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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Conversations with Mr KC - Keith Copeland Interviewed - Part 1

I had the great good fortune to have a chance to play with Keith Copeland over an extended period of time in the 90s - I was a member of his trio, along with Tommy Halferty, and we made three CDs for Steeplechase. Keith is an amazing drummer, rooted in the tradition, yet can play in a very wide variety of settings. As an example of his versatility, I'm pretty sure Keith is the only musician in the world who has played with both Stevie Wonder and Paul Bley! He has a huge groove, is adept at all kinds of beats and genres, and his phenomenal career is testament to the regard in which so many great musicians hold him. He has played with Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, Stevie Wonder, George Russell, Cedar Walton, and Hank Jones - and that's only scratching the surface of his career. He is also a legendary teacher and numbers Adam Cruz, Tom Rainey and Terry Lyne Carrington among the many students that he has helped on their own path to greatness.

Keith has an amazing memory and in this interview he covers all aspects and periods of his career, giving fascinating insights into many legendary characters and musicians in the jazz and wider music world. He's always been a warm, generous and humorous man and that warmth, generosity and humor all comes out here. I'm very proud to have had the chance to play with, and to know Keith, and I'm delighted he agreed to reminisce with me about his extraordinary life.

I'd like to thank Colin O Sullivan for undertaking the mammoth task of transcribing this interview!

Due to the huge amount of material Keith gave me over the course of our conversation, the interview will be published in three parts. In this first section Keith talks about how he began playing, his first gigs, his drum battles with Billy Cobham, and how he ended up at the North Pole!

Part One

(Ray Copeland)

RG: Maybe we can start by talking about your father a little bit.  Your father Ray, of course, a great trumpet player, played with Thelonious Monk etc.  What are your musical memories of him? Did you go and see him play?  Any connections that you had with him through music, even before you started playing yourself?

KC: Well, the first connections with my father with music was when he used to have a dance band.  It was anywhere from about eight, to about twelve or thirteen people.  It was either trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor and bari, and bass and drums, and piano.  So that was the eight piece band.  And he had these arrangements that he had written which were voiced so that they would work with that instrumentation.  Or, he could expand it and have three trumpets, two trombones and four reeds – alto, two tenors and a bari – and a rhythm section.

RG: So what kind of music were they playing?  You say dance band...

KC: It was swing music from Lunceford and Count Basie, and that tradition.  And they used to rehearse at the house where I lived, in my Grandmother's.  I stayed with my Grandmother, my father's mother.

RG: So you used to hear this eight to thirteen piece band in your house.

KC: In the basement of the house, yeah.  So I'd go do down to the rehearsals and sit right there amongst the musicians while they were rehearsing.  I was young, man.  I was like, you know, five, six, seven years old and I could go downstairs.  They'd rehearse about once every two weeks.  And I'd hear them rehearse.

RG: Can you remember what that felt like?  Did you really enjoy it, sitting down there?  It must have been an incredible physical sound in a space that small.

KC: Yeah, it was.  It was an incredible physical sound.  The basement was finished.  My grandfather had built a bar...a real wet bar.  They used to have parties down there and dance down there sometimes.

RG: So I'd say the guys really looked forward to rehearsing down there, if they had a bar there!

KC: Yeah, and I was always intrigued by the drummer.  They had a couple of different drummers.  The drummer I was first most intrigued with was a drummer from Brooklyn named Arthur Edgehill. He's on a lot of records.  He used to come over and bring his drums and set them up.  And I liked to sit right next to him.  And I loved the feel that he got when he played the swing.  The cymbal, and the hi-hat, the snare drum, making that situation ...and the bass drum...  And, I was just knocked out by the drums, right away.  That was the thing I loved the most.  So then as I got a little older sometimes my father would take me to a gig, if it wasn't a real late gig - like a wedding reception or something.  And I could see the band play live.  And I loved that.  They played a lot of swing music but they also played some Latin music.  They played some Mambos, and they played some Cha-Chas, and they played some Merengues, and they played some Calypsos.  There were a lot of guys in the band who were of Caribbean heritage.  From Trinidad, and from Jamaica, and from different places like that.

RG: This was in New York, was it?

KC: This was in New York -  Queens, near Kennedy Airport.  I grew up about two miles from Kennedy Airport.  It was called Idlewild Airport then.  They named it Kennedy after Kennedy got killed.

