Kevin Hays: Creative Flow

George Colligan By

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KH: Well, I grew up about an hour from the city, so I had a lot of exposure to New York in high school. I actually started doing gigs in the city while I was still in high school. Bassist Sean Smith and I are good friends from high school and we used to come into the city together. We were actually in some rock bands together. And then I heard he was playing upright bass, and getting into jazz. [So] we started playing together a bit. He's a couple years older and there was a crew of guys that he was connected to who were going to LaGuardia School of the Performing Arts. Guys like alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, pianist Bill Charlap, and some others. I started hanging out with them, I became really good friends with Charlap, and I sort of followed in his footsteps by studying with some of the same teachers he had, like Jack Reilly, and classical piano teacher Eleanor Hancock. So that was my intro to New York. In fact, Charlap was playing a steady gig at Knickerbocker, and he was leaving the gig, so he got me on the gig. So I got to play at Knickerbocker while I was still in high school, which was really exciting. It was great also because Bradley's was right around the corner, and I'd get to hear all these great pianists all the time, like Kenny Barron, Roger Kellaway, and Hank Jones. I had to sneak in cause I was underage. I guess I shouldn't have even been allowed to play at the Knickerbocker as well! So it was very cool. Sean and I used to come into town and play with a guitarist named Dan Rockliss—who moved to Spain. We all went on our first tour of Europe with drummer Tony Moreno. I had been a student at Manhattan School, but when I got this gig, I split.

GC: So you never finished your degree?

KH: No, I never did. I'm a bit of a drop out.

GC: Do you feel like you missed out on something by not finishing your schooling?

KH: I think it's possible that I did. I was pretty headstrong—still am! [Laughs] I'm working on it. But I wasn't really a focused student. I pretty much did what I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to play and I really wasn't interested in much else. So I was kind of driven in that way. I sort of wished that I had paid more attention to my classes while I was there. Things like music history—I was so not there! All I cared about was "How do I get this feel together? How do I swing? How do I learn to comp?" No one was teaching me this! I did have some lessons with Harold Danko, which was cool. I was only there for one semester, so maybe if I had given it a chance...I guess you can pay a price if you are myopic and focused on only one thing. That means there's probably something you aren't learning, if you are only zooming in on one thing.

GC: So many music students now only go to school, and learn that way, because they can't go off to do a tour. There's not much of the apprenticeship system left, so most music students only have their school experiences to draw from. Can we agree that this is not for the best?

KH: I'm not sure if that is really the case! I mean, obviously young musicians can't apprentice with musicians who are no longer here (Art Blakey, etc...). But there are still opportunities. And they can get the information, maybe not from the first guy who created it, but from somebody else who has played with the real cats...

GC: Why shouldn't they apprentice with you?

KH: Well, yeah, I've played with younger musicians in a way that you could call an apprenticeship—learning from somebody who is older and more experienced. There are plenty of those guys around—yourself included. The information that you got from the older cats you worked with, it just streams right through you.

GC: Do think that the kids in schools are getting this?

KH: It's hard for me to say... probably not if you are really isolated. New York is different because there are so many of those guys around. I was fortunate to have played with Benny Golson when I was 23 andJoe Henderson when I was in my 20's. That probably would not have happened if I had not been in New York. But initially, I wasn't touring that much! I was just getting together with friends and jamming. I think that's probably missing more than the other things you mentioned. But then ultimately that weeds itself out in a way, because now you have so many guys in school who can barely play with a group, who maybe aren't up to snuff, in terms of being able to play with a group, or keep the form, or play a blues, or whatever. If there's one thing I think is lacking in the schools, it's the vetting process; it's a little suspect. It's like if you have the money to pay, you can go to music school. Some of these kids just aren't ready. It's hard for me to say how it's supposed to work.


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