Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition


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I realized that my quickest growth was gonna come from taking every opportunity to play.
Dennis IrwinIn 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 aesthetics—and extensive experience playing chamber music—yield 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.

Chapter Index

  1. Early Days: Coming to the Bass
  2. The Lure of Jazz
  3. Adapting and Driving
  4. Art Blakey
  5. Mel Lewis
  6. Strings and Things
  7. 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.

Dennis Irwin / Matt Wilson's Arts & CraftsAAJ: 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 me—Maceo [Parker], Junior Walker, King Curtis. I was playing saxophone in that style.

AAJ: Alto?

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 Curtis—playing 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 music—the 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.

AAJ: Snare?

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.

Gary SmulyanI 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 something—I 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 also—Lee Gibson....Now I still apply what Lee had me thinking about—playing 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.

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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 doing—to 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.

Dennis Irwin / Joe Lovano

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 doing—Jimmy 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 sudden—it 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 band—so 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 generous—Harold 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 Watson—the 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 stagger—suspended 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.

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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, anticipating—I 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.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: 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 book—she 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.

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Art Blakey

AAJ: Well her thing was the mood of it too.

DI: The mood, the slow mood, keeping the tension, keeping meaningful tension—actually 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 Art—we 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.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: 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 encouraging—wanted 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 things—Walter 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 right—and 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 guys—Marc Johnson, Steve LaSpina, kind of a floating infield for a while until I became the steady bassist.

Dennis IrwinIn 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 ways—a 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.

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Mel Lewis

DI: Some guys take care of that part really early and some bass players who are playing great ideas but when they're walking 4/4 nobody feels the steadiness. It takes them longer to get the steadiness. We're all on different levels at different times, hopefully everybody trying to get better. Mel and Art didn't talk much about the music; they just let it take care of itself.

AAJ: Mel said he wanted the big band to sound like a small band, to have that real feeling of intimacy. He had complete control over his instrument and his sound and he knew how he wanted the band to sound. And he had been doing it for so long and with personnel changing. He had a complete conception of how the arrangements and the band were supposed to sound with an ear for everyone's individuality in their solos. The band was his instrument even more so than the drums. His sound had to have an effect on how people played in the band, how everybody felt.

Dennis IrwinDI: Yeah. Thad's music too being a part of that. That was as much Mel's vehicle as the band or the Vanguard room. He was so comfortable in all those situations. He had learned Thad's music from the bottom up. Like when they just had 6 charts in the book, they'd go on the road and they'd play those six charts over and over again. He had taught himself the book from the very bottom. And playing the Vanguard year after year he knew what were the limits of the sound in there, what worked.

AAJ: His sound was always special whatever band he played in. Tempered force.

DI: The tones of his drums and his cymbals were all so pleasing, so carefully chosen. And that to me was the orchestral part of the jazz orchestra—the low sound in the bass drum and the lighter sound from the cymbals, the calfskin heads, the fluffy beater-balls and bass drum, very different from what 15 years ago was standard drum equipment. More guys are starting to experiment now with calf heads and getting different textures from different kinds of sticks. Mel's cymbals were so great; it was easy to get inside his sound, to match tones with Mel. Gut strings I liked thump-wise; it's really comfortable. I felt like I was inside his sound, already kind of like the barnyard between cat gut, calf skin, whole little menagerie. For me it was even a thrill to get to play those unbelievable arrangements in an acoustic space like the Vanguard.

Mel had a relaxed feeling off the stand and a relaxed feeling on the stand. Thad too, very relaxed and fun loving but the music was so serious that it created its own sound.

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Strings and Things

AAJ: At the time you started there were few players playing gut strings. How did you make the change and what made you do it?

DI: When I started playing, steel strings were a foregone conclusion and pickups and amps. You had to get all your equipment so I just used the strings everybody told me that you use when you start out. Then, the more I kept asking older players, more experienced players than me about how the music had been different in the '50s and '60s, certain records, I had the chance to ask the real person who had done so and so. Then I started hearing a little bit about gut strings but I wasn't really sure what the deal was. Then this Down Beat Magazine—it was a bass issue and they were interviewing all these guys. They asked Mingus something, they said, "What about gut strings?" He said, "Don't ask me, ask that boy that plays with Ornette Coleman." He was talking about Charlie Haden who wasn't even with Ornette at that particular time. Just that kind of stuck in my mind—gut strings. I started asking what they were, asking at bass shops. They said those are hard to get, they don't make them anymore. But I searched some out. When I changed to gut strings I realized that was part of the sound that I'd been hearing on records. It was different from what I was able to do with my hands on steel strings.

AAJ: It requires different technique.

DI: Different fulcrum. You use the wrist and the elbow differently. These are much more floppy. Steel strings don't give like that. It's easier because they're mushier, they're thicker, softer on the fingers.

