George Cables: The Pianist’s Dedication to the Group

Victor L. Schermer By

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Anyone who is serious about jazz will tell you that George Cables belongs in the pantheon of the greatest jazz pianists. Everyone, that is, except George Cables. Exceptional in every way, he is yet a team player. He sees himself as part of the rhythm section, and has always emphasized the group over the soloist. He has worked extensively since the late 1960s with many of the legends: Art Blakey, Art Pepper, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Dexter Gordon, to name a few.

An integral part of the jazz legacy and history, Cables is now building a portfolio of albums and concerts as a leader and composer/arranger. He is a revered teacher and a true piano master. But musically, he always comes back to the group experience. When he plays, he listens actively to the other musicians and studies their intent. Cables conveys a feeling of being inside the jazz scene, a personal view that resonates with the music itself.

All About Jazz: We'll start with the desert island question. What recordings would you take to that desert island?

George Cables: I'd take some John Coltrane. I'd probably take A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965). A couple of Miles Davis records, maybe At Carnegie Hall (Columbia Legacy, 1961) the one with "My Funny Valentine," and "Stella by Starlight." Probably Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958). I haven't mentioned any pianists yet, have I [laughter]?

AAJ: No, you haven't mentioned any pianists!

GC: I wanna go back to Trane again. I'd take his Ballads (Impulse, 1963) recording, which I really love.

AAJ If you were forced to take a piano album, which would you take [laughter]?

GC: Well of course, McCoy Tyner's Inception (Impulse, 1972). And how silly of me, I almost forgot. I would take almost any Art Tatum record.

AAJ: I was waiting for that.

Early Life and Coming Up

AAJ: Let's go back to your childhood and adolescence. What were your earliest musical experiences? I know you grew up in New York City, but I'm not sure which neighborhood.

GC: I was born in Brooklyn, in Brooklyn Hospital in 1944, and my first address was 244 Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I was there for about seven years. The next address was on Chauncey Street, between Ralph and Howard Avenues. And then my family moved to St. Albans, Queens. I lived there for about ten years.

AAJ: I believe Jackie Robinson lived there.

GC: Yes, he lived in the Addisleigh Park area, as did a lot of musicians: Mercer Ellington, Count Basie, Milt Hinton, Brook Benton, James Brown, Charles McPherson, and Paul Jeffrey also lived in that general vicinity. I think at some point, McCoy Tyner was in Springfield Garden in the area. At that time, however, I didn't know them. Ray Copeland lived in Hollis, Queens. And Jackie Byard also lived in Hollis. I remember running into him at a Waldbaum's supermarket pushing his shopping cart! But, by the time I started playing seriously, we had moved to the Laurelton-Springfield Gardens area.

AAJ: So how did you get interested in music?

GC: My mother played the piano. She was an elementary school teacher. She played the piano in the house, and played organ for her church. I remember as a little kid trying to mimic her, reaching up to the keyboard. And that was also how I started to get interested in music in general.

AAJ: Did your parents play music on the radio or records?

GC: TV had replaced radio by then. But I would sometimes listen to pop music, or even classical, which I was studying on piano at the time.

AAJ: How old were you when you started taking formal lessons?

GC: Well, actually in nursery school I had some lessons [laughter]! But then I went to the Little School next door to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They had piano teachers, and, as I remember, one of them even attempted to teach a little bit of music theory. But it wasn't until later when I went to the High School of Performing Arts that I really got into theory.

AAJ: How did you get your first taste of jazz?

GC: I think it was in a high school class. I had two friends at Performing Arts, Larry and Richie Maldonado, the latter of whom later became Ricardo Ray, the "Piano Ambassador" who worked with Bobby Cruz. And there was a tuba player, Larry Fishkind. These guys were already familiar with jazz, and Larry turned me on to Thelonious Monk's Town Hall Concert recording. Richie gave me some basic instructions in improvising, using the chords and the notes from the scale. Then I picked up the Art Blakey Drum Suite record, with Ray Bryant and Oscar Pettiford on one side and the regular Messengers on the other: Jackie McClean, Bill Hardman, and Sam Dockery. And then there was Dave Brubeck's record Take Five that was accessible to me. So these were basically my first exposures to jazz, when I was in high school between 1958 and 1962.

AAJ: That was a very transformative time in the history of jazz.

GC: Yes, and when I graduated high school, the legal drinking age in New York was eighteen, so I could go to the Five Spot and hear Thelonious Monk, who was there for months at a time, maybe on a double bill with Mose Allison, or I could hear Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy, and Jackie Byard, who was playing piano, but would also play alto saxophone. And on my high school prom night, I went to the Jazz Gallery and saw saxophonist Pony Poindexter. I also heard Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan on the same bill. Ornette Coleman was playing that night but had already finished by the time I got there. Then we later went up to the Hickory House, where Marian McPartland was playing.

