Warren Wolf: Beyond Perfect Pitch

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

Warren Wolf is an amazing young multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore. He plays the drums quite well, and I've hired him and worked with Wolf the drummer in a number of settings. He is the premier young vibraphonist on the scene. He also plays piano and bass extremely well. I hope he doesn't play anything else! You might have seen him with Christian McBride or his own group. I was able to finally sit down with him and find out how he turned out so well.

George Colligan: Warren Wolf! I've been meaning to do this for a while, finally getting to it! How'd you become such a bad motherfucker?

Warren Wolf: [laughs] That's a very long story.

In basic detail, my dad, Warren Wolf Sr.. His main day job was a school teacher. He was a Baltimore City Public School teacher, he taught History—U.S. history, World history, things like that. He also had a band on the side. Music was a serious hobby of his. I would say around 1978 or 79, the year I was born, he wanted to buy an instrument. He wanted to do something completely different than what everyone else was doing, so no saxophone, trumpet, or drums, things like that. So he bought a vibraphone. I was born in November '79, and a couple years later, three years later, he got me started.

GC: Wow, so you started at three. Wow!

WW: Now that's not just vibes, that's everything. From the vibes to basic piano to drums. It started at three. Most people, as far as drummers go, most people know that I'm a left-handed drummer. I'm not a left-handed person though. I'm a left-handed drummer because my father's a left-handed person. So the way he played drums—that's how I saw the drums coming up. I saw the drums set up as a lefty. So I thought "oh, that's right, that's how it's supposed to be." Then I got older and started going out and seeing all these cats playing right-handed drums and I realized that I'm the wrong person. So that's the drum side... as far as mallets go, I took lessons at Peabody Preparatory with Leo LePage. He's now deceased, but he was with the Baltimore Symphony. He was also a jazz drummer when he lived in Boston back in the day. Took lessons with him every Saturday for like an hour, outside of my normal practice that I did every day from the age of three to seventeen, I practiced 5 days a week, 90 minutes. 30 minutes on drums, 30 on vibes, 30 on piano. That ranged from jazz to classical to pop music to Motown. Everything, just about. My father wanted to give me a crash course in music.

GC: That's very regimented, for such a long time. It sounds like it must have been very focused if you were compartmentalizing it like that.

WW: It was very focused. I mean, my dad—he knew what he wanted me to be from the moment I was born. I didn't have a choice so much.

GC: But you do love it.

WW: No I do love it. I didn't really start loving it until middle school jazz band. But before that—what kid wants to be in the basement? I had a typical childhood—I went to school, got home and watched my cartoons. But when my parents got home, around 5, it gave them a half-hour wind-down time and then my father was like "okay, let's go," and we were in the basement from 5:30-7pm every day. After that, I do homework, eat dinner, go to bed, do it again the next day. Saturdays were the day at Peabody, an hour at Peabody. Then after that—I have two older sisters, so I would just play with them or go outside in West Baltimore. Same for Sundays—I didn't grow up in church, so they were just another free day, with family or whoever.

GC: So would you do music that day?

WW: No, no music.

GC: So you don't know life without music.

Warren WW: Pretty much. It's pretty much all I know. I mean, just like any typical kid, at least what I saw growing up in Baltimore, I see sports on TV and rap music and so I knew that stuff, but music was and is my life.

GC: Did you do any listening? I assume he had a lot of records.

WW: He had a pile of records. I don't recall anything in particular. But I always had a good ear; I just didn't know it then. He'd put on the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, Anita Baker...all of those records are what I remember. That's what he played in his band. He had kind of a fusion band that played around Baltimore, called the Wolf Pack.

GC: I don't know them.

WW: No, no, it wasn't a band that actually went out. Just a local band that played restaurants.

GC: Was it like... did you ever know that band Moon August?

WW: Oh yeah, I knew them, with Harold Adams on tenor. I think they were more on the swing side.

GC: Really? I thought they got...smooth...at a certain point.