AAJ: Less bleeding.

DI: It's a different kind of force. It's different with the bow but nobody told Paul Chambers. I think that they're hard to play with a bow but he just played them. Blanton too. I think it has a beautiful sound. It has a certain throatiness, raspiness, some people say scratchy but I don't think it's scratchy. I don't perform that much bow myself but I practice mostly with the bow, the long tones and slow scales and slow melodies. (DI demonstrates technique differences between steel and gut strings).

AAJ: You're raising the strings up. It rings more, has a little more decay. What about decisions about amps?

DI: When I got in the band I was still using an amp at different times. But it was at the Vanguard that I realized how much sound you could get without the amp, putting a mike near the bass, or sometimes even with no mike. One time on a Loren Schoenberg (ts) gig at a hotel ballroom in New Jersey, [James] Chirillo [guitar] was playing, Mel and I. The dancers were way off in the other end. But when we came back for the third set I decided I would just try to do it like the Basie band in the old days—get Chirillo to turn off his amp. The dancers came up closer to where we were. 'Cause you could feel it's a palpable thing, acoustic sound, real and strong when everything's tight. I learned a lot that night from how it felt to play some Basie and Ellington repertoire with just acoustic instruments.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: Well, there's an example of having a thought and bringing something to pass. And that's like—Mel told me on one of his first record dates they were gonna have the drums way away from everybody else because they were afraid the drums would be too loud. So he cried, "Why am I way over here?" He played very soft on purpose; they couldn't hear him so they kept moving him closer and closer to the rest of the band. That set a precedent for the way he was recorded in the studios. He didn't want to be far away from everybody and found a way to get closer. That feeling of intimacy was at the core of his playing in any situation.

Can you mention some of the lesser known people you like to play with and why? [Editor's Note: This interview was done in 1994 so "lesser known" doesn't really apply]. Maybe start with piano players, people you'd want listeners to check out, check their records out.

DI: (Mike) LeDonne, 'cause he likes to swing so hard but also he's always looking for new styles to play. He's investigating the Latin things, trying to get it authentic, always looking for a new tune, open to different sounds. Playing with him and Kenny together is a treat 'cause they complement each other so well just as a piano and drum combination. It's easy to play with them because they build little musical ideas together as a piano solo and as accompaniment to the other soloists.

Playing with (Michael) Weiss and Kenny together with Johnny—Michael has attention to detail. He's building up his repertoire, playing some old Duke Ellington things, stuff that Johnny showed him on piano. Michael's got insight on Monk and Bud too. John Campbell I enjoy a lot for a lot of different reasons. Lee Musiker is a pan-stylist. Playing a little with John Bunch on Scott Hamilton gigs. John knows a lot of different styles, has a sparkly, witty touch. Played a little bit over the years with people like Lightsey, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Hicks, Larry Willis, George Cables, all masters.... Dom Salvador is one of my favorite piano players too. He's professor or my doutor of Brazilian music. Tardo Hammer is really fun and relaxed to play with, coming out of the Barry Harris, Sonny Clark school. It's a real treat playing with him and Leroy [Williams] together. Had a nice role just sitting back , it was really fun with them. Ralph Lalama with those guys is nice.

AAJ: How does Leroy hook up in your mind with Tardo? He gets most of the main action and then he contributes his own take on it too.

DI: Yeah, and that's what Tardo likes, the independence of the action instead of being very preconceived or contrived.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorite drummers to play with?

DI: Playing with Chuck Riggs with Scott Hamilton. Chuck's coming out of calfskin head, older style drumming, been listening to Papa Jo, Sonny Greer, Mel. Playing with Vernel (Fournier), he's got his tuning. Lewis Nash has a nice spring in his beat. Victor Lewis almost sounds like a co-composer of most of the tunes we play together. Victor Jones is fun to play with his knowledge of Afro-Latin combination. Andy Gonzalez has been one of my favorite bass players—jazz and Latin with his encyclopedic knowledge he brings—how Latin and jazz overlap, what works and why.

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Work Ethic

AAJ: I want to ask you about your philosophy of playing with almost anybody and turning down almost nothing, assuming that it has something good to offer. What motivates you to do this?

DI: Maybe it's some blue collar work ethic.

AAJ: Well, a lot of people who are as known as you are don't leave the house for less than X dollars or won't play with someone unless it's guaranteed that the situation's gonna be musically exactly to their liking, but that's not you. Is it all work ethic or is it curiosity?

DI: I suppose it's a mixture of curiosity and the challenge to go out and try to make the sum greater than all of the parts that we know are gonna be there, whether it's a rehearsal band or just something thrown together at the last minute. But I think I probably just got it unconsciously from some old musicians, being around guys who I saw take any chance to play with anybody.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: Like the fact that C. Sharpe [Clarence] and Junior Cook were always playing with young people whenever they had a chance? People like that?