RG: Obviously, you can't underestimate, as a child, how something like that would have an influence on you through just taking it in through your pores.  At what point did you actually start to play?

KC: Well, I kept heckling my father about wanting to play drums after I had been so enamoured with Arthur Edgehill -  and another drummer that used to come over sometimes was Wesley Landers.  He's on a few records too, with Sonny Stitt and a couple of people. So those two guys were my first major influences, live.  But I also liked to go downstairs in the basement and play some of the albums that my father had made with Monk, on our little record player.

RG: So Monk's music appealed to you, already, even at that point?

KC: Oh, man!  That's the first music I heard on record.  I'd go down there and listen to Monk.  And Art Blakey playing drums, with Monk.  And Wilbur Ware playing bass.  And the first record that I remember hearing was a record that he did, I think, in 1954, and it just had these big letters “MONK” on it...white cover... Frank Foster...I think it was Frank Foster, Curley Russell, Monk, my father, and Art Blakey.  And I used to like to go down and hear that all the time...because they were swingin' man, that was some great music!  And then he made a record with Monk called “Monk's Music”, on Riverside, which I'm listening to a little bit.  Ute found a copy of a CD that has all of the complete recordings of Monk from that date...and all the outtakes.

RG: That's with french horn as well, right?

KC: No, no, that's with Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Gigi Gryce, my father, Wilbur Ware, Art Blakey and Monk.  So I used to love to go down and listen to that, and listen to Blakey with Monk.  Because they had a special communication.  Some of the stuff Blakey was playing behind Monk was ridiculous, man!  When I think about it now I know what, rhythmically, he's doing. But at time I didn't know what they were doing.  Blakey could play some licks, totally almost, out of time behind Monk, to accentuate what he was doing.  Totally crazy, but it would still be swingin'!  The hi-hat still would be on two and four.  The cymbal would still be right in the pocket.  But the stuff he'd be doing with his left hand, and bass drum against it, was totally nuts!  I loved it.  So, it was those two things, listening to Monk's music...I mean, there were other records that I liked too, but those were my two favourites...and listening to the band live.

RG: What year would this have been, that you were listening to this?

KC: This was '55, '56...

RG: So he must have been playing with Monk around that time...

KC: Oh yeah, he had been playing with Monk a long time.  They go back many, many years.  But he didn't start recording with Monk until '54 

RG: So did you ever meet Monk as a kid?

KC: Never met him as a kid, no.  First time I met Monk, was on a tour of Europe in 1967, when I was stationed over here in Germany, in Ramstein, and my father came on a tour with Monk...the nonet.  There's a record from that tour – Monk Nonet Live – with Phil Woods, my father, Griffin, Charlie Rouse...

RG: That's the one that has the sections from the documentary – Straight, No Chaser....

KC: Yeah, right, exactly.  So I met them in Berlin.  I flew up to Berlin to see my father play that concert in Berlin.  They had just come in from Paris.  And I got to meet Monk, and I got to meet his wife.

RG: Did you have a conversation with him?

KC: Not much...but, you father introduced me to him and said, 'Here's my son, Keith - he's stationed over here, in the Air Force.  He used to listen to you when he was a little kid.  He loves your music'.  Monk just smiled and he said 'Yeah, does he like to play?'.  He said, 'Yeah, he likes to play'.  Monks smiles, 'Yeah, OK, good'.  That's about all.  We didn't have no long conversation.

RG: I think very few people had long conversations with Monk!

KC: Aah, not with Monk, man.  But I noticed that his wife, Nellie, was with him, and she was always carrying his pipe.  And she always had some little stuff that she put in his that he could be cool!  He could be relaxed!  I noticed that.  He was always taking little hits off his pipe. Nellie was preparing it for him.

RG: So what age were you...did your father give in, eventually, and buy you a drumset?

KC: At ten, he took me up to a place called Coret Music on 168th Street in Jamaica.  Downtown Jamaica, Queens, was not a big town, but it had a little shopping centre.  He took me to this little music store called Corete Music, and he hooked me up with my first drum teacher.  His name was Gene Morvay.  He's still alive.  He's about 82, 83, years old, living in Florida.  He played in the service, in the Air Force, in the Special Services bands.  He became a professional player.  He didn't  do a lot of recording.  But he could swing, was a good player.  That's who I first started studying with.  Gene was teaching at for a while.  My father used to take me up there to take lessons, and he bought me a snare drum.  I started studying with Gene only on snare drum.  He would take me up there every couple of weeks for a lesson.  And then Gene left Coret  and started teaching just privately.  But he would travel around to all his students houses and teach them at their houses.  He'd come and see me once a week, or once every two weeks at the house.  In that same basement, and give me lessons.

