Glenn Tucker


Claude Black Interview

Glenn TuckerComment

In honor of what would be Claude Black's 85th birthday this coming Tuesday, I am posting an interview I did with him on February 28, 2008 for a living history assignment at UM.

Glenn Tucker: When did you start playing music? What’s your first experience with music; what childhood memories do you have?

Claude Black: First thing I remember is my grandmother buying a piano from Wurlitzer company, little upright from the Grinnell Brothers downtown Detroit. I used to sit down…of course she played and when my uncle came to town from Louisiana, he also played the piano. So they both played and my first early experience was listening to them play and then trying to emulate them.

GT: Did you have a teacher growing up?

CB: Yes. My mother decided that if I wanted to, she’d start me with piano lessons so I had a lady that my mother knew named Miss Shamwell, she was a schoolteacher and she was my first music teacher.

GT: So this was all classical?

CB: Oh yeah. Basic piano and stuff.

GT: How old were you then?

CB: I must have between eight and ten, I would think.


GT: When did you start playing jazz?

CB: Jazz? Well, my first professional experiences was when this gentleman who was a friend of my uncle called up my grandma and my uncle and said he needed a pianist down at their club, which was a great big club down the street from my house on 8-mile, and it was called Uncle Tom’s Plantation, and they boasted to have the longest horseshoe bar in the world, which was huge. The bar circled the bandstand. That had to be in 19—I was 16, so you can do the figures. I was born in 1932. [1948-9]

GT: What was the name of the band?

CB: Lyman Boller Quintet.

GT: What was your first high profile gig playing with somebody that was traveling through Detroit?

CB: First experience was with Billie Holiday. She came through the city; that was a few years later. I was still playing with Lyman Boller, and we were the house band at a place called the Club Juana right downtown Detroit. Her pianist, who was Mal Waldron, didn’t come; he stayed in New York. So she just used the house pianist, which was me.

GT: How did she interact with the musicians?

CB: Great. Wonderful. She was a quiet lady, quite nice.


GT: You’ve mentioned a group of friends you had in high school you used to play with…

CB: We were all learning in Mr. Lawrence’s band at Northern first and then I transferred to Cass. Started at Northern High, and then all the musicians, there were some that wanted a better music program so we transferred over to Cass Tech. The guys in the band at Northern [were] Donald Towns, Donald Byrd, Teddy Harris, Margie Byrd—that was Donald’s sister—and a whole bunch of us. After I left Art Palmer School, which was an elementary school, I went over to Hutchins Intermediate School and played french horn in that band.

GT: You’ve mentioned hanging out with Roland Hanna?

CB: Well that was at Northern, Roland Hanna, Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers, Clare Rockamore, Tommy Flanagan was there, but he wasn’t in our class, he was older.

GT: Who were your early influences when playing piano?

CB: Tommy Flanagan. He was one of my first influences.

GT: You were friends with him?

CB: Oh yeah. Sure.

GT: Do you remember favorite records growing up?

CB: Oh I used to listen to Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet. There were some great pianists around, but of course there were pianists in Detroit right there that were just great. Harold McKinney of course. I heard Sonny Stitt one night coming through, I was peeking in the door at the Bizerti Bar, he was playing there. Tommy Flanagan was playing piano.

GT: You played with Sonny Stitt later on…

CB: Later on I did. Yes, at Baker’s.

GT: What was that like?

CB: Very great. Wonderful saxophonist. Best I’ve ever played with, one of the best.


GT: Who were some people you’ve seen perform that had a big impact on you?

CB: Well the ones that used to come into Baker’s, of course. Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, they all were there, they all came. Ernie Andrews, a vocalist. Earl Bostic—I worked with him for about a year. Harold Land and Blue Mitchell, they made quite an impact on me. I worked with them for a couple of weeks; twice, one week and another time, one week. That was at Dummy George’s over on Fenkell and 6-Mile [sic].

GT: What was the atmosphere like in Detroit when people talk about the “Golden Age” of Detroit jazz?

CB: It was magical, I have to say. In my mind it was magical because you could go to different bars, Yusef Lateef was working at Klein’s, Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan were working downtown on Adams and Hastings. There was the Sudan club down on Adams that my mother used to frequent and the Three Sixes, Little John had his Merrymen down there, he had a big band, maybe 11-piece band. Candy Johnson played, who I later played with, he had a band down at the Sudan. That was on Adams Street, and that was a whole street full of different clubs and stuff. There was another man who came from Grand Rapids, he had Wardell Gray in his band; he worked down there.

GT: Wardell Gray lived in Detroit, right?

CB: I believe so, I don’t know the whole history of that. There were a lot of people in Detroit: Luckey Thompson, I think. Thad Jones and the Jones brothers were from Pontiac so they in an out of Detroit all the time. They were a little older than me, so I don’t remember. I know they were there, but I wasn’t old enough to get into all the bars at the time, but I knew they were there. I played with Elvin a little bit, because he was the youngest, so I got a chance to play a little bit with him. Yusef, of course, I played with Yusef off and on down at the Vier; I never played with him at Klein’s. Hugh Lawson was his pianist, and Terry Pollard. Roland Hanna was working at a club across the street over there on 12th and then he moved to Al Dido’s on Russell Street. He played there for two years and then he left and went to New York.


GT: What was it like when people were leaving for New York? Did it all happen at once?

CB: It was a period of time. The first one to go of course was Hank Jones, in my memory, he was the earliest during that era. He and Billy Mitchell, but Billy and them worked at the Blue Bird, Phil Hill had the band over there. That’s when Miles [Davis] and all them were playing over there—Phil Hill’s band, and Boo Boo Turner after Phil Hill.

GT: Did you know him [Miles Davis]?

CB: No, I didn’t meet him.

GT: Did you get to see him?

CB: See they were older; I couldn’t get into the bars then.

GT: Were you ever tempted to go to New York?

CB: Well, I would visit, but I didn’t want to go to stay because my grandmother, we had a business, a restaurant—I had to help out there. They were getting older and they kind of depended on me because my sister and mother and all of them died early on when I was thirteen, so when I was got to be sixteen, seventeen I had to stay close to the family business.

GT: Do you ever regret not going to New York?

CB: Not too much, no, because I got a chance to meet a lot of people right there in Detroit that were such great musicians at the time—that’s the reason why I didn’t. Will Davis was a great pianist, he stayed in Detroit. Willie Anderson, he was another great pianist, he was in Detroit, so those people were always there, you know and other people too, other pianists.


GT: How did you get the gig with Aretha Franklin?

CB: Well, she was looking for a pianist at the time—around 1965, I had just left Earl Bostic—and hadn’t long been home and I heard she was looking for a pianist. Some kind of situation, I can’t remember exactly, but I ended up with her. I went to the rehearsal…somebody recommended me or something and made the rehearsal.

GT: Did you know her before then?

CB: No, not really. I knew Carolyn Franklin, her sister. She was a vocalist. We had started with Motown in the early years, but I didn’t stay with Motown.

GT: Did you play for them [Motown Records] at all?

CB: No. I made one rehearsal, and I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be involved with that.

GT: For musical reasons?

CB: Yeah, I didn’t like the sound. I didn’t like the particular rock-and- whatever that would be.

GT: Did you know some of the session guys [the Funk Brothers] for that stuff?

CB: I knew Benny Benjamin, the drummer—“the Motown sound”—and the bassist James Jamerson, I knew him. I played with Benny [Benjamin], we were with Candy [Johnson] together.

GT: On a jazz gig?

CB: Yeah, more or less. We played all kind of music, but not rock. We played different music; it was basically a jazz gig.

GT: What was it like playing with Aretha?

CB: It was very interesting. First we started off doing jazz, and then later on after she made “Respect” and “Never Loved a Man” and stuff like that then things changed, we were kind of playing a different kind of music and everything changed.

GT: But you joined it as a jazz player…

CB: Yes. That’s what we were doing, basic jazz and show tunes. “No Business Like Show Business,” things like that in a jazz version. And then after that, after she made “Respect,” then the sound changed, we started doing the hit songs.

GT: What did you think of that music?

CB: It was ok, I mean, I didn’t have any opinion one way or the other because all the salaries went up and money went up, our way of living changed. We went from riding in a station wagon to riding on planes and limousine service and expensive hotels and motels and stuff.

