Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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It's hard to imagine vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in his seventies. Not only does he look and sound like a man 10 years (or more) his junior, but a quick look at the projects he's been involved in over the past few years sound like anything but a septuagenarian resting on his not inconsiderable laurels.

Mike Mainieri

Mainieri may not have the instant name recognition of peers like Gary Burton, or even younger players like Joe Locke, Stefon Harris or Steve Nelson, but you can be sure that if you asked any of them who was registering on their radar as they were coming up, Mainieri's name would be high on the list. Rather than being pigeonholed into any particular style, Mainieri— whose unorthodox four-mallet grip allows him a flexibility few others can match—has done it all. Fusion, funk, straight-ahead, world music, free improv ... these are all but a part of Mainieri's seemingly encyclopedic purview. And while others stay away from innovations going on elsewhere in the world, Mainieri regularly collaborates with artists from Spain, Italy, Holland and Norway.

He continues to tour with Steps Ahead, his longstanding group with a membership that reads like a who's who of New York jazz from the past three decades, including saxophonists Michael Brecker, Bob Berg and Donny McCaslin, pianists Don Grolnick, Eliane Elias and Warren Bernhardt, guitarist Mike Stern, bassists Eddie Gomez, Daryl Jones and Marc Johnson, and drummers Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine and Steve Jordan. He's worked with some of Norway's most intrepid innovators on Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), a seamless blend of technology and conventional instrumentation featuring trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, guitarist Eivind Aarset, keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, live sampler Jan Bang, saxophonist Bendik Hofseth and turntablist DJ Strangefruit. And he's reformed one of his earliest collectives, L'Image, with Bernhardt, Gadd, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Spinozza, for a long overdue first album, 2.0, and a series of tours that will ultimately yield a live CD and DVD.

After a couple years' break to take care of a family health crisis, Mainieri is back and busier than ever. But before getting a big picture of what the vibraphonist has in mind for the future, a look at how he got here in the first place is in order: growing up during World War II in the Bronx, getting his first break with drum legend Buddy Rich, and becoming a hippie during the 1960s, at a time when most artists his age were striving to retain purity in jazz.

Chapter Index
  1. Growing Up in WWII New York
  2. Mainieri's First Big Break
  3. Dropping Out, Tuning In and Turning Up
  4. Seventh Avenue South and the Emergence of Steps Ahead
  5. Synthi-Vibes and The New Sting
  6. The Norwegian Posse and Northern Lights
  7. American Diaries and Behind Bars
  8. Dee Carstensen and Marnix Busstra
  9. L'Image 2.0 and The Future

Growing Up in WWII New York

Mainieri's early days sound like the stuff of a Martin Scorsese film. "I came from a family of jazz fans," explains Mainieri. "A family that listened to opera and classical music. I had aunts and uncles that were show biz wannabes, not really professionals, but they were into the Big Band era. We were very poor, so there was the radio—and a phonograph, when I was older. But I did have an opportunity to go and listen to Broadway shows; when I was a kid in the '40s, you'd go and it was 75 cents. So that was me hearing music for the first time as a little kid. We had a small piano, half a drum set, and my step-grandfather's guitars (he was also a good bebopper), and I was plunking around. My grandmother gave me piano lessons, and I started playing music when I was eight or nine, and later went to a private music school."

Most artists have a story about how they came to their instrument, usually being moved by hearing someone else play. But then—as now—the vibraphone wasn't exactly a popular instrument, and in Mainieri's case, the story goes a little deeper. "My mom was instrumental in my playing the vibes," he says. "I had heard Lionel Hampton playing with Benny Goodman, and Red Norvo, along with Bags (Milt Jackson). I loved the Norvo trio with [guitarist] Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus, and my grandfather was a big Tal Farlow fan. My mom heard Marjorie Hines; there's a great photo of her on 52nd street playing with Bird [Charlie Parker], I'll always remember that. My mother liked the sound of the vibes, and she said, 'I want you to play this instrument,' and I said, 'Yeah I'd like to have a vibraphone.' But, of course, we couldn't afford it, it was too expensive. So she went to work for two years in a sweatshop, because my dad said, 'No way can we afford this,' so my mother said, 'I'm going to do this for Michael.'

