Kenny Garrett: Musical Explorer

Jason Crane By

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I always felt that Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Miles Davis -- they all had music to go with their sound, and I wanted to have that, so I write my music.
Kenny GarrettAlto saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett has released more than a dozen albums over a career spanning nearly three decades. His resume would make the average jazz fan weak in the knees: Freddy Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, the Duke Ellington Band, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and many others.

Garrett was born in Detroit in 1960. His musical travels have taken him around the world, and awakened in him a desire to learn more than just what can be found in the guidebooks. The most recent result of that inquisitiveness is Beyond The Wall, his new record for his new label, Nonesuch.

AAJ's Jason Crane spoke recently with Garrett about his life, his music, and his worldview.

Chapter Index

Growing Up
Joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra
Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw
Introducing Kenny Garrett
Miles Davis
Recording for Warner Bros.
A Busy Sideman
Beyond the Wall
The McCoy Tyner Connection
Expanding the Group

Growing Up

All About Jazz: You were given your first saxophone by your father. Was he a jazz player?

Kenny Garrett: My father kind of listened to everything. [When I was] growing up, he was listening to Stanley Turrentine. He was also listening to Joe Henderson. He played as a hobby. He was a carpenter by trade. So he played sporadically. Sometimes on the weekend he had gigs, and then most of the time from Monday through Friday he was working as a carpenter.

AAJ: Did he give you a saxophone because he had one laying around? Was he hoping you'd become a musician? Did you say "Hey Dad, I want a saxophone. I want to play what you're playing"?

KG: The funny thing about that is that I used to sit by his case because I loved the smell of the case. And I would just sit there and listen to him practice. And I remember one Christmas he got me a plastic saxophone. I'm not sure if they still sell those horns anymore. I just started messing around with that. Probably a few months later, or it might have been a year —you know, as a kid everything seems to take a long time anyway—he got me my first horn, which was an alto with a bullet hole that had been soldered. I don't know where he got the horn from, but I was happy to have a horn. He taught me the G scale and then he sent me off to music school to learn how to play. When your father's a musician it can be a little rough, so he sent me off to learn the basics.

AAJ: What kind of music school was it?

KG: It was called Fortune Music School. It was in Michigan. It wasn't a refined kind of music school. It was like a music store that had lessons.

AAJ: You're from Detroit, one of the great American music cities, so I've got to believe there was more than Turrentine and Henderson being listened to in the Garrett household when you were a kid.

KG: What I remember the most was my father listening to jazz and my mother listening to Motown sounds. I definitely remember Turrentine, Henderson and Maceo Parker. I remember those people.

AAJ: When you were studying at Fortune Music School, what were you studying?

KG: I was still just learning scales at that point. That was way in the beginning.

AAJ: Your press kit features the line, "In 1978, while still in his teens, Garrett joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington." I was playing sax at 17, too, but Mercer never called me. What happened in between the music store and the Ellington band?

KG: After that particular school, I was just like every other student. I went to my lessons and I was trying to learn how to play. I didn't really play in elementary school, even though I had a horn. I didn't start playing until high school. I had a horn, but the places I went to school didn't really have bands for me to play in. When I got to MacKenzie High School, my teacher at that time, a guy named Bill Wiggins, knew my father and wanted me to join the band. They didn't really have a band, but he was trying to put together a band. Every time he'd see me with my horn, he'd ask me if I wanted to join the band. Between that band and [trumpeter and Detroit music legend] Marcus Belgrave, who was a pillar of the community, I think it really started to happen during that time.

So I ended up joining the high school band. We didn't really have a stage band or a concert band. They just chose people who had instruments or who they thought could play and they introduced them to these instruments. From that, I started to realize that I wanted to play music. Before that, I had a saxophone and carried it around to different schools and played in the band, but I wasn't really interested. In high school, I really got serious. Bill Wiggins had traveled the world, and he introduced me to a lot of music. He used to do shows with Aretha Franklin and [soul singer] Jerry Butler, and he'd invite me to come by and look at the book and see how that process was done. He played with [Hammond organist] Lyman Woodard, and he played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra directed by Mercer Ellington, and that's one of the ways I got in the band.

Back in high school, I used to play with Lyman Woodard. I used to do that in my senior year. That was a great experience—every weekend I had a gig with Lyman Woodard. I also played with Marcus Belgrave's big band and small group. He's responsible for [pianist] Geri Allen, [bassist] Bob Hurst, [bassist] Rodney Whitaker, [saxophonist] James Carter. Any of the guys who came out of Detroit, we all came through his tutelage. After I played in that band, I used to go around to other high schools like Cass Tech, which is one of the main schools in Detroit, and Northwest. They had good bands, and I used to try to sit in with their bands. After getting my experience in Detroit, the Duke Ellington Band directed by Mercer came through town, and they needed an alto player. Their alto player had disappeared. I was still in high school. Bill Wiggins was subbing in the band, and I think Marcus might have been subbing that night, and they needed someone, so they called me.

AAJ: It sounds like the connection with Bill Wiggins was pretty useful. It's incredible to think of what might have happened had you not met him.