GT: Was she inspiring to play with?

CB: Oh yeah. She was nice. I liked Aretha.

GT: Did you guys play gospel back then?

CB: No, we didn’t play gospel. I mean I could, but we didn’t do a lot of gospel. We did what you hear on the records. George [Davidson] was the drummer and Roderick Hicks was the bassist. We call it the original Aretha Franklin trio.


GT: You’ve mentioned that you played with Eddie Harris at some point…

CB: I went to Chicago the year that Chicago Serenade [came out] during that time. I was living in Chicago and I met Eddie and when I left Chicago, I left with Eddie Harris. I stayed with him about a year or so. He had that [sings] Freedom Jazz Dance; all that came out during the time I was with him. He had just made Exodus; that was his hit recording, he was able to start traveling, get a band, he did quite well with it.

GT: What was it like playing with him?

CB: Very nice. Very interesting. He was a wonderful musician, and I learned a lot from him. It was fun. It was nice.

GT: What kind of stuff did you learn?

CB: Well, just basic musical things. Like I said, the tunes spoke for themselves, we did Chicago Serenade and Freedom Jazz Dance and some of the other things he recorded. We were doing that kind of music, so it was very interesting.


GT: How do you see yourself fitting into the Detroit piano sound? You talked a little bit about being influenced by Tommy Flanagan, but there were a lot of really amazing pianists to come of Detroit. Were you friends with some of them?

CB: Oh I knew everybody. We knew each other; we were all influenced by each other. It was a friendly musical competition thing. We learned from each other, that’s what we did. Detroit up to this point we always, it was almost like a family of musicians. We would learn from each other and we would go around to each other’s gigs and things of that nature. Even when we would go overseas, if somebody was from Detroit, we’d always gravitate to each other, you know. It was almost like a family—a musical family.

GT: What are some of your favorite performances you’ve given or experiences playing with people?

CB: I liked the time when I was in the house band at Baker’s. That was quite nice. Some part of the sixties, 1972, somewhere in there. I’ve been in and out of Baker’s for periods of time in the 70s. I was working with Pistol Allen and Will Austin.

GT: You played with everyone that came through?

CB: Everybody. Lot of people. Yusef, Milt Jackson… also Ralphe Armstrong was the bassist on some of the things. Ray McKinney played some of the jobs in the rhythm section. George Goldsmith, I was there with him with an alto saxophonist from California. Pepper Adams, we came up at the same time. Barry Harris, all the cats.

GT: What was it like with Barry Harris? I heard he had some sort of school…

CB: In New York. I didn’t go to the school, I visited when I do go to New York, I went down, it was quite nice. He had 70 students. Everybody was there, musicians were around, coming and going, Tommy Turrentine, the trumpeter, he was hanging around. This guy C#, he played alto, I met him there. I ran into Kirk Lightsey, the pianist, he went to Cass with me. He gave a job down in the village at a place called Carlos 1. He couldn’t make it, so I took the rhythm section in there—Frank Gant and Herman Wright and myself. Sahib Shahab came by and sat in, I knew him from working over in Switzerland, I had worked with him and Teddy Edwards, and this trumpeter, he was the straw boss of the band, he took care of us all on the road when we traveled. But the leader of the band was Oliver Jackson.

GT: Was this in Europe?

CB: Yes. In Switzerland. Oliver Jackson was the leader.


GT: How have you been able to adapt to all the different musicians you’ve played with? It seems like you’ve played with a really wide range of players and styles, and how have you been able to accommodate that as a pianist?

CB: Well, I think it’s from working with so many vocalists. I think I had so much experience in the early days, and even in high school, I used to play the amateur shows, the variety shows we used to have in school, I used to do all those, backing up all the vocalists and stuff. I began to learn a whole bunch of songs and how to adopt your playing with the different styles of singing, and I think that helped when it came to accompanying the different instrumentalists. I think that had a lot to do with it. I never had a problem with these different bands and stuff; it always seemed to be easy. And trying to learn tunes, I always try to retain the songs that I learned, I try to remember them. And they always seem to come around again and again, down through the years, along with new ones.


GT: What big changes have you seen in the jazz scene in Detroit (or anywhere) since you’ve been active? How has it changed?

CB: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about that, there definitely have been some changes. When I started out, I was playing blues and boogie woogie. It went from that to swing, and from swing to bebop, and then from bebop to what you’re hearing now in jazz. All the new type changes, raised ninths, and elevenths, and things of that nature, using that particular sound. But I’m getting too involved in the technical aspects of that. Basically I think it’s allowed for musicians to stretch out more, to be more flexible, to have more to work with as far as harmony is concerned. Instead of the basic 1-3-5s dominant 7ths or whatever, a lot of other harmonies and chords are accepted and used. And you can experiment with a lot of new things, things that you would sit down and accidentally wander up on, you can use them, you know, without fear of being ostracized or criticized. All of the changes in the music with the new sounds and harmonic structures and that. You can try things without feeling funny or odd. That’s the best way I can explain it.


GT: How have you as a pianist been able to adapt to playing on a different instrument every night? What’s that been like?

CB: Well, sometimes it’s been a harrowing experience because some of the pianos were so out of tune and you’re trying to accompany a vocalist or some kind of instrument that had to tune up to this hideous piano and sometimes it would be quite uncomfortable. Of course it affects the music; you have to just try to bend and make things work and sometimes it can be extremely hard to try to make things sound decent when some of the notes don’t work, some of the notes are so far out of tune that it just makes the whole thing sound almost ridiculous. There for a while in the sixties and fifties I played on some terrible pianos. Now, of course I’ve been fortunate once I joined with this particular group I’m with now, they seem to be a little more conscious of being in tune, and a nice instrument which I have now, and they keep it in tune. It makes it a lot easier, a lot more comfortable working, especially if you’re working night on a five or six night basis.

GT: How often have you had a nightly gig like this?

CB: Well, I mean, I’ve been doing pretty good. I’ve been fortunate to be working enough to raise a family and take care of myself. That’s pretty much saying something when you don’t have to go in the post office and get another job; to raise a family on just music alone. I’ve been really fortunate, lucky, blessed, as they say, to be able to do that and not have to go out and extra job and all that.

GT: When did you meet [bassist and club owner] Clifford [Murphy]?

CB: I’ve known Clifford most of my adult life. Met him when my grandmother brought me over here [Toledo] to church in 1949. I met him then, and then I joined the group, the Murphys, I forget what year. I’ve been at this club for twelve years, I think.


GT: What qualities from a bassist do you like playing with?

CB: I look for the right note, the right changes, and they have to kind of be able to hear, to do what I do, which is know the right changes to the tunes, and be able to accompany with the instrumentalists, just like I’m doing. So I look for a bassist to be able to hear well, and be able to adjust well, good reading abilities if possible, that mixture, those three things right there make a bassist really good.

GT: What about a drummer? What do you look for in a drummer?

CB: A drummer? Good rhythm, and maybe not to loud to be able to hear the rest of the people in the group. So he has to be able to use good dynamics and be able to adjust and play soft or loud when necessary. And that means having a good concept, being able to hear what’s going on and make the necessary adjustments and play good rhythm. Not to loud, because a lot of times you’re playing with just a trio and a vocalist, just maybe another horn player and things of that nature.


GT: What advice do you have for young musicians coming up on the scene?

CB: Well, first of all they need to study—learn as much basic music as they can—learn the instrument as well as they can. Get themselves a good solid teacher, somebody that’s good for them, that’s a good temperament, somebody that won’t cover up their talent, that knows how bring the talent out but still be strict enough to make sure that they have good learning habits. It’s important to pick out a good teacher when they’re young so that they can have good learning habits to learn that particular instrument, whatever it may be. And just learn as much as they can, and practice every day if they can, possibly a little bit or a lot if the time allows. I find that everyday practicing can go a long way, especially if you start young. I was kind of lax there in the early days. I would practice for a while and then get lax. I kind of fell behind a bit there sometimes.


GT: Who have been some of the most inspiring people you’ve been able to play with?

