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.
Another example when I was in on a drum clinic in Vienna with Max [Roach], Elvin [Jones] and [Art] Blakey, when we was in Vienna I said to Mr. George Wein, proprietor of the festival, that I would appreciate it if he'd allow me a place to practice before the concert while we were in Vienna. So he said, 'well, okay, we'll see,' So' there was a rehearsal hall (underneath where we were playing, like at the Met or the Opera), and he said 'you can take your axe and go underneath and go down there.' So I had the drum set I was using that night, I had it taken downstairs, and I set it up, and while I was setting it up I realized that 65 instruments was laying around there, hats and shit, they'd all went for a break, so I set the instrument up, and this beautiful lady came up, with beautiful grey hair and a black dress, pearls, and she says 'what are you doing?' I said 'I'm gettin' into practice. Hello, how are you?' And she says, 'what, this?' And I said, 'yes, I'm gonna play this.' And she said, 'what is that?' I said, 'well, it's a trap set.' And she said, 'Well, you can't do that. You can't play that here.' So I said, 'well, lady, dig it. I'm working upstairs, and this is the situation. I'm gonna practice, not too long.' So she got a little drug and went and stood over in the corner, across the room. So I said to myself, start with the brushes, and let her hear the texture and the sensitivity of the instrument. So I began with the brushes, then with the sticks, baccharina, 'cause I'd played before with the classical composers for the orchestra, and I'd always felt the traps were more supporting of music than they were given credit for. This classical orchestra you could use four percussionists, or use one and a trappist. So I play, and you know I got in my little crazy trance, and I play for about a half hour, and I kinda got back to myself, and I saw all these beautiful older musicians with tuxes and shit comin' in and sitting down, putting their cigarettes out, and I played a little more cool and nice, and when I stopped they all clapped. They hit their violins, 'clack, clack, clack, clack' and they played for about three minutes with me [Sunny imitates Penderecki sounds]. [laughing] And it really happened, you know, it was fun.
And I thought the future of the trap set is still open, there are still many directions we can go to, because we are commercially plagued from reggae to rock. And also it's the education that the drummer does not really get to go beyond the stereotypes. When you're studying music, the higher form of music you study, the more positive your technique, so you can play like Cecil. The New England Conservatory showed him a system which he understands, that I also understand, some of it. All of these things enable you to make moves, and I don't think New Music would've been invented past Herbie [Nichols], I would say he was the last creative [jazz] pianist, Cecil also liked him very much, and so Cecil, to me, was the one to unify that next step in jazz. Because we weren't talking about avant- garde, that was a nonexistent word. AAJ:
Of course, it's something that has and can only be applied in hindsight. SM:
Exactly; guys saying to me I play avant-garde, and it kind of depressed me, and I said, well, what's avant-garde? Knowing rightly enough that Cecil knew exactly what he was doing, and today I compliment that because the new generation of avant-garde composers and players, they have to write and reconstruct from where they are now, into the future. And they have to recognize that they can do it, they can move the music, they can keep movin' it. To say, for example, we don't have the influence we should have in new music. A sixteen-year-old musician, nineteen-year-old musician, twenty- year-old musician. Generally when the new musician starts to play, he's at least in his twenties, thirties, forties, etc. So this music has also contributed more than it is given credit for also because I know when Cecil was groundbreaking this music, and we were groundbreaking with him, we had no idea there would be a resilience that would bring about a new generation of avant-garde. It's like 44 years later almost. AAJ:
Well, now you have people coming up and not starting out in rock or bebop or anything else, but starting out in avant-garde. SM:
My point exactly, and there seems to be a supporting audience and philosophical support for this music. But there also seems to be a new exploitation on this music, by a bunch of small little companies, which is okay, but at the same time, new music and the players must one day be equalized and treated equal financially. Because my generation suffered like hell, we never really got a dime. You probably know what I mean in the general sense, and then there's the problem of your composers' rights. And right now I have a lawyer getting into my old [problems], the people who have not paid me in 30, 35 years ' BYG, ESP ' I have a publishing house now for a year or so, and we're fighting them now after 40 years. AAJ:
Had you ever thought to release your music privately, after these run-ins, or was that too complicated, or what? SM:
You mean records? AAJ:
Yeah, I mean put out your own records. SM:
