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. 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.