CB: I don’t know. I would have to say that most of all the good musicians that I’ve worked with were inspiring. That’s the answer. They all offered something. And each one had something different to offer, never the same thing. That was the great thing I would have to say even about jazz musicians--especially the good ones, and the ones I was fortunate enough to play with---they all had something unique to offer and all you had to do is just really listen and pay attention and try to retain some of that stuff.

GT: It said in your bio that you played with Diz[zy Gillespie] …

CB: Yes. I did something with Dizzy up at the Mott College where I got an honorary degree in the 70s. I got that from Dizzy’s appearance when worked… They asked me to come back; I went up there. [19]75 or 6. I was doing something with Eddie Jefferson at the time and I went and got these gigs with Dizzy and stuff. We did a concert and I came back home but then they asked me to come back and do something and then received an honorary degree up there.

GT: and Stan Getz?

CB: I did something up at Hill Auditorium up in Ann Arbor with Joe Williams, John Faddis, Stan Getz. I forget everybody on there. Those were the basic people, I forget the rhythm section. I’ll have to ask Marcus, he came in on that thing, too. He was a guest, he came walking on stage. It was quite unique, though. It was nice. Sonny Fortune, he was there too. That was the last job I worked with Stan Getz, he passed right after that.

GT: I also read that you worked with Wes Montgomery?

CB: Very briefly. I was around him; I didn’t work with him. He had a regular group—Paul Parker was the drummer, and he had an organist, Melvin Rhyne. They were working in Indianapolis at the time. He hadn’t left yet. Then Cannonball came and picked them up for New York, got him a record contract I guess with Riverside. But before that they were working at the Missile Room, a place in Indianapolis. I used to go there and listen to them and every now and then, I’d meet them at the Hubbub, we’d get to jam a little bit. Got a chance to play with him some there.

GT: Were you on the road in Indianapolis?

CB: No, I was working in Fort Wayne, Indiana with another guitarist, wonderful guitarist named Bill Jennings. Left-handed guitarist. Incidentally, Bill’s the one that introduced me to Oscar Peterson. I was working with Bill Jennings, stayed with him for two years, and then we began to talk about Wes because they were both from Indianapolis, and that’s when I began to hear about Wes, and I thought, when I leave this gig I’m going down to Indianapolis to see and witness this guy so that’s what happened. I left Bill and went down to Indianapolis to hang out with Wes and I stayed down there another couple of years. You know, just to be around, to learn. It was a wonderful experience. Those four years with those people hanging out and stuff. I was working at a place in Fort Wayne called Johnny’s Nightcap. I found a card the other day, and I have it somewhere. Oscar Peterson came in one night to see Bill, and that’s when I got a chance to meet him. He and Ray Brown.

GT: Were all the great players you’ve mentioned easy to work with?

CB: Yes, very much so. Most of the time, they had one or two things to say ‘bout how they wanted things. I guess they assumed that, you know, if you were playing with them, that you know what you were doing, what the ingredients that was needed for the music that they were going to be presenting. So I think that’s why they didn’t say too much. The only time I would get into anything long and drawn out was if I was working with them steady. But just for one night or two or three nights, you have your rehearsals or whatever, they give you the music and let it go with that. I mean the rest, they assume that, you know, that it’s going to come out all right and it did.

What is a Mentor?

Glenn TuckerComment

It seems that when interviewed, each of the last few generations of jazz musicians claim to be the last to come up in the mentor system. There is obviously some truth to this sentiment considering the generational rift in the New York scene beginning in the 80s and 90s, the rise of formally institutionalized jazz, the near-disappearance of inner-city neighborhood clubs, and the perennially endangered state of Black arts organizations and community centers.

However, mentorship is alive and well in places like Detroit, Chicago, Philly, and New Orleans, and personally I am proud to say that I am NOT the last generation to be mentored because I mentor!

Although under certain circumstances—adopted outside interest, prolonged tutelage—a formal teacher can become a combination teacher/mentor, I define a mentor as something separate from a teacher because one receives categorically different information from a mentor than from a teacher. My true mentors are musicians who I’ve never taken a lesson with and in some cases never really sat down at the instrument together. Of course when I say my mentor (singular) I am always referring to the late Claude Black.

I would like to propose a few definitional characteristics of a mentor as defined by the jazz tradition as I know it:
1) The protégé must find and seek out their potential mentor, demonstrating an understanding of the mentor’s musical contributions, musical language, and historical context, and finding a way to display their own abilities and commitment to the music.

2) The mentor then decides at his or her own pace whether or not to adopt protégé and at what level of commitment.

3) The mentor (possibly while deciding to take on a protégé) decides what information to give out and when.

[N.B. I knew master guitarist Perry Hughes socially and played with him for over four years before he gave me any feedback, but when he did, it was a very small pointer that completely called into question—and ultimately transformed—my Hammond organ playing.]

4) The protégé must initiate the sharing of information and continues to bring in new topics. This cannot be overemphasized. In addition to testing the protégé's ability, it also ensures that information does not get into the wrong hands or taken out of context. The protégé inevitably must adapt his or her expectations and style of questioning to the mentor’s manner of disseminating information. Just as much can be learned from a non-answer as from an answer. Similarly, there can be much to learn about what music the mentor does not like and why.

[N.B. Claude Black once remarked to my mom and me that he had a lot of information he wanted to pass along; all I (or any other musician) had to do was ask. The next time I saw him I proceeded to ask about one of his signature pianistic flourishes, to which he smiled and responded "I can't give away all of my secrets!"]

5) There is often an emphasis on and inclusion of non-musical information, (eg character, relationships, spirituality, current events, career, business, etc.) which may extend to the mentor including the protégé in family activities, which may represent a different culture than that of the protégé.

6) The mentor decides when and in what contexts to observe the protégé’s progress. This can be done solely through conversation but usually also includes unannounced drop-in’s to the protégé’s performances.

[N.B. Jason Moran mentioned to me that drop-in's were a feature of Andrew Hill’s mentorship. In my experience, musicians past a certain age tend to show up to listen, but refuse to sit in when asked. Prof. Geri Allen told us that Cecil Taylor used to come hear her play with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille, and that she preferred not to know that he was in the house!]

7) Finally, the protégé may at some point hire the mentor as a sideman or as an equal co-collaborator. This marks a graduation from initial roles, a tacit endorsement of what the protégé is doing ‘on their own,’ and often an expansion or re-interpretation of the mentor’s musical language.

[eg Marcus Belgrave’s many appearances on recordings by Geri Allen, Robert Hurst, Regina Carter, etc.; Coleman Hawkins’ appearances on Monk’s and Max Roach’s recordings]

In contrast to the format of formal private lessons between a teacher and student, there is no burden or expectation for the mentor to give out information or feedback in regular intervals, nor are there concrete assignments. The protégé must be patient, self-motivated, self-critical, curious, and most importantly creative and disciplined with how (s)he applies the information.

The mentor thusly is not tied to the binary of “sounds good”/”needs work” feedback and can begin train the protégé’s discretion and intuition. Similarly there is no pressure of students comparing a shared teacher’s assignments and/or feedback. The drop-in’s ensure that there can be no single assignment to assess; the mentor is there to hear the lessons in action.

[N.B. It was a watershed moment in my development when master bebop saxophonist Larry Smith came to a gig where I was playing decidedly post-bebop originals; as he was leaving he told us that he felt refreshed and creative. At that point I learned that mentor instruction transcends the literal and addresses the very act of music-making.]

Furthermore, the inclusion of non-musical information moves the emphasis away from Eurocentric classical pedagogical values (eg technique, sight-reading, ensemble blend) and towards the ethics and morals of jazz: storytelling, life lessons, the etiquette of listening and interacting, responsibility to one’s community, tricksterism, honoring one’s ancestors, living history, tradition-as-innovation, and so forth and so on.

I hope that in the years to come, we can honor the legacy of Geri Allen by bridging the gap between academic rigor and the informal warmth of the oral tradition.

Personally, I hope to experience and write about mentorship practices in other musical cultures.