RG: And what kind of stuff were you doing?  Was it rudiments?

KC: Mostly rudiments.  The first book I ever had, that Gene had gotten for me, was a book called 'Buddy Rich's Interpretations of Snare Drum Rudiments'.  It had all of the rudiments in it, and some other rudiments that Buddy had made up.  I had to learn those and play them for him every week he came.  And then my father said - he'd ask Gene how I was doing every once in a while - 'Well if he's doing good, about every six months I'll get him another piece of equipment'.  He said, 'But I'm not going to get him no whole drumset and then he decides he don't want to play no more'.  So after six months I got a hi-hat. (Laughs)

RG: This is a classic parent's thing!  Do I spend the money, or not?

KC: Yeah, right.

RG: Is the kid going to screw me over?  I'm going to spend all my money and then it's all over.

KC: He got me a hi-hat so then I had a snare and a hi-hat.  And then the next thing I got was a bass drum.  And that was six months later, and then after that I got one cymbal.  I had one ride cymbal, a bass drum, a hi-hat and a snare drum.

RG: That's a great story.  There's a lesson for all parents in that one.  That's a great piece of incentive right there.

KC: Yeah, right.

RG: They should do that with guitar players too...maybe buy them one string at a time.

KC: Yeah, right!  So, anyway...later on, every Christmas and every birthday was when I'd get something.  If I was still doing good.  Next thing I got was a small rack tom for the bass drum.  I still have these drums here, in Germany.  

RG: Really!?

First drums I ever got.  They were old Ludwigs with a 12 by 22 bass drum which was very popular then because it wasn't too thin.  It was kind of flat but it still got a big sound with a 22-inch diameter.

RG: You could get it into the car and still get a good sound.

KC: Get it into a trunk...yeah, right...with a trap case.  The drummers liked it because it would fit in the trunk, and had a good sound.  And then I got another cymbal.  So I had two cymbals, a rack tom, bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats.  I worked with that a long time and I think the last thing that I got was a floor tom to complete the set.  I bought that myself because I had a little paper route.  I was delivering newspapers.  I saved up enough money to buy me a floor tom.  He didn't have to buy that for me.  So I had the whole set then.  I was about thirteen by the time I got the whole set.  I was practicing and playing.  And Billy Cobham lived in my neighbourhood at that time.  He was from Panama.  We went to the same Junior High School.  And I remember I got my whole set before Billy Cobham got his whole set.  So he'd come over my house and play.  He always had great chops.

(Billy Cobham)

RG: Even from the beginning?

KC: Yeah, because he use to play in the St. Clement's Catholic Church drum corp.  He played the tenor drum because there were three girls that played the snare drums that were fantastic snare drummers.  They wouldn't let him play snare drum because his chops weren't good enough, so that was his incentive to really work on his chops.  He'd come over and play on my set.  And we'd have little battles on my drumset to see who good outplay each other.  We were 13...he was two years older than me so he was about 15.  Then we did that for a while and I still kept practicing.  By the time I got to be about 15 my father bought a house in St. Albans, Queens, which was about three or four miles away from Jamaica, where I grew up, and I moved in with him.  And there, he had a basement there, also.  

Then I met some guys from the neighbourhood who were trying to play Latin music.  So I started trying to play Latin music on the drums, but it didn't always fit.  They had some timbales, so I finally got a set of timbales.  They were teaching me how to play timbales, where you play cascara on the side of the drum, and played the bass tones on the timbales.  And you had one cymbal, and you had cowbells.  So I started playing the timbales with a very good conga player named Stanley George, who lives in Atlanta now.  And his brother played cowbells, and there was a trumpet player named Gerry Joachim who played very good trumpet.  Young kid, about 16 years old.  And Terry Pippos played saxophone, good saxophone player.  And a guy named Al Maxwell, one of my boyhood buddies that I met when I went to high school, played bass.  

