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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.
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