In March of 2008, the jazz world lost the irreplaceable Dennis Irwin, a bassist who was a remarkable musician; a beautiful person generous with his time and his heart; and a scholar and facilitator of musical experiences without equal. Since his passing there have been tributes to this world-class sideman, which enumerate the details of his career. Not too many people know that Irwin began playing bass at 19, after years of classical clarinet and playing drums in marching bands and alto sax in R&B settings. He was first attracted to, and able to play bass in, a lot of free jazz settings.
Irwin has enlightening things to say about the psychoacoustic aspects of playing. His remarkable attention to aestheticsand extensive experience playing chamber musicyield valuable musical lessons for players and listeners alike. He also discusses using gut strings, playing with Junior Cook, what was at the time the current generation of players, and his own philosophy of playing as a privilege and a spiritual duty.
- Early Days: Coming to the Bass
- The Lure of Jazz
- Adapting and Driving
- Art Blakey
- Mel Lewis
- Strings and Things
- Work Ethic
Early Days: Coming to the Bass
All About Jazz: You told me you started playing bass relatively late, right?
Dennis Irwin: I started bass when I was 19, in college.
AAJ: 'cause you said before that you were...
DI: ...a clarinetist.
AAJ: Where were you going?
DI: North Texas State.
AAJ: It was already a jazz school then right?
DI: Since the Thirties. I went there for the classical thing, not for the jazz. I played a little with Red Garland before I left Texas, I subbed for a couple of weekends. By the time I left, if I had stayed a little longer, I would have gotten some more of that kind of work.
AAJ: But you had hardly been playing at all.
DI: When I left I'd been playing almost three years. I was there five years, started playing in the middle of my second year.
AAJ: So how do you go from that to playing with Red Garland in three years?
DI: Well you just have some sort of idea of where the beat is and there were so few guys, I had a lot of chances to play, so few acoustic players that I was doing more than I really...
AAJ: When was that?
DI: 1971 to '74.
AAJ: That was one of the deathly periods of jazz, so people who were playing acoustic were probably few and far between.
DI: Well, lugging a lot of stuff around with them 'cause there were Fender Rhodes at every gig, guitars and/or congas, dashikis, sideburns.
AAJ: Well it's definitely interesting that you went from classical clarinet to playing jazz bass. Had you been interested in jazz for a long time?
DI: I played rhythm and blues on saxophone in a bunch of bands in high school. James Brown, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, that kind of stuff appealed to meMaceo [Parker], Junior Walker, King Curtis. I was playing saxophone in that style.
DI: Yeah, mostly alto. I hadn't heard Charlie Parker. A friend turned me on to some Coltrane and Count Basie when I was in the 11th grade but it didn't really sink in 'til a couple of years later.
But I realize now part of my predilection for the Wilbur Ware, Jimmy Garrison kind of sound is the simplicity which is the same stuff Fathead, Hank Crawford, Maceo, King Curtisplaying on one chord with the rhythmic thing off of the keynotes, whether it's blues scale notes, or just that little lick, on the dominant or a vamp that James Brown's stuff is built up on.
AAJ: So how did the simplicity of that influence you?
DI: Well because it was funky, not just pop musicthe rhythmic displacement, the economy of notes, to make a simple idea stand out.
AAJ: The soloists' stuff or your own ideas?
DI: Well those soloists' stuff I incorporated into my own vocabulary before I was ever thinking about bebop.
AAJ: As a soloist?
DI: Yeah, I was playing those solos in the bands I was in. I would take solos on these little tunes we'd play that would be little fragments here and there verbatim Maceo or Junior Walker or King Curtis. I was playing those tunes in the bands I was working in some in Knoxville, some in Houston, when I finished high school. Those were the guys that I dug the hardest. I didn't realize 'til years later the urgency of making a few notes work for rhythmic effect is similar to what appeals to me about Wilbur, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, Larry Gales, as opposed to Niels-Henning [Orsted Pedersen] or Scotty [LaFaro].
AAJ: The swing and the conciseness, the urgency, saying a lot...
DI: and being able to convey a message without having done a whole lot of intellectual work too. That was the first thing I was drawn to. I wanted to and was able to incorporate that into playing the bass. I played drums in the marching band all through high school. I played clarinet the first two years, but in the 10th, 11th and 12th grade I told my band director I didn't want to take my good French clarinet out onto the marching field. "The rhythm section's kind of a drag anyway, why don't you let me play the drums? Let me help these guys out on the drums, 'cause you got enough clarinets to sink a battleship."
