Read the unedited transcript of Byron Coley's interview with Ran Blake...
B: Were you playing much piano when you were in school?
R: At Classical High School I helped do the music for a production of Arsenic and Old Lace. They said I couldn’t stay in key very well. I kept talking about the movie with the eye – Spiral Staircase – I was more into Arsenic than Old Lace. Then I had to be the runner for that awful Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. Then there was a third thing. I played piano for school assembly every week, including a prelude. Mr. Lindstrom was the music advisor at Suffield Academy. He said, ”keep only these white notes in,” or some such thing. I think I did a blues note. Then I had to do the hymns. I was insufferable. I really hated being there, even though I was indulged. I got a room for my LP collection. I got a room for my albums. I got to know Mahalia, Thelonius. The bebop stuff came much later. I loved Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. Of course, Prelude of the Afternoon of the Fawn by Debussy. Roy Webb, the guy who did music for Spiral Staircase, can be hackneyed, but once the murders started, the last hour of the film, was dramatic and rich. The theremin was always featured in these scores. And what is it, the Ondes-Martenot? I much prefer the sound of that. My favorite film music now is Pierre Jansen. We didn’t have DVDs or VCRs in Suffield, CT. I longed to go to the Thompsonville Theater. I remember hitching a ride to see A Streetcar Name Desire in Springfield. One of my parents’ friends was a no-pain lady, and I mentioned to my parents I thought she had headaches. My parents said, “How would you know?” Then I think the cat was out of the bag. They said, “You’re not going to do this movie business. Why do you think we moved here?” So I rebelled against my music teacher. I hated to read music. I did the scales and arpeggios. That was easier. Her husband was a very kind man. But I knew her first as Janet Wallace, living on Mulberry Street. Later a man called Lloyd Stoneman came to our house on Union Street. My parents thought six dollars an hour was the height of extravagance. Blustering snow or whatever. And he had to put up with me. I’m tired of people who don’t do work. You get everything back. He would write reviews once a month. I would do recitals and the poor man…all young people want an audience. So, there was a Warren Amerman. He taught music and his son runs a studio in West Springfield. But finally getting to Connecticut, I did go to all the churches in town – Polish Catholic, regular Catholic, Baptist, then a fresh new Episcopal Church, an Afro American Church. The Polish church had something. Every once in a while the chords would leave C Major, but it was a little while before I got the Church of God in Christ, which was on Russell Street. That was in North Hartford. Now that Church is the Latter Day Rain. Also in the Wethersfield part of Hartford was Ray Cassarino, where I really started doing large block chords and improvisation. Ray did a lot to build up my repertoire for old standards. And I kept mostly record collecting.
B: Did you specialise in what you were playing?
R: Well, mostly it was films and doing my own plots. But it was very rigid back then. It was either Elvis and race music or the cool cerebral jazz that had been swing. I was a late bloomer to bebop. Of course you were measured by how well you played bebop. Now of course it’s still nice to have people study Bud Powell no matter what. But in those days it was what were you going to be – an orchestral musician, or chops or what. Cassarino, we worked on scales, but we went right through repertoire. He gave me a book, and later I would tell people I was going to burn the fake book. Even that was tough reading. You could hear some of the stuff on radio. I started collecting a lot of Ella, Sarah Vaughn, just loved singers -- Nat King Cole. Of course then I did pretty well with Charlie Parker and Dizzy, I became a freak for Stan Kenton and later got to work with Bill Russo. Later I got to where I could do a lot of what are called standards. Right today, I think I could play fifty Gershwin songs. That doesn’t mean I’d do them well, but…that was the music. I joined Eddie White’s rock and roll band in Windor Locks CT. They liked it rhythmically, but not what chords I did. At the beginning they didn’t even like me rhythmically. I couldn’t swing, I couldn’t work with the drummer. But Windsor Locks…the VFW, there would be different halls. But maybe the other piano players were too expensive. I think maybe we played in Hartford once. It was really small town. At first I was snobbish, then I began to find some of that interesting. We’d do “Night Train” and this guy would honk that out. He was a tenor saxophone player. Now it sounds good, but Ray Charles came a little later. I also began going to Jinxey’s in Springfield on Hancock Street. It would be interesting to know if that place is still there and if Frankie Jonas still runs it. Then there was the Elks Club in North Hartford. I had my first rum & coke there. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday night a quartet played there and a guy would sit in on bass called Mo Cloud, who was married to Sadie. Ernie Wilson who was the regular bass player is now in Miami, doing research. There was a bass player called Norman, Bunny was the drummer.
R: No. This and Jinxey’s did standards including an Errol Garner piece called “Trio.” I would hear sort of be-bop. We’re now sort of ‘54-‘55-‘56. I’m one of the few blue eyed guys there. It was so close to the church, I was afraid I’d see – I called her my step mother Carter – she was a wonderful proud Pentacostal woman and I was so afraid I’d be found out going to that bar. And I could never join the church because I wouldn’t give up movies. I never gambled, and I could have given up a glass of wine back then, but…for music, I guess I would have been more open to what was then emerging as rock.
