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Larry Willis: Reaching and Teaching

Russ Musto By

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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.

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