WW: I think they did a mix of things; they played classic songs like "Sugar," "Stolen Moments." Then they'd easily go into something like "Sweet Love" by Anita Baker. That's what I grew up listening to. And my parents still do this to this day, they still play a lot of Motown songs from back in the day. I heard all of that stuff, Motown, Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson—I heard all that stuff growing up.

GC: That's how you make a virtuoso I suppose. You get to the point where you've just been doing it for so long. I mean, you're a lot younger than me, but you've probably been playing longer than me.

WW: This is year 30 for me now.

GC: Yeah. I'm 42. I didn't even really get serious about piano since I was 21.

WW: Yeah, I've been playing for a long time, but like I said I didn't really start enjoying it until I got to middle school. I went to a school called West Baltimore Middle School, back in the day in the '60s and '70s, they called it Rock Glenn Middle School or Junior High School. The band teacher was Betty McCloud and we had a jazz band, concert band, wind ensemble, but the jazz band consisted of eight trumpet players, six trombones, and a pile of horns. No bassist, but I was the pianist and sometimes drummer in the band. I think what made me really start liking music—like I didn't really understand the concept of changes and playing in the key. My whole thing back then was play whatever the hottest song was on the radio for your solo.

GC: [laughs]

WW: One of the songs that we did—we actually did not play jazz oriented big band charts. We were a big band in that setting but we played songs like "Eye of the Tiger," things like that. One of the songs was "Louie Louie." So when they got to the keyboard solo they were like, "alright Warren, you go!" and I forget the name of this girl, but she was very popular. This was 1990 or 1991. And I could sing the chorus of this one song... [sings chorus] and I learned that on piano. So I used to play that on the solos and I would watch how my peers in the auditorium would react—they'd get up and start clapping and dancing. So I was like, "wow, if I can get that reaction playing songs like this I wonder what it could do for real?" So at that point, I think it was sixth or seventh grade, that's when I really started loving music.

GC: You liked the attention.

WW: Yeah.

GC: So your concept was "get house immediately"?

WW: Nah, that wasn't really the concept but that's just what happened.

GC: It's kind of a concept!

WW: Yeah, I guess. I mean, like I said, I knew a certain thing about changes but not too much.

GC: When did you really learn about changes?

WW: It kind of slowly picked up—I can't say there was a given moment. My dad had these charts; I remember when I was starting to learn how to read. He had a big band chart of "St. Thomas." And it had some time of solo in there, written out. And I remember playing it and I still remember how the solo goes to this day but I didn't know what I was doing. I was just like, "okay I'll read it down, this sounds good over this." At some point in middle school my dad would take me out to the club. We used to go to the Sports Lounge. Organ player, his name was Chico (that's all I know him as) and the drummer Bobby Ward. We used to go over there, and he'd play the vibes, and sometimes his band would go over there. There wasn't anything that I specifically worked on to learn what changes were, it was more just playing and playing. Like I said, I always had a good ear but I never knew it. One of the classes that I had at Peabody was classical theory.

GC: In high school?

WW: Middle school.

GC: Wow!

WW: I had to separate myself between high school and Peabody, but I'll talk about that in a minute.

GC: Okay.

WW: I took a theory class in middle school and I was pretty terrible at it. My teacher always had said "he has a great ear," and I didn't know what he was talking about. Eventually after I graduated middle school and got to high school—Baltimore School of the Arts, fall of 1993, the staff told me that I could not attend Peabody anymore and I could not study with the percussion teacher because the teacher at the School of the Arts was also a member of the Baltimore Symphony, but he was strictly classical. His name was John Locke. Basically they didn't want me studying with two guys from the Symphony; they already had someone there at the school. So I got accepted into the school.

How I figured out I had a good ear—I had perfect pitch, but this is how I figured it out. Ninth grade, 1993, there were a lot of students who were trying to figure out a popular song—a Mary J Blige tune called "Real Love." Very popular, back then. The students couldn't figure it out at all. I was like, "hey, I can play it!" They didn't know what it was, we were freshman. They said, "yeah right," and I just got on the piano and played it right away. They were like, "wow! Can you play this one?" They kept asking me. And I had never played these songs before. So I did some research after a while and found out I had perfect pitch, and that's why a lot of people said I have a good ear.

GC: Why didn't they tell you?