I will forever be indebted to (each deserving a post unto themselves) Claude Black, George Davidson, James Dapogny, Paul Keller, Chris Smith, Vincent Chandler, George “Sax” Benson, Ramona Collins, Clifford Murphy, Perry Hughes, Gerard Gibbs, Gene Dunlap, Wendell Harrison, Allan Barnes, Larry Smith, Charles Boles, Ralphe Armstrong, Marion Hayden, Dan Jordan, Dan Pliskow, Ron English, Leonard King, Barbara Morrison, and Philip Wright, as well as my teacher/mentors (all of whom taught more like a mentor than a pedagogue) Thomas Strode, Sean Dobbins, Paul Finkbeiner, Tad Weed, Vincent York, Geri Allen, Robert Hurst, Andrew Bishop, and Marilyn Mason.

And most importantly, a big shout out to some of the younger musicians whose growth I have been lucky enough to be a part of: Kayvon Gordon, Julian Allen, Jordan Otto, Stephen Grady, Nolan Young, Jon Taylor, Trunino Lowe, and Jeffrey Trent, and to all of the young musicians who have learned by example to approach their elders.

Charles Boles Interview

Glenn TuckerComment

In honor of Mr. Boles' 85th birthday this past June, here is an interview I did with him exactly two years ago, on September 15, 2015. I organized our two-hour conversation into somewhat chronological categories, but tried to preserve Mr. Boles' manner of speaking. [contains explicit language]

Fats Waller actually came to our house. I was living in a place called Black Bottom, in a house down on Riopelle and Antietam. He used to come to the house and play the upright piano when I was four or five. I didn’t start lessons until I was five. There were no clubs down there, very few, maybe something on Chene.

Me and Pistol Allen and Charlie Gabriel got into a big argument about who’s the oldest. Were almost to fighting, and somebody says, “well what month were you born in?” and I say, “well, I was born in June.” Pistol was the oldest, now, because he was born in April. Charlie Gabriel was born in July. Donald Byrd was the same year, all of us.

I came to live with this family in 1934, when I was two years old, and I stayed there until 1941. About four days before I was nine, we moved on the North End, which would be around in the New Center area, just to the east of the New Center area. I lived there 25 years. What happened [was] my adopted father passed away in 1939, so my mother got a little bit of money and bought a house on the North End, so we moved out there. Wasn’t too long after that that they kind of shut down the Black Bottom, so to speak. I still drive by there now. If you go down Gratiot, just before you get to Jay Street, used to be called Riopelle, and I lived in the second house from the corner, upstairs. They called it urban renewal, but it still sits there and nothing’s there. People own that land. but no houses are there. When I was a youngster, it was mostly Italians and blacks and Jews.

I lived on Cameron and Robert Barnes lived on Russell. We were all North Enders. The North End is beginning at the Boulevard. There was a theater on Woodward called the Alhambra Theater. All that’s considered the North End now. There was the Bizerti Bar, Sonny Stitt used to play there. I’d go sneak around outside. Lefty Edwards played at the Royal Blue Bar. Man, the North End was going on then, back in that day.

I lived on Cameron in the North End, and Claude [Black] lived on Mount Vernon. Donald Byrd lived on Mount Vernon, Sonny Red lived on the North End, everybody that you could think of, well of our group. (Paul Chambers was an east-sider.)

Claude Black had a very tragic story. I lived down the street from him when that happened. Claude was getting up to go to school and his [step-]Dad shot and killed his mom and two sisters. He called me up about a month or so before he died… I had known this man since the 40s and he had never ever mentioned this to me until he was close to dying. He said “I’ll tell you why I think my [step-]Dad killed my mother. Because he was jealous of her.” His mother was movie-star material, good-looking woman, and you know If you marry one of those kind of women, don’t think that you’re gonna marry them and ain’t nobody gonna look at them. You married her because you looked at her. So his grandmother raised him in the 8 Mile-Wyoming area. I went out there many times and he would show me stuff on the piano. But he had switched, he was playing trombone.

There wasn’t a whole lot of bars on 8 Mile. There was the Log Cabin, and there was the bar that Joe Thurman used to play at all the time, there was the Wyoming theater here, and right down the street was a bar. My wife [Helen] would probably know. My wife was a jazz singer, she sang in clubs. I don’t think she sang in that club, but she would know. There’s was a different kind of situation down there. Pat Flowers, who was at Baker’s for 25 years, stayed right across the street from Claude .

Willie Bolar, this is a weird story. I was in high school, in summer and Willie Bolar was a waiter at a club in the Fischer Building. I went in there as a busboy and I was the world’s worst; there was no busboy ever worse than me. I actually dropped an ice cube down a woman’s blouse, and I tried to take the ice cube out. I got fired on the spot. But my mother called in and said “How dare you fire my son, my son deserves to have a job, you better hire him” and he actually hired me back. But then he needed to find a reason to fire my ass so I came in a couple of days later with a bowtie just like his and he said “you can’t own a bowtie like me, boy, so you’re fired again” so he fired me. Willie Bolar was a waiter there, at La Leglam. He’s done very well financially, by the way. He’s in very, very, very good shape. I’ve known him sixty years. About that, sixty-five years. Wonderful man, and a historian.

Bobby Barnes with Roland Hanna and Gene Taylor, that’s who was over there every day. Gene Taylor was a bass player, he ended up with Nina Simone, and I think I saw a video the other day with him with Horace Silver.

The same shit that went on in Barnes’ house went on at Barry Harris’ house, same shit. The only difference is the level of ass-kicking. They would tolerate you a little bit more, although Roland Hanna was there, at Robert Barnes’ house, and he was no joke. Tommy Flanagan didn’t go over there. Barry was living off of Stanford. He lived down the street from a guy named Clarence Beasley, who went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. Beas was 86 when he passed, I believe, about three years older than me.

People came to Joe Brazil’s house, Coltrane, everybody. Anybody that was anybody went to there, you wanted to get your ass kicked. Alto player. I can’t remember where his house was,  but it wasn’t North End. 50s, 60s. I was in Seattle playing with Moms Mabley, and I tried to find him. We got into Seattle that Friday and we left that Monday morning, so I didn’t get a chance to call the union and see perhaps if I could find him. But he was another great musician and there was always some shit going on at his house. Those are the three houses: Barry’s house, Robert Barnes’ house, and Joe B’s house.

I played in Hastings Street until ’59, and in ’59 they took the freeway away and made it an expressway. That was the end of the red-light district. Hastings Street, it just disappeared into thin air; it disappeared into I-75. You know Hastings Street actually starts at the Boulevard. That’s the beginning of Hastings Street, and I guess it zig-zags down, and when you get to around Milwaukee it stops. There was so much bullshit going on down there. They really messed up a great area. See, what happened was when they cut the Hastings Street off, all the prostitutes went over to John R and Woodward, they went over to that area.

I always contend that most people get the boundaries of Black Bottom and the boundaries of Paradise Valley, and the boundaries of Hastings Street mixed up. If you start at Hastings Street, there was a club there called Sportrie’s Bar, and right next door was a theater called the Arcade Theater, and then there was Adams Street, down past Sportrie’s bar until you get to John R, Paradise Valley, that’s it. Now, on Hastings street, to the side there was the Turk Bar, the Three Sixes, the 606 Horseshoe Lounge, those places some of that might be there.

Claude Black was down in there playing with Paul Baskin’s band, at the Turk Bar. Upstairs there was a place called the Bellman’s and Waiter’s Club, where everybody went after the gig and hung out.

Anything that you thought you wanted to do, you could do it on Hastings Street. If you wanted to get some booty, you could get some booty; if you liked to gamble, you could gamble; if you wanted to turn a trick, you could, whatever you thought you wanted they did it on Hastings Street, up and down that street.

It was mixed, it didn’t have anything to do with race. Because most of those clubs on that street, you couldn’t tell who owned them. You didn’t know if a black person owned them. But a lot of times if a white guy owned them if he was cool with the black community then you’d know he was white. If he wasn’t cool with the black community or he didn’t want people to know that he owned it, he would put a black person in charge, and to you, you would feel like he’s the owner. You couldn’t tell.

I don’t ever remember seeing a white band on Hastings Street, in fact if I ever saw any white people down there playing it was very little. The clientele was mixed, they called it black and tan. Now, when you went up to John R, it was a differed ballgame. There was the Flame Showbar, the Frolic Showbar, Sportrie’s now had graduated to John R. Now the bands would be integrated there. It was more divided in those days because there were certain clubs that blacks played at and certain clubs that whites played at.

