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11

Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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For several decades, Victor Lewis has been one of the most in-demand drummers of the post-bop era and beyond. He has performed with Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Chet Baker, George Cables, Woody Shaw, Kenny Barron, Bobby Watson, and others of similar stature. On account of his exceptional ability to push the envelope of musical grace in a variety of contexts, he often becomes their drummer of choice for extended tours and engagements. Other drummers consider him a role model. He is also known for his own original compositions and tunes.

In this interview, Lewis tells us about his coming up as an aspiring musician in the midwest, as well as the musicians and groups he's worked with over the years. To the mix of recollections and reflections, he adds some fascinating ideas about jazz rhythm and drums, emphasizing their roots in African tribal music, human life, and, above all, what he calls the "spirit," the source of all music and rhythm that exists beyond the ego, a source to which he listens and which provides his inspiration.

AAJ: Let's start out with the notorious desert island question. If you were going to that desert island, and only had access to a few recordings, which would you take with you?

VL: I'd definitely take Miles Davis' Four and More (Columbia, 1966). Another would be John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965). Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). For some variety, I'd take Nat "King" Cole's The Magic of Christmas (Capitol, 1960), Dakota Staton's The Late Late Show (Capitol, 1957), and organist Larry Young's Unity (Blue Note, 1965). Larry is part of the "Newark contingent" that includes Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, and Sarah Vaughan. He was a very fine organ player who passed away very young. The album Unity is a must. It's got Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, and Elvin Jones on it.

AAJ: What is it that appeals to you about Miles' album Four and More?

VL: I'll tell you a story about that. Growing up in Nebraska, one of my best buddies was also a drummer. His father was a trumpet player who idolized Miles Davis, and he'd always get Miles' records as soon as they came out. So me and my buddy were about 12 or 13 years old, and we had already heard most of the big band drummers that had come through our home town of Omaha. We saw and heard Sonny Payne with the Count Basie band, Buddy Rich. and Sam Woodyard with Duke Ellington. So we'd been into the big band drummers. It was mid-winter, and I was looking out my parents' window, and I see my buddy runnin' down the street in the snow. I opened the door, and said "What's up, man?" And he said, "My father just got the new Miles Davis record, and there's this incredible drummer on there!" So I said, "How good is he, is he as good as Buddy Rich?" And he said, "Oh, no, man, it's different." So we went back to his house, and his father put it on for us. The drummer was Tony Williams, and the way he played on that record opened up my imagination in terms of the dialogue that could take place between the drummer and the band. So that was a monumental awareness for me.

AAJ: Since we're on the subject, I was going to ask you which drummers you especially prefer and/or who influenced you the most.

VL: When I was a kid, my teacher took me to see Count Basie several times, and the first time was with Sonny Payne on drums. It knocked my socks off, his dynamics and his showmanship. It made me aware of how visual the drummer is. All of that physical energy and movement!

So, Sonny Payne. Then, of course, Tony Williams. All of the masters: Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Grady Tate, Roy Haynes, Art Taylor, and Billy Hart. Billy was a big influence and mentor. Those are the bebop and post-bop drummers. Then there are there those other guys like Roberto Silva, the Brazilian drummer who worked with singer Milton Nascimento and was also on Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974 recording with Nascimento. Brazilian music has had a big influence on me.

AAJ: I'm surprised that you didn't mention Billy Higgins or Kenny Clarke.

VL: What an oversight! Billy influenced me a lot in terms of touch, that a drummer's signature is not only what he plays but his touch, the texture, the way he hits everything, the sound. Kenny Clarke was for me one of the "point of departure" guys. Maybe the pivotal guy.

AAJ: Nor did you mention Max Roach.

VL: Max, of course. Max's playing was very intelligent and deliberate. He had a very strong musicality in terms of how he wanted to shape the tune. And he would put something into the music that was out of the ordinary. Then, of course, there are the funk drummers, like Clyde Stubblefield who worked with James Brown; Bernard Purdy, Harvey Mason, and Steve Gadd.