R: Yeah, I did, And Jim Case was the president.
B: Did you go there with the idea of studying jazz
R: Well, there was no such thing and I made a petition – could I be a jazz major? The following summer I was at Lennox School of Jazz. I had Oscar Peterson. I guess I got the okay, but there was nobody there. I started putting on the Bard Jazz Festivals. And I just read in the NY Times this morning about Jimmy Priest who was Marian Anderson’s nephew, who was a drummer who got polio. He’s now conductor who’s doing conducting at Julliard Stockholm. I tried to get a group down from Albany with Hod O’Brien. But I would be on campus from Monday night to Thursday. But I remember there was Buddy Tate in New York, and going to the Apollo Theater and Max Harrison from a London magazine would come in.
B: While you were enjoying these noir films, did you read any of the source material?
R: I had every book I could get at the Paris Airport of James Hadley Chase. Dashiell Hammett…I think the women scared me more. The Postman Rings Twice by James Cain. There may have been a year ‘54-‘55 that was noir. Then Vertigo came out. According to my father I had another relapse. But I felt jazz is what I am. People would say there was too much Ives. And I don’t think I did swing. So I think very consciously I though, I’m going to get Bud. Monk was no problem, I could eat him up. Then Charlie Parker, but why was Ray Charles easier?
R: Well, "Unanswered Questions", The Second Movement of the Fourth Symphony, "Central Park", "Housatanock"…but a lot of it was very discernable from hymnals. But I craved…Kenton really filled the bill for a while, but after ‘55 he never did, except his theme song got better with Peter on drums. But I guess I wanted a wild R&B pre-Aretha with wild strange chords. That was a hard product to get. At Bard College we had a professor, Leonard Catewell from the Berlin Philharmonic, more of a snobbish guy, Paul Nortoff. I was such a slow pokey composer. I really did not notate. And people today seem to think my piano things are pretty arranged. I think there are themes that l keep coming back and forth, but there was always that moment – who might be behind the curtain. What’s going to happen. Daydreaming about the past and films. Then going to Birdland. I got to study well a little later. Then I had a six week field period at Atlantic.
B: What was the incident you describe recreating from Key Largo ?
R: Well, I don’t think that’s so great a movie. But maybe it’s the storm brewing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the thirty important films.
R: Yeah. She came in and said, “You remind me of Art Tatum.”
R: I believe she came in the same year, but I may have been a year or two older because I did one extra year at Suffield Academy. Then hung around the house and had some odd jobs. I know I was a year or two older, but I believe I was in the same class as Jeanne. We met at Bard Hall. The first piece we did was “Jeepers Creepers.” We went to a recording studio in Springfield. I don’t know what happened to this homemade LP. I loved her parents – Madeline – who has such a long life. I thought Jeanne and I would grow old together. Madeline was quite a dancer and she appeared in a group called Over 70. Jeanne’s father, Alonzo, was the postman. A very dignified guy. A great friend of Brock Peters, who was in The Pawnbroker and To Kill a Mockingbird. They lived on Freeman and Prospect Avenue in the Bronx and I would go there for weekends. Right behind the house was Skippy, the sister of Nellie Monk.
B: You recorded while you were still at Bard?
R: Privately, yeah. We paid $100. Then I remember Jeanne played a lot with a Broadway pianist, Jonathon Tunic. And we didn’t really connect much the sophomore and junior years. Then we did a little but more our senior year. Then I moved to a boarding house in NY City.
B: How did the Atlantic Records thing happen?
R: I became Tom Dowd’s assistant. And met Jerry Wexler, who would later bring in Aretha. She really broke right when I got back from Greece. I remember going to see her at the Village Vanguard and there were 8 or 9 free tables. Then all of a sudden in ’68 she really hit big with “I Never Loved a Man.” At Bard College I had about 12 advisors who had to read essays. There was a field period where I worked in a little record shop in West Hartford and got a little salary of $20 a week and 10 albums. So I began absolutely collecting stuff. At Atlantic, just to be able to meet Laverne Baker. I said, “Would you like water.” She said, “Buster when I want a drink, you better know what I mean.” Ruth Brown would drop by. Ahmet Ertugun would want coffee one way, Jerry Wexler another. Herb Abramson another. I arrived there one Monday in January and nobody knew who the hell I was. Neshui had hired me and he was away on a trip. I arrived and said, “Oh, Mr. Ertugan, I’m so happy to be here.” He said, “Who the hell are you?” Then later he said, “You call this coffee?” It was at 157 West 57th and the other studio was 246 West 56th. Then of course they moved up to 63 Broadway and Warner Brothers ate them up. Neshui arrived that afternoon, “Ah yeah, Ran Blake. You were going to work here a few days.” I said, “Six weeks, Mr. Ertugan.” He said, “I’ll send you over to Tom.” I guess Gunther remembers me sweeping floors. I can remember his at 10th and Lennox. To absolutely have people reinforcing me about how great Ray Charles’s “Green Dollar Bill” was. Maybe some people said, “Oh, listen to this.” Lee Konitz is a monster and Tristano, but I immediately…I had always loved Mahalia. Maybe somebody said, “Ran, why did you play with Eddie White?” Or maybe I didn’t like rock then, but just to hear the rhythm and blues and to see these people walk in, it was absolutely incredible.
