Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Harmonic Sorcery of Jerry Bergonzi's "Spotlight on Standards":

Jerry Bergonzi Spotlight on Standards SCD 2158

The Boston based tenor magician Jerry Bergonzi returns to the organ/tenor/drums format to spin his harmonic sorcery on his latest offering titled Spotlight on Standards. The saxophonist/educator known as the Gonz, while lauded by the insular community of his peers, is not a household name among the general public. He is known for his muscular, hard edged sound, his exquisite fiery technique and his boundless creativity.

Jerry Bergonzi grew up in Boston and started on clarinet at age eight. He credits a musical uncle who used to live upstairs from him with turning him onto jazz early. In youth bands  he learned from  two of the best instructors, John Laporta and Joe Viola and eventually studied  music education at University of Mass in Lowell, MA.  Bergonzi spent several years in New York developing his sound, jamming and shedding with other notable musicians of his era before getting a call from pianist Dave Brubeck. With Brubeck, Bergonzi traveled and played some of the largest and most prestigious festivals and venues in the world. It was a liberating experience and a steady paycheck. The first recording on his discography is from 1973 on Brubeck’s Two Generations of Brubeck. The now sixty-eight-year-old Bergonzi was the saxophonist with Brubeck’s Quartet from 1973-1975 and then again from 1979 to 1982. By the early eighties Bergonzi was back in Boston and began his teaching career, first with private instruction, then publishing books on improvisation and eventually becoming a full time professor at The New England Conservatory of Music where he teaches to this day. Over the years Bergonzi has written upward of one hundred songs and played as a leader or sideman on over thirty records.

On his latest, Spotlight on Standards, Bergonzi is joined by organist Renato Chicco and drummer Andrea Michelutti. This organ trio format is one the saxophonist last used with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum back in 1999.

From the opening lines of the Cy Coleman classic “Witchcraft” you can hear Bergonzi’s muscular tenor is not about to play this or anything else straight up. It is his resolute willingness to re-harmonize the theme in his own unique way that makes the music so much more than a re-hash of an old standard. This is a re-imagining of the song where the melody is a mere armature upon which to reconstruct something fresh and new. Coupled with his signature saxophone sound the song takes on a new life.

The next four tunes are all Bergonzi originals. His distinctive technique uses creative articulation, a fluidity of thoughts and innovative dynamics to achieve that most precious of commodities- originality. Listen to the elastic logic of his saxophone on his composition “Bi-Polar.”  The notes gush like a wellspring of exploratory thought from a savant’s mind.  On “Blue Cube” he creates a memorable repeating motif. Chicco and Michelutti sustain the easy shuffle over which Bergonzi offers a series of deliberate, sometimes searing lines. He often takes no easily readable path, but nonetheless he lead you to his intended destination. Chicco’s B3 soloing is subtly but equally probing.

“First Lady” is an interesting composition with an uplifting, almost Bossa feel. Bergonzi’s use of the lower register of his instrument never fails to swing. He drifts over the changes with an airy lightness and solid conviction. Michelutti is a master of interjecting timely accents while maintaining a rock-steady rhythm.

Bergonzi’s mournful “Gabriella” is perhaps his most sensitive ballad on this album. The plaintive tenor sound is quite compelling throughout, offering a window into the deepest recesses of the artist’s soul.  It is a wistful cry that cannot be ignored. Chicco’s deft church-like organ brings a pious, religious quality to the whole proceeding. Bergonzi’s command of his instrument, using it as an extension of the human voice,  is extraordinary.

The program returns to the American Songbook with “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Out of Nowhere.” At all times the group displays a solid swing and a masterful ability to create surprising iterations of the melody.  On Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” we find Bergonzi’s at his best. His punchy sound articulates with authority as the rhythm section grooves along. He seems to draw from an inexhaustible well of ideas that never seem to repeat and never fail to surprise.

Ned Washington and Victor Young’s venerable standard “Stella by Starlight” is treated with authority and conviction when Bergonzi and company re-imagine this classic. The solid swing, the aggressive declaration of Bergonzi’s saxophone with his  rapid fire lines and Chicco’s unusual B3 musings that seem to directly descend from Larry Young, make this one special. It’s almost an entirely new song. Bergonzi’s solo is overflowing, bursting with ideas, Chicco’s playing is stellar and Michelutti is so subtly correct as to be transcendent.

Here is a link to hear "Witchraft" from Spotlight on Standards

https://soundcloud.com/highnote-savant-records/01-witchcraft-jerry-bergonzi

Saturday, August 20, 2016

An Interview with Trumpeter Randy Brecker


Randy Brecker photo credit Francisco Molina Reyes II
Randy Brecker has been an integral part of the jazz and pop music scene since he first appeared as part of the original jazz/rock group Blood Sweat & Tears on the seminal Child is the Father to the Man from 1968. Through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties his playing became part of the fabric of our musical tapestry from his memorable solo on Bruce Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River"  to his ground breaking super group Dreams and the trailblazing  jazz funk dynamo The Brecker Brothers with songs like "Skunk Funk " and "Sneakin' Up Behind You." But Brecker's career spans the gamut of jazz endeavors including stints with jazz icons like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Duke Pearson, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Mingus Dynasty Big Band and his own excursions into the world of Brazilian jazz. His career has included countless Grammy nominations in various band configurations and he has won six Grammy awards. His most recent album Randy Pop features songs that he has played over his career. We talked to Brecker on the phone at his home in New York on August 10, 2016. 

NOJ: Let's start with the obligatory biographical questions. You grew up in Philly in a musical family. What first inspired you to pick up the trumpet?

RB: Like you said, it was a musical family and we grew up in Philadelphia and that was a real trumpet town back then. In a way it still is. A lot of great players come from there. During the early fifties Clifford Brown was around. My father loved him and he had all his records and went to hear him. He also knew Dizzy kind of well so he had Dizzy Gillespie records, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, he was a big fan.


NOJ: Did your father actual play piano with these guys?

RB: I don’t think so. I’m not sure how he met Dizzy or what that relationship was, I was so young at the time. He was partners in the first Theater in the Round Tents that started there. There were three tents and on the off nights they always had jazz concerts so that might have had something to do with it. I remember I heard Dave Brubeck there, there was three tents and the stage revolved. They also had like Broadway style shows.

My dad was a great player and he did have jam sessions at the house all the time with some good Philly players. Once Jon Hendricks from Lambert., Hendricks and Ross came over, he was snowed in. The level of musicianship at the jam sessions was pretty high for the most part. As a kid I fell in love with the trumpet. The thing that set it in the third grade, we didn’t have the greatest music program, and they only had trumpets or clarinets. So I grabbed the trumpet, I was actually looking at the trombones because they looked a little bit more fun to play when you are eight years old, but I got the trumpet. I ended up with a horn and here it is sixty-two years later and I am still trying to figure it out.

NOJ: I heard you mention in another interview that your father played a little like Dave Brubeck, which leads me to my next question. Why do you think that for all his popularity Brubeck’s piano style was not emulated by the up and coming players as much as say Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner’s style?