I was musical director at the Playboy Club back in the 70s. Dan [Pliskow] was in Matt Michaels’ trio. Dan left with Matt. Matt wanted to leave and do industrial. I don’t know how he happened to get me the gig but he liked me, so he said “I’m giving you the gig.” I was there two years, six nights a week, Monday through Saturday. Bill Rogers and Bill Steed. When you drive down Jefferson, you’ll see a thing called the Michigan Bell Telephone Company, that was the Playboy Club. It was an old-style house and it had two floors—it was very big—it had two floors and it had a penthouse upstairs, so most of the shows were on the weekends, by the time I had come there, it was already on its way down. Anyways, the penthouse we did shows on the weekends. The weekdays we did Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday downstairs.

Any band that I had, everybody was usually younger, but when I was coming along I was always playing with old guys, they would be in their 80s then. Babe Borders, who was a drummer. Big John, he was a drummer. Emmett Slay. That’s becoming so strange to be the oldest guy in the band. Except when I play with George [“Sax” Benson], George would be older than me but most of the time, I’m the oldest guy in any band.

Emmett Slay was a guitar player. He came and got me the day after I graduated from high school, and he carried me on the road. And I went to North Dakota, South Dakota, I went to the Badlands, I went to Milwaukee, Green Bay. I played piano and sang parts with Emmett.

Jack the Bellboy, he had a DJ show, but he used to have a dance show back in the 60s, people would come there and dance on TV. Channel 50, I think, I can’t remember now. I played there, and sang, used to play a thing called the organo, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the organo. I played this organo with a guy named Dave Hamilton, he played vibes, I think, vibes or guitar. And he had an organo, and so did Emmett Slay, he had an organo. You hooked it up to the piano and you put your knee up against it and it would give you a bassline. That’s how I learned how to a walk a bassline. You could hear it, it would give a bass sound, a pulse. The right hand was a piano, and you walked the bassline. In fact, most of the gigs I played in those days would be saxophone, drums, and piano.

I played for mafia people, I played for Jack L, he was the nicest guy. I was playing at a club called the Indianwood Golf Club, and I played there like six years solo piano. It was almost in LaPier, you had the pass the Silverdome, can’t think of the name of the city though. But I played there six years and the people who were members there, people like Ray Lane, who was a sportscaster for the Tigers. Which I guess is how I met Ernie Harwell and Al Kaline, in fact I played for Al Kaline’s retirement party. I was working with Mel Tormé and he was doing the national anthem. He carried us with him, not to play because he was singing it with a recording. But we also played for Al Kaline’s retirement party that night.

A lot of the people I ended up working with because I was on a show gig, like say the Elmwood, or a gig like the Show Palace, the Roostertail, where they would bring these acts in, and if the act didn’t have a piano player, you’re it. I remember I was playing there with Vic Damone, they came in there and they did that whole show, and two days later Vic says “I can’t hear the band” and so they had to turn the bandstand around and the conductor, who was the piano player, said “Charlie, you’re it.” And I had to sight-read that book. But actually Vic Damone and I because good friends and I worked with him later on with Eddie Nucelli’s band. So you know, it worked out great. Those kind of gigs, you end up working with people like Vic Damone, Lola Falana, Milton Berle, you work with them for one week because you play their show. And then that was it, they leave town. So I got a chance to work with all of those people. Milton Berle was probably the biggest asshole of all of them. The worst.

Now, people like Johnny Trudell and them, they were way ahead of their time because they would hire black musicians like me or Earl Van Dyke, but most of their musicians were not black guys. They would hire us, and that’s how we got a chance to work those gigs. Otherwise, you’d be relegated to playing in only black clubs. But those clubs, like Flame’s Showbar, that was white-owned, but they had Maurice King’s band in there, that was an all-black band, and at the Frolic, now I played at the Frolic solo piano, by myself, I was 21 years old. I couldn’t play shit, I was horrible. I don’t know how I got away with that shit, don’t ask. I was able to get away with a lot.

There was a lot of playing with black and white people together on the jazz scene. There was a house over here on Burns that was a jazz house, I guess a doctor owned it. You could go over there and you could play there on a Friday or a Saturday night, 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and they’d always be jumping. It was one of those houses with jazz in the basement, prostitution on the second floor, cocaine on the second, weed on the next floor. It was all that kind of shit. This was back in the 50s. There were tons of places people played after the gig and people always played the gig and went somewhere else to play free. And you stay there, three or four in the morning and they’d always have booze.

Like this guy Jackie Leonard, I played for him and he gave me a $50 tip. He got sick here, and we were at the Michigan Palace. In fact that’s how I met Billy Martin, I was in the bar over there, and they didn’t have a bar per se in the Michigan Palace so everybody would go to this little bar on intermission and drink. So Billy Martin was in there one day. He didn’t know me but I was a, I’m a baseball nut. He says, “Who’s band?” I said I’m over there with Tony Bennett, I wasn’t playing with Tony Bennett but I was in the band. He says “I’m gonna go with you. But you can’t mention my name.” I said ok. So he bought me a drink, and he and I went over there, but we ended up hanging out, we went down to this other joint and hung out til 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning drinking, talking a bunch of bullshit. He was a nice guy. He was ok, Billy Martin was ok.

Moms Mabley was a comedian, and she made more money in her later years, like me. She made more money in her later years because they got her to tone down her shit, you know she was filthy. Her and Redd Foxx, they couldn’t get on no TV. I tell you that story about Helen taking her kids to see Redd Foxx? She got there, she thought she was going to see Sanford and Son, and the old Redd Foxx came out and she was so humiliated. The man had told her, “You sure you want to take your kids to see this guy?” She said “Oh yeah, Sanford and Son, going to be great.” He was cussing man, she was embarrassed.

Moms was a sweet lady, she paid me while I was off. I stayed at her house in Westchester. I was her music director. She only carried a piano when I was with her. I would always end up hiring a bass player, a drummer. And most of the time I would, on the tours that I’d be on, there would be Wes Montgomery, so I would hire his brother. He and I got to be good friends. Can’t think of his name now. Monk Montgomery. I would hire him, give him some money just to play her show. It was always a bunch of, I remember Nina Simone being on that tour, Sun Ra, there’d always be several acts on the show. I’d get one of the guys that played bass in some other band that I knew. You’d get to know the same people, you’d see them all the time, and so then I’d get Monk, or somebody like that. And she didn’t, she had dumb shit, man. You’d do some sound effects on the piano, and she’d tell a joke.

I never lived in New York. I’d always go in there and stay about a month, two months, but I never lived there. The only place I ever lived other than here was California and Nevada. In the 60s.

I played with Harold Land and I had my own gig, I ended up with the band, I don’t know how in the hell I ended up with the band in Reno, in Las Vegas. And I worked a lot of clubs in California, the It Club and Memory Lane. Memory Lane was this woman used to be on a sitcom called Room 222, years ago. You know Michael Cady? His aunt, you know his mother was a singer and an actress. The guy that was on the door, baldheaded guy, older guy, I don’t know if he’s still around or not, that’s Michael’s dad. He was the doorman there, like the manager. See I played at Baker’s all the way back, Sully Hartstein owned it back in the 60s. But his mother was actress, this guy Michael Cady, and also his aunt owned that club, it was called Memory Lane. Memory Lane, and I played in there.

These were the type of clubs where Art Tatum would go and play, so you’d end up with some shit like Art Tatum would be in there then Erroll Garner would be in there. I don’t remember being in there when that happened but I heard stories. I heard both of them play. My favorite is Erroll Garner. Not better than Art Tatum, I don’t mean that, it’s just that I got to know Erroll. I met him and I hung out with him and smoked weed with him. He was about my height. He loved Erroll Garner. If you don’t think Erroll Garner was great, ask Erroll Garner. He was so good, this guy. How I got to know him, this was weird, I was working with Damita Jo, she was an Ella Fitzgerald-type singer married to a guy, she was in movie with Sammy Davis, I got tons of pictures, my scrapbook is ridiculous.

