Growing up in a small Midwestern town in a "whites only" county may not seem like the obvious path to jazz fandom. But when AM radio is your childhood companion, piping the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, and Dinah Washington to you under the bedcovers at night, and Dad is a multi-instrumentalist jazz fan who takes you to the state fair to hear Duke and Ella and Louis, well, all bets are off. You just might find that life takes you from that small town to overhearing advice in the kitchen of one of the world's jazz greats (read on to find out who).
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in a little central Illinois town called Virginia, about 35 miles from the state capital, Springfield. The county was all white. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that my father tearfully confessed to me the unwritten "sunset law" proscribing black folks from spending any time in Cass County. I did not see black folks unless my dad took me to a Cardinals game in St. Louis, or if we took a train trip in a Pullman car. Or if he took me to the annual weeklong State Fair in Springfield, where I got to see and hear great musicians. He had a source for free tickets and we exploited it well. I got to see Duke several timesonce with Billy Strayhorn
. We saw Louis Armstrong
, Jack Teagarden
, Count Basie
, Jimmy Rushing
, Joe Turner
, Joe Williams
, The Mills Brothers
, Ella Fitzgerald
, the Dorsey bands, the Glenn Miller
Orchestra, Al Hirt
, and Pete Fountain
, Artie Shaw
, Buddy DeFranco
, and others. Guy Lombardo
a couple of times.
What's your earliest memory of music?
I sang The Lord's Prayer at age three. My dad played bass, guitar, and ocarina, and sang in a barbershop quartet and in the church choir. He whistled while getting dressed for work, and taught me to harmonize with him. The choir director lived next door; her husband sang and whistled when he pushed his reel lawn mower, and one of their daughters played the piano ferociously. Lots of singing. Every day of my childhood was filled with music.
But the radio was my secret passage to a world outside. Atmospheric conditions could sometimes permit AM radio signals to travel vast distances. In bed at night, I would dial in stations strong and faint, advising me of people and places utterly removed from my white-bread home. I heard Spanish for the first time, and black voices. I heard Mahalia Jackson
and Dinah Washington
, Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles
. James Brown
. I heard music that spoke of joy and pain. It moved me. I heard love singing over the air. I heard longing, suffering and redemption and I felt it.
How old were you when you got your first record?
As a child, I had a Howdy Doody record player, and I played children's records. But when I was about 13, I received a Garrard turntable and my folks let me subscribe to the RCA Victor record club, which offered 13 LPs for 99 cents. Of course you were then required to purchase so many more discs at inflated rates. My first LPs were a mix of classical and other music. Eugene Ormandy. Multiple Henry Mancini
. I remember a Peter Nero. And there was a record I didn't order, but it was the most arresting one of all.
Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
My doorway to jazz was one of that first batch of discs from the RCA record club. It had a wild cover, and names I didn't know. It was a mistake, but I decided to listen to it before I sent it back. The album: Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan at Newport 63
. Clark Terry
and Coleman Hawkins
joined the Gildo Mahones Trio here. The energy of this live album cracked through my speaker and spoke to me of a world unknown, but one I immediately envied. The stomping, the laughter, the tempos, the joyful miles-a-minute vocalese. Helpfully, the lyrics were provided on the back of the album: "One O'Clock Jump," "Sack O' Woe," "Cloudburst," "Yeah-Yeah," "Deedle-Lee Deedle-Lum," "Watermelon Man." Jon Hendricks
emcees the proceedings so bright and sly. The horn solos are classics. Yolande Bavan
sounds like the sexiest woman on earth. I couldn't see what was going on in that world, but I wanted to be there for all of that fun. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan introduced me to exuberance.
What was the first concert you ever attended? Duke Ellington
. I was blown away. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I had never seen a more distinguished looking man. Ruffled cuffs forward, his dress and demeanor were flagrantly civilized. His speech so flowery and often indirect as though he was ever-so-discreetly teasing us. And the appearance of that front line of horns! Johnny Hodges
, Paul Gonsalves
, Harry Carney
, Jimmy Hamilton
, and Russell Procope
. To me, they looked like pharaohsimplacably calm, wise, powerful. All this before they played even a note. The orchestrations were wondrous to me. The sections purred, of course. So many great soloists. Hodges was always saved for the kill.
