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 Juilliardat the end of my first yearI 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 pianoI'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 sweatingit 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.