CARMEN LUNDY FINDS VALUE IN THE ANCESTORS
By Dee Dee McNeil
October 1, 2022
Carmen Lundy is one of those productive people who is highly creative, gifted and artistic. Born November 1st in Miami, Florida, it didn’t take little Carmen long to discover music tantalized her ears. From day one, there was music in their house and she had a song in her heart. At Age four, her tiny fingers plucked out melodies on the household upright piano. Carmen’s mother was also full of song and a role model as the lead singer in a gospel group called “The Apostolic Singers.” Her auntie, Emma Teresa Miller, was a pianist for that gospel group, and she inspired Carmen to love the instrument. In fact, Carmen has always found value in lessons from the ancestors.
“My mother is the oldest of fifteen children and I am the oldest of seven siblings. When she wasn’t doing the eight-hour job-thing, my mother would do housekeeping on the side. The lady that she did that for was a classical piano player. That lady offered me piano lessons without having to pay for them. Mrs. Leslie Bloss was my first piano teacher. She also was Curtis’s first teacher,” Carmen referred to her famous brother, jazz bassist Curtis Lundy.
“I took lessons from Mrs. Bloss until I was about eight or nine; maybe ‘til the age of ten. From age twelve to about fourteen I studied piano with Mr. Poznanski. But pianist, Emma Miller, my mother’s sister, was throwing down the gospel stuff from the time I was four or five. That’s probably where I picked up playing piano, from watching her. I never studied with her. I was just amazed at her facility. You know, people always ask me who are your influences? And I have to say, a lot of them are people the world doesn’t know. They were the ones who showed me the music informally. My grandfather played guitar. My grandmother played the organ. An in-law named Joe Louis was somewhere in between B.B. King and George Benson. He had a mellow sound, but he could also ‘rip” on guitar. He would electrify the whole room. We were church going folks, and music was the salvation and expression that got us through another day,” Carmen told me about her musically inspired, youthful years.
After graduating from the University of Miami and moving from Miami to New York City, for nearly eighteen years Carmen Lundy acted as a clinician at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. Betty Carter brought her Jazz Ahead program to the Kennedy Center in 1998. It has helped launch the careers of several of today’s stars, including Cyrus Chestnut, Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Jazzmeia Horn, Nate Smith, Arco Iris Sandoval, and Matthew Whitaker, among others.1 I asked Carmen Lundy about that exciting time in her life.
“Well, you know Curtis, my brother, gave that program the name Jazz Ahead while he was working with Betty Carter. She started the program at Brooklyn Academy of Music, up the street from where she lived. Dr. Billy Taylor became the Artistic Advisor of Jazz at the Kennedy Center and this was around the mid to late nineties. So, Dr. Taylor invited Betty Carter to bring her Jazz Ahead Program into the Kennedy Center in April of 1998.2 Betty Carter passed away in September of 1998. She had just gotten her foot in the door of the Kennedy Center, and she was gone. So, my brother, Curtis Lundy, came in and became the helm of Jazz Ahead that year. Curtis recommended me, because I think it made sense that there should be a female representation, since Betty had started it, and it just so happened that I was also a jazz vocalist.”
Of course, it also helped that Carmen Lundy had graduated from the University of Miami where she received her B.M. degree in studio music and jazz. She started out as an opera major but changed direction and became the first jazz vocal major at the University of Miami. Ms. Lundy had also been performing since her college days, first in Miami and then at jazz hot spots all over New York City. She reads music and is accomplished in composing and arranging. Not to mention, at the time of her appointment, she had record releases to her credit. Carmen’s credentials made her the perfect fit as faculty for Betty Carter’s program.
“Dr. Taylor was smart. He knew that the Kennedy Center people needed that credential like he had, so he invited Dr. Nathan Davis from the University of Pittsburgh to oversee the Jazz Ahead Program, along with me, Curtis Fuller and George Cables who were all part of the faculty. Then, the question became, where are we going to get these kids from? Where will we get these musicians? Betty Carter was handpicking everybody, so what do we do? We started a submissions program. Everybody was submitting from all over the world, and they were sending their cassettes with their bios and all that good stuff. We would sit there with boxes of cassettes delivered to our front door. We would have to listen to hours upon hours of submissions. In fact, that’s how I met pianist, Julius Rodriguez who’s on my CD and trumpeter Giveton Gelin and Matthew Whitaker on organ and keyboards,” Carmen credited some of the young musicians from the Jazz Ahead program as being part of her new album. Speaking of her new release, Lundy has composed and arranged all the material on her latest album, “Fade to Black.” She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of the COVID worldwide health crisis. Her opening melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in for good measure. Melodically, these unexpected intervals do indeed shine a light on Ms. Lundy’s composing skills and vocal range. Carmen Lundy has a comfortable way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing her message with joy and competence. “Daughter of the Universe,” has a blues groove and a strong bass line delivered by Curtis Lundy on the introduction. The bass line captures my interest immediately. Inside the song, Kenny Davis plays bass. I enjoy the way Carmen doubles her vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech that reflected Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, not only as an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion.
Lundy’s latest recording is her sixteenth album release. She admits, getting record deals has been an up-hill struggle. Carmen Lundy shared her personal determination to succeed in the music business.
“It was 1978 when I moved to New York City. All the guys I went to University of Miami with were finishing school and moving to NYC. So, I did the same thing. But my goal was to make records. The first year I got there, I sang every weekend in NY for fifty dollars a night at a club called Jazz Mania. It was a loft thing and a gig for everybody. I met Kenny Barron there, Walter Bishop Jr., and an endless list of players. Day after day, I went to every major record company that was making jazz records. I submitted to every, last one of them and every one of them turned me down. As a matter of fact, the third demo tape I submitted to Columbia Records turned out to be my first record. They gave me a licensing deal. But they originally turned down the same record that they could have put out and helped me to establish myself in the 80’s.”
Carmen explained, “What happened was, Father Peter O’Brien was managing Mary Lou Williams for most of her career. Mary Lou Williams passed in 1981. I saw Mary Lou perform in summer of 1979 and in 1980. Father O’Brien read a Village Voice cover article about me in 1983 and he contacted me. He was doing a concert to honor Mary Lou Williams with Jon Faddis participating and he asked me to sing some of her music. After that, he took a shine to me and became my manager. So, Father O’Brien handled the whole thing with Columbia. He was the one who was smart enough to know what to do when they passed on me as an artist. He was the one who contacted Herb Wong at Black Hawk and that’s how I got that ‘Good Morning Kiss’ record released, through Father O’Brien. It was a distribution deal and stayed on the Billboard chart for weeks.”
With the guidance of Father Peter O’Brien, Carmen Lundy’s career blossomed.
“In part of Mary Lou’s Will, she requested that the legacy of her music be passed on to children. Father O’Brien asked me to teach Mary Lou’s Mass to young people. He was then the Chaplain at Fordham University. I went into the Parochial school in Harlem and hand-picked the voices to teach them Mary Lou’s Mass. I also worked with the Harlem Boys Choir and the New York Boys Choir. I acted as the soloist for anything that required a soloist in Mary Lou’s Mass, and I performed Mary Lou’s Mass for a good twelve to fifteen years. When Father O’Brien hooked up with Geri Allen, then Geri and I started doing the mass together. Before Geri, Marian McPartland was at the piano chair when we did it at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with David Baker conducting. Mary Lou wrote two pieces based on Martin Luther King speeches. One of them is called, I have a Dream, which we all know. The other one she wrote is called ‘Tell Them Not to Talk Too Long.’ Those two, Father O’Brien commissioned me to write the chorale arrangements. I did, and we performed them in Los Angeles with the Master Chorale.
I asked Carmen Lundy what made her leave New York and relocate to Los Angeles.
“I moved to Los Angeles in the early nineties. I was burned out. The Crack thing, that epidemic, had decimated the New York Community. My manager at the time booked me on the Duke Ellington Broadway “Sophisticated Ladies” show that was Phyllis Hyman’s role. They had a National company and they had a European company. I ended up doing the European tour. That was a great way to know and live Duke Ellington’s music. The first run was twenty-nine shows without a day off. I had a six-month contract. I did make a record for a label called Arabasque. It was an independent label. When the record came out, it was around the same time I had moved to Los Angeles.”
“I came out to L.A. to visit my friends who had made their big hit in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter, Ken Page, Amelia McQueen, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard, all the cast from Ain’t Misbehavin’. They were all coming back and forth, trying to get into film and TV out here. A lot of them did well with film and television. While visiting, I got sent on an audition by my agent in New York for a TV show and I got the part. They gave me a car, they gave me an apartment and a nice piece of change. So, I said, oh – L.A. isn’t so bad after all. Twenty-something years later, I’m still here.”
Although the television pilot Carmen shot never materialized, she settled into West Coast living and has continued to be productive as both a singer, actress and a visual artist. She also produces short films and in September she debuted her film, “Nothing But the Blood – The True Story of the Apostolic Singers of Miami,” at the Regal Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a story of her Miami musical family.
