I was born into segregated Virginia to an intact African-American family in 1946, one year after the ending of W.W.II. My Grandfather had built a house for my Mother and Father while my father was in the war. I was born in that house. We had a piano. I can remember as a toddler being taken care of by Sissy, my teenage sister, being held on her lap as she practiced. It seemed as though everyone could play The Boogie Woogie (on the black keys) or Chop Sticks or Heart And Soul. I started studying when I was 8 years old with the woman who taught 1st grade at the local elementary school. I'd say that at the time, I was a competent but not a very good player. But the older I became the more interest I developed in learning music and in learning how to play. My 12th birthday was also the anniversary of my parent’s marriage. They decided to have a party, a big one. Family and friends were invited. They came from everywhere. They camped out on the lawn, on the front and back porches, and at the houses of neighbors and friends. This was one of the most important occasions of my life. I was to be the DJ, and to choose the music to be played at the party, a party that would last for 3 days and nights. Food, drink, music and dance for 3 days straight. We borrowed a huge stereo system from my cousin, Buzzy, who had bought it when he had been in the Navy. Not just a stereo, but hi-fidelity stereo sound. This was a new thing. Before, I'd only heard recorded music on am radio, small record players and on our old crank RCA Victrola. This was really something, and 90% of the LPs were JAZZ. For those 3 days I slept in the chair next to the stereo. The musics that made the most impression on me were, Ahmad Jamal playing PONCIANA and the flip side, BUT NOT FOR ME. Then there was the Charlie Mingus band that completely blew me away. Understand that until that time I had never heard music like what Mingus was playing. Something changed in me, I knew there was another world out there, and I wanted to be part of it. I was 12. Relatives had brought down most of the recordings from NYC. New York City became my dream place, the place where I was to go to hear the music, to be around the people that played it, and to be whom they were.
My older sister had married a man (Emery Smith) from Hartford, Conn. who played piano and was a lover of the music. He would at times send bundles in the mail, bundles from the North containing old "Downbeat" and "Metronome" magazines. "Metronome" was a jazz magazine now defunct. It is difficult to describe how important these bundles were. I was living in the rural south, no place to buy recordings, no place to buy magazines; libraries were off limits to us. Now I had stacks of old magazines with pictures of all "The Cats". I didn't have their recordings but I was learning the history of who had played with whom and when. And there were pictures of musicians playing their instruments.
Then in the early 60's the revolution in the music hit, i.e., O.C, C.T, etc. People were choosing sides, and I, too, choose.
It is a little strange to have to explain about how I saw the revolution in the music.
There was a revolution in the country. To have been born and raised a person of color in America is not something I often talk about. It brings on to much anger. And it is anger that goes nowhere. After WWII things were changing in that little town in Virginia, as they were everywhere. The paradox of my father having fought for the freedom of Europe and then coming home to suffer the indignities that he and his friends did was a lesson that was not lost on me. I saw this bright man, pained and frustrated and very unhappy. Pained not only from how he was treated by whites here but from what he had seen in war. He talked about the stacks and piles of bodies had seen, the open graves he had dug. So it's important to have this backdrop that was helping form my inner self. I saw in my father someone whom I did not want to be. Not that he was a bad man, but because he did not seem to me to have control over his life. I actually liked him. As he became older he became more of a lone beat type. He had his own thoughts about things. My mother was one who was a friend to all her children. Any interest that we might have she supported. My oldest brother's thing was sports and being a leader, captain of the basketball team, football team, baseball team, and church leader. He ended up making the Army his home becoming an officer and going up the ranks. Another brother loved model airplanes. He's now a jet mechanic, etc. When I expressed interest in music, she was totally supportive. My father thought it to be a very worthy pursuit. At 13 I had had a job for 2 years. I worked 4 days a week after school and all day Saturdays. When I came home after work the first thing I'd do was go to the piano and play it. Then I'd eat dinner. After dinner I would play more piano or listen to the radio for some jazz out of D.C. Felix Grant would come on at 8 pm. At 12 midnight, I could get Sid McCoy, I think, out of Chicago. My parents never told me to go to bed. They understood the importance of what I was doing. They let me have lots of freedom. I also had other interest than music; electronics, short wave radio, astronomy. They were sharing my time. A lot of those listening nights were spent surfing the world on SW, or in the backyard or in the field across the road looking up at the stars. My telescope was 8 ft. long and I loved it. So again, these activities were very much supported by my parents and by my siblings. I was different. I was allowed to be different. In many ways I was encouraged to be different.
