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Sunny Murray

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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 [1961]. 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

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