(Cal Tjader)

We were trying to play tunes and stuff at that time that we heard from Cal Tjader records because they weren't so hard.  We weren't into too much heavy shit.  We were trying to play, and we would also play a few swing tunes.  I had a piano player named Jesse Larson, who lives in West Virginia now, he couldn't read music that good.  He had a pretty good technique.  He good play those Latin riffs on the piano pretty good, montunos. but he couldn't play a lot of changes.  Some of the first tunes we tried to play were easy tunes like, Horace Silver, like Strollin', and we played Sonnymoon For Two.  And those were swing tunes that we tried to play, no hard stuff, we didn't deal with that.  We got our little stock together.  And after about a year or two we started doing little gigs.  I was about 16 when we started doing our first little gigs around the neighbourhood.

RG: Were these Latin dance gigs?

KC: Latin gigs, with a little bit of swing mixed in.

RG: Playing for dancers, or playing in lounges?

KC: No, dances.  I kept working on my stuff with this little group.  My first professional gig in a dance hall I was about 17.  And we played a gig opposite...I forgot whose band it was...but we had a little gig playing opposite that band at the dance.  We got paid.  It wasn't much money - ten, or fifteen, dollars a piece.  And then after that, my mother was a barmaid, and she worked at a bar not far from where I lived in St. Albans.  When I was about 17, I had got good enough that I would go down to the bar sometimes on Sunday afternoon when they had these little jam sessions, and she let me sneak in there and sit in and play with the Hammond B3 organ player.  His name was Kenny Andrews, and different horn players would come by and sit in and play with him.  So that was my first time playing with an organ player because I had been, by that time, listening to some Jimmy Smith, so I knew what that felt like on record.  So I could do that with Kenny, Kenny was a pretty good organ player.

RG: So the kind of music he played was swing, groove kind of stuff?

(Cecil Taylor)

KC: That was his thing.  Right, right.  So I did that every Sunday because I was 17.  I wasn't supposed to be in there until I was 18.  But I could go in and sit in every Sunday afternoon because nobody came around and checked nobody out on Sunday afternoon.  So I did that.  Then, we got a little gig, at night, down at Greenwich Village, playing I think it was a place called The Take 3.  It was a little coffee shop up on the second floor off the street...had to walk up some stairs to get in there.  They hired us to come in and play what we could play.  They had Cecil Taylor working opposite us with his trio.  Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Sonny Murray.

RG: So this was like a two header thing?  You guys and him?

KC: Yeah, we would go play and people would be listening to the music, coming in off the street.  They heard the stuff we were trying to play.  And they'd come in the place and then Cecil would come on, and then he'd run everybody out of the place! (Laughs)  So when they played their thing, it was probably too dense for regular listeners in those days.  You had these young kids come in and play some music that was halfway understandable to the audience, and then Cecil would come on with his shit, play his shit, and the place would empty out.  So the could turn it over three times easily that way. (Laughs)

RG: Wow, that's a great story!  The idea of having Cecil to get the people out of the place so you could get them back in...

KC: So we were right around the corner from The Village Gate.  So we could walk around the corner, on our break time, and sneak in the back way, and hear Horace Silver's group with Junior Cook and Blue Mitchell.  We heard a lot of different people.  Monk played in there.  So I got an education on my break time, sneaking around and hearing all these other great musicians.

RG: Those are incredible stories.  I know when I've spoken to musicians like yourself, who came up, especially in that 50s and 60s period, it's just a golden age if you were living in the New York area.  The kind of experiences you're describing...they're just beyond price, really.  Of course I can tell you directly from someone who didn't grow up in that era, or New York, they're the most enviable stories you can ever hear if you're a jazz musician! When you hear guys like you talking, 'And then I go in next door and I see Horace Silver', it's just such an amazing opportunity for someone who's going to make their life in the music as you did, to have that kind of background.

KC: Right, right, yeah.

RG: So, you joined the army then.  What age were you when you joined the army?

