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Lonnie Plaxico: Being Your Own Bird

George Colligan By

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LP: It was great because Jack wanted us to bring who we were musically to the band. That was our opportunity to explore. He wanted us to find different notes. He wanted us to take the music somewhere else.

GC: You played with Cassandra Wilson for how long?

LP: Off and on for 20 years.

GC: Did you feel more like a co-leader at times? Or simply a sideman?

LP: Both. Cassandra is more like a horn player than a jazz singer. Many singers only let musicians take a short solo, but Cassandra would let people play. Cassandra is a lot like Jack Dejohnette in that she wants you to bring something different to the music and change the songs, not just doing it like's traditionally been done.

GC: What was the best thing about playing with Art Blakey?

LP: [laughs] Playing with Art Blakey!

GC: [laughs] I'll accept that!

LP: No, but it was cool just being in his presence—to play with somebody that great every night. I played with Blakey for three and a half years, and every performance, no matter how he was feeling, he always came to play and to have fun. The energy was always there. He looked like a kid playing with toys!

GC: But with passion.

LP: With excitement, that kind of excitement every night. I never saw him just coast.

GC: I think of Jack Dejohnette the same way.

LP: Exactly, Jack is the same on the bandstand.

GC: You never get the sense that those [types] of artists ever phone it in, so to speak. Do you think it's hard for young players to understand that kind of intensity? I feel like in the old days, people's lives depended on playing music to survive. And that reflected in the nightly intensity on the bandstand. Do you feel like that's missing from young people's performances?

LP: It might be a cultural thing. Most young players these days go to college to learn how to play jazz. And because it's so expensive, it means more than likely they come from a well-off background! I didn't go to school for music, Cassandra Wilson didn't go to school for music. We learned on streets, and we also played a lot more music in high school. I think it also reflects the time. If you were born in 1950, or 1960, the world was much different back then, compared to somebody born in 1980 or 1990. There are lot more broken families.

GC: Now?

LP: Yes. The social conditions of now affect the music. Back then in Chicago, we were still learning from the elders before we went to New York, people like Von Freeman.

GC: Was Bunky Green around then?

LP: He was, but Von was really interested in helping the younger generation, he had his jam session two nights a week.

GC: Talk a little bit about what you've been studying in terms of world religion.

LP: I think that religion is totally against how we think about art. We don't think about any musician as the Son of God of piano or the God of the bass. As if they were the only one to listen to. If you ask any musician who they listen to for influence, they might listen to 20 different players. Religion tells you to follow one savior, one God. Religion is about mono, music is about poly. It's open to anything; it's open to the universe, that's where the beauty is.

GC: I think that's what makes you unique as an artist is that you observe and draw your own conclusions, you don't just follow. You develop your philosophy based on your own experience. Most people don't do that.

LP: You ask people, "Did you come up with that, or did your momma tell you that?" We teach musicians to find their own voice. Religion doesn't do that. Religion is about myths. Religion should be alive! What if Michael Jordan was just a myth? How could the Bulls win all those titles if Jordan was just a myth? Music and religion cannot survive on just a myth. Myths can tell a story and teach you something but you have to go beyond that. Myths should show you how great you can be. Musicians have to become their own Charlie Parker.

GC: You're saying that if LeBron James only watched Michael Jordan instead of being inspired to become the next Michael Jordan, he would not be where he is today?

LP: Exactly. You have to be your own savior.

After the gig, while we were waiting for the drummer to drive us home—we waited for a while—Plaxico gave me a really detailed bass lesson (I'm trying to learn upright bass) involving left and right hand position, alternate scale fingerings, sliding on the fingerboard, thumb position, using four fingers in the right hand (he said it was inspired by Matthew Garrison) and being as relaxed as possible with minimal motion. "Think about it as exactly like the piano," Plaxico insisted. "You want to keep your fingers close to the strings."

Plaxico has so much energy for music it's frightening. And nearly five decades haven't slowed him down at all.


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