B: Yeah, Tristano was an Atlantic artist then.
R: Right. I went out to Long Island and had a lesson. George Russell came and I had met him at Lennox. And what a great cook he was. Bill Russo came and Oscar Peterson even came down and gave me two lessons. It took me ten years to pay for one. I really was not a very good filer, but to absolutely see people I’d heard about, and to have my ears extended – to the Platters. Chris Connor was away that period, but I believe that was really the only non-black singer I appreciated. Tommy Talbert, but I liked all the Atlantic stars – MJQ, John Lewis, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, Milt Jackson…they would be dropping by and sometime some of them would say, “Ran, do you want to join us for coffee?” But I knew that I was just there. I began to feel worse and worse about my playing, because I really didn’t fit in with Clyde McPhatter, or the Tristano’s for speed. Laverne Baker was doing a Bessie Smith record and just to be at one of the great studios, was…It really was classic and it became very important. That was a big element in my life. There are so many people who play R&B better than I do. Maybe part of that doesn’t come out. But I keep coming back to Al Green and Ray Charles. But Tom had these great machines. The Ertugans were dapper. Naturally I had a little more in common with Neshui. So that was six weeks. And I would go back and forth. Bard was a wonderful school. I got to know the community. I had a newspaper route. We put on three to four festivals. A dog joined our combo, who could hit the bass drum.
B: You were still doing combos at that point?
R: Through Jinxey’s I had a rhythm section. We played at Vassar a couple of times.
R: No, I would get a horn player. And one of them is eight times the star I am – Houston Person. He joins me later on Suffield Gothic. I’ve never done an album for Springfield. I guess I should. But Houston used to play. My second year at the Elk Club he became my horn player. He had relocated to Hartford from Carolina. He had that rich Texas sound. Well the photographer who owned the Coolidge Corner Theater is Joe Hardman, the black gentleman on the cover had played and sung with Ellington maybe two weeks of his life. All the other people there was a lady with white hair who was a neighbor who used to be the witch on Halloween. I’ve chosen my covers with care. Sometimes I don’t, like the black bag, and Jeanne Lee’s shawl.
B: Where did the valise come as a symbol?
R: Well I studied with Bill Russo at Riverdale and I kept dropping things. I had a Kenton question, then a Charlie Parker question. I wanted to know why he and Chris didn’t make a record. Then I would read these mystery books by James Hadley Chase and Patricia Highsmith. I remember the IRT conductor, way back in 1960, in the middle of the day taking that Broadway line. I think I got to know some people. I remember tumbling out on Broadway at 236th street. There was a tailor there and he said to make a suitcase would cost $35. My aunt in Northampton sent me a $15 check. And you could get these black bags for a dime a dozen. I used to call the black bag Thelonius. And except for the Paul Bley Breakthru, I think it’s on every disc. Blake’s bag,, I don’t know. You asked about George Avakian, I don’t know how we got on, because compared to Ornette, we were not avant garde. I think George is better known for that. Avakian did so much. He was so open to Gunther. I’ve been with Gunther 35 years, but lessons could be as infrequent as three times a year. That was a great profound thing. How Jeanne and I got on Victor…I know he was doing album with Sonny Rollins, The Bridge. I had a wonderful manager, Guy Freedman, he couldn’t get us a gig at a local place, then suddenly got us on Victor. My parents couldn’t believe it. We had two successful tours of Europe, and we appeared in New York during the first album a couple of times at the place Lee Morgan was shot.
R: Yeah. We did Sundays noon or something. We did the Apollo, won first award, but never were able to do it four weeks in a row, so we never got booked.
B: You played the Monterey Jazz Festival in 62.
R: Yeah. And I remember Yola Brubeck on the plane. It was my first airplane flight.
R: We might have gone to San Francisco also, but we didn’t get too much audience support at Monterey. We did Golden Circle in Sweden, Bergen, Antibes… A whole European tour and nothing would happen in America. Bill Smith, a friend of Brubeck’s in Rome helped out in Rome and Palermo. We got some nice audience reaction. I know Max Gordon said we weren’t ready for the Vanguard, that I wasn’t very relaxed. And I probably was awkward as hell at the audition. I really was not a swinger. There really was not the beat. And I guess we loved more ballads, so that can be a little hard going. I know at Copenhagen, at the Montmarte, they didn’t want us. We would look back and ask, “Why did we do well at Golden Circle?” I never really made it much as a solo either. My only success was at the Whiskey Jazz Club in Madrid. Where I would be asked to go back. You know how much I admire Chris Connor and I’m not sure personal appearances were her most relaxing experience. The second trip with Jeanne Lee we spent some time in Belgium. There’s a photograph of a wonderful patron of the arts who also owned the nightclub. Jeanne and I would appear at the house and we would do soirees. Through this, I think, we met Ilyas Kistelink. There are some wonderful recordings in the Belgian television archives. I remember playing in Stuttgart opposite Cecil Taylor, Jeanne and I. Jeanne says you’re making a mistake going to Greece, remember that. You have 300-400 extra dollars. We finally got paid. I was a year or two older, but she had a wonderful grip on reality. I went and of course the junta took place. Nightmares. People invited back to Greece.