I did it one time, and that's one of the things I have to fight for. I created my label in 1969, my record Love's Last Cry and I called my company Infinity. On the record was Jimmy Garrison, Lonnie Liston Smith; it was Frank Lowe's first record, Alan Silva, Joe Lee Wilson was singin,' there was a guitarist, I forget his name but he had a shop on 8th Street, 8th and 2nd Ave. And five children singing, three of them was Alan's and two of 'em was mine. It was a beautiful album. And I brought that one to Europe and licensed it to BYG records and they gave me half the money and then they disappeared. And that was 35 years ago. So today the problem with making your own record is basically distribution. And the different sub-countries, like Europe or Japan or Australia. Getting those distributions is the most expensive terror in the world. That's why you know you don't see many American records here [France] unless it's contracted to Warner Bros. or somebody. AAJ:
I guess it's easy enough to cover the bases in the US, but there's a lot of other markets. SM:
Exactly. I prefer to record exclusively, you know I'm not really that big-time a sensation, but I've been recording for Michael Ehlers' label [Eremite], and Michael's been very just and a proper example of the newer record producers. And you know, he brings a lot of self-esteem and self-respect to the musicians he works with, it's just too bad he's not a wealthy company like Columbia. Because if he was, he would shower' he'd be more generous. But I'm not really complaining, because he gives me a chance. You know, the first record I made for him I was 64, and the second I was 66, so he gives me a chance at this point in my life and my playing, where my style has finally become what I like to record. AAJ:
And of course, the distribution is good enough that you can walk into Tower and see those records. SM:
Yeah, and it's a blessing, because he's gonna try and issue 'em here. But like I said, I just recently made a job, I work as a sideman with some good players sometimes' this young man, he's from Israel, Assif [Tsahar]. And we made a job about six months ago in Barcelona, and Peter Kowald was on the job 'cause they're good friends, and Peter died four days after the job! And so the record is out, Assif has a real record company, and Assif called and asked if he could put this out, and this was sort of a memorial for Peter. And it's a pretty good album, but generally I just stay with Michael, because we all got kicked in the head from running around to five different companies and get a few hundred dollars and that's it. Not being able to protect ourselves, but there are some young cats who have enough popularity and support to [end] that. Mark Sellers or David Noyes, you know. People like Jimmy Lyons, Grachan [Moncur III], myself, Archie [Shepp], we really never took care of that properly, so that's a nightmare that we one day must face. Because of that, we were really enslaved way back. As much as I loved Louis Armstrong, he was the one that signed it.
Yeah he signed almost our ignorance check, you know, 'you don't really have to pay the cats,' and you know all these kind of psychological things were created really before our generation. And, like I think that record producers have found the perfect crime. Because we really have no protection, no protectionist laws with the government, and we're just sort of victims, and [get] nothin' the rest of our lives. Like when Columbia and RCA-Victor pay the government a few million dollars a year and the government never questions the product these musicians, these human beings, they never question how many have died and where has the money diverted to, and each year we lose three or four musicians and you know as well as I they have recorded quite a lot. You look at Blue Note and those are young cats, and I was young with them, and what happened with that? Nobody gets any of that now ' there's more money for Blue Note. AAJ:
Yeah, right, when Grachan had his own publishing company, they got him, they sort of screwed him out of that, right? SM:
Yeah, you know, the idea is you have to have a lawyer to fight with you. I just gave a very good publication lawyer here a thousand dollars, me and my old lady, and he's already started jumbling 'em around. So it is possible to win, but you have to pay somebody, you can't be a jailhouse lawyer and you can't be your own lawyer. 'Cause the men who have exploited us are great publication lawyers. They know what they are doing and they know the laws that we don't know. And musicians have this bad habit of signing contracts without really reading 'em and getting a lawyer to explain it to 'em. AAJ:
Right, like the contracts in the case of BYG, they were in French. SM:
Yeah, that's a funny one, my lawyer's started on that one too. The ones that really started the company was the group that I went to the Pan-African Festival with [in Algiers, 1969]: me, Clifford Thornton, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva and Archie Shepp. We went to play at the Pan-African Festival and we met these guys there and we got familiar with them, this was [Jean] Georgakarakos and Jean-Luc Young, and they said they had about 400,000 francs and they wanted to start a record company, and we could meet 'em in Paris, which we did. And they recorded just about everybody, from Kenny Clarke to Philly [Joe Jones], they could find in about a month, and they were in business. And I made three albums, Archie made four; we were like children in a candy-field. And we signed contracts, but Archie was the only one who understood a little (I understand well now) French. And like you said, the contracts are so artificial. Like one of the one of the lines, they said they owned the music for infinity. [laughs] It's impossible, and I showed my lawyer and he laughed, and we didn't know what to say. And now I'm the only one out the gang, I never lost my contract. So I took my contracts to the lawyer, and even one publishing house (they film here) ' they sent me a letter that if I had the BYG contracts to please bring them in, and I went in and I said 'what do you want to look at these for' and they laughed and said, 'do you really have 'em?' And I said 'yeah, here, they're old and shit,' and so anyway, that's another aspect of this music that we have to challenge. Another one is to try to find a way to get a senatorial or some kind of social mood to give us amendment and protection laws in Congress. Such as if they can't pay you royalties, you haven't sold anything, but that should be cleared in statements. If you level statements that show you haven't sold anything, there should be a fine against the company. There should be a lot of different protecting things for us in the future. You know, so companies are not free with this 'perfect crime.' These are some of the important things, because new music is really the music of the future, as it wasn't intended when Cecil led the gang. But it seems like we have accumulated some of the best players of each generation. AAJ:
Some of the most talented and innovative people on their instruments' SM:
I'll be 67 next month; I won't say everybody else's age, but Cecil and John [Coltrane] are the same age. The thing of it is, is that it's a great, wonderful music for a new generation. For example, now when I play I get such a wide assortment of young people. The music is starting to express its emotional qualities, its love, its struggle. You know, like bebop did eventually. These things are coming out in the music, and I'm very happy of my gigs now. Even young women like creative music now. AAJ:
Yeah, my girlfriend digs it some'
SM [laughing]: 'Cause I played in London and, you know, I smoke a little bit, so I went outside to smoke a J, and I was sittin' quietly in the corner, and these girls lined up, and I thought I must be in their way, you know, and so I was getting ready to move and they said no, and they came up and one by one they gave me a kiss on the cheek. And here they're kissing their grandpop! And it just knocked me out to think, you mean (and this is just last year) they really love new music? It's an alternative spirit, you can go hear swing and all those hip things, but they do something to you emotionally in a way. Nostalgia, sadness, the blues' but this music frees you, it's like the magic in liberation, you know. AAJ:
Did you have any similar feelings or experiences in the sixties, or was that [popular respect] not the case? As far as young people, that is' SM:
Well, in the sixties it was more or less (and I'm quoting someone) 'a groundbreaking but it was a lot of fun.' Well I know me and Jimmy [Lyons] and Cecil, we were having so much fun being outlaws and seeing what we could come up with next and enjoying playing different that we was, and I was, and Jimmy was, and until '65 when I left Cecil (oh, we had some strange stuff, I love him anyway), Andrew [Cyrille] got the gig and he made all the money with Cecil, 'cause we had never played a festival and we got gigs for two dollars a night. I think we played, the first band I had put together for Cecil because at this point, Cecil was a very private guy and he would ask me about this guy and that and come to rehearse, people like Archie and Henry Grimes, Jimmy, and so finally we opened this band at the old Five Spot, which used to be at 5th Street and 3rd, and that was' the best band I had enjoyed with Cecil. We made a record called Into the Hot after that ['led' by Gil Evans, Impulse A-9, 1961], and that was the first time John came to the gig, Eric [Dolphy] came, Mingus. That was the first time, after loving John's music and seeing his pictures everywhere, that was the first time that I could touch him, and him and Eric took me from the drums and took me to the bar and bought me drinks, and told me I'm the best drummer they've ever heard with CT, and 'we don't know what you're doing, young man, but just keep on doing it.' I was like a baby you know, I was like 22 and I really was very happy after having so much love and concern for bebop. When I heard my first tapes with Cecil I was a little disappointed, I thought I sounded a little strange, and I got a little sad and my friends said 'you're so pitiful, Murray' and I said 'is that how I sound, man? Damn!' It took a little while to get accustomed to the new me. And, you know, I had to justify my change, and I imagine Cecil did too, by having so much heart and courage in the music. AAJ:
I was just listening to Roy Haynes playing with Andrew Hill [Black Fire, Blue Note 4151] and I was thinking to myself, wow, Roy Haynes in '64 sounds like Sunny Murray in '61!