AAJ: It's an interesting image, right?
DI: So I didn't think I was gonna be that much help to them but I said, "We need more drums" and it was more fun to do. So I was fortunate they let me call my own shot. So I'd been a drummer already.
DI: Timbales, tom-tom, bass drum. I went through the whole percussion section. Looking back now I didn't really know my rudiments. I was able to rough off some little stuff that I thought was funky. We had little drum cadences and patterns worked out.
AAJ: This is where?
DI: In Atlanta, 8th and 9th grade. Rhythm and blues feeling was kind of always in the back of my mind. My mom liked Dinah Washington, Nat Cole. The early Aretha record that's a tribute to Dinah, she had that record on Epic with show me the way to get to "Soulville" and "Unforgettable." So looking back now mom really had better taste than I thought she did at the time. My brother liked some jazz; he was kind of a beatnik so I was hearing jazz around the house when I was a little kid.
AAJ: So what made you go toward the bass?
DI: Toward the end of my little classical career, I was doing some conducting also. From the bass side of things, I enjoyed being part of the continuum. I don't know if I'd enjoy it so much sitting on my hands counting measures like in the Monday [Vllage] Vanguard) night band, I know that drives those cats crazy. But even on bad nights I'm enjoying myself because I'm playing all the time. I had a free semester of lessons after I finished my piano requirement. I signed up to do that, I took lessons.
I didn't realize there was a gap to be filled, that there weren't enough bass players for all the drummers, piano players, horn players. One could do a lot of different sessions. It seemed like by the time I could play a couple of scales and get the bass down the hall without slamming it through the doorway or somethingI didn't own a bass for about a year-and-a-half. My friend Bob McCready and I shared a bass at school; we were worried about taking it out of the building. I was lucky. It took a couple of years to get over the feeling of being the least experienced person in the group which I always was. But that feeling stayed with me for a while.
After a while I realized "Well, I do know something about playing and I can assert this and that without continually asking, "Do you want me to do it that way?" or "Show me how you want to do this." I had accumulated enough experience after a certain point and it wasn't all jazz experience. A lot of skills and insights from playing classical music really apply to correct ensemble playing in jazz. My clarinet teacher at North Texas was a real stickler about intonation; he had a degree in physics alsoLee Gibson....Now I still apply what Lee had me thinking aboutplaying correctly in tune, blending timbres comes over into jazz. Mostly intonation.
After about six months of [bass] lessons I was hooked on it, the nice sensation. I didn't start out with the bow. I started out thumping. [I progressed to the point where] I might have had a shot at the One O'Clock band, the best jazz band at North Texas State, the year that I just wanted to take a semester off. That's why I came to New York in '74, not even planning to stay. I just had a temporary job at Discount Records on 8th Street near University Place, right across the street from the Cookery. My old high school buddy Mike Quinn had a minimum wage record store job and had a little pad in the Village.
I didn't ride the subway my first eight or nine months in town. So I'd walk to and from work and didn't have to go anywhere to hear music outside of Greenwich Village. So I stayed downtown and walked around looking for anybody I could meet who was carrying a horn case or a cymbal bag. I'd give them my number and a lot of times end up getting together with guys. Charles Brackeen I played with in town. Philip Wilson, a drummer from St. Louis, I had a couple of good weekends with. I learned a lot from Philip. I would think that he would try to play free, we'd be playing a modal thing with some time and at a certain point it felt like he was spreading it out, starting to play free so I would just let the groove go and start playing free. He'd say, "Come on, where's the groove, man?" And luckily we got to do three weekends instead of just ending with one. So by the 5th or 6th night of our playing together I was able to hold my pulse even when he would start to do some Elvin-ish type stuff. I started to realize he had a whole other fix on holding this here and playing something off of that.
The Lure of Jazz
AAJ: Other than North Texas State can you touch on any other fundamental playing experiences in Texas? What about Red Garland?
DI: The jazz program there, I was in a bunch of different kinds of bands, but 6 nights a week for a few months I was in a band in Fort Worth where we would work on all the jazz tunes we could but it was mostly electric bass with a singer. At the same time I was in other bands and I was enjoying just still playing free, coming out of Coltrane's later bands, Pharoah Sanders. McCoy [Tyner], what Alice Coltrane was doing.