KC: I joined the army at 17, joined the Air Force.  I really wanted to play drums in the Air Force band and I went and took an audition at Stewart Air Force Base in upstate New York, in Newburgh.  It's an airport now.  It's not a base anymore.  They got some reserve people there and they store C-5A's, these big Air Force cargo planes up there.  The reservists fly them.  Whenever they've got to get some big stuff somewhere they pull the reservists in and they fly these big C-5A's out of Stewart because Stewart had big, long runways because it used to be an active Air Force base.  So I went up there and auditioned...and in high school, in junior high school, I used to play the euphonium, the baritone horn, in the school band.  But I wasn't a great baritone horn player.  But I could play.  I could read a little bit.  They said, 'Well, we don't have any openings up here for drums', but they listened to me play.  They said, 'But you play good.  We have an opening for a baritone horn player, a euphonium player'.  So I took that audition.  I wasn't so good on baritone.  They wouldn't take me.  They said, 'But listen, you should join anyway.  Because after basic we'll send a report how good you play drums, and if there's any openings for drummers they'll send you to that band'.  That was the biggest lie they ever told me!  (Laughs) They just tried to get me to join because I had a pretty good record in school for grades and everything.  So, I joined, and sure enough they sent me to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.  I did my basic.  That's what happened.  I scored too high on the aptitude test, in these other aptitudes, and they sent me to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas - North Texas, up near the Oklahoma border – to go to school to be a communications specialist.  I went there, went to school, learned how to use the teletype machines, to work in codes and stuff.  I finished the school in three months.  And then my first duty assignment was to the North Pole, to Greenland!

RG: So from The Village Gate to the North Pole.  That's a bit of a jump.

KC: I got there I had my 18th birthday in Greenland.  That would have been January 1964.  And turned 18 in April 1964.  After I got up there, somebody said, 'Man, you ain't even supposed to be here!  You're 17.  They ain't supposed to send no 17 year olds up here for an isolated tour like this'.  It was isolated because it was 5000 guys up there, and five women, five nurses. They were like queens up there with only five of them.   (Laughs) So I was up there in the Air Force for a year but they didn't let me take a leave to come home in the Summer.

So in August, just before the Gulf of Tonkin, I was in communications so I was seeing what was happening over there.  And when the Gulf of Tonkin thing happened on, I think it was on August 5th 1964, I saw that go down, on the teletype.  And I had put in a leave to leave on or about the 10th of August to go to the States.  So I said, 'Oh shit, man.  I gotta get out of here quicker that this, because what's going to happen is now that we're in this war they're going to stop all leaves over all the services.  I'm going to be stuck up here because of this shit that's happening in Vietnam.  I won't get off of here'.  So I put in and there was a flight coming in from McGuire Air Force in New Jersey bringing some people in and taking some people out, and I called over there to see if I could get on that flight on August 7th.  And I got on it and I got back to the States.

RG: So you used your inside information to make sure you got out of there in time? (Laughs)

KC: Yeah, because I could see the shit happening on the teletype.  So I got back and I had about twenty days leave.  I actually stayed twenty-seven days because going up was no problem, but coming back - you had to come back in what they called “space available”, if they had seats.  And they couldn't get me on a flight.  All the flights were full going up to Greenland.  So I got seven days but I had to go all the way down to McGuire near Trenton, New Jersey, to check in for a flight to see if I made it.  And if I didn't make it then I could go back home for a couple more days.  The flights were on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  So I got an extra week in the States.

RG: So in that whole year when you were up there you didn't get to play at all, I guess?

KC: Well, a little bit.  They were bringing groups up there to keep troops happy with female singers and rhythm sections.  And a couple of times I got a chance to sit in and play.  There was a lady drummer that came up.  Her name was Kitty Kelly, she was from Florida.  She played pretty good.  And she had another singer, bass player singer named Terry Rae, and another stand-up singer named Maria Laremo, a Spanish girl.  She had a trumpet player named Sonny Rich and a very good trombone player named Bobby Pratt, and they were in the band.  I went to see them play in the service clubs.  We had three service clubs up there.  Airman's club, NCO club and Officer's club.  They made the rounds.  They would come up for a month and make a circuit of these clubs.  Just so that the guys got a chance to see what women looked like, besides what them nurses looked like.  So they liked me and they let me sit in and I got a chance to play a few tunes with them.

And then I met a guitar player who was stationed up there.  Now he wasn't in a band or nothing, he was doing something else.  And I met a bass player and we formed a little trio.  We used to do little stuff.  Not much, little occasional gigs here and there.  Nothing much.  One night here, one night there.  That was a little bit of experience.  They played pretty good.  Sitting in with this girl, Kitty Kelly's band.  And that was it until I came home.  Came home in January.  January 20th, 1965.

RG: How can you remember all those dates?  I can't remember yesterday...

