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Wallace Roney: In the Realm of Anti-Gravity


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Much is made of trumpeter Wallace Roney coming from the Miles Davis school, a mentor-protégé situation that blossomed in the 1980s that Roney is very proud of. But that wouldn't be telling the whole story of the Philadelphia native who, in his prime years, has become one of the world's finest trumpet players, and a musician whose quest for innovation is everlasting.

Hearing jazz music around the house as a small child, it crept into his head and stayed there.

"People couldn't understand a young kid really loving the music that way because everybody else was liking R&B and figuring that's what you're supposed to like," Roney says. "That's the stuff that the common black experience was. Which is great. It was more that jazz took a special ear. It took a special kind of temperament and understanding and knowledge. If you understood jazz, it put you higher. On a different plateau than your next-door neighbor, and girls wearing hot pants and you just wanted to dance."

It was always music for Roney, taking lessons at a very young age, then being more informed on his instrument by childhood associations with legends Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie. He listened to all the great trumpet players. Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, and so many more. Roney was accepted into the fold by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. He's played with Joe Henderson, Art Blakey and Cedar Walton. The trumpeter was part of a fantastic band headed by drumming icon Tony Williams, which included his great friend, the tremendous pianist Mulgrew Miller, sadly recently departed.

"Man, he was fiery. He was creative. He was impressionistic. He was everything, man. He was something else," Roney says of Williams. "And he was a virtuoso. The definition of virtuoso probably goes Charlie Parker, Tony Williams, John Coltrane. This guy could do anything on the drums he wanted to do. Anything. He said he'd just look at the drums and come up with stuff to do. And it wouldn't be showy. It'd just be amazing. It took the music to another place. He would play something in a creative space, or leave a space. And you would say: Wow. It would push me to want to do that on the trumpet. To be that innovative."

And I lived there," he says, reflecting back on those moments like they'd just occurred. "My whole life became—and is to this moment—living in that realm of anti-gravity. Like stepping on a meteor. Will it go down or will it go up. If you figure that out, you can go step on the next one."

And of course there was Miles, an idol. Miles the mentor. And also Miles, the man who summoned Roney for a meeting, albeit brief, after first hearing him play. Not the other way around.

Understanding A band leader on his own terms for many years now, Roney's always concerned with the next musical adventure. The next exciting moment that will take the music somewhere different. It might not happen every night. But it's out there if you're going for it. Roney consistently goes for it, and his new band of young firebrands is no different, as his album Understanding (HighNote, 2013) attests. It's a hard-driving, exploring and open jazz record. Many tunes are covers, but not standards. They have a shape different than the source, an approach sculpted by the trumpeter. The youngsters behind him—Arnold Lee and Ben Solomon on saxophones, Victor Gould or Eden Ladin on piano, Daryl Johnson on bass and Kush Abadey on drums—tear it up. Cats in their 20s, though Solomon is only 19.

"As far as it being a young band, my band has pretty much always been a young band, after I broke up a band with Lenny White and Buster Williams and Gary Bartz. That was a great band. But after a while these younger cats started wanting to come and play too. These guys, they don't have any hangups," says Roney. "Buster didn't either, by the way. Buster was always ready to go to the unknown. But now you got young guys that are ready to go to the unknown. I like that."

Roney is as frank and honest as the music he plays, and like his solos rolling into the air, twisting and turning, his stories about situations and fellow musicians do the same; entertaining and focused. While he is more introverted than a lot of musicians, his statements aren't guarded. He's forthright and natural.

"The unknown means to stretch your ability," he explains. "Say Art Tatum has technique like this. You can try to dare to equal what Art Tatum did, but put it in a modern context, not the way he did it. Or what John Coltrane did with Charlie Parker. Trane took Bird's ideas further. But the only way you do it is you have to go through it to have it. You don't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to play the saxophone.' or 'I'm going to play like Miles Davis.' You have to understand how to develop a sound. Why do these lines make sense? Once you understand that, then have the audacity to see if you can take it further. Blend it with something else."

His current musicians are on that mission, he feels.