AAJ: And that was one of the first things you were checking into?
DI: Yeah it was satisfying just to listen to for one thing but even from the playing standpoint maybe more so. It was easier just playing an ostinato, something like Cecil McBee or Garrison would be doingto keep that going and feel that I was still making a contribution. It's like playing a drum line on a bass instead of a series of chords that I might or might not execute as strongly. I was identifying with Malachi Favors, Richard Davis, Gary Peacock, Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy. I was listening more and more to that stuff before I realized how much I needed to do, going back to the earlier '60s, going through the '50s and '40s and farther back.
AAJ: So you started listening to freer music first.?
DI: I was drawn to it. I was listening to everything. I didn't have any decades or centuries kind of blocked off, that I wasn't into. I was interested in anything that somebody would put before me. Wayne Shorter, later Wayne, later Miles, got hard into, Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Elvin, Cecil McBee, Gary Bartz. I was pursuing that kind of stuff before I realized even who Percy and Pettiford were.
AAJ: Where did you play with Red Garland?
DI: Red played at the Arandas Club in Dallas, out in south Dallas. It was his steady gig. He was still there with his mom just before his Galaxy record resurgence.
AAJ: Who was the drummer?
DI: Walter Wynn. Red has interesting things to say about the function and responsibility of the bass. He liked the bass to play with a little stronger bottom because some guys sounded like they were thinking too much about their solo that was coming up after the piano solo. I also saw Red Garland at a place called the Woodman Auditorium in Dallas and that's where I also saw Cedar Walton for the first time. 1973 or '74 Sunday afternoon concerts at the Woodman and Cedar was probably playing with Red's rhythm section.
Back in Texas I was so curious about learning what to do to make things right when I played with people that were really strong and sure of what they were doingJimmy Zitano. He used to have us over to his house and played Jaki Byard records and had us sing along with Tadd (Dameron arrangements), you know, "Stop, Look. Listen" all the Philly Joe stuff. First time I played with him, he played with us college guys; I could tell from the lift he had on the drum set how much effect one person on their instrument could have to focus everybody's energies. Like Blakey's lift. JZ had that same thing, drew the sound out of the drums. I didn't feel that feeling again 'til I played with Blakey years later. I remembered JZ all of a suddenit was like a foretaste of glory divine.
I spent years seeing the effect of a strong personality or a selfless enough personality. To be in situations where someone showed me without saying anything. That's what Mel did. When I first got in the band Mel taught me the book from the drums instead of "Be sure at letter C, you're gonna do this and that." He just had the little noncommittal look on his face that I could tell when I was kind of doing the right thing. (That look told me) "Check this, listen to him, listen to that, let's see what's happening. Don't forget we got to go all the way from letter C to letter J." That's what I keep trying to tell John Riley and some of these others: "Say man, this blues is gonna be 12 or 14 minutes long. We got a long ways. Wait 'til the band has sent Ralph [Lalama] off for his second time through "The Second Race"]. You already started with the muted trumpet solo. You already playing as crazy as you need to be playing...
AAJ: ...at the end.
DI: You gotta take the long look, give yourself some room to grow.
AAJ: You work yourself into a situation and stay there for awhile, let the audience enjoy the great quality of absorption and relaxation that comes from a feeling of continuum going on for awhile. Then when it changes the audience can hear it, adjust and enjoy it. You have time to enjoy every moment and every quality. I know I learned a lot about variety and texture from listening to that bandso attuned. There was pace, pace within the tune as well as within the...
DI: ...set. That's one thing I learned when I first came to New York and worked with Jackie Paris and Anne Marie Moss, getting the set to work, having pacing in the set and no fooling around. They went from song to song. They were doing a lot of the Basie/Hendricks type of repertoire, so it was fun to play those tunes with somebody that was connected to the source. I played a lot with Albert Dailey during that time. I was in Albert's quartet which was a jam session on all through '75, '76.
AAJ: Where was the jam session?