SM [laughing]: Let me tell you a little story now that you mentioned that; well Cecil got this gig at a place on Bleecker and Broadway called Take 3, and we played there about a month. It was the kind of place that would be open all night, there'd be drunken soldiers and gay guys fighting, and hookers, and we made a dollar and a half, some nights two. And one night while I was playing, and Cecil says to me 'Sunny' and I said 'what, we just got started, what's up?' And Cecil whispers, 'Max Roach is in the audience. He's sittin' right up front.' And I almost lost my sticks, you know. And so he stayed a set, and then the night after, it's very true, speaking of Roy Haynes, I was setting up and sitting at my drums, and you know I love these cats and I would carry these cats on my shoulders somewhere, and I looked behind me, Roy Haynes is sitting there in the same funky donkey grace. And he smiles and he says, 'you don't like someone sitting behind you, right?' And I said, 'no sir, that's right.' And he laughs and said okay, and he went and sat in front. And we've been friends and I told this story to his son, Graham, and Graham saw me later (we played together a lot) and said 'dad said exactly what you said, man.' You know, some of my stories sound so strange, people think they're lies, but it's only because no one tells the truth about the past of new music. They look at new music like it didn't have that thing bebop had. Stories, suffering, gangsters, ups and downs, like it was just a flower that popped up some-damn- where. That's not true at all; we paid some dues, Cecil paid some dues, the violence, the hate, depression. This music was not born to some sweet walk in the tulips, you know? AAJ:
It sounds to me like there was also more cross-pollination between bebop musicians and the then-avant-gardists than people are willing to write about. SM:
Well, that's true. You know, now through William Parker, he brought on some of the values that beboppers had ' that unity. Because beboppers ' one of the reasons CT and me always loved them ' they had a unity, they had a brotherhood, they had a friendship, they had rules, they had morals that made traditional musicians. And you had to follow these rules as a young musician. Nobody cared about you until you could play. Tony [Williams] was the first drummer they started to write about [that was] young. But when you check out all the drummers, they all were young! [laughing] Sixteen year old boys, thirteen. But you know what? Tony was the one worth writing about, because he was the mouth. And you know, we came up listening to our elder musicians, and learning correct or they didn't have no time for us. And so today I see that these values Parker has brought into the music. Each epoch needs a sort of leader. Cecil was a leader for me and others, and I've always been a sort of a leader for tenor players. It's not an intentional thing, just sort of a destiny thing, you know.
There are some of us that are still alive; Don Cherry is gone, Eric, you know, John is gone, and so those of us that are here are like diamonds. My music is very qualified, Cecil's music is very qualified. Each generation must have, I guess you could say 'old-heads,' the older guys like I had, like CT had. And they had sort of stripped avant-garde music of any past, and so a lot of times when I talk, I say I'm glad to have been a forefather for a new generation of music. That means a lot to me; I don't have any bread, because of the way the system goes, you know they don't choose everybody, so I'm very proud of my role in the history of creative music' in a way that I did something positive with my music and my mama was proud of me. I gave her before she died my record Homage to Africa, and boy she danced around the room, she looked at my picture and said 'oh [I was] so handsome!' And so this music brought a lot of faith and hope to a generation of musicians that weren't here for bebop, and bebop has been so categorized and selective that they probably would not have had a chance to play, to play at great festivals like they do and make records.