But anyway, I was playing at the Hollywood Playboy Club and the drummer, who I can’t remember now, this was a guy, this guy was so over the top. We were down south and they had just passed this law where black people could go in the swimming pool. In this hotel, the pool was theoretically out there where that lot is, and we were staying up on a level like this. He jumped off the edge of the balcony and jumped two or three floors down, just jumped right onto the pool on top of a whole bunch of white people. And when he jumped, and he was real dark, when he jumped into the pool, the pool emptied out. He would do shit like that because he didn’t give a shit.

So anyway, I checked into this hotel and can’t think of the name of it now, and I heard Erroll Garner was staying there and I wanted to meet him, so then the drummer came by my room and I said “I wanna meet Erroll Garner” and he said “Come on, let’s go.” And of course when we got there he was playing Erroll Garner records. “Listen to that, you hear that shit?” He was talking about his shit. He was playing his own records and grooving.

And these motherfuckers, they had some weed. No ordinarily, if you have some weed, you pass the weed around a circle. So they put me in the middle. So Erroll, he handed it to me, then he handed it to the drummer. Now instead of the drummer handing it to Erroll, he’d hand it back to me, so I’m getting high twice as fast as he is. But I hung with this guy for an hour just that day, just listening to his shit. I’ma tell you how good this guy was, he could be playing and somebody, you know they used to have these things in the club like knockers and shit, hit the glass, and if they knocked and he heard it a different key, he would change to that key, he was that good, he was that natural. You know, he had a brother who played piano too, Linton.

Willie Anderson, played with Bobby Barnes most of the time in later years. The only person I ever knew that had—I didn’t know Willie Bolar had some recordings of him—but Jim Gallert may have one, and Alma [Smith] had some, because every time I would go to her house she would say “Would you sit there and listen to Willie A?” But this chick [Alma], she had so much technique, you could not appreciate her in later years, because she had started to wane in the later years. Her sister—she went through the same shit I’m going through now—her sister was sick for twenty years and she took care of her. You know she played vibes, organ, and played them very, very well. She could really play the vibes, really play the organ, and she had a lot of technique on the piano. I’d go to her house and she’d always get on the phone and call me and say “Guess who’s on that?” and I’d say “I don’t know” and she had all that, she could really play. You’d start playing something and she would say “change it, change that, change this.” I don’t know if you ever hear that group that she had with Herbie Williams, that was her friend. Alma was wonderful.

We’re all around the same age. The only difference is that Barry was just so far ahead musically, and Tommy Flanagan was so far ahead musically, and so was Kenny Burrell, who didn’t hang with us at all. They were so far ahead musically, and they had degrees in music, we sluggers just came along and learned how to play some chords and learn how to play some lines and that was it. I knew at him, I knew Tommy Flanagan better later on, because he would come in Baker’s and he knew about me, for heaven’s sake I don’t know why, but he knew about me so whenever he come I would go see him, me and Kenny Cox, in fact one year Kenny Cox and I devised a little plan.

We gave Tommy a birthday gift. So Kenny Cox says we’re gonna give Tommy a gift, so you know what we gave him? Teach Your Little Fingers To Play, you ever see that book? That’s a John Thompson book, it’s somebody like six years old! We wrapped this shit all up, put a bow on it, carried it on down to the gig and give him a drink and said, “Tommy, we’ve got…” He was a subtle humorist. So he’d say off the cuff kind of, well he took it as a joke, he was cool. He would say very strange things without cracking a smile, he was the kind of guy who would tell a joke and he wouldn’t laugh, he would look at you, wait for you to tell the joke. I played for his funeral. His sister called me. I knew his wife, but I didn’t see her here, she didn’t come here but I knew his wife. I knew her from New York.

I was tighter in those days, in the 40s, with, you couldn’t be around Tommy, Tommy was studious. His brother used to live right down the street here, his brother played piano too, Johnson Flanagan. You couldn’t touch Tommy when he was around, he was the elite type of guy in those guys. Barry was that soulful brother, living over a grocery store and they kept that bullshit. They kept that shit going til twelve o’clock. Cut it off at twelve o’clock, every fucking night.

Always in the front room, just like Kirk Lightsey’s house, man you go in there, there’s a drum set and a piano. Well, at Barry’s house he had furniture. All Kirk had was an icebox. He didn’t have shit on that one-up on John Lodge. He lived upstairs over the Frolic Showbar. He had nothing in there but just a icebox, a piano, a baby grand piano, he had that.

She would bring in, she brought in the big names. She brought in Cannonball Adderley, ‘cause I would always run into Joe Zawinul, who I knew. ‘Cause he came to my house, and Barry send him around, now why would you send that guy to my house? That’s a bad motherfucker. He’s dead now, but was a bad motherfucker. You know he died? He came to my house, and I had some Bach shit on the piano. He looked at it and he started playing it in another key, and I said “Fuck you. Fuck you.” He wasn’t no joke. He was not a joke. Him and Jan Hammer, you ever know Jan Hammer? Piano player, I don’t know where he’s at today. Kind of a out, like them guys, like Weather Report-type. Them guys, man. Well that’s about it, doc.

Leonard Townsend, my dear friend. He got my divorce for me. I knew him before he was a [judge], I knew him as just a lawyer. I know his wife very well, and his sister-in-law, a sister named Laura, not a sister-in-law. He’s good people.

You ever hear of this guy? Earl Van Riper, he used to be with Earl Bostic. This guy, Jesus Christ. Them guys played so much piano, man, scare you to death.

Harold McKinney, he would like overrun you. He had—almost like a showboat type guy—but he had technique to burn. But he was a monster musician though, he wasn’t no bullshit, you know. He would forsake ideas for some technique but he was a hell of a musician though, he knew his shit. I think he had relative pitch at least. All of them guys, man.

Stanley Cowell, I don’t know if you ever met. He used to come up to my gig when I played at, when I was playing with Aretha I used to play at a place called the Falcon Lounge in Ann Arbor. And Stanley Cowell would come in there and so would Bob James.

Bob James can really, really play. I don’t know what happened to him, that horseshit he’ playing now. The shit he was playing then, he could play, man. I don’t know, shit went out the window. Them guys change up, I guess, make some money.

If you’re gonna talk about your history, where you came from, like this guy Fats Waller was my mother’s cousin, but that wasn’t really my biological mother. My biological mother died when she was 19. I saw her only when I was like two months old, and they put me in an orphanage. She was only twelve years old. I wouldn’t say she got raped by her mother’s boyfriend, [but] her mother’s boyfriend is really my dad who I never saw either. Never saw none of these people. So the only mother I really know is my adopted mother.

In fact, I had a sister and I didn’t find out she was my sister until I was twenty. We were members of the same church. We grew up in this church in Greektown [Second Baptist] and she got married. I knew her; I used to take piano lessons from her mother, supposedly her mother which wasn’t her mother. She invited me to her wedding, so, women do a better job of picking wedding gifts, so I gave my mother some money and said go buy Josephine a gift, and she did. I can’t remember what the gift was, because that was back in 1952 [sic], because I was 21 when I found out she was my sister. Some smart-ass lady in the church said, “your brother certainly gave you a nice gift.” And she said, “what brother?” and that started all this shit. She said “what brother, I don’t have a brother?” She said, “Oh, well I’m not going to tell you who he is then, but he’s short and he plays the piano.”

So she called me the next day and said “I think you’re my brother, and I think you’re adopted, and I want to talk to you.” (She’s 16 months younger than me.) We got together and had lunch at the place in those days, which was the cafeteria in Hudson’s basement. She just told me what the lady told her, and of course we were both afraid to say anything. So I wrote this letter and she wrote a letter too. I wrote it that night and put it on the dresser, and left! My mother said in a very stiff manner, “I got your letter and I’ll talk to you about it soon as the kids leave.”

I had two foster brothers, two other kids that lived in that house that were from the Children’s Aid Society. See we were all from the Children’s Aid Society including Curtis Fuller. It used to be on 71 West Warren. So my mother spoke us up, she didn’t tell me everything because she didn’t know everything. She told me what the court said. All she knew was what the court said.

Me and my sister were the ones who dug up all of the information, but we didn’t get the rest of the story until around the 80s. We dug up the complete information from probate records. It’s two books and my sister went to court and they said, “well that book’s not a circulating book,” and she said “OK.” So the minute the lady turned her back she just took the damn book and brought it over to my house. And I had a copy machine back in those days.