I should mention a few other important influences and experiences that affected my playing a lot. When Miles Davis came to play in Omaha in August of '69, his drummer at the time, Jack DeJohnette, had a very profound impact on me visually in terms of the movement of his execution on the drums. Seeing him play opened up a realm of possibilities for me that I could only imagine from recordings. I was still young, and DeJohnette confirmed and transcended what I thought the rules of expression entailed. Jack was a major influence.

Before Jazz became an art form with performance standards similar to classical music—with the rhythm, tone, and so on somewhat standardized and teachable, each musician had no choice but to define his own style. During my first year in New York, to the best of my recollection it was Clifford Jordanwho came to me and said: "I can hear who you've been listening to, you need to cut them loose and find your own shit." Up until that time I used to have a ritual of listening to my favorites while getting ready for a gig. I stopped doing it for a while and showed up to the gig by myself but with the spirit of what I got from that ritual. When I look back that was the beginning of my own style. Wayne Shorter summed it up when he said that you have to study everything, the legacy of your instrument, rudiments, scales, harmony, other cultures, and then forget it.

I also absolutely must mention drummer Ed Blackwell in the list of influences. And very important too have been the hand drummers I rubbed shoulders with, such as Potato, Don Alias, Jerry Gonzales, Ray Mantilla, Neil Clarke, Abdou M'Boup, Jumma Santos, Sammy Figueroa, Manolo Badrena. I kid about myself as having an Omaha, Nebraska clave, which is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms! As an Afro-American drummer, these hand drummers were my tether to Africa.

I also want to mention that many of the "underdogs" taught me a great deal. These are the special guys in New York and around the world who are insufficiently acknowledged in the press but who are playing their ass off. They keep me humble, and I'm forever learning from them.

Coming of Age in Omaha, Nebraska

AAJ: Let's go back to your childhood and work our way back up timewise. So, you grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1950s-60s?

VL: Yes. My father played a lot of instruments, mainly tenor saxophone. My mother was a classical and jazz pianist, and a fine singer as well. She had a music degree. I grew up listening to everything from Stravinsky and Debussy to Ben Webster, Duke Ellington, and vocalists Dinah Washington, Dakota Staton, and Nancy Wilson. My father made all of us play an instrument of our choice. It was his way of tricking us into discovering the concept of effort and reward. He would say, like, "OK. Did ya hear anything you like on the radio?" My brother would answer, "Yeah, I liked that horn, what was that?" And they figured out it was an alto sax, and my father would get him an alto saxophone, drop it on him, and step off. A few days went by, and my brother said, "Dad, there's something wrong with the horn. It doesn't play!" My father would pick it up, play it, and say, "No, there's nothin' wrong with the horn. You might wanna take some lessons." [Laughter.] And my brother would say, "OK." So he got lessons, and got better and then tried to emulate what he heard on the radio.

But my father didn't want any of us to have a career in music. He himself had two day jobs and did his music gigs at night. He wanted us to do something different. He said, "All black people play sports and music." As a result, my siblings did something different, except for me, being the baby brother, the musical calling was just too strong.

AAJ: Your father sounds like a very intelligent guy who really knew how to relate well to his sons!

VL: He really was! I'm 63 years old now, and even now things he said fifty years ago kick in. I have to admit I had two of the most fantastic parents of all time. I was very lucky.

AAJ: OK, so your dad cajoled you into taking up a musical instrument. But I'm always somewhat puzzled as to why anyone plays drums, since you can't really play a tune on them. Yet some guys have a passion for drums, even as kids. Mickey Roker told me he wanted to play drums when he heard the street drummers in the marching bands, and he would follow them down the street.

