell. It was blues influenced, and the pianist was Tommy Flanagan. I found out they grew up together in Detroit. They had a rapport that was unbelievable, like a new version of the Nat Cole Trio. I also practiced piano with the record No Count, a session with horn players from the Count Basie Band with Kenny Burrell on rhythm guitar. Most important was what the saxophone players Frank Wes and Frank Foster did, riffing within the chords. That's what R&B was emphasizing. Not so much running all over technically on your instrument, but keeping the groove, the "Healin' Feelin'" going.

The first great jazz pianist I ever saw in concert was Phineas Newborn, Jr. at the Rhode Island School of Design, with Doug Watkins on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums. Phineas was from Memphis and I didn't know it at the time, but his first recordings were with B.B. King, playing hard-core blues. Phineas Newborn showed me you can have technique without losing the feel. He played "Afternoon in Paris" with just his left hand, with a harmony part as well. You would swear you were hearing two hands, he had that much dexterity and coordination. So Phineas became a favorite of mine. The fact that he had such prodigious technique was intimidating, but it was something for me to aspire to.

A Sojourn in Boston, Massachusetts

AAJ: Where did you go after you left Providence?

BE: At 19, I moved to Boston to attend liberal arts school. One weekend my cousins played me a new album, Kind of Blue, and it blew my mind. On weekdays when it was cheap for students, I would go to Storyville, George Wein's club and see acts such as Dizzy Gillespie, or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I once heard Junior Mance featured on his own composition, "Jubilation." To this day it's one of my favorite songs. More and more, piano was becoming my dominant instrument.

The hippest group in Boston was led by saxophonist Sam Rivers who had a fourteen year old drummer, Tony Williams, in the group. It was mind-boggling to hear this kid. Phil Morrison was the bassist and Hal Galper was the pianist. Through Phil Morrison I got to know pianist Walter Radcliff, who grew up with Horace Silver in Norwalk, Connecticut. Walter Radcliff got me into a regular gig at The Brown Derby with Tom Kennedy, a good alto player in the style of Earl Bostic, who would sing, dance and act as well as direct. Getting the right feel of the tunes was what it was all about, and in those days you could fine-tune your craft through repetition night after night.

In Boston in 1961 the musician's unions were segregated. Delegates would come around to gigs and ask for your card. They said, "Look son, we don't care which union you join, but you're going to have to have a card the next time we come in." Everyone in the band was African-American, so I joined their union.

I met Kenny Miller, a trumpet player from Pittsburgh. One day he said, "You don't have to know a lot of tunes. Just take the ones you know, fine-tune them and get all the subtleties." It's better to know three songs with a unique and recognizable approach, than try to learn too many at once. Repertoire without concept is not the way to go.

Just before I left Boston I met Ted Curson, a trumpet player from Philadelphia. We played for a week in Montreal and got a nice writeup in Coda magazine. On bass was Carl Palmas, the fellow who, back in Providence, had shown me chords the way Bud Powell would do them.

New York, New York

AAJ: When did you come to New York?

BE: In 1963. I found an apartment on East Sixth Street close to Second Avenue. My downstairs neighbor was Billy Higgins and when he heard me practicing, he would come up with his brushes and play on my kitchen table. Billy Higgins had a way of taking you on the most beautiful musical journey. He was so full of bliss and he didn't overplay. Kenny Barron's brother, Bill Barron the saxophonist, was in the same building and gave me some of my first gigs. The East Village back then was a center for people in the arts. You had people like Freddie Redd who wrote the music for the play The Connection, later made into a movie. Jackie McLean lived not far from here. Wilbur Ware the Bassist was on Avenue B. Bobby Timmons lived on this block. I met Larry Ridley the bassist and Al Foster the drummer. You didn't know who you would run into next, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry. And you had Gary Bartz from Baltimore, Clarence Sharp "C#" from Philadelphia, and a tenor saxophonist from the Bronx, Frank Mitchell, who worked with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan, but who died very young. Also Ferrell (Pharoah) Sanders, then called "Little Rock." One evening I got to The Speakeasy early and there was no pianist, so I got the gig that night. John Orr was on bass and Clifford Jarvis was the drummer. The piano was a mess. Some people could really make it sound good, though. I tried, but it was intimidating! So, I'm doing the best I can, and Clifford Jarvis is saying, "I can't hear the pianist!" I'm thinking, I don't want this guy messing with me so I'm going to bear down and make sure he can hear me. By the end of the night we got to be friends. I remember one of the things he said: "There's a certain tempo for every tune, and if it's not there, it's not going to happen."

