BISHOP NORMAN WILLIAMS: Swinging from Kansas City to San Francisco
I met saxophonist extraordinaire "Bishop" Norman Williams in the early ’90’s, and sat in on guitar at his jam session with local legend B.J. Papa on piano at North Beach’s Gathering Café which closed in the late ’90’s. I was first taken by his extraordinarily swinging melodies—here’s a seasoned Kansas City be-bop player with a boundless ability to improvise—and then by his humble and magically mystifying nature, the impish gleam in his eyes, and the understated depth of his passion that imbues his playing.
Indeed, it seems as if everyone who has met Bishop has some sort of story to tell about him. Having gotten to know him, what now strikes me the most about Bishop is his unswerving dedication to music: he is here to play his horn. "Woodshedding," or locking himself away to practice, every day without fail, he lives in a world of sound, writing multiple compositions daily, the scribbled scored piled everywhere in his Nob Hill studio and filling entire file cabinets. From his studio’s walls hang posters of him playing with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, clippings from the Church of John Coltrane, the North Beach Jazz Festival, and a postcard of Theloniuous Monk. There is a legend in the house that has played with the greats: Max Roach, Sonny Stitts, John Handy, Pharaoh Sanders, George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard! Bishop’s bop contains a lifetime of movement and progression, an endless reassessment of the now, playing and building, upon Parker, upon Ornette Coleman, upon Schonberg, incorporating everything that he finds melodic or harmonic or rhythmic. Every time Bishop steps up to play he has a new angle atop his unmistakable sound, some fragment of a classical piece worked into a minor vamp, or a new melody entirely, straight from Kansas City. Once he came to my apartment to shed, or practice some songs for a recording we did in 1997. He noticed one of my business cards on my table and I told them that I had ordered them through a free service and offered to order some for him. "How long will it take?" He asked. "Just a couple of minutes online," I assured him. His sax was already strung around his neck and he looked unsure of whether he could sit through the sentence before diving into a solo. I filled out the order form and asked him what picture he wanted, a lighthouse being the first choice among many. "Give me the lighthouse," he demanded and started playing. "Are you sure you want a lighthouse?" I asked, reminding him that they offered musical themes. "Give me the damn lighthouse!" Bishop was already into a solo, his mind completely focused on producing new themes and melodic variations, and surely the business cards that I had ordered for him were long gone his thoughts. I laughed to myself about the fact that his cards would have a lighthouse of all things on them, and then I thought to myself while beholding this humble prodigy and teacher, selflessly a selfless servant to his music, "the lighthouse makes perfect sense." Bishop is indeed a lighthouse for young and old musicians alike and you never know who is going to come play with his quartet at his performances.
Another time, Bishop and I went to see Oliver Lake play with Reggie Workman at The Herbst Theater. We had front-row center tickets, and, while beholding the sheer force of Oliver Lake’s free-formed saxophone improvisations at such close proximity is like paddling a canoe in front of the Niagara Falls, we sat entranced through the first set with our mouths agape. During the intermission, Bishop disappeared into the crowd, inevitably meeting friends and fans, and, to my surprise, he never returned for the second or third sets. When I asked him about it the next time I saw him, he said, "After the first set, I had to go home and shed!"
From Kansas City to San Francisco: Born in 1938, Norman Williams grew up in Kansas City, no doubt with blues infused sound of dueling tenor saxophones, like Ben Webster and Lester Young. Williams is described as "a very talented popular musician and composer who lives in San Francisco, Calif." on a family genealogy site. "He’s the oldest of eight children of Lee Edna Margaret Anderson Rollins, a resident of Kansas City." He visits his family in Kansas City regularly, and is taken around by his mother and sisters to play music and reminisce. Because the public high school he attended placed students into career-oriented curriculums, mostly centered on creating a predominantly black working class, the young Norman studied music extensively under Leo Davis, who had been Charlie Parker’s teacher at the same institution. "I started [playing saxophone] when I was 11 years old. When I got to be 15, I left home and moved to Omaha, and then on to Chicago, then I would end up out here."
He landed his first job at fifteen playing alto sax behind singer, Rudy Darling, who he coached on piano. Darling drew in a crowd with his Blues signing, and Norman has fond memories of his first performances. It was just around then that he met tenor saxophonist George Coleman. Arriving in San Francisco in 1961 after two brief hiatuses in Los Angeles and Las Vegas the same year, Norman found himself surrounded by musicians in flourishing jazz Scene and landed himself a gig as bandleader at Bop City, the premier jazz club in the city opened by Jimbo Edwards, the first African American car dealer in the city, in 1950. Having started out as a tiny café called Jimbo’s Waffle Shop, by 1961, the club had expanded to an around-the-clock jazz venue, and Norman’s band played the two to six shift in the morning, the early morning slot which all the musicians would frequent, including Miles Davis and Paul Gonzales. Jimbo was known to man the door with ruthless conviction, often saying, "We don’t allow no squares in Bop City. If you don’t understand what we doin,’ then leave and don’t come back."