R: Well, she was over there a lot. I think there were Paris
concerts, but we never toured again. She appeared at Jordan
Hall…but there were not many concerts. I remember missing Paris so
much. I’ve made 35 or 40 trips and I think I’ve had to pay for one
in my life. It’s mostly been France. It’s so interesting because
you can bomb in Paris, but people with a little power, if they like
someone they can somehow get the money and bring you over.
B: The record won an award also.
R: The Billie Holiday award. A lot of that was for Jeanne Lee’s interpretations. I know she was called the heir of Billie Holiday in Palermo. We got a lot of great press in Stockholm. We stayed for a month at the Hotel Neptune in Bergen. Through friends of friends. We played Kenny Clarke’s at St Germain du Pres. We did an evening in Paris and it was a little controversial. Nothing like Stravinsky, but some people said, “Where did the jazz go?” I know Trude Heller on Sixth Ave in NYC once suggested to Jeanne Lee that she drop me. Jeanne of course appeared with so many musicians, but at that time she said, “I won’t drop Ran.” I think it just had to do with the music. My piano playing didn’t have quite the bristle of Cecil. I loved Jeanne lee and Archie Shepp’s version of “Lover Man” and also “Blasé.”
B: Did you actually petition for the Mingus Tijuana Moods LP to be released?
R: Not really. The person who really knows the story on that's Bill Dixon, who was working at the United Nations at that time. We have files here of all the names of the people who signed the petition.
R: Martin Williams did not like a lot of my music. But he said, “Why don’t you consider calling Bernard Stollman and doing an album for him?” So I did. Bernard said he’d have me for another album. I should have called him but I never did. Although I had the best oatmeal cookies ever from his mom. Their place was up on Riverside Drive and there was a little dog, Pico, and Donald and Albert Ayler would be sitting there. I guess we had a few glasses of water. So I would wake up at the Stollman’s place on Riverside Drive. That was around the end of my New York period. I must have crashed there, and remained friends. They would give me free albums. I met him by calling up his law office. He said, “Sure, drop by.”
B: You record a lot of covers on that record, although he calls them originals on the first press.
R: Well, I think most people did almost all originals until later. I think it had “Vanguard” on it. I was working with an avant garde composer at the time, Charles Wouronen.
B: Bernard once assured me that you bought back the master tapes for that ESP album.
R: Maybe he doesn’t have the reels.
B: It was the first ESP LP that went out of catalogue.
R: Maybe it was a poor seller.
B: No way. He kept Ni Kantu En Esperanto in print for years!
R: His parents loved that record. Were Burton Greene’s albums in print for a while?
B: Oh yeah. A friend of mine did a concert with Burton and he got busted for pissing on the streets of Amherst, Massachusetts.
R: He still doesn’t speak Dutch. Michael Moore told me that. He’s playing with Schuller guys now. Mother tried to get me into Esperanto.
B: He’s still into Esperanto and macrobiotics.
R: Well the food and drinks they served me were not macrobiotic.
But those were the parents. Bernard treated me well. There was one
club I remember I didn’t get paid. It was only 80 or 90 dollars and
I remember Bernard handing me that money, which he probably could
B: The ESP album had a poem by Bob Marius, who is he?
R: He has now got another name and he has come to a lot of my recent concerts. He was on Riker’s Island, in jail for choosing not to serve in Vietnam. He and I hung out together. I used to work as a switchboard operator at a hotel on West 58th Street. It was two blocks from Atlantic Records. I was told I could never sleep on the job, or leave the premises. But I was allowed a bottle of wine a night and all the friends who could fit in the room. But I mustn’t sleep. All these things were going on, like a massage parlor. And all these things were happening, but I was just back with the Spiral Staircase family. Finding out who the killers were. There was also a stint at the Columbia University Hotel. But Bob Marius was a wonderful poet. He wrote that poem – Middle Class Ebony. Bernard wants me to do new liner notes. I don’t know why.
R: We went mostly upstate New York. It was Patty Waters, Giuseppi Logan, Burton Greene and the whole Sun Ra Arkestra.
R: I happened to play with Patty once. I basically played solo piano. Sun Ra never asked me. And he and Burton were on not on speaking Terms. Logan had his quartet. We just sat on the bus. Burton usually liked to sit up in front. And I think there were four cities – Syracuse, Buffalo…There were four stops. I don’t think we were promised much bread, but it was very nice. To really get to know Pat Patrick was great. It was great being with Sun Ra on the road [...]