I got the picture of my mother in 1989. I had never seen what she looked like. In fact, the way I got that picture was I found out what my mother’s real name was, and then the probate court told me that she had got married before she died, and they gave me her married name. And we kept going and asking, trying to get the birth certificate of the wrong name. Because our real name is Chaney, that’s my name: Charles Chaney.

Anyway, I found out that she had married a guy named Sandy Young, and when I found that out I went back down there and got a death certificate that they had. I never did get a birth certificate, but I got a death certificate. And once we got that, I looked in the phone book—I was desperate—and I found Sandy Young in the phone book, so I called his house. I said “I gotta talk to Sandy,” and his wife says “he’s dead, who is this?” “well, this is Catherine’s son,” and she said “get over here right now!” and I said “can I bring my sister” and she said “yeah.”

So we went over there a couple of days later and when I walked in then she handed me the picture. And she told me a lot of stuff. My mother’s husband married her after my mother died in 1938. This is weird, Sandy Young was at the Bluebird, he was a jazz fan, there hanging out. Years ago they used to wear these black bands when somebody died, as a sign of mourning. He had this black band on and he had met this lady, Fanny Young. She lives in England and I call and talk to her all the time, she just turned 100 on June 26, she was born the same day as my wife was.

When I met her in ’89, she was living on Log Cabin, I went her house and she became a great friend of my wife’s, she became a great friend of my sister’s. When I had my 60th birthday, she came to that, her and my sister. Her daughter, who’s Kate, she got sick about a year ago, and she had a son who was a dopehead, this guy dragging his grandma to the bank, making her cash checks and stuff. So her son in England came here and he said the best way out of this is to give him the house and take my momma back to England. His name is Dave, and he calls me his other brother. So anyway, he came here after his sister died, and they signed the house over to this guy, which he’s already lost the house. But he carried his mother on back to England. At that time she was 97, and she just turned 100. Very, very sweet lady. Great, great lady. The rest of the story I didn’t find out from probate court I found out from her and from people like that, there was tons of folk.

My sister and I went down to Macon, Georgia but it was the wrong city. And I never believed in fortune tellers, and then my wife is really religious, but my daughter insisted.  I said, “I gotta find out where my mother came from,” so my carried me to this fortune teller. I went in there, and this lady says “you want to know where your mother is, where your mother came from?” she said. “Go back home and look at the top of the form.” I had a school record of my mother, she came here in 1925, and I had a school record but I looked at the record wrong. Me and my sister went to Macon, Georgia, but it was Americus, Georgia. So she said “you go back and look at it again and you’ll see the word right there, at the top.” And I never believed in that shit, it was right there!

And I went to Americus, Georgia and I found the guy! I found the house that my grandfather lived in. I didn’t meet him, he was dead by that time. Everybody that was involved, the whole area had changed by that time. But I did find everybody. I’ve got all of the information and found the guy, there was a guy down there that was a historian. My great-grandmother died on a plantation, and he carried me to this damn plantation. He researched and carried me to this plantation, and then he carried me to where my grandfather would have lived on Taylor Street, he carried me to that house.  He carried me to the area where my grandmother…how she got with this guy. It’s a long story, but anyways he carried me there and that’s how I found the rest of the story.

My grandfather was married, going with a 14-year-old girl, one of these typical-type stories, you know, across the tracks. He lived on this side of the square, he was a well-to-do undertaker and the girl he was going with, of course she was black. She lived across the track and he started going with her, but he was married, but he ended up giving her a baby. But he couldn’t escape that shit, I found his ass. This guy here, my grandfather Nat LaMaster he died in 1931.

It’s a hard story for me, a really difficult story. I hate that story, because it brings back a lot of memories. If you grow up your whole life thinking that this is your mother, although I had looked at my mother I keep trying to figure out, I said “this lady is way too old to be my mother.” She wouldn't tell her real age, because she was 81 when she died. She was way too old to have a son my age.

You know what threw me off is that my sister played piano, and my adopted mother played piano, and all of the people on my grandfather’s side played piano in Georgia. In fact, I found these people—I shouldn’t call them hillbillies—I’m serious, this guy sent me a bunch of CDs when he found me. You know cause I found these people was I went online and I kept looking for Chaneys. And I kept sending out letters, I’d go online and you know how you’d search for people in certain areas and I found out that I was really from Americus and so I wrote to all the Chaneys I found in Americus that you could find online.

Forever Fats

Glenn TuckerComment

I wrote this a year ago October, figure I'd post it for my hero Fats Waller's birthday yesterday:

Please stick a fork in me if I ever tire of Fats Waller's recordings...
technical perfection
pocket for days
ferocious piano playing
harmonic color for days
goofy organ sounds
cornucopia of solo piano textures
running commentary
lush singing
authoritatively creative piano playing
infectious joy
dirty blues
timeless yet prophetically ahead of his time
triumph of the human spirit
unattached conviction
definitive swing
just glad he spent 39 years amongst us earthlings,
my, my, my; yas, yas, yas!

Some perennial favorites:
unapologetic virtuosity
still-funny comedy
still-funny comedy 2
free improvisations?
heartbreaking melody and performance (neglected masterwork imho)
transcendent and mystical
holy ghost music
important early protest song
no-look stride [at 1:40]
solo piano masterclass
tastee and sweet
swing personified

8 Days in Havana

Glenn TuckerComment

I had the honor and privilege of spending a week in Havana, Cuba with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble leading up to this year’s International Jazz Day. Here are some of my experiences and reactions:

I’ve always aspired to be a basically reasonable and decent person, and last week as one of the first times I felt my aspirations acknowledged and reciprocated.

The second day we were there we played at a high school music conservatory, complete with a very Cuban-sounding Estonia brand (!) piano. “This is a very strong piano, it was built in Russia,” the teacher told me. I had the honor and joy of playing Maple Leaf Rag on that instrument (making sure to deal with the montunos in the second and third strains) when we gave a History of Jazz presentation

Joplin in Havana. Bud in Havana. Jaki in Havana. Claude Black in Havana. Allan Barnes in Havana. Woody Shaw came in ’79 for Havana Jam but his music never left

Herbie flirting with the idea of sitting in, the crowd chants “que toques!” “que toques!” “que toques!” Six of us sitting at the cafeteria afterwards trying to figure out if Dizzy ever made it to the island (he did, in ’88). “He’s a national hero to us.” Other national heroes included Compay Segundo & Chucho Valdés, canonized in tourist merchandise

Thoth taught us that everything has rhythm. Hammering out dents in a car door in clave. Playing guiro along with the radio in the market. Rhythm and melody in how old men greet each other in the street. Our host/tour guide Talía "didn't play any instruments" but played clave with us (expertly, in 5/4 too!). There was a big applause during a speech by Herbie and a man near me applauded in clave, with his claves

Middle schoolers in Guabanacoa singing “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me” before chilling at the top of the amphitheater in a 30-person line dance to Richard Bona’s set. Middle schooler hitting high F# with ease playing "My Way" from memory on alto sax. (I sat a few rows down from them with a new friend, and her ma and grandma; she was coincidentally there to see her little brother sing in the choir)

I'm not terribly superstitious, and I'm usually pretty wary of any human attempt to predict or control the elements. When we went to Guabanacoa. it looked like we were minutes away from a downpour, and the organizers of the event claimed that if they made an alternate rain plan, then it would surely rain. It didn't rain a drop. I don't necessarily believe in Santaria, I'm just reporting what I saw with my own eyes

I hit the shed pretty hard in the months leading up to our trip, so as not to embarrass myself amidst such a deep piano culture. Once I got there I had to shake my head an plead Gladwell, realizing that I needed about 9990 more hours with tumbaos (and at least that much for Cha Chas too, Cubans do NOT mess around with their chachachás)

True to form, each pianist I heard was better than the last. The pianist at the hotel an older woman playing the shit out of Fur Elise, Chopin fourth prelude, and Almedra. National Symphony playing the shit out of Dvorák 8 (trombones blaring in the best possible sense). National commitment to melody.