Norman adopted the nickname "Bishop" after playing at San Francisco’s Church of John Coltrane which, at the time, was called the One Mind Temple. Although the "one mind" theme pops up in a lot of his compositions, he once responded, when asked about the connection in an interview, "You know I’m still half asleep, I can’t hardly remember." Bassist Michael Formanek described Williams as a "mentor," saying, "He’s an alto saxophonist [who] came from Kansas City, and he’s been a real mainstay in the San Francisco scene since the ’60s probably … The thing about the Bishop—with him it was all about the spirit of music, just playing, and it was not about talking. In fact, we’d say,’the Bishop is a man of few words.’ He would just call tunes, you couldn’t understand what he was saying half the time; he’d just mumble out the name of some standard you never heard of and count it off and you just kind of had to go."
Although Bishop’s recordings, such as the One Mind Experience albums and "Billie’s Ballet," a funky composition featured on the Jazz Spectrum compilation, are hard to come by, I am anxiously awaiting the release of his new album on LifeForcejazz Records, a local jazz label managed by Dawan Muhammad, a multi-reedist, composer and arranger. Life- Forcejazz is really one of the best Bay Area jazz labels featuring local musicians and veterans like drummer Billy Higgins and guitarist Calvin Keys. On One Mind Experience, the track, "Dolphy," with its polytonal melody, stands out as having Bishop’s sound. "It took a while to write," he says. "I think I spent a month fiddling with it—adding little melodies here and there, taking off others—before I was satisfied." "You know, the first time I met Dolphy was in Kansas City, about ’58. He was with Chico Hamilton then. We ran into each other at the musicians’ union and started talking. Eric had his horn and said, ‘Let’s play.’ We blew from noon to eight o’clock, got a rhythm section together, and, man, we had so much fun. Played in and out—both ways. Four years later, I saw Dolphy again, on a Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. He was with Coltrane’s band " Elvin, McCoy, Jimmy Garrison—at the Jazz Workshop. Eric asked me to come up and play a little, and I said, ‘Oh, no, you’re too heavy for me!’ I’ll never forget that."
Dawan Muhammad recalls meeting Bishop in 1968: "I had heard him play and knew who he was, but I didn’t actually meet "The Bishop" until 1968, when I returned to the Bay area from military service. I became more acquainted with him when he led famous jam sessions at the Off Plaza and Bajon’s. An aspiring alto player myself, I would attend those sessions every week and just sit in the back and listen. The few times that I did attempt to play, Bishop was always encouraging. He teaches on the job and he knows a lot about music! In fact, I would go so far as to say that over the last 40 years, most of the "young lions" coming out of the Bay Area came through "Bishop’s School." In recent years, I have performed with Bishop on special programs where he has an opportunity to showcase his composition and arranging skills. Those experiences led me to produce several live and in studio recording sessions featuring Bishop and some of those "young lions" playing Bishop’s original music. We are in the process of mastering a CD and we have an outstanding DVD in process from a jazz workshop held in San Jose. We are planning to release both products in the fall of this year!" Keep your ears open for Bishop’s new album in the fall on LifeForcejazz.
While there is no definitive biography on Bishop online or elsewhere, an internet search produces an interesting scrapbook of announcements and queries. One of them reads: "I am wondering if Bishop Norman Williams is still associated with the Church? I used to live in the Bay Area and heard him play in the mid 70s mostly in a bar on Valencia Street, I think, at least somewhere in the Mission area. He led a jam on Sunday afternoons. In addition to being a good player, he seemed like a very nice person and encouraged players to sit in, providing the format to do so. I will never forget one afternoon, he was standing on stage and the head came back around or it was time for him to take a solo. He was eating a piece of pizza, he calmly put the last of the crust in his pocket and began to blow his horn, just in the right place. It was pretty funny" (Ken Hale). And the stories keep flowing, stories about his unforgettable playing and his Bishopisms.
With over 40 years based in San Francisco, Norman Williams has played with just about everyone under the California sun: George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Pharaoh Sanders, Eric Dolphy, Jack McDuff, and Woody Shaw, to name a few. Drummer Orion says, "I’ve worked with Bishop for fifteen years. I started working with him in BJ’s band at the gathering Café in North Beach in the early ’90’s. Also, he played with me in my band, Orion’s Joy of Jazz. We played at Cato’s in Oakland on a regular basis for about four years and twice a month at the San Francisco Brewery for five years." Bassist and guitarist Jean Repetto states, "I met Bishop through Orion when I played at the SF Brewing Co. in1995. Bishop is a hero of mine in so many ways I don’t know where to start. He’s the most prolific jazz composer I’ve ever known. I think he is a logical extension of Parker/Coltrane." Although he has done a lot of teaching and is known around the community as an all-around mentor, and everyone has an inspiring story to tell, he has always considered himself to be a saxophonist by profession, his selfless guidance shining through his music. When I asked him about his teaching, he replied, "I’ve done that, taught a lot, but I’m just a saxophonist."
Interview with "Bishop" Norman Williams:
All About Jazz: Good to see you, Bishop. What have you been working on lately and where have you been playing?
Bishop Norman William: I’ve been playing with Bisa, over at the Cannery. Sometimes we play in Oakland. We’ve played at Bird and Beckett Books. And the Les Joulines gig.
AAJ: Nice. Is he a good player?
BNW: He can play. He plays bass. He might play guitar, but mostly he plays bass. Man, I thought we were working today! [He’s shaking his head and laughing.]
AAJ: He’ll figure it out and let you know!
BNW: So, what have you got going today? I don’t want to mess with my saxophone. I’ve got to put a new reed on, but I’ll play my flute.
AAJ: Cool. I’ve got my guitar. We can play.