RB: That’s a good question. It was a unique band. When you think of the classic quartet it’s hard to separate Dave from the rest of the band with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright, especially in their prime, so maybe that has something to do with it. It’s true he is more known as a composer. Miles was a fan of his compositions and did some of them. I think he was so tightly tied up into the group sound that when you think of Dave Brubeck you think of the whole thing, as opposed to him separately. His way of improvising was also tightly involved in that group so you can barely think of him outside of that group. My father was a big fan and if anybody sounded like Dave Brubeck he did.


NOJ: You attended school at Indiana University. Was that your first choice for university education and if so why?

RB: Well I went there when I was fifteen, to the Stan Kenton band camp for two weeks. It was one of the instigators that led me to me wanting to be a professional musician. My instructor was the great Marvin Stamm whom I became friendly with. Subsequently I have done a million dates with him.  He became close to a young Peter Erskine who was six or seven years old, could barely touch the pedal and was playing great. Marvin was friendly with Peter’s older sister; Peter’s father was the camp Doctor. I was standing on the curb after the two-weeks of camp, watching Marvin get on the bus with the Stan Kenton tour, about to leave and Peter’s sister was on the curbing crying and waving goodbye. So I thought to myself this is what I want to do, when I grow up. I’ll never forget the look on Marvin’s face as was pulling away. (Laughing). 
Louis Hayes and a young Peter Erskine at the Stan Kenton Jazz Camp 1961
(photo courtesy of Peter Erskine's photo gallery)
There were some great musicians there at the camp. Cannonball Adderley’s Sextet was there with Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Yusef Lateef , Donald Byrd was also there, it was incredible. We got to pal around with these guys. I also met Dave Sanborn, Don Grolnick, who else was there; Keith Jarrett was there although he didn’t talk to anybody, Lou Marini so guys who I have maintained relationships with for years. Jamie Aebersold was a little older but he was also there. This was at the Indiana University Music School  which was brand new; a round, very modern looking building. They were in the process of building up their music department to be a world class program. They had a big endowment, a lot of benefactors; so they were getting people from New York to get out there and teach. By the time I was ready to pick a college, they had established themselves as one of the greatest music schools in the country. They had a great trumpet teacher named Bill Adam who went on to also teach Jerry Hey, Chris Botti, Larry Hall, Charley Davis. I can’t remember if it was my first choice, but it was up there and I knew the place, I knew some other guys who were going, so I ended up going there.

NOJ: You went there for three years and then later finished up your degree at NYU is that right?

RB: Well what happened was the band at IU was fantastic. We had particularly great playing band. I was in and out of the music school, I must say I had a kind of sketchy education. I was in music education for a while, but I didn’t think I wanted to teach. I liked to write papers, so I was in liberal arts for a while. I wrote stories and I was in Communications, radio and TV and floating around. I always maintained my trumpet lessons with Bill Adam and I was studying with the great Dave Baker in Indianapolis every week and I played in the I U big band.

NOJ: Now Dave Baker is a trombone player right?

RB: Yeah he was a trombone player who played with George Russell. It’s funny the ABC’s of jazz education were all at I U. Jamey Aebersold, Dave Baker and Jerry Coker. I U was also ahead of its time as far as jazz education and those guys became really well known as jazz educators. As far as that went I was at the right place at the right time.

Our band won the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1965. Everyone shot for that prize. It was like the Olympics of Big Band competition in the country and we won hands down that year. Clark Terry gave me an award for soloist and one of the rewards was the band was offered a four-month State Department sponsored tour of the Middle East in 1966. So I went back to IU for a semester and then didn’t go back my last semester and instead we went on this tour through all the Middle East and India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka); fascinating trip.
http://waxidermy.com/indiana-univ/
That summer there was an international jazz competition that we saw advertised in Downbeat when we were in India and it was to be held in Vienna, Austria. So some of us decided to make our way to Vienna to try out for the competition. Gary Campbell, a now established musical educator and great saxophonist and I went to Vienna. The judges were Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, JJ Johnson, Joe Zawinul, Ron Carter and Mel Lewis and it was held together by a wonderful Viennese jazz/classical pianist named Friedrich Gulda. I won an award at that festival, but all the contestants were bunked together in a youth hostel and that was a blast. We were all young kids 18, 19 or 20 and the group included Jan Hammer, who at the time played like Wynton Kelly, George Mraz, Miroslav Vitous, Claudio Roditi, Jiggs Whigham, Franco Ambrosetti, Joachim Kuhn and Tomaz Stanko, who now lives in NY. Man it was an amazing vignette. I had a band back there with Jan Hammer and George Mraz, we were the second place winners. 


To get back to your question, I came back to New York and studied with a great trumpet player named Ray Crisara, but there was a lot of work around. Mel asked me to join the Thad and Mel Band. Clark Terry was starting a big band he asked me to join that too. Marvin came back into town coincidentally and he introduced me to some studio work. So I kind of got sucked into to all this work as soon as I came to town. I was really lucky, in the right place at the right time. In a nutshell that’s how I ended up in New York.

NOJ: That was September of 1966. This was during the Vietnam war and there were protestors in full swing. Did that affect your decision to go on this State Department sponsored tour?

RB: Well, we really wanted to do this and I think at the time we mended a lot of fences although at the time it may have been controversial to some I suppose. We made a lot of friends on that trip. Subsequently I did a couple of other State Department tours to the communist countries in 1989 about six months before they all fell like dominoes. It just mended a lot of fences. People loved the music and the band. We saw all this stuff happening over there. We ended up on a lot of Army bases. At one point I even thought of making that a career playing in an Army band.

Getting back to that original tour in 1966, I still have a lot of pictures from that trip and we just had our fiftieth anniversary reunion of that tour this past May. A lot of the guys are now established educators and imagine this we had a jam session at one of the clubs around IU after all these years. It was a heck of a trip.

NOJ: What was your first break into playing serious jazz and who gave it to you?

RB: The very first one I remember was Clark calling up and saying he was starting a big band and would I join. I was just thrilled; I couldn’t believe it was him on the phone. Subsequently, right around the same time I went to hear Thad and Mel’s band, which had just started up, and I think Bill Berry was leaving the band, and Mel asked me to join the group. So imagine how thrilling that was. Philly was a big R &B town when I was growing up, a melting pot of different styles of music. So at the same time I was asked to join Blood Sweat & Tears. So I had my foot into the rock world too. I had grown up with the music and enjoyed pop, R & B and it was a great horn section in that band.  So all this was happening at the same time. Oh and Marvin was using me as a sub for studio work, there was a ton of session work at the time. So it ended it with me being a studio guy doing a lot of studio work also.

NOJ: So Marvin really got you into the studio work?