DI: Folk City [on Bleecker Street]. Albert was really generousHarold White on drums, Carter Jefferson on sax. Later sometimes Adam Nussbaum [drums]. Bob Bodley took my place when I went out with Betty. That's where I first heard Walter Davis and Kirk Lightsey. Walter Bishop came down. Victoria Spivey came and sang a tune with us once. A lot of different people, Joe Bonner, Woody, Billy Hart, Bobby Watsonthe first time he played in town he and Rufus [Reid] came in and played "I'll Remember April" at the jam session. Albert was a master. We did a lot of rehearsing at his place. He showed me how to deal with getting lost when the rhythm starts to overlap and staggersuspended harmony, stuff that McCoy and Elvin do, with multiple "ones." There are a lot of traps to fall in if you mistake "1" for "1 and" and Albert really had a lot of patience with "Well, OK, that fell apart. Sit down a minute, take a deep breath and let's try it again." We didn't work very much, just the jam session and a couple of little skirmish gigs here in town. He recorded a tune of mine ["Mimosa"].
AAJ: What label?
DI: Catalyst. (The record was called Renaissance).
AAJ: When did you go with Betty?
DI: November '76 was my first trip to Europe for three weeks with Betty on a George Wein tour. We played Yugoslavia twice, played in Berlin. Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Muddy Waters, Betty Carter. I was with Betty for four months with John Hicks and Cliff Barbaro. She didn't work steady then.
AAJ: How did she find you?
DI: Cliff Barbaro, her drummer. She was in between guys. Dave Holland did a week at the Vanguard with her, that's why I learned the book 'cause I was going to hear Dave every night. I didn't really know Hicks but I think having been with Albert was a reference. He said, "OK, well have him come over to Betty's and play some." So she offered me a little bit of work. I was working with Mose Allison already then too; that was with Stan Gage on drums. And Mose had been one of my favorites before I'd even come to New York so it was a treat to play with him. I was already involved too with Dom Salvador.
Adapting and Driving
AAJ: At what point do you start adapting yourself to everybody else and trying to anticipate everything they're gonna do harmonically, rhythmically, melodically? It seems you have to think so much and yet at a certain point it becomes non-thought. But when you're learning how to do it in the beginning you have to be concerned with it.
DI: There's always a lot of trial and error but as far as making choices, anticipatingI realized early on the importance of trying to make dynamics work and having the right balance of elements; maybe this is left over from the classical scene. There were times when I would play with a group that was really on the outside. I would feel obliged or by instinct to play things with more focus like simpler bass lines or even if I were playing out of time to play more repeated notes or play structurally to bring some kind of clarity instead of adding to the chaos. Other times when I'm playing with guys with some kind of rhythm, some kind of swing going, but like chopping wood...
AAJ: ...it frees you up.
DI: I would try to do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, to keep it just so that some listeners would have a little fragment of something to hold on to.
AAJ: But you're listening to it from the outside, not just from your own point of view. So it's not just balance, you have an idea of what the band's supposed to sound like.
DI: That gets back to your listening background or performance background. That's why I feel very lucky having my older brother around, he's actually my main man musically. He was a big influence. We listened to records together. It's just from our listening background, from growing up hearing what makes a pleasing performance.
AAJ: So if something doesn't strike you right, your first thing to think about is "What can I do to make this better?"
DI: Or to balance it out and keep it from bogging down.
AAJ: But later at some point you think about what you can do psychologically to move people into a different space. That comes later?
DI: It comes off and on. There are some gigs you look forward to because you know you're gonna be able to interact in the band and get different things to happen if you're with cats that are receptive to it. And then other gigs that you don't really dread, but you kind of go to them knowing that things are gonna be kind of cut and dry in terms of interplay that night and chances to contribute the kind of thing you're talking about.
AAJ: When did you realize you have the ability to affect the feeling within the band at a particular moment?
DI: Probably from seeing Ali Jackson do it. Saw Wilbur Ware once; saw Jimmy Garrison twice, Slam Stewart quite a few times. That's just strictly on the bass. You can tell from any instrument when there's something you can do to enhance the clarity and lightness....But a lot of times when you try to wield some influence when it's uncalled for you end up screwing things up. You get rambunctious whether it's just for a phrase or two and blow a whole tune or end up making the whole set kind of get off on the wrong foot, trying to force something that's not called for. And then there are other times when you get positive reinforcement. You say, "Well, let me try this, something a little different here. Let me halftime this or change the octave or play more lightly or play more heavily, try to get something happening if it feels lazy."