"She went to work, and I remember sitting underneath in the sweatshop, maybe 30 women in a basement," Mainieri continues. "They were putting beads and all sorts of stuff on dresses. It was really hard work, and I would sit underneath the frame they had for each woman, and there were all these conversations and gossip and stuff, and I realized how hard she worked. Then my father found my first set of vibes, and he tried to track down a jazz teacher."

From the earliest days with the instrument, Mainieri's approach to four-mallet playing was unconventional. "Through a friend," the vibraphonist explains, "my mom found this terrible alcoholic, and he taught me this weird grip. I don't use the Burton grip or any of the common grips; [instead] I put the outside mallet between my pinky finger and my ring finger," rather than between the index and ring fingers. "Which is treacherous," Mainieri continues, "it doesn't belong there. The most powerful grip is [one mallet] between the thumb and index finger, [and the other] between the index finger and middle finger. But it's a static grip; you have to move your elbow when you're playing. With the grip of the pinky, you're moving the inside of your hand. The mallet acts as an extension of one of your fingers. You can move chromatically very quickly with very little movement of your elbow; with any tight interval [you can move] up and down the vibraphone quite quickly.

Mike Mainieri / L'Image"So," Mainieri continues, "my mom would bring a bottle of wine and two dollars for the lesson, take three trains to the Lower East Side where all the hobos lived, where he [Mainieri's teacher] lived in the tiniest room you could imagine, with a cot and a set of vibes. I remember he used to be a stamp collector, and she'd wake him up—he was completely drunk—and give him some liquor, I'd wait outside, and he's tried to feel her up or something [laughter]. She'd go through terrible abuse and she'd give him the two bucks and say, 'Give my son a lesson.'

"My mother is still alive, she'll be 101 in November [2009]," Mainieri concludes. "She made sure I didn't wind up in a gang or in jail—a lot of the kids wound up in trouble in my neighborhood, it was a gang-infested area. My brother and I played guitar a long time—he went into business, he never played professionally, he would be my accompanist when I practiced, he and my step-grandfather. So we had this close family, where we would gather every weekend and put on these sort of radio shows, as if we were really recording. I had an uncle, who'd be the emcee, and everyone in the family performed. So I was 12 and already playing, already improvising."

Twelve and improvising may not seem like much these days, but 14 and gigging was no mean feat then, nor is it now. More than that, Mainieri also began taking the reins as leader at an early age. "I started to play some local gigs," Mainieri explains, "and when I was 14, I put together this trio with a 16-year-old bassist and a younger girl on the guitar. We entered a contest on Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club in Philadelphia, and we won. I started playing the usual weddings and dances but always as a bandleader. I realized at an early age that, as a vibraphonist, to be successful, you had to be a bandleader. If it was quartet or quintet, you would hire a drummer, bassist, pianist and saxophone, or maybe guitar."

Mainieri's First Big Break

Mainieri eventually began studying privately to prepare for enrolling in Juilliard, playing all mallet and percussion instruments including snare drum and full drum kit. But it was an unexpected break, at the end of the 1950s, that pushed Mainieri's early career into high gear. "I happened to run into a drummer who followed Buddy Rich and big bands. Buddy used to come up to his house in the Bronx, and his mom was a great cook. He was telling Buddy about me for years, back when I was a kid. And finally I got to audition at the end of the third set at the Village Gate one night. Buddy introduced me: 'We've got some kid, it looks like he's wearing his father's suit.' I was just a skinny little kid, I looked like I was like 15 years old. So I get up onstage and he called the first tune, 'Cherokee' or something like that, unbelievably fast. And he let me play something like 40 choruses, to see if my arms would drop off. The audience got up, which was rare in those days, and I got a standing ovation."