BNW: These are my sisters right here. [He points top a photo on the wall with five women. They’re still in Kansas City.
AAJ: When was the last time you were out there?
BNW: I was out there about three months ago. My mother’s still around. She’s Eighty-five, and, I went down there. You know, they took me all around to play, you know.
AAJ: Oh, you were playing there? What kind of places were you playing at?
BNW: They’ve got a few places, not like out here though.
AAJ: But they’ve got some clubs.
BNW: Yeah, but Kansas City is not the same now. It takes you hours to go from one place to another, man. And they just don’t have that many clubs anymore like they used to. That’s why I got the hell out of there after I visited my Mama! She said, "Where you going?" They were jazz clubs, but watered down clubs, and I was used to the clubs out here. She said, "But you just got here!" My mother lives out there on 107th, and that’s about as far as you can go, south, and I don’t think you can ride no bus.
AAJ: And you grew up with the drummer, Achytan, there, right?
BNW: Yeah, he was in the tenth grade, and he was in the eighth grade.
AAJ: And you went to the same high school as Charlie Parker, right? How much older was Charlie Parker than you, about ten years? BNW: No, man! He was born in 1921, and I was born in ’38! AAJ: I see, sorry. So there was like a twenty-year difference or something like that. [Bishop is laughing again]
BNW: We had Leo Davis there. He was Charlie Parker’s teacher.
AAJ: Was he an alto player, or did he just teach music?
BNW: No, he just taught music. He could play all the instruments. He played, saxophone, trumpet. Trumpet was his main instrument. We had three hours of music a day. I mean, it was a vocational high school. You know, if you want to pick up a trade, like auto-mechanics, music. R.T. Cole. That was the name of it. I bought my first saxophone there, from Mr. P.M. Jones. [He’s laughing.] I got it for ten dollars! It was in the key of C. It was between a tenor and an alto. All the kids would be laughing at me because of that! It was like a baby tenor.
AAJ: I was reading somewhere that one of your first gigs was with Rudy Darling.
BNW: Rudy Darling! That was my first real gig. I was fifteen years old. We played at a club called the Professional Club, down on Twelfth and Central in Kansas City. We were making so much money! My brother, Floyd, who teaches Physics, he’s the one that showed Rudy how to play the blues, and once Rudy knew how to do that, shoot, we were working! He could sing. I mean he couldn’t sing that good! But we were playing blues, shuffles, and stuff. If you knew how to entertain your people, man, you know, they tipped.
AAJ: What kind of music did you listen to a kid?
BNW: Shoot, I listen to all sorts of stuff, you know. I liked Lester Young, Ben Webster. I heard Charlie Parker when I was fifteen. My mother, you know, she introduced me to his music. First thing I heard was "Parker’s Mood," and then "Barbados." And I heard him and I was like, phew, and off! And everybody used to call me "Little Bird." And when I got older I used to say, "Just call me Norman," you know!
AAJ: Did you ever meet him?
BNW: No. I met Miles, out here, and Leo Parker. He was working at the Boulevard Room, I think, some place in Kansas City. It was a hip place. I was around fifteen then. They had the Musician’s Union, which is called the Musician’s Foundation now, and, man, we used to have some hell of gatherings then! In the late 50’s, I was on the road with Phineas Newborn Sr. That’s a pianist from Memphis. Real bad cat. He’d play with George Coleman. I met them in Chicago. We were on the road. And then I quit the band and moved to Chicago and that’s where I met George Coleman and played with Max Roach. Those cats were bad man! And then, ever since then, every time George Coleman comes out here, he calls me up.
AAJ: Have you seen Achytan around?
BNW: Yeah, we played together at the Charlie Parker Festival, over there in Oakland, at the Oakland Auditorium. That was a couple of years ago. Do you know Angela Wellman? She plays trombone. She’s from Kansas City too, and it was the band we put together.
AAJ: Didn’t you play at Small’s in New York?
BNW: Yeah, I worked there a couple of years ago with Jimmy Lovelace, the drummer. He just died. I just found out. We went to high school together but I was older than him. I like Small’s, it was a good time.
AAJ: I remember sitting in at Les Joulines when George Coleman came in.
BNW: Yeah. I met him when I was sixteen. He was from Memphis, Tennessee.
AAJ: What about Prince Lasha? I remember meeting him with you one time. Have you seen him lately?
BNW: No. He’s lives in New York. He came down to a gig that me and Vince Wallace were doing. He came down there with Mike Marcus.
AAJ: Who else have you worked with lately in San Francisco?
BNW: I’ve worked with Howard Wiley with Marcus Shelby’s big band. They needed an alto player. That music was so hard. I was trying to sight read without any rehearsals. But, Howard was in the band, we played a lot of Duke, and Samir. You remember that drummer, Samir? Yeah, but Howard’s bad! Whooooooooooo! He reads his ass off too, that boy can read. So, anyway, Marcus called me for that particular gig. But I remember meeting Marcus down at the Gathering. And I played with Lavay Smith for a few years in her quartet. She’s a hell of a singer. She called me up and asked me to play a gig. I can’t even remember where it was, but it was a challenge to play for her, I mean, she’s been around, and those big band arrangements. And do you know this alto player, Evan Francis? He’s bad. He goes back and forth to New York, but he was born in LA. He plays with Marcus Shelby’s band. He’s a young cat.
