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Mark Sherman: Truth Of Who I Am

DanMichael Reyes By

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Vibraphonist Mark Sherman likes using the term consummate to describe musicians and colleagues that he's played with. While it would be difficult to speak to every notable musician that Sherman's played for and ask about their opinion about Juilliard graduate and professor, it is safe to assume that they would also describe Sherman as a consummate musician.

Mark Sherman has enjoyed a career as a leader with over a dozen albums under his name. While Sherman's albums as a leader have featured legendary saxophonists like Joe Lovano and the late Michael Brecker, Sherman the sideman has played alongside some of America's most iconic voices like Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, and Mel Torme. As a classical musician, the Juilliard-trained percussionist has performed under the direction with some of the greatest conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Hebert Von Karajan. As a record label owner, Sherman's Miles High Records has released countless albums since the '80s up to this present day with Tim Hegarty's latest album, Tribute (2014), which features Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Carl Allen, and Sherman himself.

In a career that has spanned nearly four decades, Sherman has never dropped a beat and continues to maintain a busy schedule with performances, record dates, and teaching.

All About Jazz: Your mother, Edith Gordon, was a soprano who sang professionally, and graduated from Juilliard. What was her influence like on you?

Mark Sherman: I went on tour in Israel with her when I was eight for four months and I watched her perform a lot as a kid. She gave piano lessons. I grew up with her vocalizing everyday with the piano that I own now, the Chickering grand. My grandfather bought the piano for her when she got into Juilliard on a full scholarship at 17 years old from Canton, Ohio. She attended Juilliard as a soprano and had a career [after] that.

I took piano lessons when I was eight and then I got into drums. When I was around 13 or 14 I found the music of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker through my friend's father. I eventually studied with Elvin Jones downtown and began attending The High School of Music and Art (now known as LaGuardia High) with Kenny Washington, Ray Chew, Omar Hakim, Bob Franceschini, and a whole slew of people. We had an incredible band in high school with Bobby Broom, Lenny Castro, and Marcus Miller on bass. We all grew up together at LaGuardia High School. I went to Manhattan Prep on Saturdays where I met Kenny Kirkland and Rodney Jones because I was studying with Justin DiCioccio, who was head of music and arts high school program at that time. So I studied with him as a percussion major and he turned me on to the mallets. [Dicioccio] turned me on to marimba and vibes by making me play bell and xylophone parts in high school. He also prepared my audition for Juilliard where I was accepted at 17.

There were two people that got accepted during the year I got in, Daniel Druckman and myself. I got in under the tutelage of Saul Goodman and Buster Bailey, who were the head of the percussion program at Juilliard in the classical division during the old days. I went there for five years and I played under the baton of the greatest conductors of the world like Leonard Bernstein, Tom Shelton, Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and a slew of conductors that came through the school; it was amazing. So after I did that, I was spit out into the freelance scene and ended up with a lot of studio work and I met Mike Renzi through that.

But all the time I was at Manhattan School of Music's prep division I had met Kenny Kirkland and Rodney Jones, who are some of my biggest influences growing up. Kenny and I were close growing up and we used to transcribe solos together. We used to hang out in his apartment and transcribe Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. I played drums for his trio with Rodney Jones and some other people at that time at Manhattan School of Music, where Kenny went to school.

AAJ: So it was you, Rodney Jones, and Kenny Kirkland in a trio together?

MS: Yeah, Rodney played bass or he would play guitar while Cecil McBee played bass. It was a cool period in our lives when we were growing up. I ended up going to Juilliard but I still kept playing with those cats at Manhattan School of Music and up at the seminary across the street from MSM was where used to play a lot.

I would hang with Kenny a lot and he used to say, "Mark's going to give up the drums and play the vibes," because I was always hanging over his shoulder trying to learn what he was playing and his language.

AAJ: Was it Kenny Kirkland who introduced you to Wynton Marsalis? Or did you just meet Wynton from going to school at Juillard?

MS: No! It's through me that Wynton met Kenny. I went on to Juilliard and Kenny stayed at Manhattan School of Music. Mitchel Forman was another close friend of mine who was my roommate in college. He's played with Wayne Shorter and Stan Getz. He's also on my last CD, Project Them (Miles High, 2013).

AAJ: Congrats on the record. I just finished listening to it and it sounded amazing.

MS: That's an interesting band. I'm looking forward to some gigs with them during this summer and fall.

Anyway, that was the scene in those days when I was going through college. When I got to Juilliard—at the end of my first year—I was practicing "Moment's Notice" or something at one of the practice rooms. Juilliard didn't have a jazz program then...

AAJ: Sorry to interrupt, but just so we're clear, which instrument were you practicing on? Vibes or piano?