VL: Yes, it was the same with me! I started the drums at 11, but before that, I had spent a year learning the cello around age 6, and then took up classical piano from ages 7 to 11. Before the cello, I had gravitated towards the upright bass but was too small to play it! So they bought me a small size cello, and I did OK until the teacher pulled out a bow and made me play "arco" (with the bow), and I wanted to pluck pizzicato like the jazz bass players. Who knows, if I'd been big enough for the bass, I might be playing it today!

So fast forward from age 6 to 11. It was the fourth of July, and there was a parade on the near north side of Omaha, and they had a drum corps. And I really dug it. The director of the best drum corps in Omaha happened to be a good friend of my father. I got excited. On my nights to do the dishes, it took me a long time because I started using the knives like drumsticks on the counter! I was giving my folks big hints, lobbying, but because I kept changing instruments, including French horn in junior high, they didn't trust me. So my father rented a snare drum, bought me a pair of sticks, and sent me to take lessons with Luigi Waits , who became my first teacher and my mentor until I left Nebraska. Luigi was a major figure on the music scene. He took me to see Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and Duke Ellington. He told me about Max Roach and all the great drummers. He let me join the contemporary jazz scene.

AAJ: It sounds like you instinctively went for the drums, like you knew they were for you.

VL: Yes. Sometimes I wonder if puberty had anything to do with it! I hit 11 years old, and all of a sudden it wasn't masculine enough for me to play classical piano, which I studied from when I was 7 until 11! So maybe it was a "man thing."

AAJ: Testosterone levels.

VL: So, on Christmas of my 13th birthday, they gave me a full drum set. Boy, talk about an excited kid! On the advice of my teacher, they bought me a fantastic set of year-old Gretsch drums with cases. So, boom, here they are. But then I realized that I'd never set up a drum set before! So I spent all of Christmas day trying to figure out how to put this drum set together!

The Territory Bands

AAJ: For some, the instrument becomes almost a part of the musician. But it takes time for that to happen! To change the subject, I wanted to ask you about your exposure to the "territory bands," the groups that travelled around the west and midwest in the 1930s and 40s. How did those bands influence your musical development?

VL: They were a major influence. My father was a part of the midwest territory big bands. He was from Birmingham, Alabama, and the band he belonged to moved around and he ended up in Omaha like some of the other musicians, settling down, getting married, getting a day job. And so, one of my first gigs was with this band called the "Savoy Seven." The name didn't make any sense because there were eleven cats in the band! [Laughter.] We'd play small big band charts at dances. We had some Basie charts, Duke charts. That was my first experience as a working musician, playing with these guys from the territory bands.

AAJ: I take it they were mature musicians, while you were a kid at the time breaking in with them.

VL: I started playing with the Savoy Seven when I was fourteen. They were as old or older than my father.

AAJ: So in fact your introduction to playing professionally was with a territory band.

VL: We stayed within the Omaha area. We'd load up the bus and go an hour or two down the road. Here's a funny story. One time my mother did a gig with us as a vocalist, and we played a New Years Eve gig a couple of hours away. And so, coming back, we're all lit up, and everybody's giving New Years hugs, and I had to pull the trumpet player off my mother! [Laughter.] He was a bit too zestful, as I recall.

AAJ: So far, the way you describe your youth in Omaha, it was almost magical, ideal, idyllic. But when you gave a short talk at the Dexter Gordon 90th Birthday event (February, 2013) at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, you were very frank about the nightmare of racism, and how the black musicians like Dexter courageously stood up to it. Did you yourself encounter any of that hostility towards blacks?

VL: It's something that I don't talk about much, but yes, I did encounter some of that disillusionment and disappointment. During my freshman year in college, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I got a call from a guy I had played with asking me to do a big band gig at the Elks Club. I got really excited because the band had all the "big boys" in the area. So I painted my initials on my bass drum, and was really turned on. But the guy called me a couple of days before the gig and said, "Victor, I don't know how to tell you this, but you can't do the gig. The Elks Club won't allow any blacks in the club." That was a huge disappointment, and I really didn't anticipate it.