AAJ: And you’ve known BJ Papa for a long time now.
BNW: Oh yeah. When I met BJ he was playing saxophone. Did you know he played saxophone? He played tenor at that time but he told me he got an alto. I met him, shoot, let’s see, in ’61. He was playing down at, in fact my first gig was at this place called Soulville, down at McAllister and Webster. As soon as I got down here they gave me the job. Parker, a cat named Parker. He said, "you want to be the leader of the band?" I had never led no band before but he gave me my first job out here! And this was in ’61. I moved to LA and then to Vegas, and then here, all in the same year. After I worked at Soulville, I played at "they had this place" you ever hear of Bop City?
AAJ: Yeah, sure. I was going to ask you about that.
BNW: That’s a place where everybody that was anybody" they’d come down there. I met a lot of people there. Miles Davis used to come out there, Paul Gonzales was coming down there, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those people used to come down to play there, and I was the leader of the band. We started at two o’colck and went until six. I worked there for three years, from ’61 to ’64. And Jimbo. He’d run that club back and forth. He died maybe a couple of years ago. He was a smart cat. He was a gambler, and he ran that club, I mean, anybody he didn’t like, I mean, smooth cat, man. It was at Buchanan and Post. That’s where everyone went, because it went on all night, so, If you couldn’t sleep, it was like, go down to Bop City! That was the time that they had clubs all the way around the clock. They also had the Blue Mirror down on Filmore.
AAJ: These are great posters. Who are these guys?
BNW: That’s me and Woody Shaw. We did a CD together. That’s me and Freddie Hubbard, and Dave Leibman. And that’s me and Sonny Stitt, and me and John Handy. And this here is Thelonious Monk. I played at his birthday party at this club here in San Francisco. The Baroness was there, and the Baroness’ daughter. I have a picture here of Pharaoh Sanders. I’ve played with him. He was working at a place called Tiki Jack’s over there in Oakland. That’s where he got famous over there. A lot of people from out of town would come there. I worked there with Sonny Stitt. And we made a CD.
AAJ: Well, great to talk to you today, Bishop! Let’s do some playing! BNW: Let’s shed! Written by Steven Mayer and originally published at allaboutjazz.com.
Bronx born Bobby Matos began playing music beating on pots and pans in Grandma’s apartment and went on to backstage informal lessons with conga drum masters Patato Valdez and Mongo Santamaria.
His first gigs were in the early ˜60’s “beat ‘" bohemian “ Greenwich Village Cafes, but he soon found himself playing in every type of venue; from Bronx dance halls to Carnegie Hall, to elegant supper clubs, Central Park Concerts, Off Broadway theaters, and ˜After Hours” clubs in El Barrio.
He was inspired and encouraged to play timbales by Willie Bobo and Tito Puente, and in the late ˜60s attended the New School and Manhattan School of Music studying composition and arranging. Around this exciting time for Latin Music in N.Y., he recorded “My Latin Soul” for Philips Records. This recording eventually became a much prized cult classic influencing many ˜70’s and ˜80’s Acid Jazz groups on both sides of the Atlantic…
After touring and recording with artists like Ben Vereen, Bette Midler, Fred Neil, Jim Croce, Ray Rivera, Joe Loco, Miriam Makeeba, and many others, Bobby relocated to Los Angeles where he began experimenting with an Afro Cuban Jazz band where he could blend (and bend) musical elements from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Wayne Shorter, Eddie Palmieri, and the rich legacy of Afro Cuban music.
In the ’80’s and ‘90’s, he recorded several albums, most notably 5 critically acclaimed CDs for Ubiquity Records’ “Cubop” label. He also produced CDs for Ray Armando, Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers, Dave Pike, John Santos, and Jack Costanzo. In 2004 he released the critically acclaimed "Made By Hand", a live recording on the artist’s collective Life Force Jazz records,
Bobby continues recording and releasing new music on the LifeForce Jazz imprint including "Acknowledgement" 2005, "Charanga Chango" 2006, and "Gratitude" 2007.
Mambo, Bembe, and Jazz Latino represent healing energy, meditation, and medicine encoded as music. When musicians listen and communicate with each other and their audience on this spiritual level, the music becomes much more than a performance.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1943, Calvin Keys’ musical legacy began early with his father Otis Keys, a man who is still described as Omaha’s greatest natural drummer. Early on in his own musical career Calvin auditioned and played guitar with such greats as Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and bassist Gerald Holts. At age 17, he first hit the road with sax player Little Walkin’ Willie and then followed in his father’s footsteps to Kansas City, where his first gigs were with Preston Love of the Count Basie Orchestra and The Frank Edwards Organ Trio. That foundation led to working with one of the greatest organ trios of all time‚ The Jimmy Smith Trio, and then on to working with several other organ greats: Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, and Groove Holmes.
In 1969, Keys headed for Los Angeles. In 1971, he cut his first album, Shawn Neeq, on what was then Gene Russell’s new highly acclaimed Blackjazz record label. Soon afterwards, he was hired to record and tour with Ray Charles. It was then that Calvin’s career began blossoming in full swing as he toured Europe for the first time as the guitarist for Ray’s Big Band.
In 1973, Blackjazz released his second solo album, Proceed With Caution. At this time, Calvin also began also using his newly given African name, Ajafika. Appearing on the album cover in an African robe and holding a spear, Calvin was in step with the African-American independence movement with a new identity and a raw roots musical direction. Shortly thereafter, Keys was called to work with legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal. Keys spent most of the next seven years recording six albums and performing with Ahmad.