Marvin Stamm
RB: Yeah he really helped me a lot. Thad also helped. You would go to the studio for a jingle and the other trumpet player would be Thad Jones or Snooky Young. Ernie Royal was still in town. Bernie Glow. It was great days, great players that took me under their wing. Duke Pearson’s Big Band was also happening at that time. Marvin helped get in that with Joe Shepley and Burt Collins. We were known as the “White Knights” in that band. That band worked quite a bit at the Half Note, as did Clark Terry’s Band. So there I was as a twenty-year-old kid thrilled to be around all these guys and doing all this, I never thought I would be doing this in a million years.

NOJ:  You mentioned Clifford was a big influence from hearing him at home. Who else were your trumpet role models and why?



RB: Well he was definitely one of them, because we had all his records. I never got the chance to see him before he died because I was too young. I was ten years old when he was killed. I remember that day clearly when my father found out. So he was up there, but also, as I had mentioned, dad loved Miles. I started to play along with records, and Miles was a little easier to play along with, and Chet Baker. They were so lyrical and didn’t play quite as many notes as Clifford and didn’t have as much control of the horn as Clifford did. So I started with those two when I was ten or eleven. First, a Miles record came out on Columbia called Round About Midnight, and I started with ballads. I also had a record by Milt Jackson called Bags Groove, that was a great one to play along with. Along with my classical studies I started taking dad’s records up to my room and just playing along with the records.


NOJ: You came up behind guys like Miles, Clifford was before you, but Miles was pretty present. Other guys like Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Give us your take on all these guys and how they affected your playing?

RB: I suppose Woody was the one I was closest to, because we were the same age and we met. He was already playing with Horace’s group. I had been spending the summer- I was maybe nineteen and he was maybe six months older than I was-in Seattle taking some courses at the University of Washington, chasing after my first girlfriend, and just spending the summer there. That was also a life changing summer, there was a lot happening that summer in Seattle. Larry Coryell was still living there and I played with him. He had a steady gig at a place called the Embers. There were just a lot of great musicians in town and there was a club called The Penthouse, that featured like the old days, a group for a week, but then interspersed jam sessions with local guys on the band stand. Art Blakey was there for a week with Lee Morgan. I hadn’t really met Lee before, although we were both from Philadelphia and we both had the same trumpet teacher. So we got friendly that week. He invited me to sit in with Art, but he didn’t ask him. I remember they were playing “A Night in Tunisia” and Lee motioned for me to come up and sit in. I started to go into a solo and Art looked around and went into a drum solo to drown me out. (Laughing) He started yelling at Lee saying “I don’t want nobody sitting in, I told you that.” They had a big argument on the bandstand. The next week, imagine this, Horace Silver was there with Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw. Woody had heard me play and was also very complimentary. He sounded just great and we kind of hung out the whole week at the club.
Woody Shaw
When I got to New York, I guess a couple of years later, and I got in touch with him and he was also very helpful getting me gigs. He also wound up playing in Clark’s band for a while. So we pal’d around. I was closest to him and we compared notes. Lee was five years older so I would go hear him play, but I wasn’t that close to him other than to say hello. Miles was a little older still and I didn’t get to know him on a personal level until later, when we had our club Seventh Avenue South (a onetime popular NYC jazz club). He would come down and hangout a lot and say outrageous things to everybody. So I got to know him pretty well during that period, but this was late seventies, early eighties.

NOJ: What about Freddie?

Slug's Handbill featuring Jazz Communicataors
(courtesy of Frank Mastropolos's BedfordandBowery.com)
RB: Freddie was also very helpful I must say. Both Woody and Freddie recommended me to Art Blakey’s band. I played with him off and on for about a year before Dreams was started. My first night with Art down at Slugs (a downtown now defunct jazz club), Woody and Freddie were in the front row. I was pretty much of a nervous wreck. He was also very nice to me when I got to New York and of course he was a big inspiration. I went to hear him play whenever I could. He had a band with Joe Henderson, I think they were called Jazz Communicators at Slugs

I was lucky enough to do one extended tour to Japan with Freddie. Two trumpets, three saxophones-it was Michael Brecker, Joe Henderson and Joe Farrell- that was the front line can you imagine? It was called the Aurex Band “D” at the Aurex Jazz Festival. We were the Fusioneers and the rhythm section was George Duke, Alphonso Johnson, Robben Ford and Peter Erskine. That was when jazz was huge in Japan, we played baseball stadiums, fifty thousand people. We were known as fusion band “D” that was how the Japanese labeled everyone. That was a wonderful trip where I got to know Freddie and both Joes pretty well.


NOJ: In 1967 you supposedly answered an ad for horn players for a band that was to be the original iteration of Blood Sweat '& Tears.

RB: I didn’t quite answer an ad. They called me up. They had the band set, but one of the trumpet players didn't want to leave town because he had a teaching gig he didn’t want to give up. So they called me and had heard about me through the grapevine and so I joined the band. 

NOJ: At the time did you really think rock/R'&;B and jazz could be melded well together and was it an easy transition from straight ahead jazz?

RB: It was a lot less difficult than you would think, although jazz and rock was just getting started. I had grown up with rock, I liked the Beatles, I liked the Stones, I played in a lot of R & B bands in Philly. Organ trios and blues bands mostly. The gigs were a lot more prevalent in Philly than the jazz gigs. One of my first gigs in New York, I forget how I got this one, but I played with an R & B band at the Metropole (a jazz turned strip club on 7th Avenue and 47th street in NYC) with the Go-go girls. So I got to learn a lot of the repertoire. I always forget to mention this, but when I went to IU, Booker T was in the jazz band playing trombone. He was getting a master’s degree in music composition. So for two years I played around I U with him. We played quite a bit so I kind of learned all the Stax (Records) stuff.
The Metropole Cafe on 7th & 47th St NYC


NOJ: How chaotic were bands like B, S& T at the time?

RB: Blood, Sweat & Tears was really organized. They had a great arranger Freddie Lipsius, who was a wonderful jazz alto saxophonist. A bebop player who had a band in New York and had a lot of great young players. He could write and play his ass off. Maybe this was something that I shouldn’t have heard because it was a big influence; we were walking down the street and a fan came up to Fred and myself and asked “You guys are playing rock not jazz, don’t you feel like you’re selling out?” and Freddie’s answer was “Look, I know I can play, so I don’t have to prove it to anybody. This band features all my writing and we get a chance to improvise. This band has a chance to really go somewhere, rather than just playing in the New York clubs for five dollars a night.” So he had a really good answer to that question, question that I was in some ways asking myself, and it kind of influenced my thinking.