Also, my father had encountered racism, and the way he dealt with it showed me what a man he was. He was on a gig with my teacher, Luigi Waits, who told me the whole story. During the break, a guy walks over to my father and says, "Hey, man, you sound good. You sound real good. But you know you're just a nigger, right?" My father just smiled, and walked away. So the other guys said to my dad, "Hey, you got a right to punch this cat out. Why don't you just punch him out?" And my father calmly said, "I have responsibilities. I can't afford to get into any riff raff." I thought that was pretty deep—he was thinking about us, his kids and family.

AAJ: A rare individual, who was thinking about others' well being rather than himself.

VL: He was thinking about the big picture. So the point I was trying to make at the Dexter Gordon event at Dizzy's was that we don't realize what hurts Dexter and many others went through in the course of a day. It's impressive how they could remain noble about the music and not be bitter about what happened to them on a daily basis. After encountering one slight or another, they'd come to the gig, embrace everyone, be positive, and stay in the moment. Every day, they were excluded from this or that restaurant, had to go to a segregated men's room, couldn't stay in many hotels, and so on. Nobody talks about the grace with which these men handled themselves in those situations.

AAJ: We know about the facts, but not all of us know how it felt. We don't realize how devastating it was to be demeaned and excluded day after day, year after year.

VL: And sometimes it would just come out of nowhere. The unique thing is that among the musicians themselves, there were very few color lines. So the blacks and whites would get cozy on the road, and then the black guys couldn't go in the restaurant! It worked the other way too. At some black restaurants, whites weren't allowed! My college roommate, Don Gorder, who now teaches the business aspect of music at Berklee Colllege of Music, would hide in the car while I went in and got us some barbequed ribs!

AAJ: Music often breaks down barriers, but then the barriers remain in the society-at-large.

VL: For sure.

AAJ: We know that Dexter Gordon experienced some very heavy racism in the armed forces.

VL: He went through a lot of shit, yet he remained very positive.

Impressions of Some Iconic Musicians

AAJ: I'd now like to fast forward, and I'd like us to try to give our readers a sense of what it's like working with these top musicians on a day to day basis. So I'm going to state a personality trait you might encounter with a co-musician or leader, and you tell me who immediately comes to your mind as a prime example of that trait. No thinking- just whatever comes out of your head! You've played with legions of musicians, many among the tops in the business. So, among them, who was the most demanding to work with?

VL: I would say Woody Shaw. But in a positive way. Woody helped me get over my fears, and he pushed me to play like my life was at stake. I'll tell you a little story. I had broken up with my first girlfriend in New York, and Woody got us a gig in Knoxville, Tennessee. So I show up at the club, down in the mud, depressed, pouting. We play the first set, and then during the intermission, Woody comes up to me and says, "Can I speak to you for a moment?" So he takes me way away out of earshot from the guys in the band, and he shouts, "Mother fucker, what the fuck is wrong with you?" [Laughter.] I told him I just broke up with my girlfriend, and he says, "Fuck a girlfriend!" And he continued to machete whatever I could muster out of my mouth as an excuse for why I wasn't givin' it up. And then he stepped off and left me there in a tither. My eyes start to water, I got that lump in my throat, my adrenalin starts to go up, and I'm gettin' mad at myself. And then I came out to play the second set. I surprised everyone and myself, and I really went for it. And he turned to me, and said "That's what I mean: play for your life!"

AAJ: So it wasn't just his temper. He had a strategy—he was trying to teach you something.

VL: Right, right. He helped me overcome my fears. Another time, I was playing in a lackluster way, and Woody comes to me and says, "Don't just beat time! Start something! Instigate something!" But what really scared me was when I started taking those risks, how amazingly he responded musically to it. It made me realize that in a small jazz group, there's really no hierarchy. Everyone is needed musically. Everyone has to arch up and be aggressive and have conviction and be part of passing the ball around, like in basketball when you have the ball, you've got to have the conviction to take that shot. You've got to step up. It creates a ripple effect in the band and affects the direction of the music.