DI: Yeah. The time playing with him and Tardo and Leroy, a year and a half of jam sessions at the Paris Lounge in Inwood back in '88. Junior was really something else and Leroy was the perfect drummer for him and was already one of his working band mates. They let Tardo and me slip right in there. Also, I remember working with Junior a few years earlier, during the whole fad of doubling up, tripling up on ballads. Kenny and I and Weiss were playing with him back when we were doing "Gallop's Gallop" and "Make the Man Love Me" at the [Angry] Squire. So Kenny and I stay in quarter-time, no hint of doubling. Junior turned and went, "Unmhm, doing that like the real guys do it."

AAJ: Anyone else who comes to mind who you always saw just doing it because it seemed like the right thing to do? It's almost like a priest with a day off. We need a priest and not only do we need a priest, we want you. Anyone else like that?

DI: Well Milt Hinton takes whatever kind of work he can get. I was reading something Pops Foster was saying, "Play with as many different people as you can." It's the same thing as what was happening in college when I started playing the bass. I'd play one session, it would be like an Albert Ayler thing. Somebody else was doing some stuff according to what Miles was doing electronically and some other guys up at Dave Glenn's house we called the Conservatory, just playing late '50s Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note kind of songs, and they were all stimulating and challenging to me, trying to get them right. I'm still searching for what I would be saying as a writer when I have a chance to make a tape, maybe this year or next year or whenever it is. I'm still looking for something to gel in my mind.

AAJ: What you're saying is besides work ethic and curiosity it's the idea of service or what can be learned, almost your spiritual duty.

DI: Yeah because each time you play might be your last. I realized that when I got to town that my enthusiasm for playing, my wanting to take any sort of session or rehearsal... Guys I knew my age whose technical prowess I was in awe of had stuff they were saying solo-wise. But I realized that the way I was gonna get to where I wanted to be faster was playing with other people as much as possible. Cats hated doing jam sessions, "being a slave," but there's another way of looking at that. It gave me a chance to learn a lot. I realized that my quickest growth was gonna come from taking every opportunity to play.

AAJ: What do you think of the crop of people coming up—bass players—and what would you say to them to make their life playing a useful one? What pointers can you give them?

DI: Don't lose your respect for tradition, the people that have put us in the position that we're in now. In a lot of ways, things have been made easy for us. Learn as many songs as you can correctly, know the words, be able to deliver them joyfully and completely and don't ever feel as though you've stopped learning.

AAJ: Do you ever learn anything from people younger than you?

DI: Of course. I remember at a certain point I was even messing around with leaving gut strings and I was hanging around with [Pat] O'Leary and [Joel] Forbes. They encouraged me to stay with it. Cats coming along like Ari [Roland], Ben Wolfe and [John] Webber. There's always something to get from those guys and their spirit. Peter Washington, I'm really inspired watching him play a lot of times. Greg Hutchinson, Justin Robinson, a whole bunch of people. Rodney Whitaker, a young player from Detroit is one of my favorites. He's a student of Ali Jackson. Curtis Lundy, Steve Neils, bassist from the Midwest, was in Africa for a long time—he's back in the Northeast now, he's one of my favorites.

AAJ: It might be a specific thing that they do which catches your attention but I guess it's enjoying the spirit of the person and how they make contributions to the situation.

DI: Yeah, seeing that they've been inspired 15 or 20 years later by some of the same things that made me want to play, get more deeply into it.

Selected Discography

Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, Scenic Route (Palmetto, 2007)

Gary Smulyan, More Treasures (Reservoir, 2007)

Joe Lovano, Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 2006)

Tardo Hammer, Tardo's Tempo (Sharp Nine, 2004)

Ted Rosenthal, Threeeplay (Playscape, 2001)

Johnny Griffin, Woe is Me (Jazz Hour, 2000)

Bob Mintzer Big Band, Homage to Count Basie (DMP, 2000)

Harry Allen Quartet, The King (Nagel-Heyer, 1999)

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Thad Jones Legacy (New World, 1999)

Joe Magnarelli, Always There (Criss Cross, 1998)
Jim Snidero, San Juan (Red, 1997)
Ken Peplowski, A Good Reed (Concord, 1997)
Steve Wilson, Step Lively (Criss Cross, 1995)
John Scofield, Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995)
John Scofield Quartet, What We Do (Blue Note, 1992)
Thad Jones, The Definitive Thad Jones: Live from the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Music Masters, 1988)
Mose Allison, Ever Since the World Ended (Blue Note, 1987)
Bennie Wallace, Sweeping Through the City Enja, 1984)
Art Blakey, In This Korner (Concord, 1978)
Dennis Irwin, Focus (Red, 1974)

Photo Credit

Lora Rosner

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