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Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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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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