AAJ: The analogy to a sports team is very relevant. Teamwork is crucial to the outcome.

VL: Yeah, an NBA basketball team is a lot like a jazz quintet! Five players, the ball gets passed around, making plays, and everybody bounces off what the others do.

AAJ: So, who is the most inspiring musician you worked with?

VL: I would say maybe saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He is almost metaphysical, into things you cannot see. Pharaoh used to transcend the horn and music. Pharaoh would just call the spirits and give you a ride! The set would just fly by.

AAJ: He's a guru!

VL: Exactly. He was really inspirational. I felt like a set with him was an event! I've played with a lot of great musicians, but with Pharaoh it was different. You didn't have to rehearse much- you just had to pay attention, and things would just materialize. You just had to follow Sanders, and play from your heart, play the vibe.

AAJ: I've heard from a number of musicians that during the moments when they're playing at their best, they have no idea where the ideas are coming from.

VL: That's right. It becomes like a "channeling" experience. I often feel that when I'm playing my best, it's not just me that's playing.

AAJ: Which musician would you say was the most personally caring and compassionate?

VL: I would say trombonist J.J. Johnson. I would often talk to J.J. about personal things like marriage and how to keep the ol' lady cool. J.J. told me his own experience where a film score project took up all his time, and he'd have to neglect his wife, Vivian. So when he finished it, he would book her into one of those spa hotels, and he'd take care of the kids and tell her to just step off and have good time. J.J. was over all a good human being.

AAJ: My first real exposure to your work was when I reviewed J.J. Johnson's recording The Brass Orchestra (Verve, 1997) for his own website. Around that same time I also heard you live at the Blue Note with J.J.'s group that included saxophonist Dan Faulk, pianist Renee Rosnes, and bassist Rufus Reid, one of the greatest jazz groups ever, in my opinion.

VL: J.J. was a perfectionist about performances. I used to call him "Mr. Mission Impossible." At one point, he moved back to his home town of Indianapolis, and he'd mail me these little packages in preparation for an upcoming record gig and so on, Usually it was an audio tape with a lecture by him. So I called him "Mr. Mission Impossible," you know, "Should you decide to take on this mission." [Laughter.]

AAJ: He was a brilliant man, and probably had more to say than one would like to hear sometimes!

VL: Yes, he was a genius, and a consummate gentleman too. He was a good guy, a "standup" guy!

AAJ: I know that he went to court to help some of the musicians who couldn't get cabaret cards because of racial issues.

VL: He stood up for me at times. The powers-that-be on that Brass Orchestra record didn't want me on it. And J.J. said, this is my recording, and Victor is who I want.

AAJ: Who was the most stingy?

VL: [Chuckles.] Stan Getz! Without mentioning names, and to protect the innocent, a bassist whom we all know and love was on a stint with me and Stan, and he would say to me, "OK. I can understand a leader making three times as much as his side men, but no leader is worth a hundred times more money than his sidemen!" In comparison with other groups, working with Stan was good money. But in terms of what he was making himself, it was a small piece of the pie.

AAJ: OK, so who was the most brilliant and insightful player?

VL: There are many. But I would say maybe Dexter Gordon.

AAJ: Which would you say was most able to express his personality and emotions in the music?

VL: Oh, definitely Chet Baker. I did a tour with Stan Getz and Chet, and Chet came across as one of the most vulnerable players. He wreaked emotion. A melancholy and vulnerable cat, I guess you could say.

AAJ: Some critics really put him down, but I think he was one of the greats for exactly the reason that you're stating.

VL: I agree. But there was a certain sadness in his story. On one of the first gigs I did with him, we're finishing the head of the first tune, and Chet says to Stan, "Can you take the first solo—I have to go and glue my teeth back in." This man's playing trumpet with dentures! [Chet Baker had a heroin addiction which can lead to physical maladies such as loss of teeth.—Eds.]