I say most of all I'm very proud, [though] I'm very poor, like John Coltrane was joking with me the few times I played with him, 'you know Sunny, innovators are usually the last to make any money.' I got so depressed I went to hear him at the Village Gate and always hang around him, and I started crying, and I said 'I came here for you to kick my ass!' and he was sitting smoking a cigar and fell out laughing. I dried up and shit, but man one night I was depressed and I got drunk and sat down in the Five Spot totally drunk and cryin,' and Eric [Dolphy] came and took my sticks and he broke one of the sticks, 'how you like that! Don't play that.' He got a real mean look on his face! I've had a lot of trying times, but people stuck with me man, you know. The old guys all treated me nice, Blakey, Max and them, because I always was devoted and gave my respect, and this is something a lot of new musicians don't have a chance to now. Sometimes with me they're nice and friendly, but I just say to them I'm lucky to have made it, CT made it, and one day you'll be older. Because at fifty in New York, you're like put out to pasture. There's no records, you don't get gigs, the record companies and the clubs, they peel off the young guys. You kind of walk around New York feeling a stranger in your own environment. One of the reasons I left; here I am, born in America in the homeland of America, Oklahoma, grew up on a farm, I'm really a cold-blooded American, and I thought that, you know, the respect and support artists should get, America has never reached that real respect for artists like Europe [has]. America's always like 'you're wasting your time' or 'why do you play that crazy shit.' But in Europe, they are always for lack of a better word, appreciative of the artist and the artist's creativity that there's no age problem. As long as you are playing creatively and with quality in your music you will always work, it's just a whole different support system. AAJ:
And that's still the case, then? It hasn't really gone downhill or anything? SM:
No, for example they give an artist social security I get every month. They give reasonable apartments for my age, I get a nice apartment I pay $46 a month, they give free medicine, like Jeanne Lee should've had, I don't pay for my doctor or my medicine. These are all attachments in the French society that they do for the artists. And that doesn't exist as you know in America. So there's so many differences. The fear that they have of migrating at a certain age, I understand why many don't want to leave America, but that's another story. AAJ:
Was the promise of better treatment the main reason why you came to Europe to live? SM:
[laughing] The way you put it, that's good' well, I've been coming here so long, but 1968 [was] the first time, then '69, then I brought my family, black family with my black kids and my black wife, and kept coming here '71, '72, and '73. You know, after leaving Cecil it was very difficult for me to raise a family and I took some day jobs driving taxis, washing dishes and after my divorce, I felt that my life was gonna be a very miserable life just to stay there [New York] and wash dishes. I was a recognized drummer but, you know somehow the system if you don't stay right on it, the system lets you slide through the floorboards. And so I didn't want to become a young has-been. So when my wife left me, I said 'I'm outta here. It's time for me to go and make the second half of my career like I wanted in the first half.' So now here I don't work a lot but there are positive gigs, a few tours, I have my social support, a nice pad, I have a fianc'e I've had for thirteen years. She has her own place, I have my own place and so it was a future for me. All my children are grown, but they're happy for me. Out of all that degradation, they knew my talents from the moment they were born almost. It's so very sad that I had to work these lousy jobs to feed them, and they used to want me to just live off my music. Now, it's like new music did work; it was positive, out of all the hate and conjecture that it was just a waste of time, and that it would not contribute to jazz is a lie.
Right now I'm hoping and aspiring to finally make some money. There's always been a problem, from concerts to clubs, that drummer-leaders have always been a little prejudiced against. Like, look at Roy Haynes. You don't see him playing as much as he should, in Europe particularly no, and he's getting older now, but this is just one example. Generally, this is how it should work, more money 'cash. AAJ:
Do you think that, as a composer and leader as well as a drummer, that this has had a more positive effect on your career? SM:
Oh yeah, I'm a great composer! This is just a statement of knowing how well I can write, but you see at the same time there was this image that avant-garde musicians were ignorant of theory and all of the positive things in music, and when I left Cecil, I really didn't have any music to play. And I said, now what am I gonna play? Am I gonna jump back eight years and play bebop? Which I could, because I'd always go to [bebop] sessions, sometimes even after going avant-garde I'd go to sessions. But I said no, out of all that suffering and hard work, it'd be nothin.' I'm gonna start to write some music. And I wrote from a guitar, from a piano, from almost any instrument I could find, and I used to play the tunes for my children. My first tunes I'd play for my children just before rehearsal, and they'd say 'Dad, that's nice! What is that?' Anyway, I went to rehearsal and played my tunes for the band, and so I began from there and, you know, as a drummer-leader-composer, I have the most compositions in the publishing houses of the world. I have about 69 with SACEM, about 26 or something in Germany, 3 in Italy, two in Switzerland, and this is why I got my lawyer to finally clamp down because I've had a publishing house for about a year and you have the right to reclaim your music with a publishing house. So that's my case: I had become a more prolific writer than I had planned to be. AAJ:
Some of your tunes almost sound like they were written from the saxophone, you know? They're very saxophone-friendly, which is probably appropriate' SM:
That's funny you say that too, because sometimes when I have a gig coming up, I try to write for the cats I'm playing with in the next gig. If we've already played together a few times, I use some older material that they might've heard, but which just seems to be for whoever. AAJ:
Like you recorded Giblet again quite recently, correct? SM:
That's right, I had Giblet 1 and Giblet 2. The original Giblet, a lot of people don't know it, the record has been out for quite a while, but it's on a record I made with Cecil and it was called The World of Cecil Taylor . And Nat Hentoff was the owner of the company then, Candid, and he really didn't like what I was doing and he didn't understand it, and I got a little drug with him, and they said don't worry about it, he can yardstick his mouth 'but'but'but.' And when we recorded I played two tracks, on one I played drum and tympani, and somehow I don't know how these damn tympanis ended up at Cecil's, but anyway, we recorded that and then when the record came out, I went to the record shop on 8th Street, my buddy worked there, I had $99 [from the session] which ain't a lot now but it was then, and I waited there and the records came in and Sunny Murray was not on the records. I cried, I was so upset. And I was comin' out the store, going towards 6th Ave., and who's on the bus in the window, but Nat Hentoff. And of course I ran alongside the bus and cursed a green streak. And he was very embarrassed, and so I called Cecil and he said 'that's pretty rotten,' and so he called Nat and Nat recanted and sent one record with me on it. And I lost that record hanging out with some amphetamine-heads [laughing]! I was so proud of my record and went hanging out with them, and they were smoking and drinking, and then the next thing I know ' where's my record! [laughing]
And so about 17 years ago, Buell Neidlinger called to me from California and asked me about that record. 'Cause Buell was on that record I think. And he said they wanted to [reissue] that record (it's really true, that was the first avant-garde record on the scene). And I said, you know I really never got paid for that record. And Buell said, 'listen Sunny, this ain't about no money,' Buell always had this little-rich-guy's attitude, and I said, 'well you can send me two bucks (you know, I was really grubbin' for my family).' And Buell said somethin' made me real mad, so I said 'make Denis the first drummer, make whoever you want the first drummer.' And so they put the record out, I think [Michael] Cuscana had something to do with the production. And that was really the first record I made; after that we did Into the Hot, and then we went to Europe and made Nefertiti and Montmartre. I was really enjoying that period developing my style. AAJ:
So let me get this straight; it was your playing but Denis Charles' name was on the records? SM:
Well, they used some tracks with Denis on them and I even heard one of the tracks and people thought it was Billy Higgins or something. Because, you see, Buell tried to get me replaced. When Cecil decided to use me, Buell decided to try and keep the band that was going on. But for certain unspeakable reasons [laughs]' AAJ:
Well, he was probably so used to playing with Denis he didn't understand how to play with you. SM:
Yeah, he didn't really understand where Cecil had went on total freedom. You know, when I started playing with Cecil, we played things like 'Love for Sale' and 'Flamingo,' and then he started to redefine and develop the things he was playing. When I started rehearsing with Cecil, it was an accident because the keys and the locks fit the same doors. And I just accidentally found that out because one day my wife and I was comin' home from the movies to our loft and somebody was in the loft, and they were in the apartment eatin' and shit, and I was ready to fight. I opened the door, and it was Cecil's father! And he was struck 'cause he thought it was Cecil's front across the hall! So of course I was happy to see him, I told him 'don't move' and my wife made him some tea and' this is where Cecil told me to get my drums and we rehearsed ' and this is the gods' truth ' somewhere between seven, five, six, eight hours a day for almost a year. He didn't work that year but one job and I was very impressed, but he didn't know what to do [for a bassist], and Buell did the last job with them [Cecil and Denis]. I was very impressed, he came back and said he couldn't do it then. The next gig was us two and Jimmy Lyons. He joined that steady rehearsal too, it was down on Dye Street and there was nothin' there but ghosts so we could play all we wanted to, that was how we began and I didn't know where we were going.