KC: It was a big deal in Washington.  I think Lyndon Johnson had just gotten re-elected, and Kennedy had got killed.  So there was a lot of shit going on in Washington...inauguration shit.  So I came in...because I didn't care nothing about that, I went straight into New York, because now I was 18.  When I was home in the summer when I was 18 I had gotten my driver's license.  So now I was 18 I could drive a car, I could go to bars and drink legally.  You could drink at 18 at that time, now it's 21.  But at 18 you could drink then, kids could drink.  I went around.  I spent all my time going around to hear people play.  And of course, trying to chase as many women as I could because I hadn't seen any of them in a long time.  (Laughs) I spent my whole leave chasing women, playing drums and going to hear music. 

RG: How long was your leave?

KC: That leave was only fourteen days.  And then I was coming to Germany.  I put in for what they call a consecutive tour, a consecutive overseas tour, because I had been in an isolated place.  And if you were in an isolated place, or in Vietnam, you could put in, you got first preference for your choice after isolated tour.  So I put in for Japan and Germany.  And I got Germany.  But the only thing is, I couldn't get it.  They made me extend my time in the service six months because Germany was a three year tour.  They said, 'Well we ain't going to let you have this unless you extend for six more months.  We want to have you there for three years'.  They had all kinds of gimmicks, man, to get you.  So I did it.  I extended because I knew that the place I got in Ramstein was in Kaiserslautern not far from Frankfurt.  So it wasn't way out on the line between East Germany or West Germany.  I was close to where there was some stuff happening.  

So I put in and I came to Germany.  And about six or seven weeks after I got over here I was able to acquire a little Volkswagen Beetle.  My father sent me a little extra money.  As soon as I got the Beetle he air-freighted my drums over to me on Lufthansa.  They gave me a little room in the barracks where I could store them.  So I had some drums and I had a little Volkswagen.  I was in business!  I had saved a little money in Greenland.  There wasn't no place to spend no money in Greenland.  Nothing to do up there but go to work at my communications job, and come back to the barracks, and drink, and think about women.  Then when I got over in Germany I met some musicians.  

There was a band at my base.  17th Air Force Band.  And they had some good players in that band but they didn't have any good drummers.  I played better than all of the drummers that were in that band.  So I'd sit in with these guys, and they had a little band that they did when they weren't doing duty gigs - getting on planes, flying to different places in Europe to play.  And I played with that band when they were off-duty.  We did gigs in Heidelburg, Wiesbaden, and Frankfurt, and Mainz, and all around.  So I got a chance to see a little bit with these guys.  And then I auditioned to get in the band because there was a guy named Vernon Proctor, a warrant officer, who was the head of the band and he had heard about me.  He was tired of having these sad drummers in the band.  They couldn't swing.  They couldn't do shit.  They could play that military shit but they couldn't swing.  

(Elvin Jones)

So he auditioned me and said, 'Yeah, you can play, man.  I'm going to try to get you in here'.  He was a black warrant officer.  He said he used to have Elvin Jones in one of his early bands.  He was in the army before he crossed over to the Air Force.  He said Elvin could play but Elvin used to always come to the rehearsals with these real dark glasses on.  You couldn't see his eyes.  He said, 'I don't know why he liked to wear them glasses'. I guess we'll never know why! (laughs)

So anyway, he heard me.  He tried to get me in the band.  They said, 'You can't have him because he's been in the communications thing now for over eighteen months and he's got a top secret clearance.  We ran this background check on him.  He was cool enough that we could give him this top secret clearance so when he's doing his job in communications.  Plus, by that time I had started to learn how to work in the code room where they put everything in encryption.  So when they sent it through the wires nobody could tap the wires.  If they did tap it they couldn't read it because it was in code.  It had to be encoded on one end and decoded on the other end.  So I had learned all of that.  So, anyway, the people in the major air command in charge of my communications region, senior comm region, said, 'You can't have him.  We spent too much money on his background investigation.  We sent people all around to talk to his neighbours when he was a paper boy, to find out what kind of kid he was.  If he was a good kid and everything.  We did all this investigation on him and he's a clean kid.  To replace him is going to cost us a lot of money to get another kid'.  You know.  They really wanted me to be a communications specialist forever.  That's why they started me so young at this.  They expected they could keep me in there for 30 years doing that shit.  So they turned me down.  He said, 'I can't get you because your clearance is too high and they said they can't replace you'.  So I never got a chance to play in the band.  