By 1975, Keys had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and become an avid participant in its local jazz community, working on a regular basis with John Handy, Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Marshall, Leon Williams, Bob Braye, Ed Kelley, Eddie Duran, Bruce Forman, Junius Simons, Eddie Moore and others. In the 80’s, Calvin performed with big name players such as Tony Bennett, Pharoah Saunders, and Sonny Stitt. By this time, Keys realized he wanted to reestablish his solo career, so he returned to the studio to record. In 1985, Olive Branch Records released tracks from these sessions as the album entitiled, Full Court Press. The album that followed, Maria’s First, featured samples of the first cries of his newborn daughter, Marela.
Working with his own trio, Calvin released Standard Keys on Lifeforce Records in 1992. After undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1997, Keys bounced back with a memorable debut on dissent’s eponimous release on Wide Hive Records. A year later, Keys followed up with his widely heralded solo album on Wide Hive Records, Detours Into Unconscious Rhythms. Since then, he has performed with Blue Note Records organist Big John Patten, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and most recently, Taj Mahal. In 2005, Calvin’s latest release, Calvinesque, rose to #30 on the Jazz charts.
On Vertical Clearance, Calvin is reunited with Blackjazz compatriot Doug Carn, as well as many other noteworthy musicians including: Phil Ranelin, Sonny Fortune, Roger Glen, and Babatunde. Also featured on the record are Wide Hive staples, keyboardist Kat Ouano, bassist Matt Montgomery, and composer/producer Gregory Howe. "If you love jazz… you’ll love Calvin" ! ! !
CHESTER E. SMITH
Chester E. Smith is a respected musician, talented performer and exciting addition to today’s jazz scene, particularly in the bay area where he now makes his home. Early in his career known as “Jazz Machine,” Chester opened for the Larry Coryell Show in Philadelphia to a full house of adoring fans.
He was technical consultant to electronic organ manufacturers, and the late jazz organist Jimmy Smith (no relative). He designed his own touring/recording organ called the FOX Special. His talents include both arranging and composing. Many of his performances feature his own compositions, which are strongly influenced by the music of Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner and Jimmy Smith. The Black Entertainment Network (BET) hosted Chester and his Orchestra on its Jazz Discovery program. The program highlighted his unique and exciting heel-toe walking bass technique and was very well received!
Keeter Betts, bassist extraordinaire for Winton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Dina Washington and Ella Fitzgerald said, “you don’t see jazz organ players (play) the foot pedals and he took a heck of a solo. It is innovative having the Take Six voices going against his organ too, that was completely different, so he’s done some studying. He’s got his own creation within his mind. Chester is very unique, an unusual type of organ player and we should be hearing a lot from him.”
Chester celebrated his CD releases “Monster Groove Party” and “Blues For C” on LifeForcejazz Records. The music is hot, combining tradition with elements of today’s music. A DVD performance of Chester at the FOX Special organ is available on YouTube under "feetnfingers," demonstrating high-energy and his unique style of organ playing. For more information contact:
Chester E. Smith, 22 South Keeble Ave., San Jose CA 95126-3114 (408) 295-1873, www. feetnfingers.com, Email: email@example.com
Destined from birth to become a part of the world of music, Doug Carn was born July 14, 1948 in New York City and raised in St. Augustine, Florida, where his mother, Gwendolyn Seniors Carn, taught music in the St. Johns County Public School System. Her unique and special teaching abilities provided a fertile ground for his future development. Doug started piano lessons at the age of five but switched to the alto sax at eight. His uncle, Bill Seniors, a jazz aficionado and DJ, turned Doug on to all of the jazz of the late forties and early fifties. He was also a key figure in Doug’s musical development.
In his early teens, Doug formed his first group, The NuTones. They played a variety of Jazz R&B and Rock ‘n Roll hits for dances, proms and club dates all over Florida and southeast Georgia. In addition, he held down a post as organist for the A.M.E. church in its 11th Episcopal District. During his sophomore year in high school, Doug started to play the oboe which eventually earned him a full scholarship to Jacksonville University where he returned to teach in the Jazz Studies Department in 1982. Doug graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. He also received a full scholarship to the U.S. Air Force Academy, which he turned down to pursue his music. Doug, who is now a licensed pilot, often expresses a regret about this action and sometimes wishes he had become an astronaut. About the same time, Doug’s creative writing abilities and spiritual ideology began to bear fruit. He was leading an organ trio in L.A. and studying with Larry Young , Jr. (Khalid Yasin Aziz) when the word started to “get around” about Doug’s multi-faceted talents. He was soon discovered by Gene Russell (Black Jazz Records) who had heard about Doug’s innovative lyric adaptation of contemporary jazz classic, i.e., Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Bobby Hutcherson ‘s “Little B’s Poem” and Horace Silver’s “Peace.” During this same period, Doug also gained critical acclaim as a “Jazz Spatialist” for his “Deft Orchestrations” and horn arrangements. They were inspired by a natural ability to speak the Be-Bop language and a solid foundation in the classical tradition.