As a visual artist, she has painted and designed several of her album covers, including this recent “Fade to Black” release. Her extraordinary art and multi-media sculptures will be featured as part of the upcoming “Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice” exhibit, opening at Detroit’s Carr Center on October 14, 2022. You can check out an eye-opening gallery of her visual art at her website: www.carmenlundy.com.
As our conversation wound down, Carmen Lundy offered these thoughtful words of wisdom.
“The beautiful thing is the value of a mentor. Having Betty Carter as a mentor, ok?! My mother as a mentor! Once you get here, it’s the result of your standing on somebody’s shoulders. Generations that are moving forward must regard and respect their ancestors for giving them everything that they can. It benefits us and enriches us. I just have to say, the value of what we do is on the shoulders of those who have walked this walk and carved this path for us.”
True to her own counsel, Carmen Lundy is doing the work, creating the art and offering opportunity to youthful talent by example, by teaching, by employing and by believing, as ‘the ancestors’ did, in the evolution and support of our blossoming, new generations.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
Sept 1, 2022
Not only is she Director of the Watts Towers Art Center Campus, Rosie Lee Hooks is also a gifted singer, a filmmaker, an arts administrator, photographer, educator, a first degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate and the producer of the Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and producer of the Day of the Drum celebration. Currently, Rosie Lee Hooks is rolling up her sleeves to produce both festivals. They will celebrate 100 years of L.A’s treasured Watts Towers, singularly built by Simon Rodia and world renowned, these famous towers have inspired this Los Angeles County community art space.
I asked Rosie Lee Hooks what these Watts Towers festivals mean to her and to the community.
“Watts is truly amazing. Everybody talks about the rebellion of 1965 when they mention Watts, but the Watts community is rich in culture. We have the famed Locke High School, a facility that has mentored so many talented musicians like Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Reggie Andrews, Raymond Pounds, two recent members of the Earth Wind and Fire horn section, Tyrese Gibson, Billy Preston, Musical Director Rickey Minor and so many more. Ever since I’ve been here, for the last twenty something years, I’ve been working hard to make sure people understand we are more than 1965. We deserve recognition for being an area where more artists, in all disciplinaries, have developed from this very Watts area.”
Rosie Lee Hooks has credentials as deep as the cultural roots of the Watts Community. It was Rosie Lee Hooks who produced the very first Central Ave Jazz Festival. This was during the time she was Director of Festivals and Gallery Theatre for the City of Los Angeles Dept of Cultural Affairs. She told me about that.
“You know I’ve done about twenty something films documenting culture here in L.A., to include many of the festivals like the Central Ave Jazz festival, the Mariachi Festival, the first three Cuban Festivals, the first three Puerto Rican festivals, the Armenian Festival and more. I’ve produced a lot of Festivals here in the City of Los Angeles and I’ve documented many of those festivals in film and put them on-line. They show on the Youtube channel.
“I had already started the jazz mentorship program and Mayor Tom Bradley, during his tenure, asked us to focus on music. He brought together educational institutions, commercial institutions, radio and private institutions. Mayor Bradley brought us together to say, we want to make ‘live’ music available to the constituency in L.A. and what can we do? What programs can you design? I was working for DCA, (Dept of Cultural Affairs) and we designed the jazz mentorship program.
“As you know, Los Angeles is full of master musicians, and they are the crème de la crème of musicians. So, we chose these masters to go into places where young people were. We focused on the youth, whether it was in schools, community centers, juvenile hall, or otherwise. We went to young people wherever they were, to bring them ‘live’ music with live musicians. When we asked the kids, have you ever been to a ‘live’ music concert, all the hands would go up, but we quickly discovered they meant ‘live’ on television. I said, no. ‘live’ where you can bring your instrument and play. We encouraged young musicians to bring their instruments and get on stage with Patrice Rushen, Buddy Collette, Ndugu Chancler, Nedra Wheeler and Bobby Rodriguez. That was our initial core that we started with. The first sessions were at the California African American Museum. They used to have a theater there called Kinsey Auditorium. It’s not there anymore. But the first four concerts were done there around 1992. After the Watts rebellion, they were not letting people congregate at all. Anytime black people or minority people congregated, there were helicopters buzzing and all of that. So, we invited a lot of the housing project community, and those young people were encouraged to attend with adult supervision. We did the first four jazz mentorship programs in association with the African American Museum. After that, we ventured out to those other schools and community centers. The program was also sponsored by the Musician’s Union. And when those funds dried up, we had to transition. We transitioned into that first production of the Central Ave Jazz Festival.
“I had all of those people from the Mentorship Program involved in producing that festival. I also filmed it. Documentation is important. June of 1996 was when it began. Again, the model was what I had already done while working at the Smithsonian Institution. We did have a panel on stage with Buddy Collette and Patrice Rushen as the moderators. We had Melba Liston on stage, Roy Porter, Clora Bryant, and Bobby Rodriguez. I conceptualized, developed and produced that festival based on what I was doing at the Smithsonian Institution (years before) and focused on the different aspects of black life in our community that included sacred and secular music, community activities, and the marketplace. We do a lot of things in the marketplace; cooking, hair braiding, woodcarving, all of those kinds of things, storytelling, things that are part of our life and allow us to express ourselves culturally,” Rosie Lee Hooks told me how the Central Ave Jazz Festival began.”
That festival was only one of more than three-hundred multi-cultural and multi-discipline festivals that Rosie Lee Hooks has produced, along with special events and various theatrical programs. Her Jazz Mentorship Program is now thirty-plus years old, and still growing with the goal of exposing youth to America’s indigenous and celebrated musical art form of jazz. In Washington D.C., she was employed by the Smithsonian Institution from 1972 to 1977, where she honed her talents in festival production and cultural activities.
“When I was working for Educational Projects and Research Corporation, I travelled domestically throughout the United States. When I went to the Smithsonian, I travelled for the International Department with an official passport to carry the official invitation from the Smithsonian and the United States of America to ministers of Institution in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. I worked directly with the Ambassadors of various countries; the Ministers of Culture in mostly West African nations including Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierre Leone, Gambia, Ghana and maybe a couple of others. I didn’t know where I was going, a little colored girl from Alabama, but I knew I was going somewhere. Every door that opened, I went through it.”
During those ‘walk-through’ years, she pushed open doors and was unafraid to explore new paths and opportunities. Rosie Lee Hooks shattered glass ceilings with her head held high. She is the first female Director of the Watts Towers Arts Campus.
Her early background was in Childhood education, working with Head Start Programs for youth, then moving to administration and producing. She was probably very comfortable working with children, because Rosie Lee Hooks grew up with twenty-three siblings. Her family was more like a tribe, based in Bessemer, Alabama. When she moved to Washington, D.C., she sang with the popular, award winning all female group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” Once relocating to California, she acted in movies like The Bodyguard, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and appeared on television shows like NYPD Blue. Believe it or not, acting came into her life because Rosie Lee Hooks wanted to overcome her natural shyness.
Always seeking ways to expand and share knowledge that uplifts her community, Rosie Lee Hooks came up with a unique plan to spread the word about jazz and jazz artists.
“Along the way, you know, I’d never seen a bookmark with black people on it, so wanting to disseminate information and leave something with those young people in our Jazz Mentorship Program, I started to design bookmarks. The first bookmarks were Buddy Collette, Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Melba Liston, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, Clora Bryant and Bobby Rodriguez. Each student was given a bookmark. Dorothy Donegan was one of them too. I remember taking Dorothy Donegan to Crenshaw High School with a young bassist, Nedra Wheeler. It was very interesting. Dorothy was a character. At the concert, Ms. Donegan started out with blues, playing piano, and then she put that leg up on the piano and kept on playing; then she went right out of the blues and into Rachmaninoff.”
I could hear the wonder and artistic appreciation for pianist Dorothy Donegan echoing in Rosie Lee’s tone of voice. I too have experienced Ms. Donegan ‘live’ and she was an unpredictable ball of talent that rolled across her spellbound audiences with energy and brilliance. What a blessing and an inspiration for those young people to experience that kind of genius in person, thanks to Rosie Lee Hooks.
Rosie Lee Hooks has received several prestigious awards. I asked her about the NAACP Image Awards that she has won.
“The first one, I think, was for 227. I created the role that Jacqui does on television. I created that role in a theatrical production and I got the Image Award for that role. Then, I got one for “Moliere’s Misanthrope.” The other one, “Knock Me a Kiss” was where I played W.E.B. Dubois’ wife. I received a Cast Award for “Knock Me a Kiss.” I think I’ve won three Image Awards out of five nominations,” Rosie Lee told me.
Her work has been honored with other Awards, including the Rainbow Award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. She has also received numerous Community Service Awards from the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the Charles Drew School of Medicine Foundation, and in 2011 she was appointed a Southern California Freedom Sister by the Museum of Tolerance.