The young musicians I met wanted to play me American jazz recordings. Reggaetón blaring from cars and restaurants. Our host only wanted to listen to American pop in the bus. Normally this would worry me but the tradition is so strong

Deep funk played by many of the groups I heard. Must be in the water, the ability of Cuban musicians to take just about anything and make it better. Bright moments hearing Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Dvorak being played SOULFULLY

Live music every couple blocks from noon til close. Getting yelled at for lurking outside a restaurant, a singer chiding us in his guía (improvised lead vocal)

Had a gig at the Pabellón Cuba and hopped across the street after soundcheck to buy a guayabera, a guiro, and maracas, all of which were put to use in our set. Great Egrem record store in the Pabellón too, no CDs over $5

I simultaneously feared and looked forward to witnessing the infamous Cuban dropping of the final “s” from words. I did get on the books one of our hosts dropping the “s” from “la música jazz”

(Shout out to Ciego Montero of course)

We took it as a VERY good omen that the man making coffee at the hotel buffet the first morning was named Orestes

Played in Fulgencio Batista’s former mansion/lair, now a teacher’s college, a stone’s throw from the airport where he fled the country in ’59. (When we were in Panama in January we played, stayed, and taught at the Ciudad del Saber on the grounds of what used to be the School of the Americas, where the CIA trained future puppet dictators. Making the rounds I suppose. But on a more serious note, music serves a very necessary consecrating function in these places)

I had always heard that Cuban music and Cuban musicians are crazy. But I never found that to be the case. To me, “crazy” implies abnormal or irrational. Instead, I found an entire country that feels rhythm together. And I found this to be wonderful and perfectly rational.

It was a bit like the reaction that I had hearing Yossou N’Dour live for the first time; the fact that his group put all other live music I’ve heard to shame didn’t make it “crazy” in and of itself.

Or the experience of hearing Bucky Pizzarelli speak, after which a peer remarked that his words and ideas were “interesting.” But every word Pizzarrelli said was undeniably true. So in this sense I found music in Cuban neither “crazy” nor “interesting,” just undeniably true.

Undeniably true, undeniably good, and undeniably serious. As serious about execution as it is about enjoyment. That about takes care of everything else, no? Technique, aesthetic, blend, clarity, shape, creativity, presence…

(It’s human nature to label and devalue the unknown or the feared. Admitting the undeniable truth of this music takes nothing from me, while in my opinion perpetuating the “crazy” descriptor reinforces fear, ignorance, and distance)

Everyone I heard could sight read, play the classical repertoire of their instrument (without reluctance, in fact with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion), and improvise on a groove. To me there is nothing “crazy” or “interesting” about that, just very very reasonable.

The equality how the eighth note is articulated in Cuban music often disorients Euroamerican listeners as to the location of “1.” We protest to having to find “1” because we are used to having it spoon-fed to us. But I found this equality and balance neither “interesting” nor “crazy,” just unequivocally true in and of itself.

Interestingly enough, although individual dancers and musicians would clap the clave, big audiences often clapped on 1 & 3, which isn't actually that square (!) when no one in the band (/maybe the cowbell) is emphasizing 1 or 3.

I gave up fairly early on trying to explain just how special everyone I heard was, or how much we admire their musical tradition, or how well all of them would do outside of Cuba. I gave up because I learned that many of them had never left the island and therefore had never been exposed to very much mediocre music to compare themselves to. And I certainly didn’t want to spoil that.

Far from a utopia, I will say that from what I saw, race is a lot better in Cuba than in the US, and the lack of internet access is definitely a good thing for community mental health

I haven’t been enough places to proclaim Havana “the Detroit of the Caribbean,” BUT I did find in common:

  • fierce loyalty that only comes when the outside world stops believing in you and when there is a stigma attached to traveling to or living/staying in a place
  • serious hospitality, small town vibe
  • high musical literacy in audiences; high standard of basic musicianship
  • aggressive and raw playing style that doesn't always translate elsewhere

It also warrants examining where jazz would be with federally-mandated music education, crime rates low enough to sustain inner-city and neighborhood venues, and federally-supported big bands.

Some of my parents’ best friends—a non-blood Aunt and Uncle—had us over for Seder a number of times growing up, where I learned the phrase “next year in Jerusalem.” As a non-religious musician, for me it’s gotta be “Next year in Havana.” See you there!


Remembering Claude Black

Glenn TuckerComment

A reposting of something I wrote in October of 2013, for what would have been Claude's 81st Birthday. This Sunday, January 17, marks the third anniversary of his passing.

Things I remember:
His dedication to others. He mentored many young musicians including my teacher Geri Allen, Kirk Lightsey, and Curtis Fuller, among countless others. He never failed to ask about all members of my family any time I saw him, and stayed in Detroit to be around his. It was a trial getting him to talk about his career, often only saying a sentence or two about many of the greats he knew. He hated playing trio, despite being unparalleled at it. He preferred to accompany and interact with others.

His dedication to the piano. Although I never heard his practice sessions, (I certainly heard him warming up, often on JJ Johnson’s ‘Lament’) Jim Gottron told me they consisted mostly of technique, broken up by short ballads. Last summer, while at the Dirty Dog and I offered to take him to lunch, but he called first thing in the morning saying that he really needed to practice instead. 

In the time I knew him (73-80 years old) he started taking piano lessons (Bartók Microkosmos, Bach) at the U of T. As he said in a tape of a 2009 concert, “now I am a student of the piano, so hopefully I will be getting better!”

His reassuring baritone voice. Whether in conversation, on the phone, or singing an occasional ballad.

His hat collection. Seriously! Berets, a derby, baseball caps and straw hats in the summer, many others.

His ability to shape a gig. Starting relaxed; cookin by the end of the first tune. Well-placed burners, even hopping off of the bench in the heat of passion. He was the epitome of getting ‘honest house:’ humoring and feeding off of the audience while serving the music. Ending slow, often with Lotus Blossum, Christo Redentor, Lucky Old Sun, or Thanks for the Memories.

Thank you Claude for gracing our lives with your presence.

A December of Ages

Glenn TuckerComment

Reflecting on what has been my most diverse (and now that I look back, busiest) holiday gigging season to date, which somehow stacked my entire musical life alongside itself, namely:

DEC 4 Ann Arbor AGO concert with the Ann Arbor Boychoir, (my earliest musical training; I was a member from age 8 to 13) performing on pipe organ, (which I started playing at age 21) my Master’s audition piece (which I learned at age 22)

DEC 18 Concert with the Paul Keller Ensemble, performing with my first two jazz teachers, Sean Dobbins (whom I started with at age 11) and Paul Finkbeiner (age 12). Also performing were the first bandleader to hire me, Chris Smith (at age 15) and 3/5 of the Dusk Uptown band (my first record from age 16, featuring Keller, Finkbeiner, and Keith Kaminski).

DEC 8, 15, 17 Gigs with Kurt Krahnke, who I first played with at age 16

DEC 12 Baker’s Keyboard Lounge with Vincent Bowens, who I first played with there at age 17 (Kurt was on the gig). Vincent and I have talked about recording together in 2016!

DEC 13+20 My own Jazz Nativity program, which I started at age 23. Significant for a few reasons: futuristic music from the 30s and 40s, part of my journey towards effective promotion and production, and a rare gig where I was the oldest musician in the group!

DEC 5 My third annual appearance at Noel Night with Barbara Ware (ages 24-26)

DEC 19 A duo gig with George “Sax” Benson, with whom I recorded an album, “Dreamers” last spring (at age 25) which will be officially released February at Kerrytown Concert House. First gigged with George at age 21, and he is currently 86 and swingin as ever!

DEC 25 The first Tucker brothers Christmas concert in at least seven years! A tradition that dates back at least to age 9 I would say

DEC 2 My inaugural gig with Leonard King’s Oopapada, a group celebrating its 20th anniversary

And Looking Ahead:
DEC 3 Submitted my application to the Monk Institute at UCLA, where I’ve been selected to do a live audition in February

Rehearsals for road dates with Michael Henderson, Jean Carn, and the Dramatics in February

DEC 10+16 The first two gigs for a much-needed, already hope-inspiring outreach program expertly put together by Sarah D’Angelo

Looking forward to great things in 2016: the aforementioned Monk audition, road dates with Michael Henderson, the formal release of Dreamers, workshopping/recording the Imaginary Portraits solo piano record, etc. etc. Stay tuned!