Jazz critic Pete Welding said in a Downbeat Magazine Review that Carn’s music’s “chief distinction stemmed from leader Carn’s writing for voice and horns… The vocal lines, sung by his wife were thoroughly integral parts of the arrangements, not just vocals with instrumental accompaniment.” “The most attractive component of the group’s music is Carn’s deft orchestrations, which give it a much larger sound than it’s instrumentation would suggest”.
Healing with Music Jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Eddie Henderson always had talent. After all, his first informal lesson on the instrument at the age of 9 was from Louis Armstrong. But his studies went well beyond that. As a teenager he was learning legitimate trumpet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and performing with the San Francisco Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Proper technique is always the cornerstone of such an undertaking. And so it was with a bit of brashness, and a dash of innocent ignorance, that he spoke to a friend of his parents sometime in 1957 as the two drove down a city street. Young Eddie didn’t know the man well, but had just accompanied him to a gig in San Francisco. "You don’t play correct," the teenager told the driver, who promptly screeched the car to a halt. "What the fuck are you playing?" intoned the man in a gravely voice. "I play trumpet," the boy responded. "Yeah. I’ll BET you play trumpet," said Miles Dewey Davis III as he threw the car back in gear and drove on. "Actually, I really didn’t know who he was," says Henderson in early June, recalling the incident. The first band he heard Davis perform with included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones. Not unlike watching the Yankees with Mantle, Maris, Berra and Whitey Ford prior to paying attention to the sports pages.
As a family friend, Davis became more familiar to Henderson. In fact, Miles has been a major musical influence on the 69-year-old throughout his life. That culminated in May of 2002 with the recording of So What, a tribute to Davis that features songs associated with the legend. It was released in 2003. The group – Bob Berg on sax, Dave Kikoski on piano, Ed Howard on bass and either Billy Hart or Victor Lewis on drums, does a scintillating job playing the music.
"Miles is so very special to me because when I was in high school he stayed in my parents’ house when he came through town about 1957, ’58 and ’59 in San Francisco. I was going to the conservatory then studying classical music. I saw him do all these songs live when I was much younger. So when I was asked to do a tribute to him, playing his music, I was thrilled to death and honored. And with such a prestigious company like Sony and Columbia, I said, ‘This is going to be fun.’" The music sparkles. The renditions of "All Blues," "So What," "Footprints," "Prince of Darkness" "Old Folks" and more retain a fresh quality, and Henderson’s trumpet – both muted and open — eerily harkens the spirit of Miles, while retaining Henderson’s fingerprints as well. His horn burns at times and at others invokes the introspective and mellow side that made Miles so appealing. He deliberately tried to portray Davis, but through his own soul. "I tried to emulate the character of him, through his music, even though it was me. I tried to put myself there. Since it’s a tribute to Miles Davis, and he was so important to me, I really wanted to show that I was influenced, not just playing the tunes that he played without any thought of going inside the music and make it come alive as a presentation or dedication to him."
Like Miles’ recording style through much of his earlier career, this session was very much "live." The sound and feeling the group achieved is remarkable.
"There was no rehearsal and no music," says Henderson. "Can you imagine that? We just came to the studio. They were professionals. But I did make one statement: ‘Whatever you do, don’t do it like you’ve heard it so many times on record.’ Like the line to "All Blues," the bass line to "So What" or the bass in "Some Day My Prince Will Come." I said ‘Whatever you do, do anything but that, so it’ll be a surprise when the melody comes in.’"
"Out of the nine tunes, seven were the first take. The one and only take. The other two, there were two takes, but we used the first take. It was very organic. I’m really thrilled to death it happened like that," he says. "I’m very proud of that product. Everybody on the record made it sound like that. All the elements were there. It was so natural. You could really just play music and not read music."
He added, "If I did it just like the original records, why would anybody buy this commodity? Just sit home and listen to the old records."
But old, it is not. The usually familiar opening to "All Blues" is hidden, and each artist tells a different story over its modal structure. Berg’s tone is rough and muscular, Henderson’s deft and haunting. His ideas are charismatic and always enhance both the song and the mood. Throughout, the band is together and the renditions of these classic songs are executed beautifully, in both musical makeup and their emotive quality.
"I learned one thing from Miles," he says, "How important it is to pick the right chemistry of people. To tell you the truth, the company wanted me to play with just ‘name’ people they had in mind, without any thought of musical chemistry or blending. I said absolutely not. I got the people I wanted. You see how it came out. I feel that’s real jazz."
"I think everybody had heard Miles’ versions of it over the years, so they were very well versed with the vocabulary of the music. But I said ‘Don’t do it like the record.’ Try to interpret your own personal self through the music, with you using that as a foundation. So everybody could express themselves where it wouldn’t just sound like a clone."
It also may have been the last recording session of Berg, who was killed later in 2002 in a motor vehicle accident. "That was tragic," says Henderson. "I’ve known him for years, since the mid-70s, when he first joined Horace Silver. He played with Miles Davis [circa 1985]. Just a fluke accident. Horrible. Shows you how fragile life is. I think he recorded two weeks earlier with Joe Locke, the vibes player, and Ed Howard out in Seattle. I don’t think it’s out yet. Didn’t he play great though?"
So What is a grand tribute to the trumpet player that "didn’t play right," and who became a profound inspiration. The influence of Davis on young Eddie began after that day in the car and continues even now.
