Gurn Blanston Blindfolded

Ryan Burns By

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Listen To This! is relative to the popular "Blindfold Test of Down Beat magazine, with the added element of a musician-to-musician interview, as inspired by Drummer Art Taylor's book Notes and Tones (Da Capo, 1982). The "blindfolded featured artist is asked to identify the players and tunes they are listening to, as well as rate each performance on a scale of 1-5 stars.

Drummer Gurn Blanston is a highly regarded underground jazz icon/teacher from the Boston area. One of the most under-rated drummers in history of jazz, partially due to the fact he likes to maintain a low profile, Blanston will attest that he was one of the main influences on such luminaries as Alan Dawson, Tony Williams, Joe Morello, Marvin "Smitty Smith, Teri Lynn Carrington, and others. Blanston's innovative style was much sought after in his playing days during the '60s and early '70s, and though there was much talk about the playing he did with Miles Davis and other jazz greats of the day, only bootleg recordings exist of the drummer in his prime. Blanston prefers not to play out in the scene much these days, but teaches privately at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I caught up with Gurn recently during a rare Seattle visit, which included a clinic at the Seattle Drum School for his first blindfold test.

Miles Davis
Highlights from the Plugged Nickel (Columbia, 1965)
Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums.
Composer: Miles Davis

Gurn Blanston: As far as the test goes, you must not be trying to trick me. This is my old friend Miles with that kid Tony Williams on drums. Tony used to come to me for lessons back when he was 15 or 16. I recommended he go see Alan Dawson and learn his rudiments, then come back and see me. The boy must have really listened to Alan, 'cause when he came back, I only had to give him two or three lessons and he was off and running. I set him up with this old cymbal I had laying around which became the sound everyone associates with Tony nowadays. He ended up breaking the darn thing playing that rock-and-roll stuff.

All About Jazz: Do you like the direction he took later on?

GB: I love Tony. He's like a son to me, what can I say? Sure he lost all of his subtlety, and you had to talk twice as loud for him to hear you because he blew his ears out with that rock stuff, but it was still Tony, and I loved the guy. Roy (Haynes) and I used to joke that if we had been born yesterday, we'd have just copied everything Tony Williams ever did, 'cause he was the perfect drummer. This tune is "Milestones. They sure got into playing fast at that time. When was this, 1965 or so? I got called to sub for Tony a few times with this band, but I didn't want to get Tony fired so I just had the guys over when they were in Boston and we all jammed.

AAJ: You're too modest. When I was at Berklee, a lot of teachers I had were talking about you and that you used to play with Miles when he came to town.

GB: Well yeah, I used to gig with him from time to time, but I never really dug the bar scene much. Most of the playing I did with Miles was in one of his transitional periods. He'd play in Boston and have me play, or I'd go to New York once in a blue moon to do a gig. He wanted me to go on the road, but I told him why don't you use Jack (DeJohnette) or this kid that use to visit me named Billy Cobham? Billy ended up going the route Tony did, but boy he played some jazz that would knock you out. I just liked to practice and play with people. There wasn't anyone I couldn't hang with back then, but I just didn't care about anything but making music for music's sake. I never had any desire to travel or record, man. I just liked to play music.

AAJ: Stars?

GB: If I gotta give this stars, forget it 'cause these guys went to the moon! What's next?

Wes Montgomery
"Full House
Full House (Riverside, 1962)
Personnel: Wes Montgomery, guitar; Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums.
Composer: Wes Montgomery


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