AAJ: What I get from what you've been saying is that the psychological aspect of sound isn't something that necessarily comes first or last in your own development or in how you make a contribution to the band. It's the whole part of playing. It comes hand in hand with learning how to play as part of a band.
DI: That's actually the part that's most important. But before I had any wherewithal to even think about changing the music I learned a lot from seeing what strong performers could do.
AAJ: Speaking of strong performers, I'll take you back to Betty because I'm sure she was someone that taught you. Being old school, she was an old school rebel. Being raised up in Hamp's band, having the professionalism if only to rebel against it, she had her own kind of...
DI: ...agenda. I didn't play with her long enough. I got some lessons but even the four months that I was involved; we only worked about 8 weeks at the most out of that time. Two weeks at the Keystone. I never worked in New York with her. A week in Boston, three weeks in Europe. I didn't get fired. I didn't even tell her, I just kind of told Hicks to get somebody else for the weekend that he had trio 'cause there was some other stuff I wanted to do and I knew I wasn't making a strong enough contribution. I was really kind of timid about what I was doing solo-wise, ensemble-wise. It was my first experience getting a different sound playing in different rooms, auditoriums every night. I didn't really know enough about what equipment to use. I didn't know what my sound was yet. Playing Betty's bookshe did all the standards that I thought I knew, in different keys. I found myself needing to read the book. Very few tunes I felt like I had memorized enough to close my eyes through the whole performance. There were a lot of little codas. She does stuff in different keys and some standards that looking back now, I thought I would have known by the time I was 25.
AAJ: She was doing a lot of standards then?
DI: "If I Should Lose You," "Body and Soul." But it was the same thing with Mose [Allison] and Jackie Paris, just getting the singer aspect of things in terms of how lyrics touch an audience.
AAJ: But she was already playing with the time a lot too, right?
DI: Yeah, doing a lot of her own tunes, putting vamps, coda endings, some fast blues. One of my favorites with her was "Swing Brother Swing," the Billie Holiday thing. She would do it at a really fast tempo. For our instrumentals we played some of [John] Hicks' tunes or some Charles Tolliver tunes. John had some nice bossa nova arrangements. We played "Repetition" sometimes. So I really learned a lot but went away from it determined to get stronger in my own sound. Betty's known as a taskmaster but a lot of what she needs in her ideal rhythm section player is what guys need to be learning anyway or at least to have as part of their background.
AAJ: Like what?
DI: Playing tempos and plucking the string with the index finger when walking. One night after a gig at Ronnie Scott's (in London) she says. "Listen, babe, it's getting' uneven." She played on her arm with her single digit. She said to look at these old pictures of Ray Brown, Pettiford, Mingus, even their solo stuff. Paul Chambers and LaFaro were the first cats to (solo or play with two fingers). Also, getting comfortable at an icily slow tempo with long exposed bass notes, to know how to do the right thing on a ballad without itching to try to make it move.. To be comfortable with the fact that it's not moving. Tone production, volume, intonation. And years later that's what people like Griff and Mel and Scott Hamilton and some other people would say, talking about how to play a ballad and just keep it there, to be comfortable with it. Chet Baker too. Maybe it's from Betty I got the first glimmerings of what was required to do it, even though I didn't feel I was doing it...From Betty I think I got the first inkling that there a lot of miles to be gotten out of staying slow when the song is slow.
AAJ: Well her thing was the mood of it too.
DI: The mood, the slow mood, keeping the tension, keeping meaningful tensionactually that's what it got be about being strong enough to be relaxed while you're participating in creating tension. And there were times when I wasn't strong enough, whether it was dramatic or musical or pure sound tension. Having detachment, seeing yourself doing something you know you're not really involved in.
Playing with Art for three years after this woman had just said that this is not what's happening [her criticisms], I got with Art and I'm saying, "Art, when it goes from the intro to this other thing, the 6/8 back to 4," he'd say, "No, don't ask me that shit, I don't know what the hell I'm doing either. Just relax and play your instrument baby." That's what Bu would do and he put the beat right down the middle. Betty set this high standard of emotional tension, musical tension, dynamics, and having the strength to carry that forward the way she would with her long notes and I just didn't feel I was holding up my end of the bargain....I just let her get somebody else. I would stay in New York and work on the stuff that she pulled my coat to for a minute. And just four, five weeks later I joined Art. I'd been playing at the Gate with McNeely and Adam (Nussbaum). We were like the backup band.