Miles returned to the Bay area about nine months after that day in the car, Henderson recounted. "In the interim, I found out who he was and bought records. So he walked in my house. My mother was taking pictures. I got my trumpet and said, ‘Man, you gotta hear this.’ I played with the record. So I ran up to him and said, ‘How do you like that?’ and he said, [affecting Miles trademark voice] ‘You sound good. But that’s me.’ That was my first revelation.
"These are important things for the predecessors to relay to the people coming up. You should emulate, not imitate," explained Henderson, noting that he also received other tips from Miles. "My stepfather said, ‘Show him something.’ So he wrote on a napkin, four notes implying a C7 chord. I’m looking at him, and he said, ‘Man, don’t look at me. Look at the music!’ That’s about as far as it went as far as formal sitting down stuff, but by going and hearing him play, I learned so much without words." Such was Henderson’s life. He was blessed with knowing many musicians growing up – including getting early tips from Satchmo – because his parents were both entertainers, his mother a dancer at the original Cotton Club and his father a member of the popular singing group Billy Williams and the Charioteers. His stepfather was a doctor to people like Miles and Coltrane and Duke Ellington, so the association with musician continued. Henderson was also blessed with not having to go through a lot of the tough, teeth-cutting, dues-paying pains that many musicians go through. He studied hard in school and in addition to excelling on his instrument, he excelled academically enough to go to medical school and become a doctor. Not a bad side gig.
Dr. Henderson practiced part-time for many years, in addition to playing gigs and learning directly from two of his other main trumpet influences – Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. "Music was in my blood," he says. And even though his father died when he was 9, his mother married a man who would continue to influence him. His stepfather loved music, but was a physician. "I guess he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. So I was going to school, very studious. Got good grades, but I was playing trumpet all the time. I really wanted to play music. But I went to UC Berkley and got my undergraduate degree and before I knew it, I was in medical school [Howard University in D.C.]. But I was still playing. I put myself through medical school by playing music at night. I took the attitude that if I don’t pass, I wasn’t meant to be a doctor. Fortunately, I passed and continued to do both. I will always be playing music because that’s my first love."
After Miles Davis, Henderson’s influences expanded. "I think the first one that struck me was Freddie Hubbard, when I was in medical school in Washington, D.C., and then Lee Morgan. Every weekend for four years I would drive up to New York, be at Freddie Hubbard’s house every Saturday morning, practicing with him. He’d show me things and we’d hang out. I’d go to his gigs. And every Sunday morning, I’d be at Lee Morgan’s house and he’d show me things. Then I’d go back to medical school every day, during the day, and practice trumpet every night." Other influences included Booker Little, Clifford Brown and Woody Shaw. "I heard others, like the great Kenny Dorham, but they didn’t touch me as deeply," he says.
After school, it was back to the Bay area for his medical internship and residency – and the break that thrust him fully into music. It was a weeklong gig with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band that led to a threeyear job. "That changed my life," says Henderson. The Mwandishi association lasted from 1970-73.
"When I was playing with Herbie Hancock, we weren’t making a lot of money. Everybody in the band got $300 a week, and had to pay your own hotel, and your bills at home," he says. "It was good money for that time, but it wouldn’t work now. That’s why Herbie had to disband the band. He wasn’t even getting paid. He was going into his royalties, his savings that he built up. He was in debt $30,000, and I think I was in debt about $12,000 just to stay in the band. We didn’t even think about that. He had to make a change to recoup his financial status. That’s why he went to the Headhunters and became a little more commercial." Henderson had his other career to help bring in the cash.
"I did practice medicine from 1975 to 1985 in San Francisco, part time. About four hours a day. I worked at a small clinic. The head doctor knew I was into music and he hired me with the stipulation that whenever I get tours I can go and come as I please. They would even pay me when I was gone. It was lovely," he recalled. "I just wanted to play music. But I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever have a chance to play with the big guys."
He was also certified to practice psychiatry and even did a residency in that field, but Henderson never practiced it. "I couldn’t go off on a tour with a psychiatric patient hanging, you know? “I’ll be back in a month. Hold tight,” he chuckled.
After touring with Hancock, doors were opened. Henderson joined Art Blakey and also got to play with Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner. "That’s how the heritage goes. You play with one of the greats, then you get acknowledged by all the other greats that your credentials must be in order. That opened the door for everything else that happened to me. It’s been wonderful."
Henderson also didn’t struggle like some musicians coming up. Things seemed to fall into place, but that’s not to say he didn’t work extremely hard on his instrument. The fortuitous journey up the ladder is not lost on this artist.
"I really didn’t have to come up through the ranks. I was more or less picked up by my bootstraps and pulled up to a high echelon. Just by playing with people like Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, Julian Priester, in that Mwandishi group, it’s invaluable. Rather than going to jam sessions and struggling and just sitting in a couple tunes. My development went in leaps and bounds because that particular band worked for three and a half years, about 10 months a year. So it was like a wormhole in evolution.
"They had a club in San Francisco called the Keystone Corner. When name groups came in like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson would come through town, they would always hire me. So I didn’t have to come to New York. I was playing with everybody I wanted anyway. I had my cake and ate it." "When that club closed, it kind of dried up in San Francisco, so I moved back to New York where my mother was at the time. And here I am now. I really haven’t practiced medicine in 13 years. I just came here to play music."
Being a doctor did have its rewards, however. It gave him the ability to afford some perks, like his penchant for Ferraris that he adopted from Miles Davis. It also accorded him the ability to joust a bit more with his mentor.