The thing about that band, it was all wonderful players, Bobby Colomby on drums, Jimmy Fiedler on bass. They kind of set a standard for rock playing because they were jazzers at heart, so they brought a jazz mentality to the proceedings. That first B, S &T record Child is a Father to the Man is still a classic record with some classic arrangements. I enjoyed myself playing in that band, but I didn’t get a chance to improvise enough. Then Horace called. The horn players were basically sidemen (in the first B, S & T), except for Freddie, we got paid a salary. That was nice because we got paid whether we worked or we didn’t. Several months into the band they had what was a classic band meeting where they announced to Al Kooper-who was really instrumental in starting the whole thing and adding horns to rock music ala Maynard Ferguson-they decided without my knowing to add a new lead singer. They had found another singer in Canada named David Clayton Thomas and they announced to Al that they wanted him to stay in the band, but that they wanted Thomas to be the lead singer. Al abruptly said I don’t want to do it and he quit. I had been talking to Horace Silver and it was such a nice opportunity, a really great band with Billy Cobham on drums (he had just come out of the Army), Bennie Maupin on saxophone and John B. Williams. I just leapt at the chance, so I announced to the band that I indeed was going to leave too. They begged me to stay and said they were cutting in everyone equally going forward, we’re sharing things, we think we can go far with this new lead singer. My response was “I don’t think you guys will ever make it without Al.”  (Laughing) So I just walked out.  We left on good terms, they understood, they were all jazz fans.

I begged my friend Lew Soloff, who I met at a Joe Henderson big band rehearsal the next day, to take my place. He was pretty anti-rock music, which is kind of ironic. He really didn’t want to do it. He said “I don’t want to play in a rock band, I want to play jazz.” By the end of the rehearsal I talked him into it. I said “…look you get paid whether you play or not,” I think they were paying one hundred dollars a week, “that’s two fifty-dollar club dates that you don’t have to do.” So he begrudgingly said “ok, I’ll try it.” So I feed him in, he met everybody, they had apparently asked at one point previously to be lead trumpet. So he joined the band. They went out with David Clayton Thomas and I went out with Horace making two fifty a week, which was better than the hundred dollars a week I was making (with B, S '& T), but I didn’t know Horace was going to take taxes out. I think I netted $147.50, out of which I had to pay for my own hotel, which also didn’t know at the time. Blood, Sweat & Tears went on to record their next record which had hits like “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die” and went on to sell eleven million records. So Soloff’s salary went to I think it was five thousand a week, which in 1968 was like twenty thousand a week. We were taking trumpet lessons together in New Jersey across the river. When we started doing that we would take a bus out there together, eventually he started picking me up in a limo. (Laughter)
Lew Soloff w Blood Sweat and Tears
Years later, for about four or five years in a row the original B, S'&T got together at the Bottom Line with Al Kooper and we would do Child is Father to the Man live and Lew and I played together there. We did it until about the mid-nineties until it faded out. Interestingly enough, Stephen King, the great writer, was in the band, he plays guitar and was friends with Al.

NOJ:  What gave you the itch to get into fusion and start Dreams?

Randy and Michael Brecker in Dreams photo by Jeff Kent
RB: I ended playing with Horace for about a year and a half. We worked pretty extensively, we went to Europe and I became pretty close with Billy Cobham in that band. One day we were out in California and another one of those band meetings occurred. Horace called us all together and said guys I’m taking a break and I’m breaking up the band, I’m giving you two weeks’ notice. We were kind of mortified because we sounded great together and we wanted to keep doing it. Billy and I trudged back to New York in mid-nineteen sixty-nine. In the interim, my brother Michael had moved to New York and met a wonderful trombone player named Barry Rodgers. Barry had a relationship with a pair of singer/songwriters-Jeff Kent and Doug Lubahn. They were trying to start a band and they were looking for a trumpet player and a drummer. So all of a sudden we were back in town and I said to Mike, “I play trumpet and Billy plays drums?” So we joined the band. In that situation it was a great kind of James Brown, R'&B band. Jeff and Doug had some tunes that really leant themselves to creative arranging. We got together and rehearsed maybe five times a week and jammed up all the horn arrangements. It wasn’t like B, S& T, we didn’t have formalized arrangements, there was a lot of stretching out. It was kind of a collective horn improvisation, alá Mingus, where we changed the parts a little every night. They kind of organically developed. We rehearsed everything and by then cassettes had come out so we could record all the rehearsals. So we would get together and listen to them a decide what to keep and what to discard. We literally jammed up everything. It was a great band, we got very popular in the New York area and became the house band at the Village Gate.

NOJ: Yeah that is where I first saw you guys. Wasn’t John Abercrombie in that band?

John Abercrombie photo by Jeff Kent

Billy Cobham w/Dreams
RB: Yeah, at one point, we decided we needed a guitar. There was only six of us and we decided we needed a guitar. We auditioned several guys, I had met John some time before. I remember him coming over to my apartment. I met him through a trombone player named Sam Burtis. He had just come to town. He just had a charming way of playing rock with his wah-wah pedal. He wasn’t a rock player and I don’t think he thought of himself as a rock player, but he had a unique thing. Kind of humorous, played everything through his wah-wah pedal. One day he couldn’t make rehearsal and we were playing through Barcus Berry pick-ups and his wah-wah was sitting there and we had things called Condors that could allow you to play through it to create sort of watery organ sounds. So I patched my horn through Abercrombie’s wah-wah and man it sounded great. So I started to use that. Miles would come to hear us play (at the Gate) and he would never say anything and he would hear our horn effects, and this was right before Bitches Brew and I think we may have had a little influence on him. He asked Billy to play on it, in fact Billy did play on Bitches Brew, but somehow didn’t get credit, but he is on there.


NOJ: Was Billy playing those clear Fibes drums that he used when he went to Mahavishnu?


RB: No I don’t think so. He was just bulking up and adding drum after drum and cymbal after cymbal. I remember I think Ginger Baker had an influence on him. But he really set the standard back then. People hadn’t heard a drummer that could play like that. When he left to join John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra we had auditions to replace him (in Dreams), it was famous around New York. We had drum auditions for about six months. We must have tried sixty or seventy drummers trying to fill that spot and we finally just gave up and said ok we couldn’t find a drummer that played like he did. Mike and I went back to play with Horace. Billy really set the style.
One quick thing. Twenty years later with the return of the Brecker Brothers Band in nineteen ninety-two we had the great drummer Dennis Chambers. Low and behold a few months into it, John McLaughlin steals our drummer again. He got Dennis for his group the Free Spirits. So here we go again we had to have drum auditions, so we were reliving the dread at having to find a drummer to replace Dennis. By this time this style was more prevalent and we had six drummers that could all play great. It was almost impossible to choose, but we wound up choosing Rodney Holmes, my great friend who had been playing with me anyway and who also sounded great. But it’s just funny twenty years later McLaughlin stole our drummer again.

NOJ: I was a big Mahavishnu fan. When I first heard them they just floored me with their power, speed and virtuosity.  I just thought they were amazing.

RB: That they were. I was a big fan, as mad as I was that they stole Billy from us. John is a great guy and he has always been very gracious to me and my wife when we go to the South of France. He is a wonderful host.

NOJ:  Dreams was by all accounts a super group. Were there too many egos for the band to last or was the chemistry just not there?