The Experience, Technique, and Spirit of the Drums

AAJ: Thanks for your candor about your cohorts. Now let's move on to your work as a drummer. First of all, in recording studios they often isolate the drummer in a separate room so they can mix the sound in any way they like. I've always felt badly for the drummer, in a little room with a window and a headset. How do you feel about that?

VL: It varies. Some rooms don't make you feel so isolated. And some rooms make you feel that you're in another building in another time and place from the group. Sometimes, I couldn't even see the band. It's worse when they try to isolate the drummer in a studio that wasn't built that way. One time, I was placed in a hallway and couldn't see anybody! They segregate the musicians for mixing purposes, but a lot of the great jazz records were done without so much isolation or even with as many microphones as they use now. The problem with using many mikes is that they dis-assemble the sound, and unless the engineer is really good at putting it back together again, the result is disappointing, not the best sound. For my money, the engineers from the '60s and '70s were better than after that. When digital recording came in, it's very cold-blooded, and it will only seek what you program it to look for, as opposed to analog, which picks up more of the nuances, including the ambience of the room. What can compare to Rudy Van Gelder's recordings from the 1960s?

AAJ: Simplicity and spontaneity is so much a part of jazz. You don't want the recording to lose the feeling and atmosphere of the session.

VL: Exactly. I totally agree.

AAJ: Let's talk about your style of playing the drums. Jim Miller, an outstanding drummer in Philadelphia, remarked to me that what he appreciates about your drum technique is that it's especially "musical." I would say that it "sings" and "flows."

VL: It's been my goal for some time to not be just a drummer but to be a total musician and to participate in the musical dialogue and also to bring up the right texture.

AAJ: "Texture" is a good word for that special quality you exemplify.

VL: I think I was influenced in that regard when in college I majored in classical percussion. From that experience, I don't think of driving a drum set. I think of being a percussionist in an orchestra, where you embrace the sounds.

AAJ: Did you play the timpani, where you have to adjust the pitch? I'm very struck by how well your playing flows, resonates. It's a very beautiful sound, which you can't say for all drummers.

VL: I like to have what I do be transparent and organic at the same time.

AAJ: Somewhat related to what you said about "channeling" the music, do you ever have a sense of "floating above time" rather than punctuating it?

VL: On a good day, time isn't in increments. It's flowing.

AAJ: It's as if you're above time, watching it?

VL: Right! I like the way you put that! I like to think that on a good day, it's almost like you can sit back and watch yourself play.

AAJ: I'm interested in world music, and I wonder if you have any sense that your drumming goes back to African trance music, which was imported to the U.S. through the Carribean and New Orleans at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. There are early recordings of African trance drummers, and the rhythm is remarkably similar to jazz.

VL: Oh yeah. For sure. It's the dialogue. You've got the guy who's "talking," so to speak, on his drums, and then you've got the other guys who are "responding" on their instruments. In my opinion, the rhythms from Africa are the basis of all rhythms that exist. You mentioned Third World music. I see that as the future of music. I tell my students, "The future of music is going to be the synthesis of everything you guys like." For example, Dizzy Gillespie started checking out the Latin bands, and he ended up doing that stuff with Chano Poso and absorbed that influence into his music. So I'm really into the fusion of diverse music from around the world. When American jazz musicians discovered Brazilian music, it had a big impact on the jazz perspective. I really see the future of music being a combination of elements from different countries.

AAJ: Which particular musical cultures do you personally relate to the most?

VL: The Brazilian. No question about it. It's funny, because I never actually went to Brazil with Stan Getz. He played in Brazil a lot, but by the time I was working with him, I think he had had enough of the bossa nova days. By that time, he had only one medley of bossa nova tunes in a set to please the crowd. For him, the bossa nova days were over.

AAJ: In the later years, Getz returned to bebop and hard bop as his main fare. It's interesting you are attracted to Brazilian music, yet you don't often perform it.