This year’s Annual Free Watts Towers Jazz Festival and Day of the Drum Festival are events that the whole family will enjoy. On September 24 through September 25, 2022, free Valet Parking will make the festival easily accessible from 10AM to 6PM.
“The Day of the Drum Festival is very special. It gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to traditional culture and will feature Aztec Traditional dancing, the One plus One Duo that’s a mix of Middle Eastern and Persian percussion, the La Bamba Collective, which is Afro and Puerto Rican drums and dance, as well as a tribute to drummer, James Gadson. Mr. Gadson is eighty years old now and he’s never really been recognized properly. So, we’ll be honoring Mr. Gadson and Munyungo Jackson is putting together that ensemble,” Rosie Lee explained about the Day of the Drum Festival.
“Our Masters of Ceremony will be James Janisse and Torrence Brandon Reese. The Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival opens with a Yoruba Ground Celebration uniting all cultures based on common ground and principles. We’ll feature the prized Watts Willowbrook Strings, under the direction of pianist/producer/educator Billy Mitchell, who’s doing a wonderful job down here teaching them classical music. Since the Watts Towers were singularly hand-built by an Italian artist, we always include an Italian entertainer. This year it’s the wonderful jazz singer, Jasmine Tommaso. Also, singer Wendy Barnes will be here with the Influentials. We’ll have the jazz mentorship all-stars performing. Patrice Rushen will pull that together. The day will end with The Ark, founded by Horace Tapscott. Reed man, Michael Sessions is contracting that group. We’ll have a food court and a shopping area. Also, there’s a children’s area where we’ll be teaching people about native plants, succulents and doing mosaic tiling activities. Kenzi Shiokaza recently passed, but he was a big part of our Watts Towers Garden, and our garden art center was built around his work. The children will enjoy art projects and be introduced to our turtle pond where we house a twenty-year-old African tortoise,” the excitement in Rosie Lee Hooks voice is contagious.
I’ll see you at the Annual Watts Towers Jazz Festival, where you can meet Ms. Rosie Lee Hooks, strolling around the campus, like the perfect hostess that she is, making sure everyone is having a good time.
CELEBRATING LOS ANGELES LEGENDS: WASHINGTON RUCKER
By Dee Dee McNeil
Aug 1, 2022
WASHINGTON RUCKER is a name you may not have heard lately, but one we should never forget. He was born Washington Irving Rucker in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 5, 1937 in a small room above a neighborhood grocery store. His maternal great grandfather was part American Indian Creek and moved to Washington, D.C. to become a professional translator for the tribe. He fell in love with the District of Columbia and named his son Washington. That name was passed down the chain of the Barnett Black Creek Freedmen to Washington Rucker from his great grandfather.
The young Washington Rucker developed a love for music and became infatuated with drums before he was five years old. It happened when he heard a bandmember in the famous Tulsa Booker T. Washington Parade band. They called the legendary drummer Crazy Red, but his given name was James Williams. Washington’s eyes became wide with excitement when he heard how the drums propelled that band. He used his mother’s cast iron skillet, a knife and a fork to mimic what he heard Crazy Red playing on those drums. Ms. Georgia Barnett indulged her son, seeing how happy he was creating rhythms. She had her hands full, because Washington Rucker was one of eight children.
Washington was taken under the wings of a world-renowned Tulsa drummer, Clarence Dixon, who saw his potential and inspired the young man. Dixon was voted the number two drummer in the world, right under Chick Webb, from 1937 to 1942. He taught Washington Rucker the basic elements of drumming. One thing he pounded into Washington’s head was belief in his own potential.
“You can take a pair of sticks and go anywhere in the world if you want to go,” Mr. Dixon promised.
Washington Rucker eventually became the drummer for that same Booker T. High School Band, the one that had originally drawn his four-year-old ears to music. It was 1952 when Cecil McBee, the clarinetist, invited sixteen-year-old Washington Rucker to play drums with him at Love’s Lounge in Tulsa. McBee knew about the young drummer because Washington attended junior high school with his sister, Shirley McBee, and everyone was talking about Washington’s mad talent on the drums. But playing in the Booker T marching band and playing a set of trap drums were two entirely different experiences. Washington Rucker said it was Cecil McBee who taught him how to play a back beat. He landed his first professional job in his teens, playing drums with a local bluesman, Jimmy “Cry Cry” Hawkins. They toured all over Oklahoma playing juke joints. After graduating high school, Washington Rucker joined the Navy. That’s where he discovered the “Navy School of Music,” and that opportunity redirected his life.
“So, I go to the Navy School of Music. There were 150 drummers, my name was 147, and I had to climb that high up. That’s when I really became a real musician, because I used to practice and study almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Didn’t hang out, didn’t do nothing, I just played in the band,” Washington Rucker explained to the Voices of Oklahoma Historical Society.1
Once out of the Navy, Washington Rucker spent time in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. He relocated to Los Angeles in September of 1966. He had been living in Washington, D.C and was the house drummer for the famous Howard Theater. In that position, Washington, the drummer, pumped his rhythms into every well-known entertainer you can imagine from James Brown to Marvin Gaye; from Otis Redding to Chuck Jackson, Sam Cooke and Bobby Timmons. He played with the best of the R&B, Blues and jazz acts. When his marriage ended, Washington left D.C. and headed for the West Coast. One of his first gigs was at Dupree’s on 42nd Street and Avalon with Curtis Peagler on saxophone and Roy Brewster on baritone horn. Preston Love had heard good things about Washington Rucker’s drum skills from the bandleader at the Howard Theater. He knew Washington could read music and called him, asking if he’d like to tour with Stevie Wonder. In 1969, Washington went on tour with Little Stevie Wonder and became the drummer on Stevie’s first overseas gig. Washington told me he loved Stevie and thought he was a genius, but Motown’s money was short and their respect for musicians, in those days, was even shorter. When he returned to Los Angeles, Nancy Wilson’s Gal Friday called him and said Nancy had heard about him and asked if he would tour with her.
“Nancy paid four-times more money than Motown,” Washington told me.
“Don Trenner was her Musical Director. They had just fired Mickey Roker and Buster Williams. We went to Las Vegas for six weeks. I toured Europe with Nancy Wilson in 1970 and 1971. I also played at the Ambassador Theater with Linda Hopkins and Bradley Bobo on bass for that play, ‘Me and Bessie.’ I believe I was the first drummer to play with Linda on that gig. We also took that act to Europe,” Washington Rucker shared with me.
“I think Hampton Hawes was the best be bop piano player I ever played with. He called me up one day. Told me Jimmy Hopps had recommended me and told me to come over to his house to rehearse. I took a snare drum, a high hat and some brushes. He lived in East L.A. in what appeared to be a Latino area. His wife, Josie Black, was a Latino. He had a fake fireplace and up there on the mantle was a Presidential Pardon from JFK,” Washington Rucker remembered that meeting like it was yesterday, during an interview with John Erling, of Voices for Oklahoma .
When Washington Rucker asked Hampton Hawes how he got that Presidential Pardon, Hampton told him he’d had a drug problem and was sentenced to five years in prison. Hawes wrote to President Kennedy and reminded him of Howard Rumsey’s “Concerts by the Sea” a California Club where Hampton Hawes used to perform. John Kennedy often popped into that ocean jazz club to hear Hampton play. Hawes asked President Kennedy if he could help him. The result was, a month later, Hampton Hawes received the Presidential Pardon.
Washington Rucker has played with a variety of artists in every genre of music, from coast to coast. His credits include Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, vocalists Sherwood Sledge, Joe Williams and Maxine Weldon; the iconic Ray Charles, gospel artists Rev. James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and jazz trumpet master, Freddie Hubbard, to name just a few. He recorded with B. B. King and played on three or four albums with Big Joe Turner. Washington Rucker released one album as a bandleader called, “Bridging the Gap.”
When I asked him who were some of his favorite Los Angeles-based artists he told me, bassist, Larry Gales for bebop and Bradley Bobo was one of his favorites on the electric bass. He also praised pianist Randy Randolph.
Rucker added. “I really enjoyed working with saxophonist, Curtis Peagler too. I had my own quartet that featured Herman Riley on tenor saxophone and Art Hillary on piano.”
Washington lived for a while in Europe and this video was during a television special appearance on Romanian National TV.
1981 was the year he graduated from UCLA. He won the Frank Sinatra Award for Jazz and Pop music in 1981 and he started the Jazz for Wee People in 1981 to inspire youth and teach them the beauty and historic relevance of jazz. He taught at UCLA briefly, for two years and in 1998 Washington Rucker was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. The multi-talented Washington Rucker is also an actor. He studied acting, cosmetology and clothing design. He appeared in a movie called “Mob City” and he portrayed Papa Jo Jones in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.” As an author, he wrote a now, out-of-print biography titled “Jazz Road.” Here is a Los Angeles-based Living Legend of immense talent whose legacy must never be forgotten.