AAJ: Where was this?
DI: Downstairs at the Gate.
AAJ: Who did they have downstairs?
DI: Stanley Turrentine for a couple of weekends. Blakey when Cameron Brown was doing it with Bill Hardman, Schnitter. I didn't really meet Art; he didn't know who you were until he ran into you a few times, but he'd be giving hugs around. You'd get a good feeling. He was encouraging everyone that he would hear or run into. And about five weeks after one of those times playing before Art, I got a call from Adam. It was a Saturday morning, none or 10 o'clock. I was in the loft where I was living with Slagle, Billy Drewes and Keith O'Quinn.
The phone rings and he says, "Art is looking for a bassist. They're gonna make a record soon and go to Brazil right after that." Matathias Pierce was the guy that was doing it at that time but Art wasn't really happy with him. Chris Hamburger and a few guys had kind of come in and out. Cameron Brown just thought he was taking a sabbatical to have a baby, thought he was gonna get the gig back. But you don't do that with Art. Once you're gone, you're gone. Adam had Art's phone number and I called up Art. "Who? Oh yeah, well, bassist? OK well, call Jim Green"his road manager, buddy. I call up Jim Green. I get "Call Walter Davis." So I called up Walter and said, "Walter, I'm the bassist you know, when you, a couple of months ago came down to Albert Dailey..." "Oh yeah, how you doing baby? You gonna bring the bass over my pad and we'll play some."
So I took the bass down to where he and Ronnie (Mathews) were living around the corner from Sweet Basil's. Hudson Street. I went down there, he had his piano and we played. He asked me if I knew "Moanin.'" I said, "I think so" and "Blues March" and played through them. I just read the bass lead sheet down. I guess I did a good enough job at it because he called up Art and said, "Let's rehearse Monday afternoon, we got a bassist." It was Saturday night.
AAJ: So Walter was in the band then?
DI: The first six months I was a Messenger, before James Williams. That was why it was so heavy. Walter was much more vocal about what it was like playing with Bud and Bird, being around Monk. Art would talk about it but you'd kinda have to get him into a certain mood understandably. We were all pumping him with questions. I played "Glass Enclosure" with Walter. Those five solid months with Walter and Artwe would do 8 or 10 weeks in Europe, Chicago, California, Vanguard.
AAJ: So you had two very strong people to deal with.
DI: It was a great learning experience, playing "Glass Enclosure" with him, "Just One of Those Things," really got the feeling of Bud, the spirit of Fatgirl, Charlie Parker and Monk. Monk was still alive then but he wasn't performing much. I guess he'd already quit altogether by then.
AAJ: I think '77 was one of the last times he was out.
DI: Art kept saying, "We're gonna get Monk to come over and rehearse. We're gonna work on his tunes. He's gonna knock you cats out. He's gonna love you guys too." But he never quite hooked that up.
AAJ: So other than the spirit of Bud, did you get anything specific that he would show you or tell you?
DI: Well, one thing that really made my ears grow was having to learn "Glass Enclosure" without any music and without watching his hands. Because every sound check and rehearsal we did, he would just keep playing it over and over again 'til I finally got the bass notes right. I would move closer so I could hear but he didn't want to write me out a part, the way he had learned it from Bud, the way Mingus would do it, teaching by rote so once you have it you really have it....Art would join us for "Just One of Those Things."
AAJ: Was Walter picky about what he wanted?
DI: He was very encouragingwanted you to find your own voice. He and Art both kept telling us how good we sounded. It really was a great support. You felt like giving your best every night and you realized at the same time you were part of some jazz history that went back 30 years before we had started to play.
AAJ: Did Art give you any specific advice?
STRONG>DI: He talked about going after something, go after it strongly instead of hesitating. If you hesitate in midair you're gonna screw up anyway. He talked about a lot of his best stuff coming out of mistakes. He was really self-deprecating. He made himself feel like he's still a little kid trying to figure out why he was playing the drums, why he enjoyed it. Every night to him... a lot of his rhythmic fragments, people would say that's the same stuff as the Birdland record 30 years ago. But it was the immediacy that he brought to each night. I think he loved playing for people that never heard jazz before, making it real. Making it true and meaningful every night.