They do light a fire, particularly Abadey on the drums, cooking, dropping bombs, switching gears but not losing place. Whether cooking on Duke Pearson's "Is That So" and Roney's "Combustible," or floating through the McCoy Tyner ballad "You Taught My heart to Sing," this band is exciting. Tyner's "Song for Peace," is superb, both serene and majestic in Roney's rich trumpet statements, and dangerous with Solomon's intense sax solo. Solomon's "Kotra" seems like it could fit on Miles Smiles.

"My band just keep evolving. People, fortunately, like some of the things we're trying. They feel they want to play with the band and consequently play with me," says Roney. "The guy I'm on the lookout for is one that has no hangups about trying to be as creative as he can be... Some people's creativity is to ignore some of the great things that happened. Mine is to be able to have all the great things in your back pocket, or as your language, then see if you can take it further. You have something to work with. A lot of guys come to me and see there's a chance for them to try to do things they weren't allowed to do in other situations."

The group hasn't played together that long, but became a band quickly. Roney says with glee, "They were hounding me. 'Can I bring a tune in? I got something for the band.' I'm like: Hold on. Slow down. They didn't slow down. They were like: We're ready. I was like, 'You want to be a band? Y'all are ready all ready?' So Ben [Solomon] brought out a tune and Arnold [Lee] brought a tune. Everybody wanted to bring out their tunes. They started sounding really good. I shaped those things to take on another kind of life. Instead of the way they originally intended it."

He says the title cut, by drummer Roy Brooks, "I knew from when I was a kid. I knew Roy. He was a beautiful cat. Complex guy. This song 'Understanding' just made sense to me. I always wanted to do it to honor Roy. It reminds me of when I first turned on the radio on my own. I think that song was the first thing that came on. I've been listening to jazz radio since I was a kid, all my life. My father turned it on and I loved it. It wasn't like he turned it on and I had to hear it. When my mother and father broke up and there's a period of adjustment and you find out who you are. I was 10 years old and I wanted to reclaim my sanity. I found a radio and I said, 'Man, I don't want to listen to that rock and roll crap. Where is the jazz station?' I switched around and looked for the jazz station, at that time it was WRTI in Philadelphia."

Roney is rightly proud of his band and glows when he says, "Nobody else can really play like these guys; the combination of things I put together in assembling those guys. When I first heard Ben, he really was going into Trane's space. Not Trane's space from being another person. Not Trane's space and this one part of it. He wanted to go all the way in and see how he'd come out of it. And I loved it. And then you have Kush, he was going all the way into Tony's [Williams] space. He's trying to. That's a hard one. Well, Trane is even harder. But Kush is going in there and understanding Trane and Elvin Jones. I told him remember Art Blakey and Max [Roach]. So he put all that stuff together in that kind of way. And Victor is up there playing everything from Nat Cole to [Thelonious] Monk to Herbie [Hancock]... Then I'm floating up on top with my stuff that I got from Miles and the things that I liked and it all comes together. Everybody is of like mind at that point. I insist everybody listen to everything and everyone."

He adds, pointedly, "Those are young men with fertile energy. They have the chops that everyone is scared of. It's called creativity... That's where I live."

The band sounds better the more it plays, he says, but the problem is getting gigs. Unfortunately, that is a common problem.

"The problem is getting people to trust. To bring these kids out to play. When we get out to play, people seem to feel what they're trying to express. But the club owners, they just want names that they recognize, which is a drag. You try to fight this thing, but it's hard. But I'm fighting it. I ain't stopping. That's the only way the music can grow. Then you look up and those are the cats with the names," he says. "You want the rest of the road to be smooth, so you can contribute. But are you kidding me? How I've been able to stay relevant is a blessing."

Relevant, indeed. Roney, whom Shorter has called "a musical astronaut," is one of the outstanding creators in the business. He started playing the trumpet at the age of seven and never got sidetracked. He had formal instruction from teachers. "I just loved it. You pick up and instrument; you can't play it. How are you gonna learn? If you love it as much as I loved it, you want to get good, so you start studying. At eight years old, I was trying to go through my books as fast as I can so I can sound like I want to hear. I doesn't work like that, but it gives you the blueprint of discipline."