MS: It was piano. I play a lot of piano and I feel that it's been a big part of my educational success. I can accompany my students who are trying to learn how to play vibes and I teach from that vantage point. It's a good thing to have; it's a good tool. I love to play the piano—I've been playing since I was eight years old. I used to play classical music from eight to 13. I branched off and got into harmony a little bit when I was playing drums and I was hanging around Kenny Kirkland's shoulders and I got a lot of cool voicings and things.

So I had been playing "Moment's Notice" at a practice room in Juilliard. Then this kid with a big afro and wire-rimmed glasses [came] in and starts playing his trumpet. He starts blowing a solo and we jammed. After we played, he introduced himself to me and said, "Hi, I'm Wynton Marsalis and I just got into school." We subbed in Broadway shows together— we were subs in Sweeney Todd. We played in Juilliard's orchestra for years and we jammed together at school.

When I was playing piano he asked, "Hey where did you get those chords?" I told him that they were Kenny Kirkland's chords. Months later or so, he got his first record deal at Columbia. He came to me and he said, "Man, I've got this big date with George Butler and I need a pianist."

He asked me who he should get to play piano, so I told him about Kenny Kirkland. [Wynton] actually cited that in a magazine once. It was a whole scene that we all grew up in during those days and it was a beautiful thing.

AAJ: Aside from standing over Kenny Kirkland's shoulders, you also studied with Jaki Byard and Sir Roland Hanna. What was that like?

MS: I took a few lessons with Jaki and Roland Hanna and I used to trade lessons because I taught him on how to work Finale when it first came out. He wanted to learn how to do Finale and Rodney Jones knew Roland so he made the connection for me. We would do it on a Mac Plus; it was on a three-inch screen. You could only see a few measures of music at the time but everybody was so intrigued by it. Even musicians like Roland were like, "Wow! I can write down stuff like that! That's incredible." Nobody could believe you could put music into a computer like that. I would give Roland a lesson on Finale and he would give me a piano lesson. He would show me some of his drills.

AAJ: How was it like studying under the great Elvin Jones?

MS: It was just going to the Professional Percussion Center on 50th and 8th Ave and taking some lessons with him. You'd go up the top floor and he would be there with Jo Jones and Mel Lewis. You would go up and sit with Elvin and play. I would just absorb the style. The triplet thing that was underneath his playing, his left hand, and the whole thing was incredible really. The main thing with that was he would give me the option to sit behind in at the Vanguard when he was in town. I was young, like 14 or 15.

A funny thing happened. I did a record date with Dave Liebman and Tom Harrell for the singer, Erin Mcdougald. I went up to Dave and said, "Dave, it's such a privilege to finally do a date with you. I was watching you when I was 14 years old when you were playing with Elvin and now I'm here playing on a record date with you. It's great." And then he said, "But you had a lot of hair right?"

[laughs] I used to have a big giant curly afro like Roger Daltry. I said, "Yeah that was me." But sitting behind Elvin for a full week at the Vanguard was unbelievable. That's a thing that I remember vividly. Especially the sweating—it was amazing to be that close to that at a young age. I really enjoyed it.

Then I started playing with the records you know? I burned all my LP's out— Transition (Impluse, 1970), Live at Birdland (Impulse, 1964), Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), Coltrane Jazz (Atlantic, 1961), all of the great Trane records. I played all those great LP's to death on the drums.

AAJ: You mentioned Saul Goodman. Did you study with him throughout your five years at Juilliard?

MS: Yeah. I studied formally with him for four years. The first year is always a prep year and they put you with Buster Bailey—at least in those days. You might take one lesson throughout the first year with Goodman just to familiarize yourself with what's going to come. But from my second to my fifth year, I stayed with Goodman and I became a darn good timpani player. I learned how to be a good orchestral percussionist. What it did was that it got me a lot of freelancing in the '80s and '90s in the studios, Broadway, and all the freelance opportunities in New York. I subbed with the Philharmonic once and I used to play with the American Symphony with all these different ballets.

I used to get a slew of that legit work. But you have to make a commitment eventually and I really was a jazz musician. I really just gained those skills as a classical percussionist during my time at Juilliard because I was there for so long. I played with some of the best conductors at such a high level. I played Mahler's 5th Symphony with Bernstein at Avery Fischer Hall when I was in college. So it really had a big effect on me. Those were amazing times and it was a hard decision in a way. In fact, Saul Goodman got me a job once. He got me a private audition with the Rio de Jainero Symphony. I was his boy. He took Daniel Druckman and me under his wing. Danny's with the New York Philharmonic now and is the head of the classical percussion program at Juilliard. And now I teach at the Juilliard jazz program.
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