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Sunny Murray

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Drummer, composer, and bandleader Sunny Murray was born in Idabel, Okla. in 1936. After moving to New York, a brief period of involvement with bebop musicians quickly gave way to several years of playing with Cecil Taylor (CT) in trio, quartet, quintet and septet settings (1959-1965). In addition to his longstanding association with the "88 Tuned Drums" of Taylor, he has worked with some of the most important voices on the saxophone in free jazz: Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Byard Lancaster, Kenneth Terroade, Frank Lowe, and recently Sabir Mateen and Assif Tsahar. Murray's pan-rhythmic approach, effortlessly swinging in often implied or seemingly nonexistent meters, has been highly influential on generations of jazz drummers.

All About Jazz: All right, well, I wanted to first make sure I was correct on your statistics. You were born in 1936, right?

Sunny Murray: Yeah, Idabel, Oklahoma.

AAJ: When did you first move to New York?

SM: I moved to New York in 1956. In one way or another, I had always been involved in music; rhythm and blues and that sort of stuff as a kid, and I reached a point in Philadelphia where I couldn't get anything else going at the time. I was 18 going on 19, so I thought I'd go to New York and create a music career. Like I said, when I arrived in '56, Caf' Bohemia was still open. As a matter of fact, I lived across the street from Caf' Bohemia, at 3 Barrow Street. And, you know I had to live on the streets for a year, in the Bowery; I paid some dues' But by 1959, I was playing with the cats. I don't even know how it happened; between my studies and my motivation, in four years I was sort of well-known playing with Cecil (who had a much longer bebop career than I) but I had sort of a few years' bebop career. The tenor saxophonist who sort of began my career was Rocky Boyd, and he was hot, very hot at that period. He was responsible for bringing Sam Rivers into the music, Tony Williams into the music; he's from Boston. So he helped me begin, and he was very encouraging of me in my studies, as we were living together downtown. Because, from [age] 20-22, I had a coffee shop in the Village, called Caf' Somethin' Else, and I sold my shop to get deeper into the music and started studying harder. When I had my shop, you know, I had my drums in the back, and one thing led to another, and I became professional with Rocky, around '58, but really on the map with Cecil, as far as people know.

AAJ: So you began playing bop, but had you begun playing in a 'free' way before Cecil, when you were playing with people like Jackie McLean?

SM: Now I did a job with Jackie McLean through Rocky Boyd, at which time, in 1958, I sat in a couple of times with James Moody, I played some sessions with Donald Byrd and Doug Watkins ' I did a lot of sessions. Some of the great drummers of the day were playing sessions together, at Count Basie's and Freddie's and Minton's. I met Jimmy Lyons at these sessions, before Cecil' we were session comrades. So in 1959, I met Cecil at a session at Caf' Roue, I played with CT there' a week later I got a phone call, and the owner told me I had a phone call from the pianist. He said, 'You remember the way-out pianist you played with?' His father called and offered me the job, but I never made the job. And then accidentally I got this loft downtown (at that period in New York, lofts were illegal), but I got a loft downtown on Dye Street, and so did Cecil, but I didn't know he was in the same building. As a matter of fact, he lived across the hall from me. So through some kind of way we met, and he said 'you're the drummer' and I said 'you're the pianist.' So he said 'do you have your drums' and I said 'Yeah' and he said 'well, bring 'em over here.' So' beboppers had all sorts of controversial opinions about him, like 'are you gonna play with that cat, he's so way out.' But John Coltrane was a very high admirer of Cecil during that period, even before because of that record they made [Hard Driving Jazz / Coltrane Time, UA 1959]. He supported Cecil at that period, when it was very difficult for CT, and so CT had just finished with that band of Denis [Charles], Steve Lacy and Buell Neidlinger. Buell stayed over for a minute, but Cecil was into something else, and you know, I had a high regard for Max Roach, drummers like that' and so I found that with Cecil, I had time to play more, to study more, and to really find a direction to really accompany him in a very positive, hip way.

AAJ: Well, yeah, there was a great change, too, from the group with Steve Lacy and Denis Charles, to the group with yourself and Jimmy Lyons playing. It seems worlds apart.

SM: Yeah, it was worlds apart, but you know, actually Denis was a great drummer and those records that they made, I used to listen to Denis and I used to hear [what] he was trying to do and what he offered Cecil was the most, rhythmically, that a lot of drummers could offer. Though at that period, Cecil tells me, Elvin [Jones] had played with him a gig and Louis Hayes on that record [Hard Driving Jazz]. Louis Hayes enjoyed it, from what I know, but Cecil was young and a great pianist in the sense that' you didn't know what was going to happen next. So you had to have your technique high enough that your technique would perpetuate the next thing. So that's what I was doing. First I started studying every rhythm I could find, you know, one day I came to Cecil's crib and said, 'hey CT, I found out how to play this and this and this.' I told him one day, we was laughing, and I told him, 'yeah I learned today how to play 5/5,' and CT said, 'There is no 5/5.' And I said, 'yeah, well I found 5/5!' [laughs] So then, as we progressed, we still didn't have any work, but you know, I started to study more acoustical and natural sounds, tones, because it seemed like playing with CT demanded more than just beats. Even though on our Montmartre record [Live at Caf' Montmartre, Fantasy 86013, 1962], I had taken beats as far as I wanted to take them. And it started to seem like Cecil's music required more than [that], so I started dealing with the natural sounds that are in the instrument, and the pulsations that are in that sound.

AAJ: Which are the implied rhythms, right?

SM: Right, the rhythm is in the sound and not in the beat. Because the beat in itself, when you study sensation of tones, a beat in itself has a certain resonance, it depends on where you make the beat at. For instance, in certain materials, the beat has a longer resonance and is equal to a tone.

AAJ: So it is, in a sense, like the way they measure communication of whales in water.

SM: [laughing] Well, that's one explanation. Here's another example. Once every so many years, in Europe, they have a conference of acoustical professors and composers to decide should the pitch and interval of instruments remain [the same], such as the piano, the bass, the guitar, which it seems there's a social, audible level that they agree instruments should be made. In other words, you can play an instrument, and there's a certain audible level at which you can reach people. Some people have a low audible level, and some people have a high audible level. So they don't want to make a saxophone in 312 or a piano in 4. They could do that eventually, we'd have a whole new world and universe of music. They don't do that because of the requirements of selling music and the requirements necessary to make music likable to this general audible level. Another good example is like, say your grandma is listening to the radio in the kitchen, and she has it kind of below the audible level. And you say, 'Damn, grandma, can you hear that?' And she says, 'Of course, son, I can hear it.' And you go upstairs and you play your shit blasting, and it just makes her crazy, because it's above her audible level. She says 'I don't know, these kids listen to the stuff way up there.' This is what's been happening for quite a few years in the acoustical area, and for me it was food for thought, and I found some wonderful things there, some wonderful experiments, some wonderful possibilities for the trap set, which is basically the newest instrument created, I guess you could say, in terms of new instruments. We had all those violins, the piano, which were first classical instruments. Going back further than that, we had the basic conga or bongo or something like that, but the change in having those basic instruments, they were limited. So throughout history, coming back from the 20s, the drum set was slowly augmented and put together. The snare from the regimental concept, the tom-toms, etc. Papa Joe Jones elongated the sock cymbal, before that it was considered a foot cymbal. And Joe Jones elongated it to where it is today, the sock we see today.
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