R: Stollman is fascinating. And those oatmeal cookies he served up in the morning. To wake up and there was Albert Ayler, and their little dog Pico would jump up. And you never knew what people would be there. You think Bernard was serving breakfast? It was the mother and the father. He’s in another room somewhere. You’d never know who would be there. I act as though I was there many times, but I think it was maybe three times.
B: Did you ever have any associations with Lowell Davidson?
R: No, I met him at a church his father had on Columbus Avenue. He was at Harvard. I met him all of two times. I knew him mostly because Bernard would put ESP albums inside my black case. We ran into each other once or twice in Boston, but he has a wonderful mystique and reputation here, with all the people who played with him. And Giuseppi Logan I never saw again. Burton Greene never came into my life again until he played locally with George and Ed Schuller. And they were not allowed much solo space.
B: There were not very many solo piano records being cut in those days. People were into trios.
R: I did not get along with bass players. Drummers, I did. In fact John Hazilla and I are doing a drum/piano duet. But apart from Eddie Light, and the gospel church…I knew the standards and stuff, but I dunno. I guess with all the films in my head and running to theaters, I just ended up playing alone.
B: Were you playing live at all during that period?
R; Very rarely. Paul Bley got me a gig in New York at the Front Page. Then he and Steve stopped their tour. I did play in Madrid. I drove most of the customers away, and then artists and painters came to hear me. So I became…to get 30 people in a 40 seat bar in Madrid was very good. They paid my hotel and I could get some paealla sometime and gazpacho. But years went by and I didn’t play. I guess I had more freedom playing alone. That was 67, then the Conservatory became my whole life.
R: And Sun Ra once warned me – watch out for Burton Greene. I once ran into Sun Ra years later in Athens. This was 1977. Someone asked would I come down to the lobby, there was a person there who says he’s misplaced his passport and he’s from Saturn. I came down and I said, “Ah, Mr. Ra.” And a whole lot of people were there – Byron Allen and a whole lot of people. Anyway, the next morning Mr. Ra did come to the table and said something. He was quite a gentleman with that little hat. But that was the 60s. There was Prestige, Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside…Battle Records. CL Franklin made four records there long before Columbia, It was a subsidiary of Riverside. But there were not many labels.
B: Well, when European labels began to proliferate, that seems to have changed your focus to there.
R: The Bonnoginni family is absolutely great in Milano, and I
love Jean Jacques of Owl. He really did some wonderful recordings.
He wanted to make The Death of Edith Piaf the title and
cover of the album. France…when they don’t like you they let you
know, but it’s quite a wonderful country.
B: There were five LPs worth of material recorded that month.
R: How did I get away with that?
B: Well, it’s funny. You had recorded very sporadically before that.
R: Well, except for Bernard, and maybe Soul Note, I never approached anybody to record. People would usually invite me.
B: Were Crystal Trip and Open City recorded as separate sessions?
R: Michael Smith, who was living in the south of Sweden, knew Aldo Sinesio. I remember they met me at the airport and got me so drunk I was sick for three days. I don’t remember if I ever got paid for the double album. He was a like an Italian Bernard Stollman, but the wine was better.
R: No, but he was a great friend of Rossolini.
B: How did you come to record with Paul Bley’s label?
R: Well, I’d known Paul. I was a big fan of his and had him come and play at Bard College. I knew Paul and Carla. And he’s still with the wonderful Carol, who did all the covers for those records. They asked if I would come and do one. They said they’d pay all the studio costs. I think I had to fly from Brussels to Oslo. It’s odd, that was recorded in Oslo and my first French record, Wende was recorded in Jamaica Plain. But Paul said I had to record in Oslo. I remember overstaying at a house in Brussels, because if I had played on Sunday the engineer would have to get time and a half.
B: None of the material on Horo has been reissued on CD.
R: Well, why is that? Aldo had a wonderful assistant. A Brazilian guy that has a new name. He’s the one who engineered those. Then Jeanne and I did an album that was released, from a party in Stockholm. We did Beatles and Duke Ellington.
B: How often were you getting over to Europe to play?
R: I kept track of every trip until seven or eight years ago, and I think there were 35 or 40 trips. Maybe I’m exaggerating.
R: Well, last time it was The Strasburg Festival. I was teaching for a week at Paris Conservatory. Then going to go see the setting for Claude Chabrol’s Boucher, I always wanted to stay 3 or 4 days, just using up some of the money going to Pere Lachaise to see Edith Piaf’s grave or trying to get an appointment with Stephane Aludran. Or Claude Chabrol. Never succeeding. Remembering trying to ask somebody for a date, only to find out she wasn’t Truffaut’s niece. Michael Smith, the pianist, brought me to play in a little Swiss package tour about 20 years ago. Touring little bits of Sweden. But I think France has been generous, especially the west coast. And I’ve been 4 or 5 times to the Bordeaux region. Never really making a particular hit, but somebody in a book store liked it.