The original band Dreams with Michael Brecker, Barry Rodgers, Doug Lubahn,
Billy Cobham, Jeff Kent and Randy Brecker 
RB: After a while Doug and Jeff, who were great singers and songwriters-their tunes lent themselves to our creative endeavors-but they weren’t really improvisers. They couldn’t quite keep up, especially after we added Abercrombie and we added a lead singer Eddie Vernon who could really belt it out. It started to get tiring because we had to start backpedaling our playing to keep in line with what they were doing.  We ended up hiring the young Will Lee on bass and Don Grolnick on keyboards and Chuck Rainey was on bass for a time. We all became friends, but the main thing was we couldn’t find a drummer to replace Billy and that’s what really destroyed the band.

NOJ: You and your brother Michael did a great deal of studio work in the late sixties and seventies. How did you get into that groove and who opened the doors for you in that way?

RB:  We went into the eighties and kind of into the nineties until it faded out and I really enjoyed myself doing that. As I said, Marvin got me in to the studios in the sixties when it was a suit and tie scene. I didn’t quite fit into that scene. David Sanborn was involved in this too. He had come to New York and it was he, myself, Michael, Barry Rodgers and Ronnie Cuber and we became known like a section. We had a different thing going, we had an R & B inflection and we’d fit into that scene, no suits.  We were younger and we had grown up with R & b and the Beatles so we kind of fit into that scene more.

Dreams kind of helped us because a lot of New York Contractors came down and heard us at the Gate and that helped us get into the studio scene. We were the younger guys, longer hair, no suits and ties and an R & B sensibility. Next thing you know we were kind of in and a lot of older guys were out.

NOJ: Let’s talk about a landmark studio sessions that were especially notable to me on of them Arif  Mardin’s Journey from 1974 and Don Sebesky’s Giant Box from 1973. Tell us about those sessions and what it was like to be in the studio with so many kick ass musicians?


RB: It was a thrill, just to see how effortlessly they operated. Intonation was always just perfect. They could sight read everything and they just knew how to give the producer what they wanted. With Arif, he liked what he heard and became a fan. I think we got the call for Journey through a violinist friend Gene Orloff. Arif started calling us for all his sessions. I kind of became his contractor because I was a little more responsible than some of the other guys. So I would get a call every week saying Monday we need two trumpets, three saxophones, two trombones and I would get the horn section together. Eventually he started handing me things to write. So that was a great opportunity and just a thrill.

Don Sebesky was just a great arranger. I did a couple of his records. He did lot of stuff for CTI so I became close with him and his son. It was just an exciting time, to be there every day. We worked every day, quite a bit with the older cats until like Snooky moved to California, Bernie Glow, unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age. I was just lucky to see both worlds. I caught the tail end of the classic studio system with all those guys, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones and it morphed into the jazz rock studio scene. I remember those sessions clearly because it was early in on my studio career.

NOJ: You did a great album with guitarist Jack Wilkins in 1978 titled Merge (originally titled The Jack Wilkins Quartet) with Jack De Johnette and Eddie Gomez. Was that a working group or did you have plans to gig out of the studio?


RB: We were playing a lot together at Sweet Basil in that configuration somehow. That session was really ‘live,’ it didn’t get started till like midnight. I think after the gig; we went to a studio to record it live with no overdubs. It was recorded in three or four hours. We did the whole thing in one or two takes. It became one of my favorite records (The Jack Wilkins Quartet). A few years later we added Mike to the band and I forget what it’s called (You Can’t Live Without It). Merge was released as like a combination album from the two original albums.

NOJ:  I read that you formed the Brecker Brothers band at the insistence of the producer who felt the name was a hook, originally this was supposed to be your solo album. Was this a vehicle for your writing?
RB: The producer coined the name. We had been getting together with guys from Dreams, we stayed friends, with no thought in mind of forming a band. I had started to write. It’s funny how all this stuff is connected, but Sanborn, who I had met at band camp, had moved down from Woodstock, NY around 1973-74. Mike and I were playing with Billy. Grolnick was in town. Will was floating around. We had become friendly with Steve Khan, who was living in the same building with Will, drummer Chris Parker and Grolnick on Seventh Avenue South, downtown. In my head I had wanted to do a solo record, so we started rehearsing every week like a rehearsal band. Grolnick was writing some, Steve Kahn was writing some and we were playing my horn charts. I had nine charts together for those guys and I was going to do a demo with the intent of doing a Randy Brecker record. It was a small world and word had gotten around about the music and the rehearsals. Eventually I got a call from a guy, Steve Backer, who just signed a production deal with Clive Davis who was just forming Arista records and was looking to sign people. Clive had also signed Dreams to Columbia so we knew him. The one caveat was that Clive wanted to call the band the Brecker Brothers. He told me if I agreed we wouldn’t have to do a demo and we will sign you to a record deal. I was upset, it was supposed to be my solo record. I had been working really hard. Besides it was a three horn section and I thought how’s that going to work? The Brecker Brothers? What about the other guy named Sanborn on the front line, how’s that going to look? Is he going to be the lost cousin or something?  
The Brecker Brothers Front Line 1975 photo by Erika Price
David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker & Steve Kahn

They were insistent and I thought about it for a week. I realized it was a great opportunity, after all it was Clive Davis, and he was the best in the business, so I said ok. We went in and recorded the nine tunes and it was an easy thing to do. I had put the thing together and we went to a little studio owned by a rocker guy from Philly, Todd Rundgren, called Secret Sound. We recorded the nine tunes, I double tracked the horns, I knew all the tricks from having worked with B, S & T. The producer was thrilled at how well prepared we were and how easily we got all the tracks laid down. Great, the next day I get a call from Clive Davis’ office requesting a meeting. So I go out alone to Clive’s office, the other guys, Mike and Sanborn, couldn’t be less interested at the time about the whole thing. So Clive said to me I love everything you did but we need a single. I was frustrated and protested. “I’m already calling it the Brecker Brothers it was supposed to be my solo album, now you want a single.” By the end of the meeting it was apparent Clive wasn’t going to release the album without a single. So I called everybody, we trudged back to the studio, it was as I like to say the force was with us. We jammed up a tune like we used to do in the Dreams days. Grolnick had a little idea, that’s what started it. We played a lick and I still have the cassette. We recorded it in about four hours. Clive came in towards the end of the session and he loved it. Thank God! It was a tune called “Sneakin' up Behind You.” We stuck that on the record and it came out, it was in the Average White Band mode, we were definitely influenced by them. The single shot up to about number two I think on the R & B charts and the record got up to about sixty on the top two hundred pop charts. Next thing I know I had assumed it would sell maybe ten thousand records because it was commercially oriented and it sold over two hundred thousand.


NOJ: Wow. And this was something you just whipped up for Clive?

RB: Yeah, the single sold the album. The album started selling and people thought we were African Americans, the Brecker Brothers. It was like a hobby because we were all busy studio musicians. We got six good records out of it back then and we tried to recreate the hit on every single record but we could never repeat it.

NOJ: It’s hard. Those things are like fleeting moments when a confluence of things just happen to the creative spirit. Where did the jazz funk impetus come from?