Sigmund Herring from the Philadelphia Orchestra was his first teacher and there were others, but encounters with Terry and Gillespie made an immeasurable impact. "I'm talking about as far as legitimate understanding of the instrument. Clark had been through it all and he would show me things maybe my teachers wouldn't. Teachers just get you to study and if you played the right note, it was fine. Clark would teach you things like articulation and breath control. And different ways to develop your fingers. Dizzy was good for that too. He was always talking about curving your fingers like you're playing the piano. Dizzy knew all the different scales and different fingerings to play major scales. Dizzy was something else. Those guys were better than the conservatory teachers, legitimately."

He had a scholarship to the Settlement School of Music at the age of seven.

He left Philadelphia to attend high school at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. While in school, he sought out gigs. In a brash move, he asked a nightclub owner about bringing in a band for a night each week. Roney was an unknown, so even trough little attention was paid to his request, he gathered a group together and got them playing standards. After a while, he approached the club again and got the weekly gig.

"At that point, you couldn't tell me anything. I was going to do this and I need to study every day because people are coming to hear me and I need to get up to the level of Clifford and Blue Mitchell and all them," he recalls. "I felt like I was playing Birdland or something every Monday. Fifteen years old. For the rest of my time in Washington, I was doing those kinds of things."

He auditioned for the Berklee School of Music and was accepted, but Roney's father was against him leaving home and he was persuasive. Roney attended Howard University in Washington, DC. While at Howard, he was gigging with a band and also went to New York to play on a record by his friend guitarist Rodney Jones.

"The first band I ever played in was Cedar Walton's band with Bob Berg and Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. That's the first band I ever played in. I was 15 or 16. The first person I ever played in New York with was Philly Joe Jones," says Roney. "I went to sit in with Philly at 16. We played 'Confirmation,' and when I got through it, Philly grabbed me and said 'I got a new partner. Here's the partner.' But Cedar was the first one to hire me back then."

While in New York, he sat in with Joe Henderson at the Vanguard and was invited to play the rest of the week with him. "It was great. At the end of the night, I told my father. He told me to come home to finish school at Howard. I came back home with tears in my eyes. But the following year I went on the road with Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim. After that, that's when it became a roller coaster."

Roney remained at Howard University for a year. He had a gig at a club called the Pig's Foot owned by Bill Harris. It wasn't enough. After a time, he contacted Berklee again and his scholarship was open. This time he went. "I was serious. I wanted to play. I wanted to be around guys that were practicing every day, that were flying. And they were. There's a lot of musicians up there that really want to play."

Having already gigged with some major players, he had a strong reputation. He was asked to be part of a band Art Blakey was bringing to Europe.

"He wanted all these young cats to come together, two of each instrument. The second bassist was Marcus Miller. He was going to play with Art's big band, but he didn't last a day because right then Lenny White took him on the road. But there was Charles Fambrough, Marcus Miller, Robin Eubanks, Kevin Eubanks, the Marsailis brothers, Billy Pierce, Bobby Watson. The original second drummer was Roy Haynes. But Roy got busy. Then it was Charlie Persip and something happened to Persip. John Ramsey ended up being the second drummer."

"I got the gig, but I didn't go to Europe. Again, my father told me I wasn't allowed to do it. That was the last time that I listened to my father in that circumstance. He wasn't trying to hurt me, he didn't want to see me leave home. I had to make a decision. Art told me when he came back I was in the [big] band. Sure enough, he came back and I joined them in Washington, D.C. We had two more gigs. Then we went up to Boston and that was it." But he joined Blakey again the following year. Blakey became a major influence.

"I loved it. Everything he said was valuable. And you have to remember this man was one of the greatest drummers to ever live. A lot of people want to say he was one of the greatest band leaders. He was. You can be a great band leader and just be mediocre on your instrument. This man was one of the greatest on his instrument ever. So you're watching this man who created this modern style that Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and Roy Haynes were playing. He's one of the co-creators of it and still was as powerful as them and giving them something else to recon with. And he's leading this band on a level of Duke Elllington leading his band. He's telling these stories and encouraging you. What else can you want?"

