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Talkin' Blues with the Groovemaster, Jerry Jemmott

Alan Bryson By

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Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore WestMusical History—Front Row Seat

JJ: It's crazy, all the people like Paul I grew up listening to in the '50s and '60s, I ended up playing with most of them. Not only playing with them, but making records with them. And also the musicians whose names I knew from their records, I ended up playing with them, or being in bands with them.

And not just anything, but some important once-in-a-lifetime stuff, like Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," the Rascal's "People Gotta be Free," and "Attica Blues" by Archie Shepp, All these uplifting revolutionary recordings I've been involved with—people like Les McCann and Eddie Harris.

At the studio at Columbia on 30th Street they had this great huge poster of Aretha on the wall. It was a big studio where we would do things with 30-piece orchestras. Before I knew her, I used to go in there and just stare at that photo; she was sitting turned away from the piano with her leg crossed. Honest to God, I used to go in there just to look at that picture. Then I record a song like "Think" with her.

AAJ: It's amazing, not only did you get to play with your heroes, but your contemporaries and friends like Jaco and Duane became music icons.

JJ: There's so many, it's true, Nina Simone and Roberta Flack—I've been truly blessed.

Willie Bridges was a saxophonist in one of the first bands I played with. He introduced me to Conny Boy, Charles Otis, Idris Muhammad, and Lester Young. So he's responsible for me first meeting people like that. He's one of my mentors and when I spoke with him recently he said, "You know Jerry, you fascinated me when you came on the scene." I was a teenager, and he said, "You know, nobody was playing like you."

You know, what was fascination for him, it was me just doing my thing and struggling to make people sound good. You know it's amazing, now fifty years later, to find out what the people who inspired me, and who are responsible for me becoming the musician I am, thought of me back then.

So now I find myself in that position. I see people with obvious talent who don't quite know what they are doing yet, but I recognize their talent.

Formal Training

AAJ: Did you have formal training?

JJ: Yes, my mother insisted that I have formal training. I started playing when I was 11 and had classical training on an upright bass that lasted about a year. Then I was asked to join a band called Smiling Henry and the Rhythm Makers. They heard me playing with some kids, and asked me to play with them, you know, real work. After I got my mother's permission I started working with them when I was only 12.

AAJ: Did you keep up with your reading?

JJ: Oh yeah. I was in the school orchestra, and the all-city high school orchestra. I kept up the classical playing through high school, then I got interested in jazz, and began playing rhythm and blues because the jazz people I was playing with didn't care about what the audience wanted, so I decided I was going to play with the guys who were having all the fun.

So that meant taking up electric bass with rhythm and blues and sometimes Latin and calypso bands. So my real training was actually on the job.

Eddie Harris and Les McCann Second MovementAAJ: That's probably why you and Jaco got along so well, he might have been a great musician, but he certainly wasn't a snob, in your interview with him his advice was to keep your ears open.

JJ: Yes he was open and listening, and that's how he described himself, "formally self- taught." It's amazing, he devised a system that gave him what he needed to learn. There's a difference between being able to read, and being able to read properly—you might be able to recognize the notes, but being able to see them two measures in advance and know what they are going to sound like, and what to look for while reading—that's what you need to master.

It's not so much being able to read, you know, like someone reading one letter at a time, so they see "c" "o" "o" "l" instead of seeing "cool." So good reading is being able to hear and prepare in advance, that's what good reading is about. It's a skill, so if you know what you're reading it's going to be a lot easier. You can recognize a chord pattern, a scale pattern, or a rhythm pattern, then bam, you got it.

AAJ: Who gave you the nickname "the Groovemaster"?

JJ: That happened in the late '70s, I was in South America working on a show, Ain't Misbehavin', and I had a chance to jam with some local musicians while I was in Venezuela and they gave me that name in Spanish. My manager heard about it, and said I should work that.

AAJ: I'm curious, coming up in New York, did you get to see a lot of the jazz greats, for example a couple of my heroes, like Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Yusef Lateef?

JJ: I loved them, I grew up with them, I got as close as living next door to their bassist, Walter Booker. I grew up with their music, that was my favorite music, that and the music of Horace Silver, the The Jazz Messengers, Count Basie, Carmen McRae, and Billy Holiday. Actually I got into Billy by working back from Carmen. But Carmen just blew me away. So those are my heroes.

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