I enjoyed Duke's patter and his amusing standby: "For our next number, we would like to feature our pianist." He used that line for every show I caught. So I was unnerved the time he used it, only to recede and make way for this little guy with big glasses. He sounded like Duke, but "what's the deal?" I thought. It was years later when I grasped that I had experienced Strays.
How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Since I was a kid.
What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
Music is ephemeral. Recording technology captures much, but not all. There are environmental, social and presentational aspects of live music that escape recording. There are psychological dimensions affecting performers and audiences alike. Sharing these ephemeral moments together can become a life event for those involved, whether in a salon or a stadium. That's jazz. We spend the rest of our lives talking about those crystal moments when we experienced perfection together.
What are the elements of an amazing concert?
Great musicians, great acoustics, a good sound engineer, a program with a compelling internal logic, an attentive audience, and honest, searching, creative magic.
How often do you go out to hear live music?
Rarely, these days. It comes to me.
What makes a great jazz club?
My favorite jazz venue is my own living room, which we open once or twice a month as @exuberance, a crowd-funded listening room for piano jazz in Philadelphia
. Acoustics here are ideal. Our audiences are well-behaved: no talking, cell phones, photography, or anything else during sets. In the 3+ years we have been presenting these salons, we have hosted 125 great jazz musicians, solo to septet. We present heterogeneous ensembles with respect to ethnicity and gender. The AAJ venue poll ranks us at #18 in the world. Radio station WRTI did a nice article
Pianists who have played our Steinway B include Farid Barron
, Bruce Barth
, Ran Blake
, Joseph Block
, Tim Brey
, Alex Brown
, Lucas Brown
, Uri Caine
, Bob Cohen
, Emmet Cohen
, John Colianni
, Zaccai Curtis
, Harold Danko
, John di Martino
, Chano Dominguez
, Orrin Evans
, Sullivan Fortner
, Rick Germanson
, Lafayette Gilchrist
, Aaron Goldberg
, Dayramir Gonzalez
, Aaron Graves
, Patricia K. Haddad
, Connie Han
, Tamir Hendelman
, Geoffrey Keezer
, David Kikoski
, Terry Klinefelter
, Axel Tosca Laugart
, Tom Lawton
, Shai Maestro
, Dave Meder
, Dan Nimmer
, Luke Carlos O'Reilly
, Jeb Patton
, Luis Perdomo
, Roberta Piket
, Ted Rosenthal
, Micah Thomas
, Isaiah Thompson
, Sumi Tonooka
, Ariacne Trujillo
, Kenny Werner
, Spike Wilner
, and Ben Winkelman
I can't believe this is my living room.
Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
Frög piano bar on Locust St., Philadelphiajazz pianists every night, 197987.
If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be? Thelonius Monk
Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
I'm in Betty Carter
's kitchen. One of her sons walks in and opens the refrigerator. He doesn't know what to eat. Betty declaims, "Well, improvise!"
How do you discover new artists?
YouTube. Petitioning emails. Recommendations.
Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?
If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
I have played piano and composed from an early age. I played sousaphone as a kid.
What's your desert island disc?
A compilation of Monk, Art Blakey
, Rahsaan Roland Kirk
, Horace Silver
, and Herbie Nichols
What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The music that we love sprung from black Americansnorth and south. Swing and clave derive from West African rhythms and form the bases for American jazz, Caribbean, Latin and Brazilian music. They speak to a physical and central dimension of what it means to be humanan exuberant, open, loving dimension, suggesting a peaceful and creative world we all might share. This spiritual essence will always keep jazz alive and thriving.
Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Is there anything else we should know about you?
Get invitations to our piano jazz salons at exuberancemusic