After leaving Blakey, Roney played with many stellar players, but they weren't working all the time. So I found myself trying to sit in and let people hear you, and work with all your friends so you can get a gig. That lasted until 1985. Things started to change when Kenny Barron called me and asked me to play on a record called What If? (Enja, 1986). After I played on that, everything changed." One of them was that Tony Williams was putting together a band. He found Roney.

Roney recalls with laughter, "When Tony saw me it was so funny. I think he felt like he knew me. He kept looking at me. He'd say, 'Man, what's your name?' I had played with him two years beforehand and it was a great experience. I told him my name. He kept looking at me. I think he thought I was Miles' son or something. Really, man, he kept looking a me. He said, 'Who do you play with?' And I didn't want to tell him I just got done playing with Philly Joe because I knew he loved Philly. And if he knew that, it would taint what he'd think about me. I wanted him to like me on my own terms. So I said, 'I played with a lot of different people.'

"After we played he would hug me and say beautiful things. And he said he wanted to put together a band around me. I said wow. Michael Cuscuna called me six months later. Blue Note was threatening to give me a record contract, which they never did. He said to me, 'Wallace, we got good and bad news. The bad news is, we can't sign you to Blue Note yet. But the good news is, Tony Williams wants to put the band together around you and Mulgrew [Miller]. Tony wants you to call him right now.' He gave me Tony's number. I gave Tony a call and it was beautiful. Tony was one of my heroes playing with Miles. That's what I was listening to. Nefertiti, all my life. My whole concept of expansion and innovative approach comes from Nefertiti and A Love Supreme."

It became a thrilling musical adventure, and Roney helped assemble the band. "We had a good time. We went on the road for years. We drove in cars and vans. We had a van for the drums and equipment and a car for us. Tony would drive. He liked to drive. We were serious about playing this music. We even drove in Europe once we got over there. We'd drive every place. That's the dedication of wanting to play this music. We didn't have limos or first-class treatment. The music got the first-class treatment. We were playing with Tony and for Tony and we were making music. It was beautiful."

Williams didn't remember, but he and Roney had actually met in 1983. It was at a tribute for Miles Davis in New York City. That even started the relationship between the two trumpeters that would last until Davis' death in 1991.

The concert featured R&B artists like Peabo Bryson and Angela Bofill, but also jazz cats J.J. Johnson, Walter Bishop, Jr., Roy Haynes, Jackie McLean, George Benson, Buster Williams and others. "After the first half they wanted seven trumpet players to play a couple choruses of the blues, then play a fanfare together to announce Miles coming out. I was one of the trumpet players. I was 23 years old. The trumpet players were Art Farmer, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, Maynard Ferguson and myself. The rhythm section was Tony, Herbie and Ron Carter. Oooh! That's the first time I played with them."

In the rehearsal, Roney's sound, power and musical heart came through, making an indelible impression.

"We had a rehearsal and Tony, Herbie and Ron were like, 'Man. Do we really have to do this? Play behind seven trumpet players?' We played and it was all good. Everybody took a solo. Tony, Herbie and Ron were kind of dialing it in, trying to get through it. But when I took a solo all of a sudden, Tony started tightening up and started playing. Herbie started bending his shoulders and playing some stuff. And Ron. I made them react and it shocked me. These were my idols. I was scared. I could see them smiling. Then we did the fanfare. They said, 'We'll do it one more time.' We did it and the same thing happened. Everybody else played and they kind of did what they did. Then when I played, All of a sudden Herbie started doing it again. And Tony. They started playing.

"Afterward, Ron called me over and said, 'Hey, man, come here. What's your name.' I said 'Wallace Roney.' He said, 'Herbie, come here. This is Wallace Roney. Tony, this is Wallace Roney.' It was beautiful. When we got on the bandstand the next day, Sunday, the same thing happened." Davis' band played to end the night. But Art Farmer approached Roney. The Man, he said, wanted to meet the youngster. A scared Roney followed Farmer to the elevator and up they went to a room where Davis was staying.