The first strange thing was he got a gig in Connecticut and he decided to use Buell, and there was a period in New York that it snowed so much you weren't allowed to go out in your car. But me, him and Buell, he was a little crazy, we snuck out, snow everywhere. If the police caught us, we'd have got busted. And we got onto Hudson Drive and we went up to Connecticut and this was the first gig. And when Cecil went inside they said no, he's been replaced and wouldn't sign the contract. I was really young, so I went in the office and Cecil had to calm me down, I cried ' I'm a crybaby ' and Cecil calmed me down, and I said 'how can you be so calm, man! The cat just nixed us!' So we went to eat and I couldn't eat, and we snuck back into town, and so then it was sorta clear what I might be going into' [laughing] I'm really not putting down any experience I had with CT, good or bad. They attacked him and tried to attack me, a lot of crazy things but CT just laughed about 'em when I relate the memories because I talked to him about a month ago, and we really laugh about this shit sometimes. The first thing he said when I got him on the phone was, 'time passes awful fast, doesn't it Mr. Murray!' I said 'no shit, man!' He said, 'well, I'm 76 now' and I said 'shit, I'm 67 in September!' And when we started we were two hip, skinny little guys, you know it was the handsomest trio in town, the light-brown-skinned buddies, you know, so the girls loved it, Cecil had chicks after him, Jimmy, I had chicks after me, it was great! We were like the cocoa-cream trio! [laughing] It was really great, and I'm happy to have my strength and talking to Cecil, we talked about high blood pressure and weight, we talk about them things nowadays, I plan to give him a call maybe if possible see him when I'm there, just for five or ten minutes.
And you know, just the fact that this world of new music exists is very present and exuberating for me, all the new cats William [Parker] brought, Europeans, all of it I'm very happy about. You know, when I played in London, five months ago or less, I have a trio in London I use, I play Leeds and Newcastle a couple of times a year. They like me a lot in these little towns, which blew my mind you know, all this cheering and jumpin' up and down and shit, they don't even know what they're cheering for or jumping for! And I come to the states and I say 'you come to hear the best' and they say 'yaaay!' And I say in Leeds 'you just like me 'cause my name is Murray. When I'm in Scotland it's MacMurray!' [laughing] It's nice to be liked, you know ' it's not an awful lot of money, but God willing you know, it's enough, I'm very thrifty and know how to use my money. If I ever had any real money I'd just buy a fuckin' boat to sleep on, me and my lady. AAJ:
Shortly after your first trip to Europe, you recorded with some Danish musicians, right? SM:
I met Albert in Sweden and then we went on to Denmark, and I made that record in Denmark, it was just a one-record thing, a group of very good Danish musicians ' incidentally, most of 'em are dead I think, the alto player's dead [Hugh Steinmetz is still alive]. But it's a nice album, considering my age and what I was doing. Like I say, Albert gave me another chance to redevelop my shit, and you can compare it with Elvin when he was with Sonny Rollins as when he was with John. He gave him a chance to make his new way. AAJ:
My question is, how did your meetings with European musicians materialize and how did that affect your conception of the music? SM:
Well, you know, that's strange too, because when we arrived, we also brought avant-garde American music (because we never knew about any European avant-garde) to Europe. For example, there were very good drummers like one playing with Albert [Sune Spangberg]. Most were turned on their noses to hear how I played with Albert because they were Kenny Clarke advocates, Max advocates, they were bebop advocates. A lot of 'em definitely thought I was nuts, but they liked the group as a whole because the total idea needed me, Cecil and Jimmy for our trio, and everything was so great 'cause we were like one hand, you know. And the music was explained, not only played, because in listening to us you could get an explanation of what we were trying to say. And so the really good European musicians came and really appreciated us. Like when we were in Sweden, some great composers into Schoenberg came and took Cecil up to this wonderful studio in the mountains, and I went with them, and they just treated him so great and we'd never been treated like that before here.