By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2022
The music of Rique Pantoja is a vision of peace, beauty and love. This artistic pianist has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in both American and Brazilian jazz for over forty years. In collaboration with his old friend, Juan Carlos Qintero, (owner of Moondo Music) his latest album is the perfect fit for Moondo’s high-quality and artistically rendered jazz label.
A native of Brazil, at first Pantoja attended a university to study engineering. But this was not his heart’s desire. It was his father’s vision. That’s strange, because both his father and his uncles all loved music and played musical instruments. Perhaps his father was trying to protect Rique from the rocky road of choosing music as a career. But, after a frustrating year of engineering study, Rique’s father finally relented and approved of his son pursuing music as a career. You see, Rique Pantoja had been studying classical guitar since the age of eight and exhibited a deep infatuation with music. He switched to piano at thirteen years young and by sixteen, he was already composing songs.
Rique lived in the United States for a while as an exchange student. During this time, the teenager won a talent show for his composing talents. I asked him how that came about.
“As you know, I came from Rio de Janeiro. I grew up there. One of my dreams was to come to the United States and study English. I studied in Brazil, in a private school, where I had to learn both English and French. I thought the best way to learn a language is to go to that country. So, I lived with a family in La Crosse, Wisconsin and it was a great experience. I was seventeen. I was already playing music and playing guitar since I was eight years old. I played Choro music which is part of Brazilian folk music and I started playing piano when I was thirteen. The family in La Crosse enrolled me in high school. My school in Brazil was very demanding. Consequently, I was a little more advanced. I told my math teacher, no – I already studied Algebra. He thought I was kidding. So, he challenged me to do all the exercises on the last page of our book. I did and he said, okay, you know this! So, they moved me, promoted me to be a high school senior. At the same time, I got involved with other people playing music there. It was a great experience. I got to graduate and wear a cap and gown. But then, they had a talent show. I applied. I was writing a song for my girlfriend back in Brazil. I was playing piano and guitar. And one of my songs got to be the winning song for that talent show. So, that definitely was an incentive and an encouragement for me to continue writing. From there, I wrote all sorts of music. I’ve written kids songs and classical music for Christopher Parkening, a famous classical guitarist; one of the best in the world. He recorded two of my classical compositions,” Rique told me with pride.
After high school, his next step was to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachussettes. Later on, after graduating Berklee, the young pianist packed up his Fender Rhodes and relocated to Paris, France. There, he formed a band consisting of French and Brazilian musicians and that band played mostly original compositions. Rique recalled how he wound up in Paris.
“Besides studying at Berklee, I was studying privately with Charlie Banacos. He was a legendary teacher and I had many other mentors like Michael Brecker and Mike Stern. Even though I had an opportunity to study and learn so much, I still felt as though I was green. I had all this information, but I couldn’t really execute it the way I wanted to play. This great pianist from Brazil, Egberto Gismonti, who released some stuff on ECM, came into town to play some gigs in Boston. Appearing with him was Nanã Vasconcelos, a great Brazilian percussionist who has played with many different bands including Pat Metheny. I invited Nanã to come over to my place. I told him I was at a crossroads. Should I stay here in Boston or go back to Brazil? I learned so much, but I still couldn’t translate through my fingers what I learned. He said Rique, I’ll tell you what I think. You should go to Paris. They love jazz and they love Brazilian music. With your compositions, the stuff you’re writing, man you’ll be working in no time. I got all excited. So, I took the cheapest flight, a Red Eye from New York to London. I got on a train carrying my Fender Rhodes in a suitcase and arrived in Paris. I didn’t even know where I’d be staying. I was 24-years-old. Paris opened up so many incredible opportunities, including recording with Chet Baker,” Rique recalled.
One night, the great Chet Baker heard a band playing in a Parisian club next door to where the famed trumpeter was performing. Baker popped into the club and was totally impressed by the music of young Rique Pantoja. The result was, in 1980, Rique’s band recorded with trumpet master Chet Baker, who was so impressed by the youthful composer that he came to the studio to record Rique’s original songs. That album is called, “Chet Baker and the Boto Brazilian Quartet.”
After living in Paris for two and a half years, Rique Pantoja returned to Brazil, with success under his belt. He discovered his reputation burned brightly in Buenos Aires like a five-alarm fire. He was in demand. Pantoja toured two years with the great Milton Nascimento and became Musical Director for singer/songwriter, Djavan. He also was an in-demand studio session player.
“Yeah – and even after I went back to Brazil, Chet kept recording my songs. There’s a version of my song, ‘Arborway’ that’s on an album Chet recorded in Japan on the CD ‘Chet Baker in Tokyo.’ … I had an opportunity to do this jazz festival in Brazil and they asked if I could get Chet Baker to come there. So, I reached out to Chet and he came to Rio, played in that festival and we wound up doing another album together. One was recorded in Paris back in 1980 and the other one was done in Brazil called Rique Pantoja and Chet Baker,” Rique told me.
In 1991, at his wife’s insistence, the very busy Rique Pantoja agreed he needed a break and desired to spend more time with his family. They chose Los Angeles as a place to vacation, where the couple had many friends, including Brazilian super star, Ivan Lins. That short break turned into thirty fruitful years of making music with California as his base.
Pantoja plays it all: classical, jazz, pop, gospel, worship music and of course Brazilian and international music. Because of his diversity, his sensitivity and excellent music skills, Pantoja worked with a number of huge names like Carlos Santana, Ernie Watts, Ricky Martin, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Gloria Estefan, Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and a score of others. I asked Rique who were some of his favorite musicians and he responded.
“I really learned from and enjoyed working with Ernie Watts,” Pantoja affirmed.
In fact, he has written a song that celebrates Ernie Watts on his latest album titled “Live in Los Angeles.” The composition, “1000 Watts” is a tribute to Pantoja’s friend and popular, reedman, Ernie Watts. The composition is drenched in funk.
“Abraham Laboriel, that’s another one of my favorite friends and players,” Rique Pantoja continued his list. “Alex Acuña and Frank Gambale, who’s a phenomenal guitar player. I went to Australia a few years ago with him. Frank played with Chick Corea in the electric band. … I have played with so many amazing musicians, also Brazilian musicians. I was musical conductor for Djavan. I played with Milton Nascimento for two years and I played with Gilberto Gil. I’ve had so many opportunities in my life and feel so blessed to learn and to be inspired, while at the same time working with talents like these and Chet Baker.”
Rique’s composing skills shine. He has penned and arranged themes for hit television shows like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Pantoja has also written popular jingles for major brands like Coca Cola, Honda, Shell oil, Globo Reporter, DeBeers Diamonds, Pepsi, Nissan and Toshiba. His music appears on the sound track of Disney’s hit comedic film, “Jungle 2 Jungle.” Recently, Rique was also part of the musical soundtrack of the animation film, “Rio” with Sergio Mendes and film composer John Powell.
Now, you can enjoy him on his newly released album “Live in Los Angeles.” He’s recorded with some brilliant players including Steve Tavaglione on saxophone and flute, Jimmy Earl on bass, Joel Taylor manning the drums and Cassio Duarte on percussion. He also includes Moondo Music labelmate, Ricardo Silveira on guitar. This project shows pianist, Rique Pantoja’s exceptional vision on his instrument and it spotlights his awesome composer talents.
The album opens with “Arpoador” (that means harpooner in Portuguese). Arpoador is also a small community, a peninsula, between Ipanema and Copacabana in Brazil. It’s an exciting and beautiful way to open this production, with changing moods and bright tempos, along with synthesizer brilliance during a solo that lifts the arrangement sky-high! Ricardo Silveira’s guitar solo is tantalizing. Cassio Duarte showcases his hot, percussion talents along with Joel Taylor, a powerhouse on drums.
“Julinho” has a haunting melody interpreted by Steve Tavaglione’s sensual saxophone. These two opening pieces quickly become two of my favorites on this album. But let me say this. Every Pantoja composition on this recording is brilliant. Every arrangement is stellar and Rique Pantoja’s piano mastery infuses this music beautifully, offering each musician a musical palate to paint their hearts out. His song, “Da Baiana” brings another genre to the party and is based on Afro-Cuban rhythms. I enjoyed the happy flute of Steve Tavaglione. Pantoja’s composition “Bebop Kid” introduces us to his vocal side. Rique has a voice that’s honest and emotional. I expected an up-tempo tune to exemplify bebop. Instead, this is a ballad and he sings the lyrical story in his native Portuguese with plentiful emotion. Suddenly, the arrangement changes, pendulum quick. The ballad becomes a pop groove with Latin tinges. Rique’s music is just pure fun!