"The first thing Miles said, my idol," say Roney, affecting a gravel-voiced imitation of he legend, "'I heard ya. I heard ya up there playin' that stuff.' We talked and he gave me his phone number. He said call me tomorrow. I woke up real early, but I was too scared to call him that early, so I waited and waited. Finally at 12 o'clock on the nose, when that second hand hit 12, I called. He said come on over. When I got to his place—he was staying on 70th Street, not 77th Street. This was a penthouse. They told me Miles wasn't there. I said, 'Oh, no. I just called him.''

With some persistence, he was allowed up. And there was Miles. The first thing Miles Davis said to me when I walked in the door was, 'I never liked Brownie. Clifford Brown. Not that I was jealous of him or anything. He was a nice guy. I just didn't think he was playing as good as everybody thought. He liked playing fast all the time. He couldn't swing. Max [Roach] stopped swinging when he left Bird.' That's the first thing Miles Davis said to me when I walked in his house," says Roney, chuckling. "Beautiful, man. He was telling me where he was coming from. If I want to get with this and learn from him, this is where it's coming from. I understood what he was saying. I wasn't going to debate him. Because if you debate him, you would lose what he had to offer."

The relationship is one of the most important in Roney's life. "I call it mentor-protégé. I just loved him and he kept me around. He told me I reminded him of him, the way he'd look at Dizzy and all that stuff. I loved it. But you have to understand, I was hanging around him every chance I got. But I was also playing at that point with all these great artists too. I wasn't being a hanger-oner. I was playing. And he knew it. I was playing with Tony by '85. I was playing with Philly. And Art. At that point I was playing with everybody, so he was getting to see the lessons I was getting from him were paying off that night. I was utilizing them."

"Then he started teaching me things. Playing stuff on the piano. Playing stuff on the trumpet. Talking about possibilities. Telling stories. Telling me what Monk showed him, that Dizzy showed him. Man, you kiddin? It wasn't osmosis. It was direct. I was having the time of my life."

Davis, many of his sidemen said, didn't say much to musicians; didn't give a lot of direction. Things were often said cryptically. Roney was aware of that, but it was not his experience. "I said, 'Shit, I must have been the only one he ever spoke music to?' Nobody else ever had nothing?... I'm thankful."

Leading up to the famous concert at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, where Davis figuratively went back in time and performed the music from his time with Gil Evans, with a big band led by Quincy Jones, Roney was getting hints from his mentor that it was going to be a reality.

"He'd say he thinks he's gonna do it. And if he does, he wanted me to play with him because I play his stuff perfect. He kept saying that. I didn't know what would come of it. I thought he was just saying that. He was also talking about getting his band with Herbie and Tony and Wayne... Then one day, all of a sudden it was going to happen. I said: Wow. He asked me to come up there. I was in the rehearsal. He told me to stay up there with him. And I did. He kept giving me more things to play. And it was beautiful. Beautiful. I didn't know he was sick. I didn't know he was going to die. I had just seen him a couple week before this thing had happened."

It wouldn't be long before Miles would pass on. But in Montreaux, the lessons didn't stop.

"It's really weird," says Roney, "because the night before [the concert], he really was talking. Miles could tell you a lot of stuff, but not talk run-on. He would say things. And he would say something else. Or tell you a story. Or laugh. This night, he was talking long. Run-on, run-on, run-on sentences. That was odd."

Davis, during his life, claimed at times to have premonitions of things. There are those close to him that think he may have known the end was near, which is why he want back and played his old music, both in Montreaux and in Paris where he played a lot of his classic music with the likes of Hancock, Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and others.

"He must have," known his life light was dimming, says Roney. "Because he was trying to tell me everything in that whole two or three days. From '83 to '91, I got a lot, trust me. But those last three days is when I started hearing stuff about his youth. Private stuff. All of it was good. No weird stuff. But I started hearing stuff about his father more. More than just 'My father said this.' I started hearing all these stories. His brother [Vernon]. Dorothy [sister]. Everything. And all of the pain that went with being on the scene. I started hearing all of that. For the first time. I had never heard, '83 to '91, the pain. I heard the good times and the stuff he learned and the stuff he was going to show me. In those couple days, I heard the pain too. Along with the rest. I never articulated it like that, but that might have been the difference."