There were clubs all over in the 1960s, and local cliques of jazz artists, from Uptown, Harlem and the Bronx. Frank Mitchell even played at a jazz club that was set up at a Bronx bowling alley. There was a Brooklyn clique at the Coronet Club, where I worked with Howard McGhee's small group. I also played with his big band at the legendary Half Note on Hudson and Spring Street. Howard McGhee was friendly with Reverend Gensel of the St. Peter's Lutheran Church, so we did a lot of vesper concerts at the original St. Peter's location.

AAJ: Who were your piano gurus?

BE: There were technical aspects of playing I wanted to master. Someone recommended I study with a European classical pianist, Bruce Potterton. With his instruction I got into more detail and learned how to use the pedals effectively. It took me whole year to learn Debussy's "First Arabesque" to his satisfaction, but I mastered the whole process of breaking down an intricate piece.

Another pianist who influenced me was Chicago pianist Chris Anderson. He had a unique harmonic sense; his chord progressions and voicings were sometimes reminiscent of Bill Evans, but with dissonance that reminded me of Thelonious Monk. He would take any song and make it into an impressionistic concerto, referring to this as "just throwing paint around." Jaki Byard and Cedar Walton helped me with informal lessons. Jaki Byard would say, "Watch the pianist's feet. The way they tap their foot or use the pedals is just as meaningful as what they do with their hands, if not more so."

AAJ: I understand you spent some time working in the Islands.

BE: In 1965, I went to Bermuda and worked in the house show band at The Forty Thieves Club. Dionne Warwick came with all those Burt Bacharach hits where everything had to be played note for note. It was the hardest gig I ever had to do. One night I lost focus for a second and added a couple of notes. She turned and gave me a "don't do that again" look. Later, The Drifters came in, and their music allowed more freedom.

After Bermuda I ended up in St. Croix, Virgin Islands for six months at a brand new club called the Cruzan Moon. Pianist/comedian Victor Borge used to winter in St. Croix and often came to listen. I was like a big fish in a small pond and could have stayed indefinitely, but I wanted musical challenges, so I returned to New York in 1967.

Meanwhile, Jaki Byard left Charles Mingus' group and was in the band at the 82 Club on East Fourth Street. I subbed sometimes, playing for the female impersonators. Many of them were talented, especially one Carol Durrell who looked and sang like Nancy Wilson. Jaki Byard wrote some amazing music, including an overture in 5/4 time. When he got a teaching position at the New England Conservatory, I took over. I also filled in at the Top of the Gate on the Mezzanine for a couple weeks on solo piano, the first week opposite Ahmad Jamal, and the second week, opposite Teddy Wilson with Ron Carter on bass. Around the same time I worked with Calvin Newborn for a summer in West Hampton. One night I played a club called Slug's on East Third Street between Avenues B and C. At the end of the night I was invited to a jam session at a loft in Chinatown. There was a saxophonist and two pianists, myself and Chick Corea. I thought I'd better get to the piano first because I didn't want to follow Chick Corea. But there was a drum set, and that's where he stayed all night. If you asked him to play a stylistic thing like Max Roach or Roy Haynes or Elvin Jones, he could do it. Years later I saw Chick Corea again, maybe around the year 2000, at a solo performance at a Barnes & Noble. I got a chance to have a chat with him and said, "It surprised me when you didn't touch the piano that night at the loft session. I had no idea you would play the drums that well. Where do find the time to do all that?" He laughed, and then dispelled a rumor I had heard, that Sonny Rollins once asked him to play drums, not piano. He did play drums with Miles Davis though, one night when the drummer didn't show up.

Around the same time, a pickup band was put together to go to Buffalo to play with Maynard Ferguson. He gave me a lot of piano solos and was wonderful to work for. Later I found out he'd been living at the same estate as Timothy Leary and experimenting with LSD. Longtime band members could tell if he'd been indulging, but I never could because his musicianship was impeccable.

Next, George Adams the tenor player hooked me up with Roy Haynes' group, the Hip Ensemble. Awhile later, I was working a gig with Howard McGhee, and Art Blakey came in and asked me if I wanted to come in with his group for a couple weeks. Art's daughter Evelyn was a singer, and I'd already worked with his son, Art Jr. In the band at the time was Billy Harper on tenor, Bill Hardman on trumpet and Julian Priester on trombone. The most interesting gigs we did were at the drummer Olatunji's studio in Harlem on 125th Street. One time Elvin Jones played, and that was incredible.