As he plays the piano, Pantoja sometimes sings a scat line in unison with the melody. His piano sparkles across each song, like sunshine on restless waves. The flute solo by Tavaglione warms this arrangement, flying above the chord changes like a hungry seagull. Also, the guitar solo by Ricardo Silveira is formidable and I am captivated by the electric bass solo of Jimmy Earl. Each song on this “Live in Los Angeles” album offers something more to entertain and surprise us. It is a vision of complexity and artistic beauty you will enjoy listening to time and time again.
As if recording, touring and composing were not enough to keep him busy, Rique has still another life as a respected music educator! He teaches courses at Southern California’s Biola University and Cal Baptist University. Rique Pantoja has led workshops at Maranatha Worship Training and the Los Angeles Music & Performance (LAMP) School. Professor Pantoja is proficient in Pro Tools & Logic School Audio graph (AGI) and offers master classes at a number of schools, including Pepperdine University on the Malibu campus. I asked him if he had any advice for young musicians.
“I’ve been teaching for sixteen years. I taught at Biola University in LA. They have a conservatory. I taught some writing and also at CBU I taught some production with software. So, I really dedicate a lot of time encouraging and teaching young musicians. My advice would be to honor the gift you’ve been given. Develop it with a spirit of excellence. Because you know, the gift is given and the whole purpose of it is to share it. If you give me a gift and I keep the gift in the closet and never share it or you give me a nice shirt and I never wear it, it’s a waste. The same goes to any kind of gift we share. When we share, we fulfill the purpose of that gift. So, to any students that aim to be great and to learn music, it’s just a beautiful art form that has no end. I’m still studying. I am studying orchestration. Even though I’m not writing for an orchestra right now, I still want to learn more. I study Ravel’s string quartet that’s twenty-eight minutes long. There are all these most beautiful things inside that one piece. I go back and pay attention and study the score for art’s sake. It’s not that I want to be more famous. I’m over sixty, so I’ve done so much already. My goal is to keep growing and to do it passionately. I have the hope that my music will get out there and touch the lives of people and bless them.”
By Dee Dee McNeil
May 1, 2022
FEATURING: Chris Standring, guitar/keyboards/programming/arranging/composer; Rodney Lee, keyboards; Andre Berry, bass; Chris Coleman, drums; Kevin Axt upright bass; Gary Meek, tenor saxophone.
Back in the 1990s, Chris Standring was combining Hip Hop and smooth jazz with a group called “Solar System” that included the same keyboard genius he still collaborates with, Rodney Lee.
But before he moved from England to the West Coast of the United States, he was polishing his guitar chops and practicing his arranging skills at the BBC. I asked him about that time in his life.
“Back in the 80s, there was a show on Radio 2. You know, we have Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, etc., in England. It’s National radio programming across the country. On Radio 2, BBC had a late-night radio show called Night Owls. There were two late night programs. I can’t remember what the other one was called. Night Owls invited bands into the studio to record. So, you would crank out as many songs as you could during that time. They would mix them, master them, and then play them on the radio and you’d get paid royalties actually quite well from that exposure. I probably did fifteen or twenty of those in the period of a few years. That was in the late 80’s,” Chris informed me.
A native of Aylesbury (in the county of Buckinghamshire, England) Chris has been currently based in Southern California for the past three decades. He moved to Los Angeles in 1991. Standring has had thirteen Billboard Top 10 singles and six singles that reached number one on the Billboard Chart. In fact, a song from his recent album, “Change the World” followed suit. Chris often writes music for others to record and this song was meant to be gifted to another artist. At the last minute, Standring decided to keep the tune for himself. He released it as a single and the song powered up to #1 on the Billboard Chart.
After settling in Los Angeles, Chris was quickly embraced by the West Coast music scene. He found himself recording with gospel royalty like Bebe and Cece Winans, pop and R&B singer, Jody Watley and smooth jazz artists like Rick Braun, Bob James, Richard Elliott, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Marc Antoine and Al Stewart.
“One of the reason’s I moved over here was so I could do things on a bigger level. I was quite ambitious,” Chris explained.
His recent album, “Simple Things” continues his successful path of well-played, contemporary jazz interpreted by seasoned West Coast musical veterans. From the very first original composition (“Shadow of Doubt”) on Chris Standring’s new album, I hear shades of Wes Montgomery. There is something about the strong, powerful ‘groove’ Chris pumps into his guitar playing that reminds me of Wes. Colorfully accompanied by the tenacious drumming of Chris Coleman, who slaps the funk into place, Standring’s music just makes me happy! Indeed, according to his publicist’s notes, Standring confirmed:
“…the theme of this album is joy, positivity, hope and because I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody, a little sadness as well.”
Years ago, this journalist was a part of the Motown staff in Detroit as a songwriter and almost all the amazing players on those early Motown studio sessions were competent jazz players. The groove and the funk I hear from Chris Standring, Andre Berry on bass, Chris Coleman on drums and Rodney Lee on keyboards remind me of those early Detroit days. These Chris Standring arrangements and compositions make me want to dance, just like the Motown music used to do. Standring soars on his Benedetto guitar and makes a joyful sound atop the excellence of his dynamic rhythm section, but you can clearly still hear his jazz roots.
“I saw a YouTube video of Bootsy (Collins) explaining his basic funk formula. The bass line he demonstrated is so funky that it inspired me to write Something of my own. Of course, I had to thank him, which I did on my tune, “Thank You Bootsy,” Standring explained, celebrating an artist who has influenced his composing and arranging style.
Chris Standring began studying classical guitar when he was just six years old. He was drawn to jazz early-on, but he didn’t become a serious jazz musician until he attended the London College of Music. His mentors were great bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Budd Powell and Chet Baker. Later he became a fan of Joe Pass. His father was a big Oscar Peterson fan and often played Peterson’s records at their home. His mother played both piano and harp, more as a hobby than as a studied musician. Chris’s older brother played flute and his sister was a classical guitarist. So, there was always music being played or listened to at their house. When he arrived in the United States, Chris became familiar with the work of Pat Martino and greatly admired that legendary guitarist. Sometime later, he got to meet him in person.
“I had the opportunity to take one lesson with him a few years ago. I happened to be on tour in Philadelphia and I knew Pat lived there because a friend of mine had taken a lesson with him. I thought, why don’t I do that? So, I called him up and we scheduled the meeting. I was so excited, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, awaiting the next day, so I could take a lesson with Pat Martino. The lesson was really great. That evening, he came to my show with his wife,” Standring recalled the joy of that meeting and the treasured memory of that lesson. I could still hear the ‘happy’ in his voice.
Chris has realized that sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impression on our lives. When it comes to music, he has been a serious and dedicated musician for decades. As a recording artist, he is always exploring the music with fresh eyes. He loves jazz, but he’s also a lover of funk, gospel, Rhythm and Blues.
“I’m a big fan of Prince, who learned about funk studying the music of people like Bootsy Collins. I wrote the opening track, “Shadow of Doubt” after hearing a particular bass line by Prince that I really liked and I wondered what I could do with something similar,” Chris Standring shared.
You can clearly hear the Prince influence on tunes from his latest release like, “Face to Face” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Thing” featuring Rodney Lee on organ. There is also a trace of James Brown influence in these funky, danceable compositions that Chris has penned and arranged. Still, Standring’s ability to seamlessly combine jazz, funk and dance music is ever evolving. When his album “Don’t Talk, Dance!” was released back in 2014, it was a crowd pleaser. What I love about Standring’s creative perception is that although he loops his grooves, he also spontaneously improvises. He is free and creative, like any great jazz player would be. He doesn’t get stuck in that groove. His technique on guitar shows the world that his jazz chops are strong and intact.
On his album, “Soul Express” Standring rearranges the standard jazz tune “Giant Steps” in a very creative way.
Back to his current release, you hear the softer side of Chris playing the pretty ballad, “A Thousand Words (for Samantha)” that features Kevin Axt making a guest appearance on upright bass. The melody is compelling and the bridge is absolutely beautiful. Chris has composed all eleven songs on this new recording. It’s his 14th CD release as a bandleader. I found each one of his compositions to be a sparkling gem. As a prolific composer, Chris Standring has penned or co-written over one-hundred compositions to date. I asked him when he started composing music?
I actually think of myself as much of a composer as a guitar player these days. I’ve always written music, going back to when I was a teenager, playing in pop bands. The music of the time, back in England, was more progressive rock music. It wasn’t so much about jazz. Everybody was taking chances and doing these crazy things that really didn’t always make musical sense. It was just interesting to take that very free approach to things. That really inspired me as a composer. Today, when I’m composing, I don’t have the luxury to have another guy, by my side, to play everything. So, I’ve certainly gotten good enough on keyboard and programming tools to execute ideas I hear in my head. Yeah – that’s the great thing about being able to write and have a studio. I can just go in there and put things down,” Chris explained.
In 2021, Standring reached back to his early jazz roots and recorded a group of jazz standards for the first time on an album titled, “Wonderful World.” On this project, he incorporates a full orchestra and it’s an absolutely beautiful production.