WW: I don't think they knew. I think it was just something I had to figure out on my own.

GC: It's interesting, you taking those classical lessons and your ear never coming up.

WW: That's another problem in my youth. I was at Peabody Prep for years and I wasn't just some little kid taking lessons. During that time I was also going on tour and performing as a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony. My first concert as a soloist with the Symphony I was about eight years old. I played all sorts of Concertos, Bach's Concerto in A Minor, Vivaldi's Piccolo Concerto in C Major.

GC: On mallets?

WW: Yeah, on the marimba. I also did a two week tour with the Symphony when James Galway was a soloist. We did John Corligiano's "Pied Piper Fantasy." And we all know the story of the Pied Piper—the guy who comes and takes the kids away. I was one of the little kids; we had a snare drum/field drum part in that piece. We did that for a long time. Basically I did on and off work with the Symphony for 14 years.

GC: Wow! That's amazing. So you went to school for the arts, and then you went to Berklee.

WW: Yep. Fall of 1997.

GC: How old are you?

WW: 33. Just turned 33.

GC: So what was Berklee like for you? Did you feel advanced?

WW: Um...Berklee was cool. I feel I learned, like any serious musician, I learned more outside of the school. I learned some things in the school, how to write music, how to notate it, certain things about harmony. But a lot of the things they teach at Berklee, I was just like "what's the point of this?" Like in Harmony 4, we were analyzing pieces of music and putting brackets around chords and indicating whether or not it was a II-V, and I used to always think "what the hell, why would I ever use this?" Basic stuff in Harmony 1 and 2 was what I needed, then I was cool. Same for Ear Training. I think any college that has a music program is going to have pros and cons. Some things are good, some aren't. A lot of those classes at Berklee I think were just designed just to take your money.

GC: Ugh, and that's a whole other conversation.

WW: [laughs] Yeah.

GC: As an educator myself...well, maybe we'll come back to that. Berklee used to be a place where people would just come through. Most people didn't finish Berklee—the joke was that if you actually got a degree from Berklee you were probably sad cause no one came through and took you away. But I think times have changed, I think people want their degrees and it's not quite the same in the industry.

WW: I don't think so. I mean, I finished the school.

GC: Did your parents want you to get the degree?

WW: Yeah, but I mean...I got a Performance degree. I didn't really need to go to Berklee to get a Performance degree because with the type of work that we do, it's like... who cares if you have the degree? It's either you can play or you can't play. It's not like I can just go to Christian McBride and say, "hey, I have a Performance Degree from Berklee, get me in your band!" I mean, I do think it's necessary for other types of things, like if you're doing Music Education or Music Therapy, of course you need that. Berklee has all of those. Everything else just depends on how good you are.

GC: So did you start hooking up with the cats you play with now at Berklee?

WW: Yes. One of the first people I met at Berklee who really helped me out was Jeremy Pelt.

GC: While he was a student?

WW: Yeah.

GC: Is he your age?

WW: He's about four years older than me. You know, being a new person on campus a lot of people just start talking about you. Actually one of the first people I met up there was Jaleel Shaw. I just happened to be walking around the hallways, because that's what freshman do, and I met Jaleel and a friend of mine, Rashawn Ross, trumpeter for Dave Matthews. All these guys were in the room, just playing, and there's a set of vibes in the hall. So I'm seventeen years old, just walking around I asked to play with them. They said, "sure, come in!" And we played for maybe an hour-and-a-half or two hours. Jaleel must have gone around telling people, "check out this cat on the vibes, he's the guy!"

So word starts getting passed around and Jeremy finds me. It was easy to find me because I lived in the dorms. He asked me to do a couple of café shows—Berklee had this thing where students would perform in the cafeteria, just give us a little bit of experience being a leader. So I did that, and my name eventually got passed on to Wayne Escoffery. He gave me my first gig as a leader at the club, Wally's. John Lampkin was another part of that, him being from Baltimore and he's always trying to look out for the guys, you know, like "yeah that's my boy from Baltimore, you gotta give him a chance!" I remember my first gig at Wally's, John wanted to give me the chance to play. I never got paid for that gig.