He never played routine. I never got tired of "Along Came Betty," "Moanin,'" "Blues March," all those tunes which we played over and over again. The same as playing Thad's music Monday after Monday I don't get tired of it at all because to do it, to come up to the ideal of how it can really sound when it's swinging, there's no way you can get complacent with that. It's a challenge every time to bring it to life for the people that are there that night.
AAJ: Well when it's played right it has such a lift. The music is very special.
DI: One of Walter's thingsWalter was getting a lot of sound from the piano, didn't need any mikes or anything and had that feeling that hits you in the chest. Playing with him and Art was like walking down the sidewalk between 2 guys with long legs and my feet weren't reaching the ground, but their shoulders were holding me up. I was along for the ride but I wasn't contributing much to the forward motion. The depth of their beat.
AAJ: But it had to be the best experience even just to be along for the ride and not being left behind.
DI: That's what I'm saying. Encouraging. A couple of times to feel I was getting it rightand then when Walter left the band I realized it was my job to show somebody else.
AAJ: You could play as hard as you could play and it would on a good night match Art at his lightest.
DI: Art was so relaxed in his strength; he was just toying with us.... I played with Al Haig for a short little tour. From Al I learned another thing about dynamics. Even when I thought I was playing softly he would say, "Well, get softer." "Well, OK, the amp's off." "No, a little softer." Playing "Star Crossed Lovers" just duo. Zinno for a week, a month in England, Gregory's... But playing Ellington, Strayhorn, playing Monk and Bud, playing Ahmad Jamal, Al Haig had a complete scope. We played "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco."
I'd go to his house and he'd still be trying to make sure he had the right bass line, listening through the fuzz of those old recordings with the really fast left hand. And also, he'd play a lot of Chopin, Debussy, Ravel. And he had that touch. He could make me see even when I think I'm really soft, "No, you take it down further and then come back up." He did "Round Midnight" in D, did "Confirmation" in D. He'd been playing all those tunes for so long he had some slants on 'em. Al Haig played "Holy Land" and "Bolivia." He liked Cedar Walton and Cliff Jordan compositions. We played a week trio with Frank Gant one time. And that's where I met Chris Anderson. Chris came and subbed for a night, wow!
I had been playing with Chet Baker off and on through that time too. Phil Markowitz and Leo Mitchell were in the band. I'd known Leo a long time. It was a week with Chet at the Vanguard that Mel and I first played together. Mel sat in on Leo's drums and about 2 weeks later Mel called to see if I could do a gig with the band with no rehearsal. So for a while I was a sub, gradually getting into the band. Steve LaSpina had something else to do I guess. A couple of different guysMarc Johnson, Steve LaSpina, kind of a floating infield for a while until I became the steady bassist.
In 1986 I got involved with Johnny Griffin. I played with him the first time in Montreal through Michael's (Weiss) and Kenny's (Washington) recommendation. We just hit with no rehearsal. Kenny and Mike rehearsed me here in New York. I met Johnny backstage before we went out to play in Montreal. I knew about his fast playing but it was the two ballads we played that night at the gig. It was his sound on the ballads, like steppin' down into a warm lake, what the beauty of a long note was. I could see it was gonna be the beginning of a different relationship with and appreciation for guys like Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Dexter, Lockjaw, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray, all these guys that to some extent were a little of a jumble in my mind and where their sounds fit in and where they were in the history the music. So I've somehow started doing more close research, stuff I should have been doing years before.
AAJ: Well you were looking to see who the people were that influenced him and the whole Chicago school and where he fits so you could do your job right.
DI: But he was very encouraging too. I remember it was my sound that he complimented me on. That's what he heard and liked. It made the rhythm section have a fullness with the tone, whether it was a ballad or a fast thing. I didn't play any knockout solos or anything but just tried to have the right amount of support.
As far as solos go, it's funny. Sometimes you'll hear one little record that will set you off in a whole other way. I went through a lot of playing Bird's "Milestones," just playing the melody, not even taking fragments and working them in. Just trying to learn that melody correctly and getting it fast. And that opened me up a lot of different waysa new language to solo from. Take this from Pettiford, solos off records, took a lot of choruses of some different blues. Took some Hampton Hawes solos, some Charlie Parker. I realized at a certain point I didn't have much material to work with solowise. I was still playing these kind of primitive drum solos on bass. Albert Dailey had told me to play more melody.
AAJ: It gets intuitively into your solo.
DI: You have more options.
AAJ: You have more lyrical fragments inside of you.