The Loft Jazz scene of the 1970s was a cultural phenomenon, featuring more experimental music and operating parallel to the well-known clubs. I got gigs with a singer named Joe Lee Wilson who had his own loft on Bond Street. Eddie Jefferson heard me there, and asked me to work with him at Rashied Ali's place, Ali's Alley, on Greene Street. Mark Morganelli opened a place called the Jazz Forum on Cooper Square, where I played regularly.

In 1976, Charles McGee the trumpet player asked me to go to Guadalupe, West Indies where we'd work with international musicians. There was a problem: Over the years I had experimented with drugs, putting me in a precarious situation for close to a decade, consequently I entered the methadone program at Beth Israel Hospital. The French consulate wrote a letter on my behalf, so I was the first one allowed to take a three-month supply of methadone out of the country. In Guadalupe we were playing for listening and dancing, but there was another part of the club where they were bringing in well-known groups from New York. Zoot Sims came down, with Jimmy Rowles on piano. Jimmy Rowles showed me some techniques for the left hand in the stride style, and some of his chord substitutions. Guitarist Attila Zoller came without a piano player, so after my gig I would play with Attila Zoller's group until the wee hours. Major Holley was on bass, and Pete Yellin on saxophone. Years later in New York, Attila Zoller would see me and say, "Guadalupe, how are you, Guadalupe!" in his Hungarian accent. He was always full of energy and vigor.

The Jazzmobile program was funded by CETA, (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). I was one of twenty pianists called to audition for a panel that included Norman Simmons and Billy Taylor. I remember having a prescient dream where I played Tadd Dameron's "Fountainebleau Suite," so I heeded that and auditioned with a section called "The Swans" and got hired. Jazzmobile at the time was conducted by Frank Wes, and sometimes Frank Foster or Slide Hampton would be in charge. One of the trumpet players in the band knew Sonny Stitt, who was going to be playing in Newark at a place called Sparky J's and needed a rhythm section, so I worked a week with Sonny Stitt around 1978 or 1979.

In 1980 I went back to school to complete a degree at Hunter College. One afternoon between classes I went to a club where Roy Eldridge was being featured, with an open session afterwards, and I played. Roy Eldridge invited me to sub at Jimmy Ryan's a few times, which was interesting because I was also working with Archie Shepp at the time. To me, it was a continuation of the same lineage. Archie Shepp's playing wasn't completely out in space; you could always hear where it came from. In reference to players who displayed no knowledge of musical roots, Major Holley used to say, "At least the astronauts come back." No one embodied the value of knowing musical heritage better than Jaki Byard, who was like an encyclopedia. Billy Taylor as well. Inspired by them, I researched a program of music from different eras called Music of the Legendary Jazz Pianists, and performed it at the Donnell Library in 1983.

AAJ: Donnell Library had great acoustics. When it was knocked down, it was a great loss. Which artists did you feature?

BE: Jelly Roll Morton, Willie the Lion Smith, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Cecil Taylor. I researched their lives and times as well as the music, and in a sense I almost had to become those people.

In the mid-1980s, Hilton Ruiz the pianist was working with a group called the

Salsa Refugees, led by Mario Rivera the saxophonist who had been with Tito Puente. I'd known Hilton since he was 17 or 18, often we'd exchange gigs. The Salsa Refugees played jazz tunes by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but with a Latin rhythm section. It was a fascinating mix.

Finally, I got a chance to record my first album as a leader on Interplay Records, Toshi Taenaka's label. He recorded mostly pianists, including a friend of mine, Gil Coggins, who initially got me in touch with Toshi Taenaka. A session was set up with Walter Booker on bass and Frank Gant on drums. The album, released in Japan, was called Tell Me You'll Wait for Me after a ballad written by the blues pianist and vocalist Charles Brown. I'd heard his music on the radio, back in Providence. Years later I was at Tramp's, a club at around 17th Street and Third Avenue. It was the middle of the week and not too many people were there. I couldn't believe the music I was hearing: Charles Brown was an accomplished classical pianist, as I later found out. So, it's the end of the night, and Charles is anxious to leave, he already has his coat on. I say, "Charles, I'll play." I play some blues, and he says, "Do you know "Lush Life"? Would you play for me and I'll sing it?" We became friends after that. I dedicated my recording of "Tell Me You'll Wait for Me" to Charles Brown, and it may be the only instrumental version of that song. Charles Brown had a major boost to his career when he sang a duet with Bonnie Raitt on the Tonight Show hosted by Jay Leno, but many other R&B artists fell into obscurity because the music wasn't promoted anymore.

AAJ: Tell me about your long association with Dakota Staton.

