Gary Bartz has been active on the New York music scene and throughout the world since the '60s, working with such legends as Miles Davis and Art Blakey. To preface our interview, we began by a surprise phone call that I had arranged with Dr.Yusef Lateef, whom Mr.Bartz had not spoken with for some time. This set the tone for most of the following conversation.
All About Jazz: So I'll start out by asking you about your beginnings in music. Was it always the saxophone for you?
Gary Bartz: Actually, I was torn between the drums and the saxophone. But Charlie Parker just took my heart away, so I ended up with the sax, with the alto and always the alto from the beginning. When I first started I heard this music when I was six years old. So at that time, you don't realize what a tenor and what a soprano I didn't even know about a soprano but I didn't know the difference between the alto and the tenor, I just liked what Charlie Parker was doing, I liked what Louis Jordan was doing, so that's what I wanted.
AAJ: You never had a desire to play any of the other instruments as you got older?
GB: No. I mean, the piano, of course, but I think the piano should be taught in school just like mathematics, just like reading, writing and arithmetic. I'd say reading, writing, arithmetic and rhythm. But that should be a prerequisite, because then the quality of music in the world at least in the United States, would be much better, if everyone knew something about the piano and about music, they would know this is not good. Right now, there is so much music out that's not good, but no one knows the public doesn't know.
AAJ: Right. So of course, Charlie Parker was your influence. But from what I've read, you grew up going to shows on 52nd Street. Who else influenced you?
GB: Im not that old.
AAJ: Oh, I thought you were.
GB: (Laughs) No, I came to New York in 1958, and so 52nd Street was gone by then.
AAJ: But you hung out at Birdland.
GB: Birdland was definitely yes.
AAJ: So those shows, outside of Charlie Parker, who were some of the favorite people you were seeing, and maybe some of your more memorable obscure pairings of musicians of that time?
GB: Well, of course, Miles Davis span, but I and just speaking to Yusef brought back a memory of the first time I saw Yusef was at a cabaret down on the Lower East Side. And they used to have these cabarets, and you'd get a flyer. They'd put the flyers out with like rows of names of the most famous musicians, like three rows of names. And everybody wouldn't show up, but they had all these names. And so Chet Baker, Philly Joe Jones, Yusef, Red Garland, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, you know, just all and so you can't wait to go to see all of these people, because I hadn't seen a lot of them at that early age. I was seventeen when I came to New York. So seventeen, eighteen, my teenage years, I used to go see them. The first time I saw Yusef was at one of those places. The first time I saw Chet Baker and Philly Joe Jones, I saw them talking to each other, whispering in each other's ear, and I'm thinking, oh, isn't that cute? Later on I found out.
AAJ: Found out what they were talking about.
GB: ...(Laughs) what they were probably talking about wasn't so cute, but...
GB: because they got up and left and but as a teenager, you know...
AAJ: So your first big gig then was with Art Blakey?
GB: No, actually, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, yeah, 64, (Inaudible). Because I had met Max, and I probably met him in 1954 when I was about fourteen. My dad used to work on the railroad, but he owned a nightclub in the 60s, and he used to take me around to the different clubs in Baltimore, sit in and tell people, You know, my son plays (Inaudible) me up there. Unbeknownst to me, one time we went to see Sonny Stitt at the Comedy Club in Baltimore. And my dad had talked to Sonny and said, Well, my son, you know, he plays. And so Sonny Stitt comes out and says, Well, we have this young man that would like to come and which I did not would like to come up, you know (Inaudible) would like to come up and play. And so he called me up, and my dad went and had the horn in the trunk of the car. I didn't even know about all this. Anyways, so I went up and played with him. And being Sonny Stitt, he took me through all the keys on the blues. And fortunately for me, I didn't know one key from the other, I was just really ear at that time, so I didn't have no problem. So we struck up a friendship from that moment on. But yeah, he used to take me out, and finally bought a club in 1960, which is where I really met Yusef.
AAJ: How hard was it for you to find your own voice at such a young age, being with Max Roach?
AAJ: And not to say like, I am going to play the best Charlie Parker imitation I can play. Because a lot of people now that I see in New York, they can play the best Charlie Parker imitation you've ever heard.