"Because of [Miles], I got six of them. When I was practicing medicine out in California I had three at one time, different models. But in those days, a brand new Ferrari was just $12,000. But now it’s $200,000, it’s ridiculous. I sold all those." The last two he sold for $10,000, only to have their value skyrocket to $1 million after Enzo Ferrari died, Henderson says. He still owns a 1975 model.
"Miles never said anything to me," says Henderson. "But once I parked mine right behind his in California. He gets out and looks back at me and says, ‘Oh that’s cute.’ I said "cute?’ [laughter] He asked who bought it for me, my stepfather? I said ‘did he buy yours?’ Then he just chuckled. [laughter] I had fun."
Henderson has no regrets giving up medicine. In fact, there are aspects of the business side of being a doctor that are more annoying to Henderson that the business side of the music world. "That old adage, ‘Physician heal thyself.’ This is what heals me. Playing music. It’s what makes me well. How can I help somebody else if I’m not well?
"They’re both a wonderful profession and I did both. I still can. But I just choose to play music. At this point in life, I don’t ever see myself going back and opening a practice in medicine at 62 years old. Nowadays it’s so difficult to practice medicine. Every patient that comes in is looking to sue you. You don’t get paid from the state if you’re doing Medicaid or Medicare, or whatever state programs. They always want to challenge you to get paid. Some of the guys I went to school with are paying $100,000 a year for malpractice insurance. That’s too much pressure. I like what I do now."
Like Hancock and others in the 1970s, making fusion albums was also lucrative for Henderson.
" I did those fusion albums that are being re-released now. Ironically, some of the fusion things I did in the mid-70s, — two records for Blue Note [ Heritage and Sunburst ] and three for Capitol [ Mahal , Inside Out and Comin’ Thru ] – they’re hits even to this day in England. It’s almost like a star over there playing the fusion stuff. Even now, the younger generation kids grew up on that and they keep saying to me, ‘Can you play "Prance On."’ Those old fusion things were during the disco era. It was representative of me, but the producer put me in that context. It really paid good money. These companies paid big money then to the artists. They don’t do that any more.
"It’s funny the way that particular hit came out. The disc jockeys in England made a mistake and played a 33 rpm vinyl on the radio at 45 rpm speed. And it sounded sorry to me. But think about it in the context of a disco and it was right in the pocket," he says with a chuckle. "That’s how I got very well known in England. I went there last year and the year before that. They have these young fusion bands and they studied the record note for note. Herbie Hancock’s solo and everything. It sounds just like the record. It’s all music. A lot of people criticized Herbie Hancock when he started doing that. It’s just expanding his musical vocabulary, rather than just playing – quote, unquote bebop, cool jazz. It pigeon-hole’s you. I want to learn as many idioms as I possibly can."
As for today’s music scene, Henderson sees the difficulties jazz musicians face, but he’s getting by. The new CD could be a big boost, based on the good notices it has received from critics and people in the business.
"I’ve been making a fair living," he says. "I travel a lot to Europe just by myself and play with the people over there. That’s much more cost effective than trying to bring a band over. And there are good musicians all around the world. Joe Henderson was telling me that for years. He did that and that’s how he made the bulk of his money, by traveling all over Europe, different countries, playing the festivals and stuff, but with European musicians.
"In fact this summer I go to France at the end of June, come back for about a week or 10 days, then go back to France and play the festivals in France, and then Austria, until the end of the summer. But you have to build up a name over an amount of time for them to even think about bringing you over. If it wasn’t for that, just being around New York , getting $50 or $75 a night in these little clubs, it would be hard to make a living." Henderson hasn’t toured much yet in support of the CD. If he does, expect him to hire exactly whom he wants in order to make the music sound good, not "name" people. He says he turned down a gig recently because Sony wanted certain people to play with him. "I said ‘You play the trumpet then. Put your name on it. I’m not going to do that. I don’t have to.’ And I hung up the phone. The money would have been nice, but they weren’t paying that much money, to tell you the truth. If I did that, I would have no respect. I’m sure they respect me a little more now." "I’m not just going to be a pawn in the game. Not now. Music is too important to me, just to use anybody they want, then the music comes out sad, then I have to live with it. If it comes out sad, at least I have the people I want on it. Then I can live with it a little better," he says. As it stands, at least in New York, it may depend on the sales figures for So What> as to whether gigs start flowing in. "Hopefully, it does well. People don’t want to give you gigs, even around New York, unless you have a commodity or a company behind you. It’s only been out about a month and a half now, so we have to see how it does. Unfortunately, I don’t have any gig for my particular band, as such. However I just did a gig at a club called Smoke here, a record release party. I used Dave Kikoski and Ed Howard with Billy Drummond, a drummer. It was representative of the album. Just a quartet. "Music and the music business has changed. Now in order to travel, the club owners want a big name in order to make their money. It’s all about economics. There used to be a circuit. You could work your way across the country – Cleveland, Dayton, Ohio, Denver – work your way across. There’s no circuit anymore, so you have to make big jumps by air, to take a band. Airfare eats up all of the budget. It’s very difficult unless you’re a super star with a big management company or somebody behind you, record company support or tour support. And I don’t have that yet. Hopefully, things will get better." As he seems to have done all his life, Henderson keeps everything in perspective. "I’m not complaining. It could be worse," he says with a grin.