I only knew of the revolution in the music through the old magazines that my brother-in-law sent me from Hartford. I didn't know how the music sounded, but from the articles and descriptions in the magazine, I'd try to create how I thought it was. It was a great surprise when I finally heard people like Cecil and Sun Ra. They were swinging, what I was doing when I was 13, 14, and 15, did not swing. But it was "out there".
I studied piano from 8 - 13 yrs old. My teacher then told me she had taught me all she could.
In high school the music teacher, a real hipster, gave me a fake book. Thomas DeLaine, a trumpet player who had a goatee and wore a beret. He lived in D.C. and had gone to Howard University. He loved bop, Bird and Diz. I very much idolized him. He was the first live in the flesh Jazz player I had ever met. In the fake book were standards and jazz tunes like ROUND MIDNIGHT, OLEO, WELL YOU NEEDN"T, JORDU. DeLaine implied that these tunes were too hard for me to play. He showed me how to play changes in root position. It took me years before I could make sense of those tunes. Later on I'd hear them on records but when I would go to play them I just couldn't make them work at all. From about 13yrs. to 19yrs. old I went into an intensive period of listening, not just jazz but anything at all, especially if the music had a keyboard in it. I loved Lawrence Welk because his band was live and had multiple keyboard players. Van Cliburn had come on the classical music scene. I was able to get an LP of his and wore it out. Monk, Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver with Art Blakey, Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, Bird, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Dylan, Mingus, Basie, Duke, Roland Kirk, Miles. Then in 1962 I heard Ornette with Don Cherry on THIS IS OUR MUSIC. There was no going back after that. As I have mentioned, there was nowhere in town to buy the music. I would skip school; catch a Greyhound bus into Washington, D.C. It was a 40-mile trip into the city. I'd go to the Howard Theatre for their noontime show. I heard Cannonball with Yusef Lateef, Joe Zawinul, Mongo Satamaria, Herbie Mann, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson and many others. After the show I'd go to record stores and buy records. This was real exciting stuff. I was getting to hear the music, live. My ears were changing. I started going to the city more and more. When I was 15 my mother died. I went to Hartford for a visit with my sister’s family. Her husband became my teacher. He had hundreds of recordings, all that Monk had ever recorded, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Pheneas Newborn Jr., Art Tatum, and Father Hines. But what was most important was my being able to sit or stand near him while he played, and he would play a lot, I mean for hours and hours. And he wrote tunes. I had never met anyone who wrote his or her own music. I had made some small attempts but he had books of his own music. This was new and exciting. I wanted to do this.
I remember it being late at night. I'm about 10. I'm looking out my window wondering how far is far. In my mind I imagined going past all the stars that there were into something that wasn't. The feeling was a great one, a real high.
About learning to play.
It was hard.
It was slow.
I thought I'd never be able to play fast.
It was a long time before I was able to hear what others were playing and was able to copy it. I was told or had read that copying was one technique for learning how to play the music. Playing other people's licks, phrases and solos has not been a technique that has worked for me.
I never heard about or was taught anything about the FEELING in the music until I got to college, The Catholic University Of America in Washington. Musically, it was a mistake to have gone there. They had not an idea of what I wanted to do. I switched my instrument from piano to flute. My piano teacher was an old racist white man from South Carolina who would shout, "Boy, you are a pie-ana player. You don't belong here." I knew after my first year at C.U. that some other place was for me. But being in a big city was what was important. After classes I was across town hanging out in bars with the musicians who didn't have a job that night, until the working cats came in and started playing. Then hopping from club to club seeing who was playing that night. This was during the time I first heard Trane and Sun Ra. This was during the time of ESP Records. There it was. There was the music. We had all been following the growth of Trane, but here were musicians who were there already: Bill Dixion, Shepp, Cecil, Burton Greene, and Albert, the whole crew. Those ESP recordings never lasted a day in the record bins after the word went out that they were in.
I was living with a drummer, Paul Avery, from upstate NY. We would listen for hours to these records. He was a working drummer, playing in organ trios, strip joints, rock bands, straight ahead gigs. And he was much criticized for his interest in the new music, even though he didn't bring that way of playing to his jobs.
As I said before, this was during the time that I heard Tane live; the quartet, and the quintet with Pharoah Sanders, Alice, Rashied, and Garrison. The quartet, live, played the most beautiful music I had heard up until then. It was that band that convinced me that Power Music was for me. A year later or so I heard the quintet, such a difference, pushing, searching, unpredictable. (The quartet had become predictable, I believe, because of McCoy Tyner. McCoy was always a great player, but it's very difficult for piano players to free up. We have those structures and patterns in our hands that have been there for decades. Few players can break the patterns.
Even though I had made another choice, to follow the way of the free players, I was not as of yet playing that way.