AAJ: Did you ever go to Birdland?

GC: I went there later, I got to Birdland, and that's where I saw Trane with the great quartet. That was a phenomenal experience. Of course, I wasn't hearing them the way I do now. But it was very exciting.

AAJ: When and how did you start playing with a group?

GC: Well, I heard some guys who had gone to the High School of Music and Arts, and they really played well. There was the great Billy Cobham, and two other fellows, Bernard Scavella and Leroy Barton. I was impressed. So we got together with a guy named Artie Simmons and later Cliff Houston, and we played in my and Artie's parents' basements.

One summer before that, I got involved in a neighborhood musical production. We were doing excerpts from West Side Story. We got a trio together for that. That might have been my very first experience playing with a group.

But when I was with Billy Cobham and those guys, Leroy's father was the first black official in the 802 musician's union and helped us get into the union. Artie Simmons was our nominal leader. We started getting gigs at dances, and after a while, we got hired by more experienced guys like Rudy Williams, who played trumpet and saxophone. (He wanted me to play organ, but I never could get into that.) We managed to get our group, which we called the Jazz Samaritans, into a competition sponsored by Jazz Interaction. We won the first competition, and as a result, we got a gig somewhere, and then Billy got a gig at the Top of the Gate, and that was around 1967- 68. Billy of course was on the gig, and there was Eddie Daniels, and Johnny Coles. So that was something special. These guys were true professionals.

AAJ: So you moved up in the jazz world, playing at the Top of the Gate, no pun intended.

GC: I should add that there was a fellow named Jimmy Harrison, who was very important in my beginnings. Billy Cobham left, and then we had Lenny White, myself, and Clint Houston. We used to do the productions Saturday afternoon at Slugs. Then Jim would call Lenny, Clint, and myself to do a gig in Westbury, and we did something with Woody Shaw and Booker Ervin. Woody then recommended me to Jackie McLean, and shortly after that Woody called me and got me into Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at Slugs.

AAJ: Were you thrilled or nervous to play at that level?

GC: Both! I was excited, I was nervous, but I felt better because Woody Shaw was there, and I had some experience with him and knew that he was on my side. Woody and I were about the same age, but musically, he was much more experienced than me. So he would give me encouragement and suggestions.

Moving Forward with the Jazz Greats

AAJ: What were your first recording dates?

GC: My first recording date was with Paul Jeffrey, Billy Hart, Larry Ridley, and Jimmy Owens in 1968. We did it for Savoy Records. Shortly after that Billy Hart got me hooked up with Buddy Montgomery. Then in January of 1969, I started working with Art Blakey, his group with Billy Harper, Woody Shaw, a trombonist whose name I can't remember, and Buster Williams on bass.

AAJ: So, around 1969-1970, you really started playing with the legends. You've worked closely with Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon and a host of other jazz giants.

GC: Yes, but first I gotta talk about Buddy, Wes Montgomery's brother. Wes had passed away around that time, but Buddy went on. He was a great musician, and played vibes, but he was really a pianist, and a much better one than me! He knew exactly what was going on with me! And I was influenced by the way he worked. When I ran into a problem writing and composing, I thought of Buddy and something he wrote called "For Wes," and that helped me solve the compositional problem I was having.

OK, now I'll go back to Art Blakey. Being in his group was a real musical education. In fact my entire life has been a musical education. In jazz, you learn a lot on the fly from the guys you play with, and being around these people who had changed and shaped the music and given it direction was a great learning experience for me. So working with Art and the musicians around him was special. And then, working with Max Roach was really something! So I worked with two of the great drummers. And in between, in the summer of 1969, I worked with Sonny Rollins, Buster Williams, and Tootie Heath. Sonny Rollins called me in for a rehearsal, which was really an audition, at George Braith's place on Spring Street. He asked me if I knew "Love Letters," which I didn't, so he ripped out the music right away. I played it, and he asked me "OK, let's do it in D-flat." [a very difficult key signature on piano—Eds.] And then we did "Night and Day" in E-flat and then E major, which wasn't my strong point! But he liked my playing anyway.

At any rate, they all had something I could learn from. Especially the drummers. I started out with the best of them: Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Art Blakey, Max Roach, and then on to Roy Haines, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, and then I got to play with Kenny Clarke, and Billy Higgins. So after all that, I took the drummer so much for granted, that when I encountered a new one, I had no idea what to tell them to play! I just assumed they already knew [laughter]!



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