I met Kenny Clarke in Denmark a long time ago, and me and Cecil was playing, it was rehearsal, and Kenny came in and walked past me and I recognized his face from pictures. So I stopped playing and went in the kitchen where he was and I stood there and looked at him. And he said, 'hello, how you doin'?' And I went to sit down and play, and I didn't meet him later until I was here, I studied two years here with Mr. Clarke, he's a very, very good friend. This was all my incentive because I had kind of an agenda in all my life to meet the very good drummers, to get to know them, learn something about them. so Kenny was the last one in 1970, so I came here and spent two years and a half with him. So he was here, Arthur Taylor was here, it was just a big migration at that period, Dexter, Hank Mobley. My real reason was to meet Mr. Clarke, and he liked me and we became buddies and he helped me in some very positive ways when I didn't have money and shit for the family sometimes.
And there was a drummer, a studio drummer, Alex Riel, and Alex Riel was one of the best young drummers and he and Neils-Henning Orsted, they were a duo playing studio work and everything, they were about the best young guys at that period, and Alex liked what I was doing but it was comical to him, he couldn't believe I was serious. But there was another studio drummer who liked what I was doing and we became sort of friends, and I said particularly to him 'leave this avant-garde shit alone. You'll lose your gig, people ain't gonna like you.' No one listened to me, not Han Bennink, when we arrived he was playing with Eric and he saw me and Albert and Don Cherry, so he went free. But this particular drummer in Denmark, he played free, and I came back, me and Albert, maybe a year later with Don and Gary Peacock. And this drummer was sitting there and Albert said 'hey, there's your buddy.' He was sitting there and, we say 'closed-shop,' he was a bum. Same black suit on and dirty white shirt, I went over and sat with him and it brings tears to my eyes, and he'd been whacked-out since I left. And this has happened to some drummers who don't know how to deal with this. AAJ:
Had you ever played in multiple-percussion ensembles? Was that ever an interest? SM:
No, not really, it's just become possible now but not when I was young; one of the reasons was I had a little too much force. And when you play with other drummers, you have to have a certain amount of politeness and control and interplay. And at that period I was a little too busy trying to stay alive. To me it was a little like selling out to play with other drummers at that period. It was a little bit of an ego thing, but it was like everyone was trying to hear where I was coming from when I was young. I started to accumulate a certain positive influence, like Milford, Andrew, Rashied Ali. But that was okay because they had their career to do and I happened to be the one who sort of influenced that epoch. But they were not really in my epoch. My epoch was Steve McCall, Denis Charles, Ed Blackwell, these are the guys I really came up with, before Andrew and Rashied were on the scene. When you look at my epoch, you have to look at Steve McCall, Denis Charles, Blackwell, and then you'll understand why I was going my way. AAJ:
And it seems that bebop drummers, with the exception of Art Blakey, didn't often form all-percussion groups at that period either. SM:
No, Max had M'Boom, which was great, and I did a great African album with the percussion thing, but you know Art had that particular talent to have that African sound. He could do it, when he played with supporting percussionists like a conga or what, it was a really African sounding record. Max and those cats, they did something also, but they didn't have that particular sound. Like Elvin, you know, he started playing six-eight and all those different rhythms with John. Before John started playing those different rhythms, drummers didn't really play even a lot of three-four, they didn't play six-eight, they didn't play Caribbean, they didn't play any of that shit. That's what made me really unique; I had made this record through Max called 'Times Now' or something, in Florence, and I started to write acoustical charts, which had a lot to do with Cage and Varese, and Cecil really liked it. I remember Cecil and Jimmy and Bill Dixon and me did some duplex thing with Edgar Varese, because he used to live there on Waverly and McDougal St. I remember I was really young and just beginning to understand where I was going, and we did that with Mr. Varese, he had a duplex apartment, and we all got on different levels ' him and Cecil were down below ' and I remember that experience but it opened my mind up to the possibilities and of course after that I went and bought the record Ionization. AAJ:
Wow, well, I think we've covered all my bases. Is there anything you want to say? SM:
Well, it's like this. I appreciate the chance to get to tell my story. I don't always take the chance because, well, as you see there are a million details that probably will never be told, there would be too much, maybe one day I could write a book about Jazz as we know it, but there's a very spiritual, warm side of this new music, and there's also a future for new music. Maybe I got ten or so years left to play this music, and now I'm sorta leaving my message, I'm at the point in my life now with this message to happiness, expressing to people the magic of being liberated. And there is a magic there, of course, because jazz itself is the music of magic. Like Eric said, 'once it's gone, it's in the air.' So it has to be magic. Photo Credit Rozanne Levine