Miles was a powerful influence in the mid 60's and I was somewhat under his spell. But in 1967 I migrated to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music. I learned nothing about music there, but I met some very interesting people at the school and in Boston.
I was newly married. My wife was pregnant. I applied to the Berklee School of Music, thinking that it would be a better environment than Catholic University. My flute teacher at C.U., Dorothy Skidmore was a great one. Her study was 20th century flute repertoire. I was learning a great deal from her. Her teacher had been Jean P. Rampal, the Master. But the Berklee info said that I'd be studying with the first flautist of the B.S.O. My teacher said that this would be a great opportunity for me.
Well, when I met my teacher at Berklee it was not Mr. Kincaid of the B.S.O but Nick Cazzazi who had played Saxophone in the Stan Kenton band and doubled on flute. Nick was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. When we played duets, his mistakes were the reasons for our having to stop. I got A's in all my subjects but flute. I flunked it. I refused to take the final in protest. I quit the school after the 1st semester. I'll always remember telling Joe Buda (formerly the drummer in the Boston Pops), my ear training teacher that I was leaving the school, and why. He tried to convince me to stay. But I thought I'd been scammed, duped, cheated by the place.
But what was I to do now? I joined an R&B band called The Sounds 4+4, electric piano, guitar, electric bass, and drums, 2 female and 2 male singers. We worked 7 nights a week. I WAS A MUSICIAN! The usual followed: drinking, late nights reefer, speed, LSD. During this time I took David S. Ware into a studio and we did a duo, with him on tenor and me on Wurlitzer electric piano. The tape was used for an O.I.C. orientation film. David and I had met at Berklee but we never played together while we were classmates, only after I had left. Then came a band in which I played flute called the Afro-Jazz messengers led by Jim Riley now known as Juma Santos. That band morphed into another one called The Rosewater Foundation from the Kurt Vonegut novel GOD BLESS MR. ROSEWATER. In that band I played Hammond Organ and wrote all but 2 of the tunes. Juma played congas and the tunes were written around that sound. After many rehearsals we finally got a gig. The afternoon of the first job Juma came to us and said the he couldn't play it because he was going with Miles. Well fine, you’re going with Miles, but what about us? We did it anyway. All went well. A couple months later he returned and I told him about David S. Ware, and how I thought he would add a lot to the band. The band was trumpet, alto, organ, drums and congas. In steps Ware. Everything changes. We weren't playing around anymore. This was serious. I was even happier than before, writing for 3 horns, and all good players, Steve Schrell on alto, Mark Gould on trumpet, Ware, John Reed on drums, Juma, me. The problem with my role in this band was being musical director of sorts and playing the instrument, the organ. It was new for me; I'd only had it for 2 years, 2 keyboards up top and one that I had to play bass lines on with my feet. I never soloed on organ in this band. That was the next step that had to be taken.
I told Ware who had moved back to Jersey to come back to Boston to live with us and to form our band. The Rosewater Foundation was over. I took off 3 months from doing any work other than composing. This was a time of deep reflection, introspection, a bringing together of what I knew. I didn't drink or do any drugs during that time. I just wrote. At the end of the period I was asked to do a concert at Boston University. This was an artwork, 5 singers, 3 altos Saxes, trumpet, tenor, vibes, piano, bass, and drums. It went well. Ware moved back to Boston. We needed a drummer. We thought on it for a while. He suggested Marc Edwards who was still at Berklee. I said that Marc couldn't play, but he said that was all right he'd work out ok.
Marc couldn't really play drum set yet but he was a drummer. He'd done the marching thing in NYC and had a good sense of technique, was focused and a hard worker. I went to Webster's Dictionary to find a name for the new band. I got no further than the A's
A P O G E E.
We practiced, rehearsed, practiced, rehearsed, obsessed about our place in the history of the music, practiced, rehearsed, and obsessed. Played concerts. Created our own concerts. Anywhere that would have us we played. A P O G E E was like a marriage. No one wrote for this band, we just started playing and stopped when we stopped. We never talked about what we were playing. We talked about women and sex, food, and the musicians that we admired. I have never had relationships with other musicians like with David and Marc. I loved these people. What we did was very powerful for us.
Maybe others didn't understand it, but for the trio it filled a great need and a bridge to another place.
Later we added a bass player, Chris Amberger, who gave the name " tremble time" to the hyperness in our music.
The quartet was asked by Sonny Rollins (a friend of David's) to open for him at the Village Vanguard. After that we were not long for Boston.