AAJ: but I'd rather just listen to Charlie Parker.
AAJ: How hard was it to be yourself?
GB: Well, when I look back on it, that is what we were trying to do, that was our focus was because we realized that there is already a Charlie Parker, there is already a Jackie McLean, there is already a Cannonball Adderley, there is already an Eric Dolphy. So whatever they did to find their voice, that is what I had to do to find my voice. And from my generation, that was how our main focus was looking for our own voice, because we realized that that would be where we would be most successful. Because if you want Charlie Parker, you called Charlie Parker. Of course, there is a market for people that sound like Charlie Parker if Charlie Parker can't make the gig, then, okay, give me somebody who sounds like Charlie. But we were not interested in that, we were interested in finding our own voice. So we just did whatever we could and whatever we could think of to do. And I don't know whether it was I couldn't even say how, you know, I couldn't say you how. All I can say is the how was the knowledge that that's what we needed to do. So that's what we were striving for.
AAJ: Do you agree with the way music schools are putting out kids now, that they're teaching them that, This is exactly what so-and-so was doing in 1958? And I think a lot of the kids coming out of the schools aren't having that experience you had of like I needed to find my own voice. They were saying, I can play.
AAJ: I mean, I see so many young people at jam sessions and concerts now, and each person sounds like they came straight out of Coltrane or
AAJ: straight out of Charlie Parker, and they haven't found their own voice. And I wonder if the music school is at fault for that.
GB: No, I don't think its at fault. I think what's going on now is that everything is turned around. Whereas we see, because we didn't have music schools. And so we had to learn the best way we could, and so everybody learned in a different way. I didn't learn like somebody you know, the next alto player learned. Even though we worked (Inaudible) like I used to practice with Eric Dolphy every Wednesday. We had a standing engagement for every Wednesday. I would go down to his loft and we would practice. But I met Eric when I would do some things Mingus. And he had this experimental big band that he would do at the Village Gate. And I didn't get paid. Eric probably got paid. (Laughs) You know, Rahsan Roland Kirk was in the section, I remember. I think Julian Priester was in there. I don't remember who else was in there.
AAJ: Was Ted Curson(?) there?
GB: Ted might have been, too, yeah. But it was a big band. And Mingus would just (Inaudible). He would start a song. He would come over to Eric. Eric was the leader of the sax section, and he would hum a melody or something for him to play, then Eric would give it to us, and we would play it, and then he'd do the same, Mingus would do the same to the trumpet section, to the trombones. So it was an improvised big band, which was (Inaudible).
AAJ: This was the Jazz Workshop?
GB: Yeah, it was definitely a workshop, yeah. (Laughs) But like I said, I used to practice with Eric and the reeds. But what we would practice we weren't practicing it, we were practicing technique, because we found out I love to do duets, but I didn't find many people that enjoyed doing duets with me. So I mentioned this to Eric, and Eric said, Well, I love doing duets, too, and I have the same problem. So that's when we started our standing Wednesday engagement at his loft. And so then we couldn't find music hard enough to challenge us, because saxophone music, there's not a big backlog of saxophone music. So we ended up with oboe music. So we got the Bach Fugues, you know, oboe, because oboe is the same range, B-flat to high-F. And so we started we would have so much fun doing that. But we weren't even talking about style so much as we were trying to learn the instruments. That's what I was doing at that time. And that comes. So and back to your question, I think the schools are a good thing, but everything is backwards now. We found the style while we were looking for our technique. What happens now is in the schools they learn the music, and then when they come out, then now they have to find their style. So I don't think it's a detriment, it's just a different way of doing it. And I see them now as they get older, they develop their styles, their own styles.
AAJ: Right. If only you had a tape of one of those duets with Eric Dolphy.
AAJ: You could make a million dollars off of that.
GB: I know. [Laughter]
AAJ: Was it difficult working with Mingus? Because I know he had a very strong personality.
GB: Yeah, he did.
AAJ: at times. Was that a difficult experience?
GB: Most of the time, no. Most of the time, no. He was a gentle man. I mean, everybody had their peccadilloes and things that they but for the most part it was only one time I thought he was going to I didn't know what he was going to do, I thought he might knock me out. I heard all these stories about him punching Jackie McLean in the mouth.
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