In 2022, his “Simple Things” album is scheduled for a May release. One song he created, “Too Close for Comfort” was written after he experienced a health scare last year. Chest pains and a trip to the hospital reminded Chris how fragile life really is. Thus, the title of this album, “Simple Things” is a reminder for him to appreciate every moment of life and to spend time with loved ones and be present in every moment of each day. “Simple Things” (the album) is a musical message I will enjoy listening to and playing over and over again.
* * * * * * * * *
By Dee Dee McNeil
This April 30th, a special Non-profit event to raise funds to assist musicians is being presented by The California Jazz Foundation at the Los Angeles Omni Hotel; 251 South Olive St; Los Angeles, CA 90012. This annual event will feature musical performances honoring DON WAS by Marcus Miller, Ronnie Foster, Paul Jackson Jr. and Clayton Cameron, along with musicians honoring the memory of JEFF CLAYTON to include Rickey Woodard, Adam Ledbetter, Don Littleton, Edwin Livingston and Charles Owens. It’s an all-star event that will be hosted by ALONZO BODDEN. The evening, starting at 5:30pm, will feature a red-carpet reception, live and silent auctions, gourmet dinner, video tributes, award presentations and a live concert. The “Give the Band a Hand” annual gala is an important source of financial support for CJF.
“The California Jazz Foundation fills a critical void by assisting California’s jazz musicians in need,” says Edythe L. Bronston, CJF founder and president. “The COVID pandemic closed jazz clubs and concert halls, leaving musicians of all ages without a source of income. In addition, many older musicians have neither Social Security nor any or inadequate health insurance, and some see no residuals from their important work. They rely on us and we rely on the community to keep the Foundation financially sound and swinging.”
For more information on the gala tickets, tables and auction, call 818-261-0057 or visit www.californiajazzfoundation.org.
The California Jazz Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization created to aid and assist California jazz musicians in crisis.
By Dee Dee McNeil
April 1, 2022
BILL EVANS – “MORNING GLORY” & “INNER SPIRIT” – Resonance Records
Bill Evans, piano/composer; Eddie Gomez, bass; Marty Morell, drums.
A few weeks ago, I spent a luxurious couple of hours listening to the Resonance Records release of two, brilliant Bill Evans concerts in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Resonance Records is the leading independent American outlet for Archival jazz Releases. This April 23, they will issue a pair of double-set-LP packages featuring the amazing music by the late, great Bill Evans.
One of the albums features trio members, Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums. It was recorded June 24, 1973, an early Sunday morning in the South American Capital. The tape of these concerts was recorded by soundman, Carlos Melero and have been filed away all these years. There were no effects or EQ added. This is raw, unadulterated beauty! The second concert happened on September 27, 1979 at the Teatro General San
Martin facility with a different trio. This concert featured bassist, Marc Johnson, with L.A. based Joe LaBarbera on drums. Carlos Melero, the sound-engineer, recalled that concert in the liner notes.
“I remember when Alejandro Szterenfeld, who produced Bill Evan’s concerts in Argentina, told me that I was going to do the sound. … He said, Carlos, we have to do a Bill Evans concert at 10:00 in the morning at the Cine Teatro Gran Rex. … Why is it so early, I asked. It seems it was a question of the trio’s other tour commitments.”
Professor Oscar Daniel Chikowski also recalled the experience. He was one of the attendees and a huge fan of Bill Evans. Regardless of the early morning concert and the icy cold weather, the 2500-seat hall was packed. Several famous Argentinian musicians were on-hand and buzzed with much anticipation. Some snuck in portable tape recorders.
“This event was the most important concert I ever saw in my life,” the professor shared. “The conditions were difficult. His hands must have hurt from the cold. Still, personally, my memory of the concert is that it was heavenly. … I thought it was Evans at his best. … I was with my wife. I walked in and saw Hugo Diaz, my friend and the great harmonica player. … The first piece began after a silence so quiet it felt as if it were practically coming from the grave. It was a mystical, almost introverted version of “Re: Person I Knew.” The audience was under his spell from the moment he started. … It wasn’t at all gimmicky or bombastic. It was complex, remarkable and elaborate before an expectant audience,” the professor described his impression of the Bill Evans original composition, the title being an anagram of the name of producer, Orrin Keepnews.
“There are no audiences like the one in Buenos Aires that morning,” Professor Chikowski continued with his recollection.
“The level of emotion, sophistication and fanaticism among Argentinian audiences is legendary. We let him know how much we appreciated him. I understand that Bill Evans didn’t like to play encores, but he played them for us. … The last one, after thunderous applause, was ‘My Foolish Heart.’ I was drenched in tears,” he admitted with sincerity.
The accompanying booklets with these newly discovered CDs are full of rich, emotional stories from those who attended this Bill Evans trio concert. As I listen, the audience roars, applauds, stomps and claps furiously. You can hear them on the recording. They are completely captivated by the magnificent and imaginative beauty Bill Evans brings to the piano. He rewards them by playing “Waltz for Debby.” I too am intoxicated and hypnotized by the talent and delivery of Evans. Not to be minimized are his two comrades.
They bring glitter and glitz to the party, each a master in his own right. Eddie Gomez has many outstanding bass solos and it is mentioned in the liner notes that no one in Buenos Aires had really seen that level of expertise on the double bass by a jazz artist before viewing this concert. Mr. Morell is also dynamic and powerful on drums, both supportively and as a solo percussionist during exciting moments of spotlight.
Bill Evans was raised in North Plainfield, New Jersey and was the son of Harry and Mary Evans. His dad ran a golf course and was a heavy drinker and quite abusive. His mother descended from a family of coal miners. Unfortunately, their household was stormy. The Sr. Harry Evans often drank and gambled. His father displayed an angry personality, often causing his mother to grab her two young sons and seek refuge at a sister’s house in a neighboring town. Young Bill looked up to his older brother Harry Jr. When his brother began taking piano lessons, at age five to seven, baby Bill was fascinated. Although two years younger, he expressed interest in playing piano too. Bitten early by the music bug, Bill Evans studied not only piano, but played violin in school, the flute and the piccolo. He had a love for Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. They became his first composer influences. In high school, he discovered Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But even before high school, at age twelve, he enjoyed Tommy Dorsey and his imagination was captured by jazz. He was infatuated with the freedom and expression that jazz encourages. Bill Evans was so competent, that at age thirteen the young teen was asked to sit-in for a sick pianist in Buddy Valentino’s rehearsal band. I’m sure the older members of the band were quite startled to see this small boy play the piano like a seasoned veteran. This helped give him the credibility and confidence to take gigs locally. Back-in-the-day, he was making about a dollar an hour to play at weddings and local dances. At that point, Bill Evans was quite proficient at playing boogie woogie, blues and polkas. Later, he found himself enamored by the playing of Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Earl Fatha Hines, George Shearing, Stan Getz and Nat King Cole. Remember, that in the early days of his career, Nat King Cole was a pianist and not a singer. Bill Evans particularly admired the piano playing of Nat Cole. During his college days, at Southeastern Louisiana University, he met Mundell Lowe and appreciated his guitar work. They formed a trio after graduation that included bassist, Red Mitchell. Then, the three took off to New York City. The young musicians soon found out that getting a trio gig wasn’t as easy as they had supposed. They had to get their hustle on! Evans joined the Herbie Fields band and wound up with a tour backing the great Lady Day; Ms. Billie Holiday. Not too long after that, Bill Evans was drafted. His career was uprooted while he spent time in the United States Army. But of course, he joined the Army Band. From 1951 to 1955, he played not only piano but flute and piccolo. After the armed forces, he returned to New York City and enrolled in the Mannes School of Music. During this time, he met the incredible Thelonious Monk and the legendary George Russell. Evans soon began to work with Russell’s ensemble that included Art Farmer, bassist, Milt Hinton, and guitarist, Barry Galbraith.
Producer, Orrin Keepnews was the first to record Bill Evans as a bandleader and that album received critical acclaim. It was 1958, when Evans heard that Miles Davis wanted to meet with him. George Russell went to pick up Evans and drove him over to where the Davis Sextet was performing at the Colony Club in Brooklyn. Imagine what Bill Evans must have been thinking when the Davis group, composed of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, invited him to play with them. Red Garland had recently been fired from the sextet and Bill Evans was immediately hired to replace him.
“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first,” said Miles Davis of that personnel change. 1
Cannonball Adderley commented, “When we started to use Bill, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach.”
Bill Evans left the Davis group in November of 1958. He returned in 1959, at the request of Miles, to record “Kind of Blue.” That album is often praised as one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Although his career stretched like a rainbow across the world, the talented Mr. Bill Evans had his own demons to deal with. Before joining the Miles Davis group, he was using heroin and his struggle with drugs continued throughout his career. Evans contracted hepatitis in the 1960s, a problem disease often associated with the use of dirty needles.