BE: I first worked with Dakota Staton in 1974, in Cleveland. She was a character to say the least. Once after a sound check she says to me, "Play a tune, see if I can guess what it is." I remembered one called "Dinner for One Please, James." After a few bars she said, "Oh, that's "Dinner for One Please, James." You're going to have to come up with something more challenging." I kept trying but there wasn't anything she didn't know. A lot of time went by before we met up again. In the 1990s I got a call from a friend of hers, who said she was looking for a pianist for the month of August. I didn't know if she'd remember me but she did. She had important gigs, including one at the Apollo Theater with Roberta Flack and John Lucien on the show. It was nice to see all those people paying their respects to her because, naturally, she was out there first. Dakota kept me on after that and I would travel with her.

Dakota kept her music in shopping bags with no system, plus she had cataracts that were at an advanced stage. I'd go to her apartment and we'd put sets together. We're selecting music one afternoon, and I'm calling out ballad titles: "How Did He Look," "Skylark," "My Funny Valentine." At that, she gets very upset. "Don't you mention that song to me whatever you do! Please don't ever mention that song to me again!" So I think, OK, I won't mention it. Fast forward: We're going somewhere else, I'm putting sets together, and calling out the ballads: "He Will Call Again," "How Did He Look," "Skylark," "My Funny Valentine" ... Oops, I stepped in it. "Didn't I tell you, don't mention that song! Don't mention "My Funny Valentine!" Fast forward a few more years: We're going to a gig in Boston. "What ballads do we have?" she asks. "How Did He Look," "Skylark," (I'm not going to mention you-know-what), "Jim" (one of her favorites), and she says, "Oh, take out "My Funny Valentine" because it's going to be Valentine's Day and they might request it."

What was going on? I called Bross Townsend the pianist who had worked and recorded with her, and asked why Dakota would get so upset. He explained that her voice had, naturally, changed over the years. "My Funny Valentine" had always been one of her signature songs. With her sensational range she'd easily jump an octave to hit a high note, but she couldn't hit those same high notes anymore, and had to lower the key to get the effect. I finally understood why she was being so mysterious.

At one memorable show in Buffalo, she got three standing ovations. Afterwards I help her to her room, put the light on and make sure she gets settled in. I'm feeling elated from the music, and say, "Wow Dakota, you got three standing ovations! That's really something, give me a hug." She looks at me and says, "That's nothing, those people just haven't heard the music played the way it needs to be played." At the time that remark sounded cynical, but in retrospect I understand. She started out when you had to have a signature style in order to break through, and sometimes that wasn't even enough. She came in on the heels of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Anita O'Day, and June Christy, and developed a style all her own. You couldn't mistake her sound. "They haven't heard the music played the way it needs to be played." A classic Dakota Staton quote.

In the 1990s I played the Flushing Town Hal with David Williams on bass and Frank Gant on drums. The waiting list was long and I waited over a year for my date to come around. I did a bit of traveling in the '90s too. A bassist, Ben Tucker, had at one time been in New York playing with a lot of diverse people like Herbie Mann, Billy Taylor, and Peggy Lee, and showed up on countless recordings as a sideman. Our paths never crossed, but people were telling me about the club he owned in Savannah, Georgia. I called, introduced myself, told him about people I worked with, and the good things I'd heard about him and his club. It was true I was thinking about relocating, but where? I didn't have contacts in the Virgin Islands, Guadalupe or St. Croix anymore. Ben Tucker said, "Come down for as long as you want." He was one of those people with the knack of being in the right place at the right time. He had his own publishing company, and wrote a tune "Comin' Home Baby," a huge Latin jazz hit for Herbie Mann. Bob Dorough wrote the lyrics, Mel Torme recorded it, and it made a lot of money. If that wasn't enough, Bobby Hebb wrote "Sunny" and couldn't get anybody to publish it. Along comes Ben Tucker and says, "Partner (he called everyone Partner) I'll get it published, come to my company." And as you know, everybody did that song, it's high on BMI's most-recorded list. Then to top it off, some large corporation bought the rights from him!

One weekend in Savannah, the featured saxophonist kept counting off the tunes a little too slow, and the tempos were dragging all night. Ben Tucker wouldn't say anything, and the drummer wouldn't say anything. They were being gracious, but it was a frustrating evening. On the last set, a request comes in. Ben asks, "What key do you play "Hello Dolly" in?" I said, "Let's do it in B-flat, but can I count it off?" We got some swing going, the saxophonist started swinging, and suddenly it sounded like Stan Getz, Hank Mobley or Dexter Gordon was in the room. It just goes to show how valuable it is to play a song in the right tempo!

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