VL: I don't play it a lot, but I listen to it a lot and keep up with the concepts. It's not only the rhythm that I like but the sense of romantic harmony. The Brazilians are a romantic people, and I think I'm a hopeless romantic!

AAJ: The classical composer Villa Lobos comes to mind.

VL: I love Villa Lobos, I love Dorrival and Nana Caymmi, Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins. I have buddies in Brazil, and when I go down there, we hang out and exchange ideas. It's like a two-way street. Jazz has had as profound an effect on Brazilian music and Brazil has had on jazz.

AAJ: Antonio Carlos Jobim was a good friend of Gerry Mulligan and said that West Coast cool jazz had a big influence on him. Getting back to the drums, in some of your interviews you emphasize the importance of the "ride cymbal." You mention Papa Joe Jones as one of your influences.

VL: I use the concept "ride lead." When musicians listen to the drummer, they're focusing mostly on the ride cymbal, which gives them the sense of time. The ride cymbal tethers everything that's going on around it. As a term of endearment, some players call me their "ride."

AAJ: The ride cymbal carries the group forward. I wonder if different drummers make different use of the ride cymbal.

VL: Some drummers like their voice to be more on the whole drum "kit," the composite rhythm, which I also do, but for me everything bounces off the ride cymbal. Fusion drummers may not see the ride cymbal as so important, but with swing, the ride cymbal is the focal point.

AAJ: I thought the ride cymbal emphasis came out of Kansas City rather than swing as such.

VL: Right, OK. But the later swing bands seemed to absorb that influence and the ride cymbal came to be focused upon, as opposed to maybe the back beat on the snare drum.

AAJ: I would say the ride cymbal had a lot to do with the evolution to modern jazz and bop.

VL: Yes. And for me, the ride cymbal seems to make the time more elastic.

Composing as Catharsis

AAJ: Let's talk about your composing, which is fairly prolific.

VL: I've been a composer since high school. I would transcribe Horace Silver tunes or whatever, and sometimes, when we needed something to play at a jam session, I'd make a little ditty for that purpose. Gradually, composing became a passion of mine. It's a sort of therapy for me. I always joke that "composing is cheaper than going to a shrink." The other joke is that "divorce should be good for at least one good ballad." [Laughter.] Composing has been a great outlet for emotional expression for me.

AAJ: Do you ever compose more extended pieces?

VL: I did a recording called A Family Portrait (AudioQuest Music, 1992) which is like a series of tunes related to my family. For example, "A Mis Padres," "To My Parents," and then a tune for my little sister, so you could say it's a musical suite dedicated to my family. I recorded it after my parents were deceased, and it was an acknowledgment of how much they helped and supported me with my music.

AAJ: You really use composing to express your feelings and emotions, like a catharsis.

VL: It's a lot cheaper than seeing a shrink. [Laughter.]

AAJ: Did you ever have to write a tune on the spot at a gig?

VL: I never had to do it myself, but I've witnessed it. I did an album with Bobby Hutcherson called Cruisin' the Bird (Landmark, 1988). We thought we finished the date, but the producer said, "Hey, Bobby, we need one more tune." And boom! Boom! He came up with the tune! And it's my favorite tune on the record.

Personal Life and the Understanding of the Spirit

AAJ: I'd like to ask you a bit about your personal life. Are you single, attached, any kids?

VL: I've been married and divorced three times. I have a daughter and a stepdaughter from my second wife. My stepdaughter just made me a grandfather a couple of weeks ago. Artist manager and publisher Joanne Klein has been my partner for thirteen years. Her mother is going to be 89 years old and still spry and active. Joanne's father had suddenly died of a heart attack in his fifties, and her mother never remarried. I guess it was hard for her to be intimate with anyone else.

AAJ: John Coltrane said, "Music is my spirit." Do you make any connection between the spiritual life and the music?