R: Franz Koglmann and his wonderful wife, Ingrid Karl, who has a museum. They heard about me through Bob Alt from the Vienna scene. They invited me. They’ve had me over about three times, and I did do Meet Me in Vienna for Art Lange, with Braxton. That was done around there. There’s that Koglmann CD where I’m the side person. And there’s one wonderful piece by the North Carolina composer Claire Ritter. It’s a little gem from that record. I love repertoire by the way. On Indian Summer, the album I did with Knife. I do track two from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. One time, when moving to this basement hovel, I lived in another basement. And all my records were packed up except Thriller and three other ones.
B: So you were trying to decode the biggest selling record of all time?
R: I didn’t know the word decode then, but probably I was. There were warning signs that I should try to make my music a little bit more acceptable. But my main man is Al Green and I love “Judy” from Lets Stay Together. And “Mimi” from the white album. If I had to drop things, I’m so glad that my name is mentioned in small print on an Al Green box set. I show that to everybody.
B: You did another European tour with Jeanne in 67. And after that’s when you went to Greece?
R: Yeah, I remember meeting Valdivalisa on the plaza. And my
friend Yanni, they scaled his lips. I really got very shaken up.
There were no buses, no telephones, and I was inn an area where
there was no English spoken. Someone I got to Rome and I remember
two Italian teenagers almost adopting me one night. I guess I must
have been very incoherent. Somebody arranged for me to stay with a
Floriano Hepner, whose former girlfriend was Linda Darnell, the
film noir actress. Then I remember doing a protest concert, and
going to Oslo, and coming back to America on July 4th. Trying to
meet Theodorakis, whose music was forbidden. I arrived back in NY
with no money. My father gave me an ultimatum and Gunther offered
me a job at the Conservatory. And that’s how I came back to
Massachusetts. I’d been left an apartment in New York, but I
started right at the bottom of the ladder at NEC. I was dusting and
helping move pianos and running the postal service. When the mail
came, I had to get it into all the various offices. I was allowed
to talk 5 minutes to the secretary in one office. But I really got
to know the flow of the Conservatory. We started a jazz department
a year later. The anniversary will be celebrated next October.
B: Did you start teaching as soon as the Jazz Dept. was formed?
R: Yes. I started with Extension of Vision. I was on the faculty around 68, 69. My main thing was running a community service program, with various bosses over me. I was responsible from bringing music into Waltham Penitentiary, the Woman’s Prison in Framingham and Walpole. And I was doing rehabilitation in other outlets, trying to give students a chance to perform, trying to get the Italian, Spanish and particularly the black community into the Conservatory. And finding Brother Alphonso, the stride pianist with shrieking gospel voice, the Crayton family, the Wallace singers and Mae Arnett, who became the star of our Billie Holiday Story. She knew the whole old Harlem and had grown up there. Later I got criticized for bringing in too much of the community, only because I was ignoring our own student body. People were very open. We were the first conservatory to have jazz and the first to have a community outreach program. To prisons and to old person’s homes. And I would go to pool halls and recruit people. It was $25 a semester to became a student at the conservatory.
R: Yes. And then Jaki Byard heard him and he got him into the jazz program, which was certainly more than $25 a semester. The Third Stream Department started in 72. I widened the definition, because in the first year we had a student from Ethiopia – why not my country? I became very interested in retention – how one retains music. And that’s what my book is about. Guess I’m really want to find some disciples who will do a 4 or 5 year study on how people find thing in subliminal hearing and all that. I do want to say there’s a very wonderful guy running the department now – Hankus Metsky. He’s done a lot of work in Klezmer and it’s really a wonderful program. Gunther is so important in my life. And also a lady called Dorothy Wallace. And in the last 15 years, the Knife. For me it’s very important for me to hang with people I play with. Braxton and I didn’t rehearse, but we would certainly go through these delightful bottles of Northern Italian wine. He can be very delightful. We ended up in Rome with John Hazille, Chris Brooks, Hankus Kitsky. We knew each other years before we played, but we certainly weren’t close friends. I loved his wife, Nicole. That’s quite a delightful piece on Arista – Nicole – there aren’t any mathematical symbols for it. I only met them at Arista Records. They used to hang out with Steve Backer a lot. Did you know Michael Cuscuna?
R: He got me to play a solo set at his high school dance, then there was also the Kenny Dorham Quartet. I remember Kenny and I talking a train to Greenwich, Connecticut or wherever it was.
R: Yeah, and he got Chris Connor to sing, and Ricky Ford, Jerome Harris, and this wonderful singer, Eleni Odoni. One of my favorite people to play with is Christine Correa, from Mombai.
B: You really like working with female vocalists.
R: Yeah, but I’d really like to work with Al Green, too. If you could arrange it. I love the timbre of the voice, and singers don’t have to worry as much about keys and all that. The vice and the orchestra are my two favorite instruments.
B: In listening to your collaborations, I sometimes
wonder if you’re not being too deferential to your collaborators.
Like, on the session with Lacy, you seem to almost take a step back
when he starts to play.