RB: For me it came out of being in Philly as a youngster and playing with blues bands, African American blues bands, where guys jammed up all the parts. There was a band led by Mr. Blues in Philly, he was a cop who played a lot of dances. That had a big influence, there were no charts, there were maybe six or seven horns and everybody had to figure out what to play. That had a big influence on the concept of Dreams and later, more abstractly on the Brecker Brothers and everything we did.
Like I said playing with a lot of organ trios. That was the birthplace of the B3 thing, so I did a lot of gigs like that in Philly. Booker T learning all the Stax stuff when I was in school. I loved the music. In Philly the jazz station was right next to the R &; B station on the far end of the AM dial. Once I tuned in by chance and missed the jazz station and heard James Brown and little Stevie Wonder when he was like twelve or thirteen. Jimmy Forrest’s version of “Night Train” you know. I just fell in love with that whole thing too.

NOJ: So there wasn’t any one band that you can attribute to inspiring the funk/jazz sound of the Brecker Brothers?

RB: I guess James Brown and I have to mention Parliament Fundadelic, they were tied in there too and their horn writers. Dreams played a couple of shows opposite Parliament. They were called Funkadelics, Mike told the story of how when we were playing on a tour opposite Dreams and Mike sat on the bus with George Clinton. George heard Dreams and we heard them and that was also a match made in heaven. We wound up playing on some of the Parliament Funkadelic records. I met Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo. We did sessions with them and Bernie Worrell, who we just lost, and they were just great writers so I have to admit that was a big influence.

NOJ: You subsequently joined Jaco Pastorius’ band. How did you meet and what drew you to him?

RB: We first heard of him through the grapevine, you know you hear there is this great player down in Florida, Jaco. I find this old date book from 1975 in an old drawer somewhere, and I saw this session and I didn’t know how to spell his name so I wrote 2 – 5pm session with Jocko. That session was produced by my old friend Bobby Colomby, who had a studio in New City a little north of New York City. We played on a Sam and Dave tune “Come on Come Over” and the rest of the horn section was Jaco’s guys from Florida and that’s how we met him. At that session Herbie Hancock was there, he wasn’t playing there but he was there. Jaco was amazing, you know his hands were so huge and eventually he formed a band with Mike and Bob Mintzer. Mike and Mintzer were close friends and he introduced Jaco to Mintzer, and they played locally a lot, I think they played Seventh Ave South if memory serves me and for Jaco’s birthday.

Truth of the matter is Mike went into rehab in 1982 and Jaco needed someone to take his place so they called me and I was thrilled to do it. Brecker Brothers had kind of closed their last record deal. Mike came out of his treatment with flying colors. We were on a tour so I ended up playing with Jaco and we did a bunch of tours together. The only time I toured a lot in the states was with that band.  It was myself, Mintzer, Jaco, Othello Molineaux, Erskine and occasionally Don Alias. It was a great band.

NOJ: Didn’t you meet Eliane Elias in that band?

RB: No not in that band.  I met her through our club Seventh Avenue South. We owned Seventh Avenue South and that band grew to fruition out of the club. Mike Mainieri put a band together, Steps Ahead, originally with Mintzer, then Bob was starting his own big band. So then it ended up being Mike, Mainieri, Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez and Don Grolnick. Then the second pianist was Eliane and we lived near each other. I would drop her off after the gigs and eventually we became close and ended up getting married for seven years.  We are still very close. She lives up the street from me. We have a daughter Amanda together.

NOJ: You two formed your own band and Brazilian music became part of your DNA. So much so you got your first Grammy for your album Into the Sun. What is it about Brazilian music that captivated you?


RB: I think the melodies and the harmony, the sensibility and the beautiful lyrics. I have a fondness and a love of Brazilian music way before I met Eliane, although during our years together I would go to Brazil to play with her and just stay with her family. My first trip to Brazil was in 1979 with the Mingus Dynasty. We were playing in Sao Paolo, but I made my way to Rio with Ricardo Silveira, he actually plays on another of my Grammy winning record called Randy in Brasil. I just wound up staying there. I just fell in love with the place. Every day I would say, amanhã, tomorrow I’ll go home. I just stayed for two extra weeks.

I had been in love with Brazilian music ever since I was in high school and heard an interview with Herbie Mann on the jazz station. They played some stuff, he had just come back from Brazil and his mind had been blown and he did a record in that style. Stan Getz had a hit with Astrud and all that. So they were playing a lot of Brazilian stuff on the radio and I just fell in love with it. So I started to research and getting some of the records and just loved the melodies and the harmony and like I said the sensibility of the whole thing. I am actually doing a tour starting in October and November going to China and Europe with some of the guys from Randy in Brasil. The album won a Grammy probably ten years or so ago.  It’s with the Quartet Balaio.  We’re doing some tunes off Randy in Brasil and touring China. I haven’t been playing in that style for a while so it will be nice to get back to that.  


NOJ: What is your favorite solo, that you thought you really crushed it on?

RB: That’s a tough one. Recent one’s that I like on Randy Pop on the first tune which is Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier.” On this record we re-imagine hit tunes that I have played on throughout my career. This was my wife Ada Rovatti’s idea. Kenny Werner rearranged everything, my daughter Amanda sang, we had a great band. On that song I played what I thought was a really great solo. It got reviewed in Jazz Times magazine and the guy mentioned my solo, but I had some of my effects on and he thought it was a synthesizer. So he credited it to Kenny Werner. That’s a cool solo because there were no licks it was melodically oriented. It’s just for me a real musical solo that doesn’t rely on clichés, so that one comes to mind. One that is pretty well known is the solo on “Gregory is Here” from Horace Silver’s In Pursuit of the Twenty-Seventh Man that’s a nice one from 1973 I think. There is some nice Michael Brecker solo work on that one too.


NOJ: Two of my favorite solos are “Meeting Across the River” from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and your Freddie Hubbard-like solo on Mark Murphy’s Red Clay.


RB: Thank you. I guess the Springsteen solo got a lot of play. We recently did a Mark Murphy tribute at the Syracuse Jazz Festival with the New York Voices. He was from Syracuse so his family was there so it was a nice little tribute.

NOJ: Let’s talk about Lew Soloff.  You two guys have seemed to have tracked a parallel path at the same time. There’s the obvious B, S & T connection, but both of you were first call studio musicians. I suspect you often were called for the same gig at times?


Lew Soloff
RB: Yeah quite a bit. We did a lot of studio work together. He was one of my closest friends and I miss him very much. One of the all-time characters. He was one of the first trumpet players I had heard when I was thinking of moving to New York. I had met the young drummer and later pianist Barry Miles who was a child prodigy. I met him before I moved to New York and he played me some tapes of his current band that had a trumpet player on the tape, and I said to him “Who the heck is that playing trumpet?” That was Lew.  I thought to myself, oh man I am going to have to practice a lot before I get to New York in order to keep up with everybody, because he sounded just great.
We first came face to face during the Duke Pearson big band. Lew had just gotten out of the reserves and subbed in that band, so we became best friends after that. He moved back to New York and we did a lot of playing together. All the bands he subbed in Clark’s band, Duke Pearson’s band and Thad and Mel’s band. He could also play lead so he did everything.