Drug use did not seem to interrupt the pianist’s career. Sometime around the middle of 1959, Bill met Scott LaFaro. The bassist told him he wanted to start his own trio. LaFaro suggested they put the group together and use drummer, Paul Motian. Evans agreed. At the end of the year, in December, the band recorded for Riverside Records, “Portrait in Jazz.”
Evans was pleased with his newly formed trio, but continued working on various other projects, like the recording he made with Frank Minion, “The Soft Land of Make Believe” with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. He also took many studio session jobs and recorded with George Russell. Additionally, his trio went back in the studio and soon released “Explorations” in February of 1961. Things were going smoothly for Bill Evans career-wise. Then, unexpectedly, his friend and trio member, Scott LaFaro died in a car crash at the young age of twenty-five. Evans took his friend’s death very personally and did not perform again for several months. He submerged himself in heroin-use and grief. It didn’t help that his long-time girlfriend, Ellaine, was also an addict. It took coaching from producer and friend, Orrin Keepnews, to pull the brilliant pianist out of his funk and back to gigging. In 1963, Bill Evans recorded “Conversations with Myself.” This album was created with several overdubs of his piano technique, layering up to three tracks of piano for each song. The Verve album won Bill Evans his first Grammy Award.
While his addiction was still prominent in his life, Bill Evans continued his soar to success. At one point, he plunged a needle into a nerve and still continued to play his gig, to the astonishment of his audience, using only one hand. It was 1966 when Bill Evans met young bass player, Eddie Gomez. That meeting sparked evolvement in the Evans trio concept. You hear their comfort and compatibility on the “Morning Glory” double-set album from 1973. Also in 1966, he released “Bill Evans at Town Hall” that introduced his beautiful “Turn Out the Stars” composition with the great Jim Hall on guitar. The “Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival” in 1968 won him his second Grammy Award. This is one of two albums Bill Evans recorded using drummer, Jack DeJohnette. Also, in 1968, Evans and Gomez hooked up with Marty Morell on drums and he remained with the Evans trio until 1975. In 1971, the popular pianist recorded “The Bill Evans Album” that won two more Grammy Awards and featured all original compositions.
Although he endeavored to stop using drugs, in the 1970s, Evans was busted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with heroin in his suitcase. This led to he and his partner, Ellaine, to begin a methadone program rather than being sentenced to jail time. Three years later, Bill Evans was in Southern California and fell in love with a young woman named Nenette Zazzara. When he told his steady partner of several years about the affair, tragedy struck his life again. His live-in partner, Ellaine, committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. Once again, Bill Evans fell off the wagon and returned to his heroin addiction. In 1973, Bill Evans married Nanette and they had one son, Evan.
In 1978, bassist Eddie Gomez left the trio and Bill Evans hired Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. This would be his last trio and they are the ones who returned to Argentina for the newly released Evans’ album titled, “Inner Spirit.” At that time, the Argentine country was plagued with political unrest when the trio returned to The Teatro General San Martin to perform their Buenos Aires concert. There were right-wing death squads murdering thousands of political dissidents in Buenos Aires and the city was full of fear. LaBarbera told a journalist:
“It was a bad time down there politically. There was tension with the military presence in Buenos Aires, but people on the streets and the musicians we met were still joyous and excited to hear Bill.”
This time, Bill Evans added a Latin touch to that concert performance on September 27th. He also played his original composition, dedicated to his son; “Letter to Evan.” The young bassist, Marc Johnson described his experience.
“The trio had arrived at a pretty good place. We were definitely on a rise, performance-wise. The plateau we hit was pretty high; pretty dependable and reliable. The music was getting to a really fun place. By then, in 1979, I was definitely playing with a little more authority and conviction. Joe sounds amazing on it, as usual, just phenomenal really. He helped keep that trio going and swinging …”
The same year that this project was recorded, 1979, Bill Evans met a 28-year-old Canadian waitress that he began an ongoing relationship with until his death in 1980. Around this same time, his beloved brother Harry committed suicide at age fifty-two. Bill’s desire to play and work diminished after his brother’s death. Evans became severely depressed. He was participating in the Methadone Program to stay away from heroin, but that didn’t stop him from becoming cocaine addicted. Evans stopped his treatments for chronic hepatitis and told his young girlfriend he would die soon. It was Joe LaBarbera who went to the hospital with Bill Evans on a September afternoon in 1980. He had been bedridden for several days, complaining of acute stomach pains. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York of a peptic ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver, bronchial pneumonia and untreated hepatitis. He was interred next to his brother Harry in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bill Evans’ left behind a plethora of recordings, both as a bandleader and sideman. The pianist’s two, historic, double set albums will be released this April 23, 2022 on the Resonance Record label. They are definitely collector items and a beautiful addition to any jazz collection.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
This talented percussionist, Matt Gordy, moved to Los Angeles in 2006, leaving behind a successful career in Boston as one of their busiest drummers. Upon his West Coast arrival, Matt made the rounds of popular jazz spots, playing at Herb Alpert’s Club Vibrato, at the now defunct Blue Whale and Charlie O clubs, the popular Vitello’s and historic Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. I asked him what was the difference between the Boston jazz scene and the L.A. jazz club scene in 2006.
“Good question. At that time, Boston was kind of limping along. Several clubs had closed. There definitely was a scene, but it wasn’t like gangbusters. When I came out here, you have to realize I was already fifty-five years old; which was not maybe the smartest thing I could have done,” he chuckles. “But my only regret, of very few, was that when I left Boston, I had been playing music for over twenty years. I went to school there and then I left for a symphony job in Venezuela (for nine years) and then I came back to Boston. Until then, I was playing a multiple of gigs, both jazz and classical. I was performing fourteen years with the Boston Lyric Opera and also the Boston Ballet, the Boston Pops; various and sundry classical gigs around town. But when I moved out to L.A. I was looked at as just a jazz guy. That has to do with the contractor. When I moved here, the whole classical side of my resume was out the window. In L.A., I was just a jazz drummer. Most don’t know I play piano. They don’t know I spent 11 years studying with Charlie Banacos, a music guru in the Boston area who taught me piano.1 I don’t like to toot my own horn too much. But now that I’ve come out with this project, I guess I have to a little bit.”
Gordy’s reputation spread like California wild fires. I can see why, as I listen to his latest release as a bandleader. Throughout this album, Matt Gordy is the exemplary force and motion behind his talented sextet.
Funny how lives sometimes go full circle. In the case of Alan Pasqua and Gordy, these two musicians have known each other for half a century. At first, they were both students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where they originally met.
“His playing kills me! He singlehandedly steers the direction through the music on every tune. He has the ears to do that on the fly,” Matt Gordy praised Alan Pasqua’s talents and piano contribution to his recent album.
On this latest recording, “Be With Me,” the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet roars into view, propelled by that popular Eddie Durham tune, “Topsy.” Chris Colangelo leads the way on solo bass. Matt Gordy’s drum groove inspires the band, setting an up-tempo time pattern. Alan Pasqua steps front and center, innovative and creative on piano. I enjoyed the arrangement of just drums and piano during the tune’s introduction. Then, the ensemble swings hard, giving Ron Stout’s horn an opportunity to shine. Next, Ido Meshulam soaks up the spotlight on trombone, followed by featured guest artist, Jeff Ellwood on his sensuous tenor saxophone. Matt’s latest album features four of his original compositions and six standard tunes. Track #2 is a swing version of “You and the Night and the Music” that Gordy dedicates to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. Gordy’s arrangement is based on Mulgrew’s solo heard on drummer Tony Williams’ trio album. This song is followed by a Gordy original titled, “Camouflage,” where the bassist, Chris Colangelo, dances brightly beneath the horn lines, hand-in-hand with Gordy’s warm drum beats. Those drum licks somehow remind me of an Ahmad Jamal record I used to love. The sextet has a fireside warmth on this tune, with the horns flaming bright like red-glowing coals. Matt Gordy is not only a drummer, but a composer and arranger. I asked him what other instruments he played?
“Piano was my first instrument at the age of seven. I didn’t switch to drums until age twelve. One day, my music teacher in ninth grade played us ‘Take Five.’ I heard that two-and-a-half-minute drum solo and I said to myself, I gotta check this out. I was in the Boston area at that time, where I was raised up. I was lucky enough to have a really good drum teacher. He’s still alive today and he’s gotta be 87 or 88. His name is James Latimer. He taught at the ‘All Newton Music School.’ He gave private lessons there and only taught for a short time before moving back to Madison, Wisconsin where he still leads the big band back there,” Matt Gordy told me.
Matt Gordy childhood photo
Gordy credits a few specific drummers for sparking his creativity and greatly impressing him during his teenage years and college days.
“The first jazz record I ever bought was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage.’ Of course, Tony Williams; I just couldn’t believe him! Then Elvin Jones; I used to listen to a lot of Coltrane. I didn’t really grow up with that much ‘Rock’ but I did listen to Jimi Hendrix and that was with Mitch Mitchell; a jazz drummer playing rock; of course, Ringo with the Beatles. But I was kind of a weird hybrid and drawn to jazz early on. I would come home every day from high school and play Maiden Voyage and then put on that John Coltrane record, that had that “Out of This World” cut on it. That blue album. Remember that one?” Matt asked me.