VL: For me, it's a must. I tell my students that the thing that makes me play my best is the spirit. Each tune has a spirit to it, and I try to find the spirit in each tune. I want to find the right spirit and call it up. It helps bring the tune to life. It helps you to find what's not on the paper. It helps you to develop your artistic life. What made jazz so great has been the things the musicians would add to it that weren't on the paper, the magic. And what triggers that is the spirit of the moment.

AAJ: Can you give a vivid example of that spiritual magic?

VL: Pharaoh Sanders does a tune called "You Gotta Have Freedom." It's a tune that raises your vibrations. I'm a real believer in the chakras and your vibrations being altered. There are receptors of things you cannot see. Every time I play, I have to call up the spiritual in myself. I had an experience with Woody Shaw where something really upset me before the rehearsal that day. I came to the rehearsal really distracted and out of it, and Woody stops the band and looks at me and says, "Don't come up in this motherfucker all detached and shit!" I learned from that never to play detached, always to make it an emotional experience for me.

AAJ: Woody Shaw notwithstanding, you're describing a meditative state. When you're at your best, you're immersed in the here-and-now. Do you practice meditation? Do you practice religion?

VL: Religion? Not any longer. I've studied many different things. I grew up in an Episcopalian family. I was an altar boy. At the end of Communion, we kids would try to get the priest drunk on the wine. [Laughter.] So I started believin.' I've been doing transcendental meditation since I was 21. I believe in aliens. Once, my friend and I saw what we really believe was a UFO. It was 1976, and I was in Florida doing a record with David Sanborn. My friend and I were driving over to a restaurant to get something to eat, and we see these blinking lights to the far right of the horizon, with no sound or movement. Then it started moving from the far right to the far left of the horizon in a few seconds. There's nothing known to man that could cover that distance that fast, and so silently. So we were positive it was a UFO.

AAJ: That wasn't a UFO. That was my ex-girlfriend. [Laughter.] She lived down there and she could do things like that. [Laughter.] There is life out there somewhere, we're pretty sure of that. Sounds like you're an explorer.

New Gigs

AAJ: So, what are you workin' on right now, and what's comin' up?

VL: I recently played at Dizzy's with Bobby Watson and the Horizon band. We're celebrating our thirtieth anniversary of Horizon. Bobby and I go way back, and we're like best friends. His wife Pam is a fantastic singer and composer. I also did a live recording at Smoke with Cyrus Chestnut and Curtis Lundy. I've been working a lot with George Cables in the past few years, and we have a new trio record entitled George Cables: Icons & Influences (High Note, 2014). And we're working on George's "Songbook" project which includes vocals.

I'm in my eleventh year teaching at Rutgers in New Brunswick. A couple of years ago, we lost a great trumpet professor, Bill Fielder, who fathered a whole series of great trumpet players, from Terence Blanchard to Wynton Marsalis to Terell Stafford to Sean Jones. Teaching helps me keep in mind the concepts and ideas I've accumulated over the years.

AAJ: Any thoughts about the business end of jazz?

VL: I am interested in how we're going to be affected by the change from CDs and record stores to digital downloads. Quincy Jones recently said in an interview that in 10 to 20 years, there will no longer be any record companies. Recently, one of my students had an on-line CD release party! Everything is going to be done on the internet, on computers. I wonder how all that will affect musicians' attitudes, their relationship to the audience, the music itself.

AAJ: A lot of the technology makes things more efficient but harder for people to connect on a visceral, gut level.

VL: You're probably like me. You like to browse the record stores. I used to love to shop and read the liner notes and look at the covers. I miss that. But ultimately, the music will prevail. I'm enthused about the younger generation of musicians. I believe the continuation of the music is guaranteed. The conditions—how you get air play, selling your trade, collection of royalties—all that's going to change. I'm a dinosaur when it comes to technology. But I'm very excited about where the music is going and how well the younger guys are stepping up.

Photo Credit: Susan Gatschet-Reese

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