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Larry Willis: Reaching and Teaching

Russ Musto By

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In a career spanning five decades, Larry Willis has amassed one the most impressive resumes in jazz, including tenures with Jackie McLean, Hugh Masekela, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Carla Bley, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Cobb's So What Sextet and Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, testifying to the high esteem in which he is held by his peers. Yet despite a substantial discography including scores of sideman appearances and over twenty dates as a leader, the gifted pianist/composer is only just beginning to receive the critical and popular acclaim his talent so richly deserves. Here he shares some of the wisdom he has gained through his wide ranging experiences.

All About Jazz: Well let's start with clearing up the confusion about your birth date, as it is given as different years in different editions of the Encyclopedia of Jazz and other sources. You were born in New York City on December 20th of what year?

Larry Willis: 1942.

AAJ: It is often stated as 1940.

LW: Well I can explain that, I think. When I was with Blood, Sweat and Tears, there was a questionnaire sent to the band members that was supposed to go into the Encyclopedia of Jazz and evidently they mistook a two for a zero. And that's how that all started. But Ira Gitler was supposed to have cleared that up.

AAJ: Well Ira evidently did take care of it. The information is given correctly in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia, however All Music Guide and some other places continue to list the "older" Larry Willis.

LW: Right. (laughs)

AAJ: You grew up in New York and became part of the City's burgeoning sixties jazz scene when you were still a teenager. How did you come to the piano and jazz?

LW: Well first of all my brother, my late brother Victor, was a classically trained pianist and a graduate of the Guilmant Organ School.

AAJ: So there was a piano in the house?

LW: There was a piano in the house, but I was never really interested in it until my last year in high school.

AAJ: And you went to Music and Art (High School), but you didn't go there to study piano?

LW: No, I was a voice major.

AAJ: What finally attracted you to the piano at that point? Did you hear somebody?

LW: Yes, there was a guy by the name of Joseph Bullard, who lived in the next building on my block and my brother had just bought a stereo—we're going back to hifi now—and one day this guy came over and brought this record, it was called Milestones, and I liked the way the pianist (Red Garland) played. Then I started to hear jazz in high school with guys like Eddie Gomez and Jimmy Owens and people like that.

AAJ: These were your classmates there?

LW: Well yeah, not necessarily the same year, but we were in school at the same time.

So I just started to tinkle around at the piano and it tweaked my interest and when my friend Joseph Bullard brought Kind Of Blue over, that was it.

AAJ: And that was Wynton Kelly that sealed the deal?

LW: Both pianists; both Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans.

AAJ: And we can still hear that in your playing.

LW: Well, the apple don't fall far from the tree. (laughs)

AAJ: You continued you education at the Manhattan School of Music. Did you remain a voice major of become a piano major?

LW: No, I became a theory major.

AAJ: You've been known as a composer as well as a pianist for most of your career. You began writing while still at Manhattan and your first recording with Jackie McLean (Right Now!) featured a couple of your compositions ("Poor Eric" and "Christel's Time"). You were still quite young, but you had already hit a stride as a composer.

LW: Yeah, I was 22 years old—well actually I started playing with Jackie when I was nineteen and the first record I was on was like three years later.

AAJ: Was Jackie your first outing into the jazz scene?

LW: Yes he was.

AAJ: Did it open your eyes to the big, wide world of jazz?

LW: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

AAJ: What was the scene like at that time? Would you call it thriving?

LW: Yeah it was thriving. First of all just in my neighborhood there were seven or eight clubs that had jazz seven nights a week. You'd go up the hill to Branca's and there was an organ trio playing there and there was Small's Paradise that always had bands and Count Basie's and Wells and the Club Baron and Minton's Playhouse. You know there was a lot of that activity going on right in my own community.

AAJ: Who were some of the piano players you heard around that time that inspired you?

LW: Walter Bishop, Jr., Bobby Timmons, certainly Cedar Walton—people of that nature.

AAJ: Later on you went to play with Hugh Masekela, which was one of the earliest examples of a kind of "world music" group. There wasn't much of a crossover influence between jazz and African music at that point.