GC: [laughs]

WW: But the gig was like 50 bucks for four hours. They let me play everything that I knew. So I called all the tunes that I knew from Baltimore..."Sugar," "Stolen Moments," "Ornithology," "My Little Suede Shoes..."songs that they don't play at the club. So they said, "oh yeah, you sound good, come back tomorrow." So I come back the next day and they start calling tunes that I now think everybody should know but at the time I had no idea what they were. Like "In Your Own Sweet Way," "You Stepped Out of a Dream." So instead of writing all this stuff down, cause at this point I had perfect pitch, I figured, "well I don't have to know the melody right now, I can at least hear these changes out." So John, Jeremy, Darren Barrett, Jaleel Shaw...those were the main ones that really got me started in Boston. GC: I'm trying to remember the first time I met you. You were playing drums, it was a jam session. I showed up with Tim Warfield, I don't even remember why I was there...but I think we showed up and played "Solar" or something.

WW: Was it Wally's?

GC: I don't think it was Wally's, was there another place?

WW: I thought the first time that you and I met was with Tim on a New Year's gig.

GC: Yeah, a New Years gig with Rodney Green in Pennsylvania. With Chris Bacchus. I remember that, that was a while ago. Alright, so when did you start playing with Christian McBride?

WW: I started in 2008. I got a call from a woman in this office, somebody he was working with at the time. They said, "Mr. Wolf, Christian McBride would like to have you in his band for one week at the Village Vanguard." He had these things called the "Christian McBride Situations." I think a lot of people knew how badly I wanted to play with Christian so I thought it was a prank call. I was like, "man, stop playing" and they said, "no we really want you to play, we'll take care of everything, we've got the hotel."

So I went up, and we all thought it was just going to be a week. So it was me, Steve Wilson, Carl Allen, Eric Reed. So after the show's over, people were raving about that band. Keep the band together, keep it together. So he said okay, and booked a gig somewhere in South America, and then we did Monterey right after. I thought that was going to be it. At that point, I was in Houston, doing many gigs here and there; I've never actually been in a band. As a matter of fact, I didn't even think bands existed in jazz anymore.

GC: Wow, that's really telling.

WW: Yeah. But then they were saying we're going in the studio and doing a record. I still thought it was like no big deal, I mean how many cats go into the studio and release records and then go off and do something else? But after we released the record, we got some gigs. Again I was like, "okay, a couple gigs, I'm used to this." But they said, "no, we're going to keep it going!." That record was Kind of Brown, and we've been touring that record even up until today, four years later!

GC: Does he have a new record coming out?

WW: We just recorded it back in Spring of this year. So hopefully it will be coming out at some point next year, when he's done with this Monterey All-Stars Tour.

GC: I don't know how much time we have before we hit... there's so few people here, I wonder if they'll delay it... anyway, in closing: what are your thoughts— I would deduce that, because you have probably very few memories of life without being a multi-instrumentalist (and you play bass too, we don't even have time to talk about that)—what are the benefits of being a multi-instrumentalist for you?

WW: For me it gives me the knowledge to know what I want to hear in my band. There's so many times where I'm doing my own gigs, and if the pianist isn't doing something right, I can get on the piano and tell you, "try this." Same with the bassist. I could at least show them something, what I'm hearing. Also it helps with teaching. I'm teaching now at Baltimore School for the Arts, as the jazz instructor. I can always sit down at least with the rhythm section and tell every one of them to try this, try that. At least from the rhythm section perspective. When it comes to horns, I could tell you how to solo but I can't work on sound much. It just helps me be a complete musician. It gives me knowledge; I don't want to have to say, "okay, I know vibraphone stuff." I like to know it all.

GC: Speaking of vibraphone, legend is that you don't even own a vibraphone! How do you feel about that?

WW: I feel fine. [laughs] I actually sold my vibes about five years ago on eBay.

GC: Because you never use them?

WW: Nah it wasn't that, I was playing gigs on them. I just needed some money because I was trying to finish a CD of mine. The thing is, my dad has a set of vibes, I can use them... which I do, when I need it. I just don't have one in the house. I live almost 30 miles from my parents; I just don't feel like driving down there all the time.