NOJ:  What would you say was Lew’s best attribute on the trumpet?

RB: His total command of the instrument. He was one of the first guys that could literally do anything.  If you wanted him to play lead he could do it. If you wanted him to play solo, he could do it. He was a great section player. If you wanted him to play a classical piece he could do it. He was the world’s greatest jazz piccolo trumpet player. He took that instrument and was one of the only persons that I heard that could improvise on it.  So he could do it all. Latin music, forget about it. I never had my foot in that world, but Lew came up through the ranks with Machito and played on a billion Latin records and could play that style. He could just do anything.We traded off. He gave me trumpet lessons and I would him some jazz lessons. We talked about the trumpet all the time.

NOJ: Did Lew work in the studio as much as you did?

RB: Yeah maybe a little later. He had so much success with B, S & T. They were out on the road a lot. In the early seventies they hit it big. He bought a duplex on 52nd street and had it outrageously furnished. I remember Alan Rubin and I questioned him because we thought the lady designer he was using was taking advantage of him. I remember the two floor duplex was designed as a Bedouin’s tent. (Laughter) He had a table that was an elephant’s foot in his living room. Typical Lew. The latest stereo equipment. I remember him looking for a record that he wanted to play for me at his apartment and he was standing on it. He was just a wonderful heart, a wonderful character.

NOJ: Do you have a favorite solo of his?

RB:  Well the most well-known solo is the one on “Spinning Wheel,” it is just such an indelible part of that tune. Hopefully I won’t have to do it on this upcoming tribute concert that we are doing in his memory. Because I can’t. In the Latin music world Lew was it. Both Lew and I played together on some album, I can’t remember the name but I think it had something to do with Beethoven. We each got to play on separate cuts. This is a funny story. A guy called me up and said “You know this is the greatest trumpet solo I have heard in your career. But it’s listed wrong on the back of the record they have you listed as playing Lew’s solos and him listed as playing on your solo.” So he sent me a copy of the record and I checked it out and sure enough it wasn’t listed wrong. It was Lew’s great solos that he was talking about. He was arguing with me that it had to be me, but it was Lew’s solos. Lew just played his butt of on that thing.

NOJ: Gil Evans was a big influence on Lew, right?

RB: Yeah, as I told Lew, he should never be ashamed of that. After Miles, Lew was Gil Evans’ trumpet player for years. He’s played on practically all Gil Evans’ later recordings. At one point Lew did a re-take of Sketches of Spain and he was saying to me how hard it is to do anything like that after Miles did it so beautifully. I told him look Lew, after Miles you were Gil’s trumpet player so don’t malign yourself, you did great. He just had a unique thing. His sound was completely unique. His whole jazz conception was unique; you could spot Lew’s sound in two seconds. He had so much command of the horn.


NOJ: In an interview he did before he passed, he seemed to be in awe of some other player’s technique. I recall him being particularly in awe of Jon Faddis’ technique. Do you agree with that assessment?

RB: That sounds like Lew. Everyone has their own identity, that’s the thing. There is some stuff that Jon Faddis does that no one else can do, but there is stuff that Lew could do that Jon can’t do, and there is stuff that I can do that they both can’t do. What was so charming about our relationship is that we were all such close friends. Occasionally Faddis would get a part on a studio session that had a lot of articulation, a tonguing thing and he would kind of surreptitiously hand it off to me or if I had a part that had too many high notes I would pass it to him. Lew, out of all of us, could do everything.

Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff ,Dominic Degrasse and Alan Rubin
photo from DominicDegrasse .com 
NOJ: You will be playing a tribute concert in his memory with the NJCU Jazz Big Band with saxophonist Lou Marini on Sept 16th at J. Owen Grundy Pier, Exchange Place, Jersey City NJ. Tell us how this came about and what the source material you will be playing at this concert?


RB: It came about from Dick Lowenthal who teaches there. I think he grew up in the same town as Lew, Lakewood,New Jersey. He put this program together. He sent me some material that Lew could play and I hope I can play it as well. We will be doing “Spinning Wheel,” some Lennon/McCartney, some stuff Lew did when he was recording. Lew was very close with Maynard Ferguson, played with him and was a big fan, so we will be doing a version of Maynard’s “Fox Hunt.” We will also be doing an Oliver Nelson tune “Hoe-Down” and since we both played in Frank Foster’s Octet, we’re doing a Frank Foster tune called “Shell Game.” We doing songs that Lew had some sort of connection to in his career.

NOJ: What’s next on you own agenda?

RB: There will be tours with the Brazilian Quartet, Quartet Balaio. I will be traveling all over the world. September 8th I will be doing a Phil Woods tribute in PA with my wife Ada Rovatti and others. Then I am going off to the Ukraine for a weekend of Jazz on the Dnieper and coming back and flying to Monterey Jazz Festival with Lew Tabackin. Then I will be flying to Japan with Mike Mainieri and Bill Evans in a Steps Ahead/SoulBop tour and then flying back and then flying to China so I’ll be getting my frequent flyer miles. I’m trying not to think about it.

NOJ: How is your health? I read on your blog that you recently went through a battery of procedures.

RB: Yeah everything is ok. So far so good.

NOJ: Thanks for spending the time to talk with us. 





Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Last Concert: Atlanta's Jazz Club "Churchill Grounds" Closes its Doors April 1997- July 2016


The window sign at Churchill Grounds
This past Sunday evening, July 31, 2016, the nearly twenty-year run of Atlanta’s longest continuously operating jazz club, Churchill Grounds, came to a glorious but ultimately sobering end. Since April of 1997, when the club first opened its doors, Churchill Grounds has been a labor of love. The name is curiously the combination of two things that Owner Sam Yi loves, Churchill size cigars and coffee grounds. This Atlanta institution was situated adjacent to the Fox Theater at 660 Peachtree NE in downtown Atlanta. Mr. Yi’s admittedly naïve motivation for such an endeavor? Maybe it would be fun to have a place where local musicians could play and you could make a little money providing a platform for the music that you love. Simple and admirable enough, but hardly the kind of business plan that would inspire a flock of financial supporters to your cause. That didn’t seem to bother Yi, a mild mannered business man, who was surprisingly passionate about the music and who decided to live his life immersed in it. On Sunday night, in an emotional farewell, he recounted how this endeavor required that he spend much of his life over the last twenty years at the club, putting in countless hours there, often at the expense of his family. Poignantly looking back over the years it was obvious that given the chance, Yi wouldn’t have changed a thing.