R: Well, a lot of people don’t believe in rehearsals. He’s a horn player and he was busy and a genius. Maybe I was a bit in awe of him, but I always use space in my solo work. But I’m never quite sure. I like to sit and drink with a person and think of a scenario. He was rushed in and out of there by Werner Oov. He hated the way I pronounced it. And he thinks the greatest group I ever played with was Ginger Buttkiss. He was gonna try to get Knife, but he broke up the group. I guess I can be a little sparse at times. I’ never sure what the next person’s going to do.
B: That might be a function of having played solo so much.
R: Maybe it is. And even though I have a wide number of contacts, I’m really very solitary. In Suffield I had the record room where I could stay and sleep. There would be babysitters for my sister who'd fade in and out of life. I would just replay dark films in my imagination and even though I have web pages and all that, I’m really a recluse. I’m quite a loner after 10:00 at night.
B: The Blue Potato. Recorded in April 69, the title is a joke about Irish cops?
R: Well, I was in Roxbury the night Martin Luther King got assassinated. And I remember seeing two black men beaten by two white cops after they said something, perhaps about Blue Power. But that’s what Blue Potato refers to. I now use it to teach people descending major sixes. But I think everything on the album, apart from “Stars Fell On Alabama” is about that. But “Bella Caio” is about abusing women, there’s an anti-Mussolini piece, “God Save The Child”…I remember on the liner notes I thank Mr. Di Giorgio. He and his wife taught me everything I know about the folk music of Italy and its use as a protest.
B: That was the first album you recorded after you started teaching.
R: Yeah, and I think it got reviewed in Downbeat along with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra.
R: Well, some, but I was doing an awful lot of recruiting then, too. I went to all but two states of this country, and I wasn’t really doing all that much teaching my first four or five years. And if I was away for more than a week I had to pay for an assistant. So again, apart from recruiting, I don’t think I have left the conservatory, except once for a private tour of the United States, that was primarily on the continent. But, primarily I was teaching and going to films. The Orson Welles Theater had opened. Suddenly, Vertigo, Psycho, A Touch of Evil – Orson Welles’ real masterpiece with that incredible opening scene.
B: You don’t use any Mancini in your music about that film.
R: Well if you heard my version now I would. But Film Noir was a fun album to do. That was recorded near a Chinese restaurant on Chestnut Hill.
B: How did that Take One Take Two sequence happen?
R: That was for Clark Gayle out on Long Island. He had me do two takes of everything. He had been recording a lot of conservatory concerts. I figured that every year we’d be brings out an album like Third Stream Today. Today, Clark paid for my hotel and expenses, He decided to bring two albums out with the same order and everything. That was his idea, he said each take was different.
B: Maybe you could do an album that was just many versions of one tune.
R: I love “Gloomy Sunday.” There are many great versions of that.
B: Was the Brattle concert done just as music, or was there film shown?
R: That was just music, although I have worked with film a couple of times in Europe. Once at a Steve Lacy concert in Italy. I usually have so many movies going in my mind that I don’t actually need to watch a film. Especially if I’m playing solo, I don’t need them. But that was the Vertigo album, and I remember Bob Blumenthal panned the show. And then I did Portrait of Doktor Mabuse with an orchestra. It has that Prada Yasi tune that’s appeared on about seven of my records – “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” That was a transcription of the solo I recorded for Paul Bley’s label, which had been inspired by the Chris Connors version. Which is so slow. Of course originally I heard it as an up-tempo piece with Nat King Cole. About 30 or 40 people came to that show. It was very nice to play at a movie theater. And I did a couple of concerts at the Coolidge Corner as well.
B: How many times do you need to see the film to feel
you know it?
R: Eight or nine times. And I’m still getting different subtexts from Spiral Staircase. And Vertigo now I see the light dim at the Argosy Bookstore and you get to see the lightning on Kim Novak on the one edition. But I really think it’s Chabrol. A lot of awful things happen to people in his films.
R: No. I write poorly.
B: I have friends who have sidelines improvising to silent films.
R: I do that with the sound off to Spiral, but it puts me in a weird spot. What would I do when Charlie Chaplin slips on a banana? I would like to do it to a dark haunted Edgar Allen Poe story. But there are so many things I would not be able to fit in with. I mean, I could get away with it, but…usually the pianos are pretty crummy too.
B: Some of your film work seems to be as much about memory as film itself.
R: And that’s the biggest facet of my teaching, too. Flashbacks. My memory is more about special events than anything linear in the plot. That’s why I would feel hampered a bit. It would be like playing with a rhythm section, but at least I would know what the film was doing. It might be nice to try it some time, but I have so much of my own memories constantly with me. Not just movies, but Mary Lou Williams and a three hour lesson where we would do Catholicism. We would do the rosary beads, then she would slap my left hand if I dropped a beat. Then back to the rosary beads, then suddenly she brought out the most delicious fried chicken and a glass of scotch. Then we go back to rosaries, then back to the piano. Then she did one of my pieces – “Vanguard” or something – where she trued to make me feel good. Now I’m still her priest. But there are so many flashbacks. That’s why I infuriate people who want references. Up until about five years ago I went to about five concerts a week. Now I have a hard time putting new stuff into my memory. Young people process new information so quickly. I admire that. I’m slower. Those are my favorite 30 movies up on those shelves. To really know Chris Connor’s Blue album, to wonder why Judy was put on Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together on side two. Stevie Wonder’s Innnervisions. There are so many delights, who has time for new music new experiences? There are so many memories. I had probably only five or six lessons with Mary Lou. [...] My teaching is most of my life. And if I say, “Let’s get to the subliminal,” that's because mostly that’s what I’m referencing. I don’t think I’m an intellectual musician. Things burst forth from my dreams and I’m maybe trying to suggest that people check out Big Mama Thornton and Johann Brahms and Odetta and Miriam Makeba. There are so many. I think a writer can keep us on our toes sometimes. It’s really hard as an educator. I guess I really want people to have history, but it takes time.