That night at the Vanguard was a highly charged one, not just because we were to play in the Jazz Mecca of the world, but also because we were going to open for
Sonny. He was one of the Grand Masters, and still alive. His band was Albert Daily on piano, Alex Blake on bass, and David Lee was playing drums.
I new David Lee through Alto Saxophonist, Alan Braufman, we had played together.
There was drama all night long. Ntozake Shange, the poet and playwright, had flown down from Boston with an entourage and expressed a desire and an expectation to sit in with Apogee. I had once been in an ensemble with Philip Musra and Michael Cosmic, which had performed with her, and had found the experience totally wonderful. When Zake recited her works they went straight to the heart. But Ware was in charge. He told her, “NO”. This was a woman I would never want to be on the wrong side of. When I heard “NO”, I left the scene for the kitchen.
In the kitchen (The kitchen at the Vanguard was a very special place. It’s where musicians would mingle, where business was done.) Max Gordon (the owner) was complaining to Sonny about something. Sonny stopped all the complaints by asking for $5000 more for the week. The club was filled. We knew that most of those in the audience had not come to hear us but many had and some others would be receptive. For you see, we had the endorsement of the Master.
We mounted the stage as if it were a spacecraft, and blasted off. Musicians in Sonny’s band and other musician friends of ours were sitting in seats on the side in back of the stage. I could see them laughing and rocking back and forth. “Yeah,” I thought, “They’re digging it.” I don’t know how long we had been playing, but the stage lights began flashing on and off. Max was having a fit and wanted us off. We played until the music stopped. Then something amazing happened. Sonny’s band got on stage and they were so filled with the energy that Sonny could barely control them. They wanted to go, go, go. Poor Max. He did not like the kind of music we played and made a point of not hiring Musicians who played it.
Two things need to be inserted, (1) I spent the summer of 1966 in NYC working for the Catholic Archdiocese of NYC. This was an arts program for children that took place in Church Parishes all over the city. This was just after my sophomore year in college. I lived with cellist, Ronald Lipscomb, who also worked in the program and who took me in and gave me a place to live (3 doors away from where I presently reside) knowing nothing about me, other than that I was a musician. Ronald was a student at the Manhattan School of Music and a working musician. 1966 was in the middle of the Revolution of the Music. Coronetist, Marc Levin, a student of Bill Dixon, befriended me, and hipped me to the scene. Also of great importance was Nardi Kamar, who had played piano with Nina Simone. He was the one who told me that I, "had it,” that I had what was necessary to be a musician and to come to the city and fulfill my dreams. Nardi was also important in that he built and played his own instruments and was the first to inspire me to do the same.
The second insert should go in the Boston section.
I met a man there by the name of Cleve Pozar. Cleve had been known on the NY scene as Robert Pozar. I knew of his LP on Savoy called GOOD GOLLY MISS NANCY, and thought it very new, fresh, and hip. Michael Sol had done some electronic music tape manipulations on it and I think Jimmy Garrison was on bass along with others. This was 30 plus years ago. Cleve was the first person I ever saw record their own recording. He did it solo, recording tracks on quarter inch and bouncing the tracks to other machines back and forth. Cleve was a percussionist but also used electronics. He was a builder of instruments and things. His philosophy was that with the tools and a good library he could do anything any other man could do.
I keep that with me everyday. Cleve is the one who encouraged me to play more piano and asked me to participate in a two man show which was the first performance in the then new BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS in the South End of Boston, Mass. Cleve was a total inspiration, truly gifted, the product of a self reliant, rural upbringing. Thank you Cleve Pozar.
Not long after that we all had moved to NYC. I had found a building on Canal Street, 501 Canal. It had 5 floors and the rent was $550 a month. The 1st floor became the rehearsal-performance space. David S. Ware and Alan Braufman lived together on the 2nd floor. My family took the 3rd. Chris Amberger, the bass player took the 4th. The 5th was condemned but was used by my wife as a pottery studio, for storage and for musicians who needed a place to stay, Ellen Christy, Tom Bruno and Jimmy Hopps were some of the notables. Here we were, fulfilling the dream. Finally we had arrived, an instant community. My vision was to use the place to break onto the scene by creating our own scene. On looking back on at it all, I see that for me it was a strategy based on insecurity. None of it went the way that I thought that it would for people went their own way.
Out of 501 came: APOGEE
THE ALAN BRAUFMAN ENSEMBLE
THE GENE ASHTON ENSEMBLE
BRUNO'S SURREALISTIC ENSEMBLE
There was music all the time. People practicing, rehearsals, performances, jam sessions, recordings, at all times of the day.
Very memorable was waking up every morning to Trane being played on the stereo upstairs or Ware or Braufman practicing downstairs. I often thought, "This must be Heaven."