Owner Sam Yi; Billy Thornton on bass and Morgan Guerin on drums

It was his employees who worked there, the musicians who played there and the patrons who respectfully listened there that collectively became his extended family. He thanked them all with an emotion laden goodbye.That family even included two homeless men that became permanent fixtures outside the club’s front door. One of them, “homeless Joe,” offered his own tearful adage from the stage, saying how much he was going to miss seeing Sam and the steady ebb and flow of the club’s patrons. I suspect what Joe will miss most was his visibility. Sam and many patrons didn’t look past Joe, but acknowledged his humanity. They didn’t judge him, but looked at him as a soul who was just down on his luck. They didn’t castigate him as a nuisance, but greeted him with dignity, including him as part of the extended Churchill Grounds family. It was Sam Yi who provided this space where people who recognized the power and inclusiveness of the music were able to congregate and commune with one another.

And of course there was the music; it swung, it bopped hard or it grooved straight ahead, it fused wildly or it whispered softly and it often funked you to the bottom of your soul. The music wasn’t merely entertainment, it was history, it was creativity, it was a social compact and inclusiveness. Churchill Grounds became the go-to place in Atlanta. The place where musicians of all levels, professional and acolyte, could come and practice their skills, hone their craft, commune with each other and connect with their audience. It was the hometown stage for legends like the late Cedar Walton and the venerable Freddie Cole. It was the sometime residency for current standouts like Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden. It was a stop off joint for visiting celebrities like Wynton Marsalis or Harry Connick Jr. It was the proving grounds for a new breed of firebrand like Morgan Guerin, Kenny Banks Jr., the Harper Brothers and Darren English. 

A view from the drums at Churchill Grounds
photo by organ Guerin
The life of a musician is hard enough in today’s society where the arts in general are valued so poorly. Professional musicians often have to supplement their income by teaching, travelling extensively or taking other work. Churchill Grounds provided that home based waystation for many of Atlanta’s finest jazz musicians. Jazz musicians in particular have chosen a road that becomes ever more challenging in this modern world. Despite jazz being the only recognized original all American art form, the audience for this music has shrunken and grayed dramatically. According to a survey by Nielsens, jazz and classical music sales combined represented just 1.4% of the total music consumed in the United States in 2014. As for digital sales, the likely future of all music distribution- jazz streaming- represented a paltry .3% of the total volume of streamed music. These are sobering statistics for anyone who loves this music, for professional musicians and certainly for the hundreds of music students who are currently enrolled in jazz music educational programs. Needless to say, with such a small audience, the economic viability of presenting this music in a place like Churchill Grounds poses its own challenges.

But what statistics don’t reveal is the fierce loyalty, love and dedication that this music brings to those who embrace it. The spirit, reverence and sense of comradery that is often found within the jazz community as a whole is largely under appreciated by the general public. Jazz is international in its scope. The music remains an international language that bridges the widening gap between peoples of vastly different cultures. Jazz becomes the crucible by which these cultural differences can be annealed into a commonly shared means of communicating with each other in a positive and humanistic way.

The music is often spoken of as music for musicians. That assessment may be partially correct, as it takes a great deal of skill and dedication to play complex improvised music, but it also takes soul, heart and empathy to play it in such a way as it will move the listener.

In this technological age of diminishing attentions, we are less and less likely to immerse ourselves in the musical experience, perhaps because we no longer feel we have the time for such an indulgence. Jazz requires thoughtful listening. The experience is not always best conveyed through listening to recordings- although admittedly the great ones transcend the medium-but when we really listen and participate in the music in a “live” setting the magic of music can spread all over us like a blanket of warm sunshine. An engaged audience becomes an active participant in the creative process. Are we really ready to forego that precious experience? 

Having a venue that can offer musicians and music lovers a chance to experience what it is like to participate in a live jazz performance is crucial to very existence of the art form. That’s why the closing of Churchill Grounds is so distressing.


                                                                 Sam Yi and Russell Gunn

If anyone needed proof positive of the outpouring of love and affection that this music can generate, they should have been at the final few performances at Churchill Grounds. Local musicians and stalwart patrons came in force and solidarity to pay homage to the closing of an Atlanta institution. The City of Atlanta issued a proclamation naming the day Churchill Grounds Day and so did Fulton County, perhaps too little too late.

Kevin Bales, Billy Thornton, Russell Gunn and Morgan Guerin

Local trumpet legend Russell Gunn was the informal musical director of the proceedings when I attended on Sunday night. He was joined by the pianist Kevin Bales, the bassist Billy Thornton and the drummer Morgan Guerin. They played with a palpable intensity in a mostly hard bop style to an appreciate crowd of aficionados and well-wishers. Probably one of the most moving performances of the night was a rendition of the Bill Evan’s classic “Blue in Green.” Mr. Bales sensitive opening led to Mr. Gunn’s poignantly playing the melody on his muted trumpet that evoked memories of Miles Davis, an obvious influence. The young rhythm section was equally impressive.

The players frequently changed throughout the night as each one who came wanted to pay tribute in their own most personal way. At one point the stage was packed with four well known trumpet players-Russell Gunn, Georgia State educator Dr. Gordon Vernick, Joe Gransden and Darren English-in a trumpet show down that was par excellence. The trio section of Bales, Thornton, now with Marlon Patton on drums kept the frantic pace as the four guns had a high powered shoot out.

Here is a partial video of that show down posted on Darren English’s Facebook page: click here

Pianist Kenny Banks Jr. took over the piano chair and improvised on a beautiful rendition of “Con Alma.” His thoughtful ruminations on the melody were captivating. Here is a sample of that performance posted by saxophonist James Patterson. click here

Pianist Gary Motley took the piano chair and lent his elegant swing and facile chops to the proceedings. A seasoned professional as well as the Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University, Motley also accompanied several vocalists with a revolving rhythm section, this one including Craig Shaw on bass and Darren English on drums.

Some of the other artists that performed that night included tenor man Mike Walton, drummer Kenny Bostick, bassist Dishan Harper, trumpeter Terrence Harper, saxophonist James Robinson, flautist Rasheeda Ali and vocalists Laura Coyle and Julie Dexter. My apologies to those who I’ve missed.

Now that the lights are switched off and the doors are shuttered, the best way to describe the proceedings of this last evening at Churchill Grounds is to liken it to a joyous New Orleans style funeral march. A celebration of life not a demonstration of sorrow at the passing. Sam Yi was honored for his years of service, his defense of the cause and his unbridled passion for this music.
Make no mistake, this is a gut check for all of us who live in Atlanta and its surrounds. As a City of six million people can we really afford to lose yet another institution that promotes the arts? Do we really believe that the quality of our lives all comes down to dollars and cents on a ledger sheet?

Mr. Yi has said that he is looking for another venue, a rebirth of Churchill Grounds, hopefully in the near future. We should all hope he succeeds so that Churchill Grounds doesn’t become another distant memory like “Jeff’s Jazz” or “Dante’s Down Under.” Instead of lamenting another lost treasure, let’s all try to make this happen through community activism. You can help by donating to a special go fund me site by clicking here. It seeks to raise seed money to help secure another venue for Mr. Yi and hopefully, with our help. Churchill Grounds closing will be but a temporary blip in its long and illustrious history.