LW: In terms of what Hugh was doing, we met at Manhattan School of Music and Hugh was basically at that time was aspiring to play like Clifford Brown. We would go to jam sessions and he used to have a little band with Eddie Gomez and Henry Jenkins and some other South African horn players like Morris Lornburg (?) and George Guagua (?), who were both students at the Manhattan School Music, along with me and Hugh. When Hugh decided to leave school and form his own band, we kind of got it together and I was the pianist that he wanted. So we kind of meshed together and hung out a lot and I learned a lot from him about certain forms and South African music. And at the time, because he had just married Miriam Makeba, I was around Miriam all the time and she was also a main source of my education in African music.

AAJ: You managed to put that knowledge of different forms to good use later, when you became a member of Jerry Gonzalez' Fort Apache Band.

LW: Some of it yes, but understand, I grew up in Harlem and Harlem was a melting pot of a lot of different ethnic people. I heard the conga drums in my ears all my life. I don't know if I knew technically what they were doing, but it just felt good.

AAJ: So you had an unconscious or subconscious understanding of Latin rhythms just from growing up around them.

LW: Absolutely.

AAJ: Also, early in your career, you were a pioneering fusion musician—I guess we can call you that—as a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.

LW: Yeah. One of the things that attracted me to the band was the band being heavily influenced by jazz music, you know, and coming along there were jazz players such as Freddie Lipsius that I met—he's also a Music and Art-er—one of the founding fathers of Blood Sweat and Tears; and Lew Soloff of course.

Oddly enough when I was at Manhattan School of Music I got to meet a guy who took a very keen interest in me and that was the late Jules Colomby. Jules had a brother that was born on the same day as I was. And I got to meet Bobby and, you know, we shared a lot. We had a lot of common ideas about what music is. And there was one word that my teacher John Mehegan used to always use and the word is eclectic and at the time I saw music moving from the jazz or bebop genre over into that. You know, you had records at the time by people like Ramsey Lewis and certainly Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! by Cannonball—all of these things were considered fusion, as far as I'm concerned. Blood Sweat and Tears actually took it a dimension further because it would tap into all kinds of forms, speaking of the word eclectic. They recorded things not only riveted in the blues and on BS&T Two they did a version of a piece of music by Eric Satie. They were all over the place, but with good taste because they had very, very excellently trained, gifted musicians. People like Randy Brecker. And I mentioned Bobby Colomby. Bobby basically started out as a jazz drummer. As a matter of fact, Max Roach gave him his first drum set. So that involvement and a common interest at the time.

AAJ: You mentioned Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!. You eventually went on to play with Cannonball. What are some of the things you learned playing with Cannonball?

LW: It changed my life. Cannon used to say, we have a comprehensive band. One of the things that I think I have learned from Cannon is, as he would so eloquently put it, is being able to get music "across the footlights." He would say that there are a lot of really great players that can really play the music well and play their instruments well, but just don't have that other gear that gets you across the footlights to reach the people. Cannon definitely had that kind of charisma and he was an extremely intelligent man who could talk about and identify and be involved in all kinds of conversations on almost any level. So when I started to have my own band, just being aware of your stage presentation, being able to dress hip and being able to talk, hopefully, on an intelligent level with the audience, you're playing for. And Cannon was certainly quite capable of doing that.

AAJ: And then you went on to play with Nat Adderley, who somewhat continued the tradition?

LW: Absolutely, absolutely.

AAJ: Through Nat you also began your pedagogical career. You followed in his footsteps there.

LW: At Florida Southern College, certainly. We did a lot of clinics. I was also on the initial faculty at the New School.

AAJ: Do you enjoy teaching? Do you think that this new world of jazz education—even though it's taken the place of something that was invaluable, that is learning on the bandstand—do you see something positive in the way it works now.

LW: Not really, and I'll tell you why. In most of these universities that have jazz studies programs, the faculty does not consist largely of jazz musicians, so the information that these kids are getting is coming from a far more technical academic form than from a organic form that would come from a jazz musician as a professor. It is my contention that you can't teach this music as a science because there are too many schools of thought that are valid that go into this. So you can't departmentalize this stuff the same way that you would other forms of education. Unfortunately are either taught or headed by people who come strictly from the academic world and that's not going to work.

AAJ: Thankfully, there is a movement towards hiring people like yourself. In New York particularly, at least, where the faculty is so readily available, the city being the home to so many working jazz musicians.

LW: Well yes, here.

AAJ: You're speaking more of the those times and places where many jazz programs operated under a principle which basically proved the old adage that those who can't do, teach.

LW: Yes.

AAJ: From your work in Florida, you've begun doing some more ambitious work. You've written and arranged several orchestral jazz works? Do you find that rewarding?

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