B: With Painted Rhythms in 85, you start to play with some Sephardic themes, as you had with Greek themes in the ‘60s.
R: I love Sephardic music. I get tired of repeating myself. And a guy who studied with me, Hankus Kinsky, he’s running the department now. I took two courses with him and I can’t sometimes keep the noir out, but I love the whole Spanish Jewish Arabic tradition, and the music from that area of Seville and all of that. I loved that area of Spain. And it really brought me back to Greek music, like Rembetika. Because I think I had only explored Greek music more politically.
B: How did the Clifford Jordan thing happen?
R: I remember being with him. There’s a very courtly French man living in upper Maryland. He was a great friend with Shirley Horn. One could never be alone in his beautiful house. He would always have it full of wonderful people. He must have sent for me. Dave Sebinksy came down. I must have been touring for the conservatory. I just walked into a house, met somebody named Cleopatra. There was also a second album that never got released. I don’t think we were very good.
B: What happened to the idea of your Great Composers series, with Mingus being in there?
R: I’d like to do Mingus. Ernie Santuoso – he was a sports writer for the Globe – couldn’t stand my playing but became my fan at a Kenton concert. He begged me once to do Bud Powell. I said, “Look, I don’t have Bud’s speed.” I would love to do Mingus. I did Gershwin, I did Ellington. I’d love to do Stevie Wonder. There are so many people I’d love to do, but I don’t want to flood the market.
B: How did you get together with Josh Rosenthal?
R: He came and saw me at Koby’s and said he was going to bring out a three CD retrospective set, getting together with all the labels, and putting it together in a facsimile of the black bag I carry. Josh didn’t have the money.
B: He told me he had wanted to reissue the Horo records, but he
couldn’t get in touch with Sinesio.
R: Well, what could he do now. One of them I know I wasn’t paid for. I’ve always thought I’d love to do a record called All About Chris, where we’d go into the vaults and get some those things from Atlantic, and put some samples of the original material inside the songs. I feel like one reason I’m getting a little attention now is the fact that I don’t do a new record every month. I really would love to do Mingus, though.
R: Very much. Not every bit, but he and Sun Ra --- the solo album he did for Paul Bley. I don’t think he went far enough. It’s not as great as it could have been. But then I don’t think he gets enough credit as a bass player either. His solo on Frenzy on Atlantic – what a giant. All Gunther’s work on bringing Epitaph alive. All his rich harmonic. He was very supportive of me, but that’s because I think I stayed away from him. I was really frightened of him. We had heard about Jimmy Knepper…I would have lasted a night and a half. But I did go to a piano concert of his, on a terrible upright piano, at Columbia University. And he pointed at me and said, “There’s a young man here I’d like to invite to play.” And through that appearance I met three or four friends in life. He never remembered my name, he’d just heard me play at Lennox. But I met Rod Hodges, Bruce Hobson, people that I knew years later. That was at Columbia University in 61 or 62. He would play at the Jazz Gallery, but there was a little place near the Village Gate, maybe the Playhouse. That’s not the right name. It was a very tiny club.
B; You worked as a waiter at the Jazz Gallery in the early ‘60s?
R: Yes, and one of my favorite clients to wait on was Nica de Koenigswarter Rothschild and her daughter. I remember being there and Jackie Monk – who was related to Nellie’s part of the family – and they went to Brother Alex Bradford’s gospel church in Newark.
R: Yes, in front of Sidney Poitier and James Baldwin. I remember roaring and going down. And I remember Joe Torriny looking at Marvin Patashnik and saying “His days are numbered“ or something. Then I begged and begged to go back. So I got demoted to kitchen duty and I learned to make fried rice for Thelonius. And I got reinstated to be the waiter for Nica when she’d come with her Bentley at 12. I loved being there – listening to Gil Evans, Brubeck…It was very good waiting during some people – Slide Hampton, Horace, the whole gang, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach. To hear Freedom Now Suite and the eight great songs from Randy Weston’s African Lady. And the a great 5/4 piece by Julian Priester. That’s where I got to know Mal Waldron and asked if I could study. St. Marks Place near 2nd & 3rd. Good egg creams. Strange nights going back across town. Then taking the IRT subway back and my 89 year old landlady saying “Cut out the noise.”