GC: Where do you live?

WW: I live in Owings Mills. They live in Baltimore City. The way I practice nowadays—people as,k "do you practice?" and I say, "no" and they don't believe me, but I really don't. I tend to do a lot of mental practicing. And it's not even just jazz; it could be whatever. The more and more I can hear stuff, it's like I have the ability to hear stuff and it goes through my head down to my arms or fingers. I'm not saying I don't practice at all; there are certain times where I might want to work out little kinks. I feel fine though, if I don't have the vibes. I mean there's been times where I try to practice, then just get bored. I mean, it could be because I practiced so much as a kid. A lot of people just don't do that nowadays. I ask the kids in my high school how much they practice; the answer is, "hardly ever." I did it a lot! And that's not trying to say I'm the best...I just don't really know what to work on physically. When I hear stuff on record though, I hear it and go, "oh that's nice! I like that." And that could be from the worst musician! I could pick up something from the best musician or the worst musician. I'll take their ideas and ball it up and out comes... what I heard.

GC: I mean, I should be practicing. But I don't have the time. Because I spent a lot of time in the '90s practicing, I feel like on piano I can get away with it... trumpet is a different story, but I feel like I can still play at a certain level without practicing. It would be nice to have time, but I have a child and a job. And you have three kids?

WW: Yeah, three kids. They live in Boston with their mom. Even when we were all living together, when I was trying to practice, it was really hard to do it. Because my kids would be like, "hey could I join in with you?" and I'd be like, "no, no, leave me alone."

GC: I have the same problem.

WW: Now I'm remarried, my wife is a ballet dancer. And every now and then... I haven't completely just shut off. Like right now, I am practicing the "Carnival of Venice" on marimba because I'm about to record it, and that thing is hard. Not so much technically hard but... just a lot of notes. Making sure I just nail them. So I'm practicing that a lot. But other stuff, not really. Because jazz music is so free for me. I don't have a rule, like "make sure you get this note, make sure you get that note." Because everything could be resolved in a certain way, it's just how you execute it, make sure you get your rhythm right.

GC: Does it matter to you what instrument you're playing? Does it all just become the same thing, or do you find that you're thinking about different things on different instruments?

WW: No it really doesn't matter. Me, I like to think as a drummer or vibraphonist. I mean I can play piano, but I don't really like it.

GC: You don't like the instrument?

WW: No. But I'm saying that mostly because it hurts. Also, I don't have the proper technique. People see me play piano, but I play them like I'm playing vibes. I've never had a lesson on piano. But fingerings... if someone said, "play the Eb major scale" I'll probably mess it up. I've just never had the training. I'm self-taught; I know what chords sound good. I know about as many chords as any other professional pianist. There are just certain things I can't execute right. But I'll do gigs on piano. Same with drums. It's hard to sit in on drums though because I'm left-handed, and I don't feel like making the trouble of making the switch. I could make a living as a pianist or drummer... which I do, sometimes.

GC: I guess for me, I try to tell my students that a certain amount of technique is important, but... like you get drummers that just practice chops all day and all night and they don't really know how to function musically. They can't hear. Do you find yourself trying to relate that to your students? How do you relate that?

WW: I'm not even there yet.

GC: [laughs]

WW: My students... it's a classical-oriented school. So jazz is like an elective, but they enjoy doing it. It's not even about chops. For instance, I was telling my bassist—he's just trying to get the right notes in, but he's making mistakes. So when he thinks he hits a right note, he plays real soft. I said "don't do that! If anything, right now I want to hear you maintaining that beat and that pulse. At least figure out what key you're in, but we'll get to the other stuff later." So it's not about chops so much for me. It's more about making sure they're playing in the key with some type of decent rhythm. Playing as a unit, getting an overall sound, making sure dynamics are there. That's what's more concerning me right now. That's a whole other conversation, because the jazz thing just isn't there, isn't present. I'm just trying to help them learn this stuff. And it's not even jazz, just contemporary music. You could play smooth jazz and still play changes. It's more just like trying to get them to understand the concept of chord changes and such. For me I'm like "this is easy, you can't hear that?" But they can't.