Of course, I had that in my collection as well, I told him.
Right after college, Matt Gordy was offered a gig with the world-renowned Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela. He thrived and blossomed in that 100-piece orchestra, made up of mostly foreign nationals, including thirty Americans. He grew to love the people and culture of Venezuela. He married an Argentine woman who he met there. They lived nine years in Maracaibo, but in the 1980s, the government and the economy began collapsing. The couple moved back to the United States. I asked him what it was like to live in South America and not be able to speak Spanish.
“In hind sight, I think I took ten or eleven lessons in Spanish before going on that job. Back then, everyone in school was taking French; I don’t know why, but I took French too. When you move to another country, I don’t mean vacationing, I mean working and living there; you have to be able to communicate, to understand and be understood. The good news was, I was a government employee with the 100-piece orchestra. That’s like being a post office employee in the United States. Thirty orchestra members were Americans and 30 were Polish. The conductor, Eduardo Rahn, was actually trained at Julliard. He had a master plan. He brought brass players and woodwind players from the United States. He also sought out the string players, mostly Polish, some Romanian and a couple of Argentines. Believe it or not, at that time there were only two Venezuelans in the orchestra. This is what’s known as “El Sistema,” a government sponsored program. We would go to the local barrios and take instruments. You wanna play clarinet? Drums? Trumpet? They would provide the instruments and teach the young students for free. So, they wouldn’t have to spend money out of pocket, because many couldn’t afford it. That was part of our musician contract. I started as the principal percussionist and when the timpani player left, I became the timpanist. The band members also taught at the Conservatorio Luis Paz in Venezuela. I had five to ten students. That was the whole master plan of this Eduardo Rahn conductor.
“One of the proudest things of my life was teaching Jefferson Pavajeau. This young man was impressive. I had to teach music to these kids, how to read music, play snare drum, mallets, Marinda, timpani and I was still learning Spanish myself. I taught Jefferson for five years. He applied for a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, where I had once attended. He studied with Vic Firth, the same timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that I studied with. Jefferson won that scholarship and studied there two years. I think the money ran out and he returned home to become the principal timpanist of the Maracaibo Orchestra in Venezuela.”
While performing in Venezuela, Matt Gordy decided to form a trio and play jazz around town during the orchestra’s ‘down’ time.
“Around early 1980, I decided to start a band called El Primer Trio. It was made up of musicians from the orchestra. I had Tim Valdes on drums, Alain Rocheleau on bass and myself on keyboard. We mainly just played tunes from the Real Book. At the time, there was NO jazz at all in Maracaibo, Venezuela, which was the 2nd largest city with a population of around 2 million. All the music you heard on radio and live was salsa or Gaita, which was their folk music.”
After nine years of working in Venezuela, Matt Gordy returned to Boston, Massachusetts. In 1988, he got a call to play with the Boston Ballet who were performing Prokovief’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Consequently, Matt Gordy spent the next twenty-one-years playing a multitude of classical gigs, including with the Boston Pops and building a reputation as a musician who could play just about any style from Latin to jazz to pop and who was proficient in classical music too. He also wound up working with some pretty famous names you might recognize; Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra Jr.
“Well, again it’s all about the contractor,” Matt told me. “This particular one, his name was Joe Giorganni. He was in the Boston area at that time and contracted a lot of star-studded concerts including Aretha Franklin, who I played with six times. But Joni Mitchell, I got to tell you, of all the people I played with, Joni Mitchell was one of the most unbelievable musical experiences I’ve had in that situation. She had a full orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza, who won a Grammy for “Both Sides Now” and rightfully so. We played the entire album, in the order of the songs recorded on that album. So, here I am with Peter Erskine, Bob Sheppard, Chuck Berghofer; I think Wallace Roney was on the tour too, from New York. We only did six or seven cities. It was a wonderful experience!”
A few years back, Matt Gordy’s Jazz Tonite Sextet tributed Jaco Pastorius. At that time, he was using Sam Hirsh on piano.
This drummer’s recently released ”Be With Me” project is a culmination of Matt Gordy’s extensive and successful world of percussion excellence. He has mastered many types and styles of playing, and because of his diverse and challenging career, his ability to play drums, piano and his background as a master percussionist, these talents infuse his composing and make his arrangements shine.
On the song, “Spring Ahead,” the musicians are back to a solid swing arrangement. Jeff Ellwood flies on his saxophone, like a joyful bird. Ron Stout joins him in-flight on trumpet. I enjoy the undertow of a melody that counters the solos and is played like a refrain that captures your imagination. I find myself whistling along with it, as though it’s an old familiar tune. For me, this is the sign of a well-written composition. I really enjoy Matt Gordy’s arrangement talents. “Chloe” is a pretty ballad written as a gift for his granddaughter’s tenth birthday. The melody is so powerful, you hear her name “Chloe” being sung over and over without any vocals. Gordy’s final original composition is the title tune, “Be With Me,” vocalized by the satin smooth voice of Sherry Williams with lyrics by Gregg Arthur. She also sings the commercial pop tune, “Sunny” arranged in a very sweet and jazzy way.
Other tunes I enjoyed were, ”Soul Eyes,” spiced and splashed with blues and inspired by McCoy Tyner’s version from the 1962 John Coltrane release. The familiar “My Shining Hour” is included and Gordy’s arrangement uses five pedal points (played by Colangelo on bass) to add both tension and interest to the tune. Matt Gordy shares that he learned this technique from Charlie Banacos, a Boston educator who mentored several jazz musicians in composing and arranging back in the day.
Gordy’s latest release mixes all the many facets and talents he has honed over the years into a memorable and enjoyable album. This month, his CD release parties begin in Temecula with Sherry Williams at the Merc, Feb 3rd. Then the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet will be at the Sam First club by LAX on March 9th and finally, in Ventura at the Grape, April 9th.
Dee Dee McNeil CDs, “STORYTELLER” and “WHERE CAN OUR LEADERS BE?” are Online at CDBaby.com or Amazon.com. As a journalist, Dee Dee is available to write liner notes, biographies and feature articles on jazz musicians and singers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your message and phone number at 248-262-6877.
DEE DEE McNEIL
Dee Dee McNeil is An Educator/Singer/Songwriter/Poet/Journalist/Producer & Playwright. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, her poetry was published in the first edition of Dudley Randall’s poetry anthology, “The Broadside Annual.” Several other anthologies followed. As a contract songwriter for Motown Records, several iconic artists have recorded her music including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Edwin Star, The Four Tops, Nancy Wilson, Rita Marley, Kiki Dee, Jonah Jones, Side Effect, Rapper ‘Styles’, LL Cool J, Gip Noble, The Marvelettes, Robert McCarther, Peggy Duquesnel and the historic Rap group, The Watts Prophets, of which Ms. McNeil was a member. She moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and became an alumnus of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop. She was one of the first women to Rap in the late ‘60s and early 70’s, speaking up for women’s rights. She recorded as a member of the Watts Prophets in 1970, reciting her original poetry, playing piano, singing and adding original music to their premiere release entitled, “Rappin’ Black In A White World,” named from a song McNeil penned with co-writer, Marthea Hicks.
Her articles and Cd reviews have appeared in Cadence Magazine, All About Jazz Newspaper and she had a jazz blog at www.lajazz.com for five years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine, Pathfinders Travel Magazine, Ambassador National Italian-American Foundation magazine and many more. she was a music journalist for the AOL.com owned Patch Online newspapers. Her Column was called “Music Matters.” She once had a Jazz column in the Michigan Chronicle Newspaper. Another of her syndicated entertainment columns appeared in several newspapers across the country and in Canada. In 2009 her book “Haiku In My Neighborhood” was published, featuring the photography of Roland Charles.
In 2010, she presented her “Haiku In My Neighborhood” literary enrichment program as part of the City of Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services, teaching haiku to children aged five to eleven as part of an after-school program. In 2011, she successfully presented the same program for older children at the Horace Mann Junior High School in Los Angeles. In 2012, one of her short stories was chosen and featured by the Sally Shore “New Short Fiction Series” read and presented by actress Angela Gibbs at the Watts Towers under the banner of “From the Ashes Revisited” to tribute the Watts Writers Workshop alumni. In 2014, her short story entitled “Singing My Way Through Adversity” was published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries – 101 Stories of hope, Healing, and Hard Work.” In 2016, her essays were published in three separate “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books: “The Spirit of America”, “My Very Good, Very Bad Dog,” and “The Joy of Less.” Currently, she has a jazz blog where she previews CDs and writes feature articles about jazz artists at www.musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com and she contributes to LA Jazz Scene.buzz with a column called “Dee Dee’s Jazz Diary.”