KG: He had studied at Cass Tech, and he studied at the University of Michigan with players like Yusef Lateef and classical saxophone teacher Larry Teal. [Saxophonist] Don Sinta was one of Larry Teal's best students. All those guys from Michigan came through him. I wanted to study with him, but by the time I came along he was retired. A lot of the information that my teacher [Bill Wiggins] had gotten from Larry Teal he passed along to me. I used to play out of the book Twenty-Five Daily Exercises by Klose. He definitely introduced me to a different world. Like I said, we didn't really have a band, so he was like the band director and my private instructor. It was funny because in school he'd beat me up [about my playing], and then on the weekends I still had a lesson and he'd beat me up there. But it was great. He's since passed away. I wish he could have had the opportunity to see some of the things I've accomplished. He missed out on a lot of the things. But he was there for me.

Without him and Marcus Belgrave and so many different people—Bobby Barnes, Lamont Hamilton—so many people who give you little pieces of information. Being around Marcus allowed me to be exposed to some of the musicians I ended up playing with like Freddy Hubbard and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. These are some of the people I met when I was still in school. Marcus was exposed to all the great musicians coming through Detroit. Anytime somebody was there, he was there. So if I was in his band, I was there. I met a lot of musicians even before I had a chance to play with them. [Vocalese inventor] Eddie Jefferson. [Saxophonist] Richie Cole. They came through Michigan and I was playing in the [Belgrave] big band, so I got a chance to play with them. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra

AAJ: Were you still in high school when you first got the call to go with Mercer's band?

KG: I had just graduated from high school. It was the summer. They wanted me to come and join the band, and I thought I was going to go out for a few gigs, but I ended up staying for three years and a half. It was a great experience. It was important—I won't say the most important, but it was very important for me to learn how to play with 18 musicians. I had opportunities to travel with that band. It was my first time going to Europe—we went to Luxembourg. And I actually met [trumpeter] Cootie Williams. He came out of retirement, and I got an opportunity to play with Cootie. I would be sitting at the piano playing standards and Cootie would say, "Cookie, baby, what are you doing playing those songs? Write your own songs." It was good to be around Cootie, and people like Dave Young, who took the chair of [saxophonist] Paul Gonsalves. I didn't realize that at the time, because when you're young you're just trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it gave me an introduction to Ellington's music first-hand, rather than just hearing it on records.

AAJ: How did your parents respond when you said, "Mom and Dad, I'm going on the road with Duke Ellington"?

KG: They were like, "We thought you were going to school." And I said, "I am." The deal was I was supposed to go for the summer, and that summer turned into three years and a half.

AAJ: Did you move to New York City after playing in the Ellington band and deciding that New York was the logical next step?

KG: I used to hang in New York after we would play our concerts. I would come and hang out and try to hear music. One time I was hanging out and I met Marcus Miller, although I didn't know who he was at the time. He playing at a club called Seventh Avenue South—I think it was Randy and Michael's [Brecker] club. There was a bassist who I didn't know about, and it turned out to be Jaco [Pastorius]. I had a chance to play with Jaco and Marcus and [drummer] Lenny [White] and all those guys while I was still in the Ellington band. I was still 18. Finally, when Mercer was getting ready to disband the band, I was contemplating whether I wanted to go to Detroit or come to New York, and I decided to come to New York and check it out. I was rooming with [pianist] Mulgrew Miller and [drummer] Tony Reedus. Mulgrew was also in the Ellington band during that time. He left the band and came to New York first.

AAJ: Twenty years later, it sounds incredible that your roommate trio was Mulgrew Miller, Tony Reedus and you. But I guess at the time you were just three guys trying to make it, right?

KG: We were just three guys trying to learn how to play music. We're all still friends to this day, so I guess it wasn't so bad. [laughs]

AAJ: How long after you made the move to New York did you go with Mel Lewis?

Kenny GarrettKG: They were having auditions. I think [saxophonist] Steve Coleman had just left. I heard it and thought, "I can read [music]," and I think called [saxophonist] Dick Oatts or one of the guys in the band to say that I'd like to come down. I think they'd already selected who was going to play, but I said I'd still like to come down and read the [band's song] book. So I had to read the book right on stage, and I got the gig. That was a bread-and-butter band, and it was a great band.

AAJ: For a guy whose career started in the late 70's and early 80's, it seems interesting that your first couple gigs were in big bands. People always think of that era being over by then.

KG: I caught the tail end of that. Playing in the Ellington band, doing double bills with Count Basie's band. When I came to New York, that was all I was doing—[saxophonist] Frank Foster's big band, [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton's big band, [drummer] Charlie Persip's big band. It was a way for me to meet a lot of people and get a chance to play. When I was coming through, a lot of people came through big bands because that was all there was. Of course there was Art Blakey, but that was pretty much covered and there weren't that many other bands that you could play in as far as small groups. So I played in big bands and tried my hand at Broadway shows and decided that that wasn't what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play in a smaller situation. But I definitely played in a lot of big bands, and I learned to play the flute and piccolo because I wanted some security. So I was looking towards that. I started studying with [clarinet teacher] Leon Russianoff, who all the students from Juilliard studied with. And I came in as a saxophone doubler. It was a start.

AAJ: You mentioned having to get things together with 18 musicians when you were in the Ellington band. What did you learn from that kind of playing that you still use now?

KG: The main thing was blending. I learned how to blend with musicians. When I first joined that band, they taught me about phrasing and how to hear the horns. When I started playing with Freddy Hubbard and [trumpeter] Woody Shaw, I already had an idea of how I was going to blend and play with them as a front line, as opposed to just sticking out. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

About Kenny Garrett
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