GC: Do you enjoy teaching?

WW: Um...[pause] Yes. I think my biggest thing that I have to work on when it comes to teaching is being more patient. I pick up music very easily. Over the years you get better, but it just came very easy to me. And it still comes easy for the most part, I mean there are certain challenges but it's like, "okay, that's fine." A lot of my students, I look at them and talk with them, have conversation s with them, but they just don't understand it so much. I always wonder, "why can't you guys get this?" I've learned to be more control and calm, let them take their time.

GC: Did you ever want to move to New York?

WW: Couple reasons for that. For one, this isn't the 1940s and '50s anymore. Back then, if you want to play jazz, yes you have to move to New York. Everyone wanted to be seen by Bird and all the cats back then if you wanted to get the gig. But how it is now with the prices in New York, a lot of cats are going to the city fresh out of college and they're playing these gigs in restaurants for very little money. It's like the money that was good back then, except they're still doing it now and the cost of living went up like five times. I mean, if a person wants to live that life, I'm not hating against them, that's fine. There are plenty of musicians who's plan is to never get married, have a family, they just eat, breathe, and live that shit. That's not me.

Me, I had kids at an early age. That's another reason. I had my first child when I was 20. And she's now 12, going on 13. I have three kids, like I said, and I couldn't... maybe I could have, I don't know, but I didn't think I could afford living in New York. My girl is the oldest, and I have two boys. Eventually they're going to get older and I want them to have their own rooms and things like that, so I look at it and think that's either going to be a four-bedroom apartment or four-bedroom house combined with the unsteadiness of the gigs... I couldn't afford New York. That's why I came back to Baltimore. I was teaching in Boston at Berklee for two years right after graduation, but it just got so expensive in Boston I decided to come back to Baltimore. It's pretty reasonable to live here, you can get to D.C. in 30 minutes, 45 to Philadelphia, New York, and there's an airport and you can get just about anywhere, any major city.

And the other thing, I really believe that if you really play your tail off, they'll find you, if they really want you. I mean, people who want to go to New York... that's cool for them, it's just not for me. And besides, I don't really like New York. I like to go there and do what I have to do. I like to go to New York and then come home. I'm a family guy, I like Owings Mills. I have grass! I can see deer running around! I have to deal with buses and shit, I live in a nice quiet neighborhood in a four-story house. In New York, a four-story house would be like three, four thousand dollars or something...

GC: To rent.

WW: Yeah, and I'm buying.

GC: Yeah, I hear you. Where do you see yourself in ten years? How are you going to get out more as a leader? Is that inevitable, are you trying to work on it?

WW: I'm trying to work on it now, because I've released my first record last year, on the Mack Avenue label. The next one will be recorded February and March, two different bands. It's just about getting the right team together, in order to push me and it takes the promoter of the club to actually believe in that person, give them a chance. So it's a matter of what happens on that end. Then there's another side, there's other sides I want to conquer, I want to get back on the classical side of music. There was a point in time where I thought about moving to L.A., play R&B and pop music because I like that style of music too. I remember about four years ago I got an offer to join Ne-Yo's band, playing drums.

GC: Really? Wow.

WW: I got the offer; I'd rather just play straight-ahead... at that point in time.

GC: I bet is pays better with Christian.

WW: Probably, because I've heard those R&B gigs pay at the max like 500 bucks.

GC: I've heard that. Because then you can get anyone to do it.

WW: The thing about those R&B gigs... not all, but the majority of them, you get more things quicker. Endorsements quicker, life might be better depending on who you are. You get to travel on your tour bus; you get to wear regular street clothes on the gig, access to a lot of different women, if you're that type of person.

GC: Want me to keep that in there?

WW: Sure.

GC: [laughs] Well I think that's why a lot of young people will do that, because they're still out there having fun. ]Signal to go onstage...] Oh, we're ready? Alright. I think that's good.

WW: You sure? We could do more over the break. I've got a lot to say, man.

GC: Actually, my saxophone student has to transcribe this. So this should be good.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of McKenna Group Productions

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