After his death, Davis' Second Great Quintet—Hancock, Shorter, Williams and Carter—staged a tribute band and tour. They turned to Roney to fill the master's trumpet spot. "I fit right in there and we became a great band. That's the greatest band I ever played in in my entire life. Period. Without a doubt... I knew those guys so well I felt like, if nothing else, I could understand the process and I hope I contributed something. They made me feel like I did."

But to Roney's dismay, the tour wasn't widely accepted, in spite of the man who was being honored and the exulted status of the players

There were gigs in Europe, but "The Unites States wouldn't book it. Isn't that awful? We couldn't get a gig. We played Washington, D.C., Colorado, and L.A. and San Francisco. That's all. The rest canceled on us. They lowered the money. We wanted to play, but... Tony, Herbie, Wayne? Wow. The United States did not want it. Now Tony is dead."

Since then, Wallace has gone on his own. He might do an occasional guest gig, but he has has emerged as a leader and follows his own vision, one forged through his experiences and the great men with whom he spent time.

"After that, there was no where else to go. You just played with the greatest artists in the world," he said of the tribute tour. "You gonna apprentice under someone else? There's nowhere else. So I started my own group for real and never looked back. I do all-star groups with Herbie and stuff like that. Chick Corea. Chick is beautiful. But where else are you going to go? After playing with Herbie and Tony and Wayne and Ron Carter. And Miles Davis being your mentor. You're going to learn from where? I mean, you always learn. But who are you going to apprentice under? There's no where to go. It was my time."

He relishes leading younger musicians and exploring musical paths.

"At this point, there are lessons I can offer. You watch young musicians today, they don't even have a clue on how to do certain things. They might have certain kind of technique. But they don't have the kind that puts you in an innovator's space or puts you in a certain way. They don't know how to lock it together with a feeling that comes from Africa, or that's uniquely African-American. That comes from the blues, but then beyond the blues. Those kind of things that a conservatory can't teach you. That a conservatory is trying to catch up on, trying to learn."

As for jazz, he says individuality and diversity should be part of the expression in whatever direction an artist is trying to take.

"It's my hope that whatever deficiencies we all have, they strengthen up. Because we need everybody out here to play some vital music and put their own spin on it. Not just my spin. My spin is a good alternative to someone else's spin. And their spin is an alternative to my spin. It all makes for a healthy scene. I think the critics and people do a divide and conquer. They don't understand that alternatives are good. What somebody else is doing, if it's different from what your favorite is doing, is a good thing. We don't need everybody to sound the same way."

His band is an example. "We're playing from a concept that comes from Nefertiti and A Love Supreme, Tony Williams Lifetime, Mwandishi [Hancock's band of the 1980s], Charlie Parker quintet, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. We're playing from that blueprint. We're trying to take it further."

Selected Discography

Wallace Roney, Understanding (HighNote, 2013)
Wallace Roney, Jazz (HighNote Records, 2007)
Wallace Roney, Mystikal (HighNote Records, 2005)
Wallace Roney, Prototype (HighNote Records, 2004)
Chick Corea, Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997)
Wallace Roney, Village (Warner Bros., 1996)
Wallace Roney, The Wallace Roney Quintet (Warner Brothers, 1995)
Geri Allen, Eyes in the Back of Your Head (Blue Note, 1995)
Randy Weston, Volcano Blues (Antilles, 1993)
Herbie Hancock, Dis is Da Drum (Mercury, 1993)
Dizzy Gillespie, To Diz With Love (Telarc, 1992)
Miles Davis/Quincy Jones, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner Brothers, 1991)
Tony Williams, The Story of Neptune (Blue Note, 1991)
Wallace Roney, The Standard Bearer (Muse, 1989)
Wallace Roney, Verses (Muse, 1987)
Tony Williams, Civilization (Blue Note, 1986)
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Feeling Good (Delos, 1986)
Kenny Barron, What If? (Enja, 1986)
Tony Williams, Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note, 1985)

Photo Credit

Page 1: Andrea Canter
Page 2: Eric Waters
Page 6: Joze Pozrl
Page 7: Goio Villanueva

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