Mike Mainieri / Buddy Rich Mike Mainieri with Buddy Rich

These days, it seems de rigueur to applaud after every solo, but back in the day, applause was something that performers had to earn. "I was doing a short interview the other day," Mainieri says, "[talking about how] everybody hoots and hollers after everyone plays a solo these days, I hate that. It wasn't [like that] back then. After a drum solo—Buddy Rich, Art Blakey or Max Roach would play an amazing drum solo—they'd get some applause from the audience, but people didn't applaud after a Lee Morgan solo, there was [only] a smattering of applause. I think it was the combination of pop music becoming popular in the late-'60s and early-'70s—those fans crossing over to fusion—and groups playing in concert settings, where there was a sense of freedom to express yourself. Now it's gotten to the point where it's really over the top.

"Nowadays, with young musicians, I think it [applause after every solo] affects their playing," Mainieri continues, "how could it not? Your ego is pretty strong when you're young, and most of the older guys, they're used to the applauding. But when you're younger and people don't applaud—even if they're not supposed to because [the music is] moving to a different section—the musician thinks, 'Oh, I'm not playing well tonight.'"

The dynamic between artist and audience isn't the only thing that's changed. "The music young musicians are listening today is at such a high level," Mainieri explains. "They're surrounded by all these cultures—kids from Cancun, from France, from Greece—and they're really comfortable with a lot of material. There's so much there for them—written out, studied and transcribed—there's the body, but is the soul there? You have to search for it.

"A facet of the business that has changed dramatically is that you used to play in a club for four weeks, maybe Birdland for four weeks, then Philly, then St. Louis and then Chicago," Mainieri continues. " You played from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. The group was always playing, not just traveling. Nowadays, you spend most of the time traveling, you're exhausted, there's a different kit, a different vibraphone, and they say, 'OK, you've got 45 minutes [to play].' Times have changed. It's only when we play in New York for four or five nights, where we play two or three sets a night, that we can really get into the music."

Even how musicians write has changed. "I was checking out some music by Donny McCaslin lately," Mainieri says. "He played with me in Steps in the '90s. He's a great guy, someone you want on the road with you during a bitch of a tour, when you only have two hours of sleep, and then he goes and plays his heart out. I was looking forward to his new record because he was writing it when we were on the last tour. He had it on Sibelius and he was writing up horn parts and he would ask, 'What do you think about this trombone part?' And I would say, 'Yeah, great.' I was very happy to hear his record the other night, it's a great record."

Plenty has been written about the lack of mentorship in jazz today, and Mainieri's experiences with Buddy Rich make even clearer just how much is missing in a jazz scene that's now top heavy with education, but lacking in the kind of ground-up lessons that can only be learned on the road with older, more experienced musicians. "There are the Buddy Rich stories, tapes—and comic books, too, probably," Mainieri says, chuckling. "Playing with Buddy was a snap—you played your ass off and he didn't bother you. I saw a fair number of his tantrums, but he and I never got into it until the end—and that was only about money. I had a blast, the time I was with him—I was young and he took me under his wing."

Mike Mainieri / Buddy RichRich not only pushed Mainieri as a player, he gave him the opportunity to hone his arranging chops. "I was thrown into the fire because he'd let most of the band go. He said, 'OK, kid, can you arrange?' and I said, 'A little.' We were a sextet and he said, 'Let's make it sound like a big band.' They've recently released an eight-CD box set of those small group Buddy Rich recordings on Mosaic, that I helped Michael Cuscuna put together. I had a ball playing with Rich because his friends were Frank Sinatra, you know, the Rat Pack—Jerry Lewis, those Hollywood actors. Lenny Bruce was one of his best friends. There was one time he took me to the Playboy mansion in Chicago, and I don't have to tell you what was going on over there. I drove his 300 SL Mercedes around the country, and one of his sports cars. The social life I enjoyed separate from the band, but I also enjoyed playing with him; the thrill of playing with Buddy, he was a marvel to watch. And we always played opposite Miles Davis, or Art Blakey—amazing musicians; it was thrilling."



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