(Albert Mangelsdorf)

But, I played with these guys, and I got a chance to play with a lot of people, man, I was doing some gigs.  By the time I left, I was playing some gigs with some fairly decent people.  I even played a couple of gigs with Albert Mangelsdorff over here.  You know, because I used to go down to The Jazzkeller and sit in and play.  And I played better than most of the German drummers that came in to play down there.  So, you know, it was a good experience.  But when my time was up, after the 36 months...35 months and 22 days, actually...I went back to the States.  

I went back to the States and I started playing, and I hooked up with a band with this bass player that I had met in Greenland.  She was living in Seattle but she moved back to New York and she started playing with this piano player named Sammy Benskin.  He hired me to play with her.  And we did these little private parties.  She sang and played upright bass.  I played drums and Sammy played piano.  It was a real society little trio, you know.  And we got paid pretty good and I did gigs with them for about four or five months.  Then I started playing and sitting in with some other people.  I got to go up to Minton's Playhouse and sit in with Barry Harris, and Peck Morrison, and Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer.  So I could go up to the old Minton's Playhouse and sit in and play with them about once every couple of weeks, when they were there.

RG: So had you left the army at this point?

KC: Oh yeah, I got out.

To finish this section, here's a video of Keith in typical swinging form, with his own trio, from 2006 - check out his amazing solo!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Recording in New York

New York is always great if you’re a visiting jazz musician. The sheer concentration of high level musicians there is unequalled anywhere else in the world. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been to NY – must be approaching twenty times at this stage – and I’ve been there in many capacities, as a tourist, as a teacher, and as a performer, but this was my first time there to make a recording. Earlier this year I decided that it was about time I recorded a new album - my last one (Renaissance Man with John Abercrombie), though only released last year, was in fact recorded in 2008. Such are the vagaries of the recording business these days that it took four years to get it out.... 

So it was definitely time to record again, and as I thought about it, I came to the realisation that I'd like to record it in New York, and do it with some musicians who were a) great, and b) with whom I had a history. Quite often musicians go to NY to make Allstar-type albums, and many times the results are unedifying since there's almost no rapport between the leader and his or her sidemen. In these situations there's often a 'guns for hire' feeling from the NY musicians - of course they play great, but they're there because they've been hired and since it's not a working band, they don't really have an investment in the result. I didn't want that, so I asked two musicians with whom I'd played in the past - Tom Rainey and Dave Binney - to record with me, and my son Chris, who's an up and coming guitarist in his own right and who (for obvious reasons), also knows my music and whom I knew would put the work into learning the sometimes difficult pieces.

So early in January Chris and I took off for NY - I decided to go a few days earlier in order to be able to see some music, and to ensure that jetlag would play no part in the recording process. If you travel that far and at quite an expense, the last thing you want is to be sleepy during the recording! We arrived on the coldest New York day for months, just missing a snowstorm and arriving from a relatively balmy 8 degrees in Dublin to a frigid -10 or so in New York. I'd seen the forecast so I had brought the right gear for the weather, but it's always a shock to step into that kind of icy wind, one of a kind we don't ever get in Ireland. More cold weather was forecast for the week that we were there, but I think the media really hype up the approach of bad weather - there was quite a bit of hysteria around the idea of the 'polar vortex' that was apparently going to strip the skin off our faces if we went out for more than five seconds. It reminded me of the great send up of this kind of media-induced panic from the Simpsons….

Our (perfect) host while we were in New York was the wonderful bassist and all-round great guy Arthur Kell who has a fantastic house in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, complete with much of the original 19th Century woodwork intact - in a city where space is at a premium, Arthur's house is spacious and full of character and we were very lucky to be able to be able to base ourselves there for the duration. Shortly after we arrived we were also lucky to be able to see a fine concert by Arthur's quartet at Matt Garrison's very nice venue Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. This was my first time visiting this venue, and I was very impressed - it has good sight lines and, from where I was sitting, the sound was very clear.

(Arthur Kell's Quartet, playing at Shapeshifter Lab)

Arthur's music is quite unique, complex at times yet always tuneful, and with some really nice hooks to the pieces. It's very hard to put your finger on what the music sounds like in terms of being able to compare it to one modern jazz genre or another, it really is very characterful music with a sound of its own. For this gig the guitarist Nate Radley subbed for the altoist Loren Stillman and did an incredible job on virtually sight reading the music - more evidence of the kind of high craft skills you find in New York. I'd heard some of this music before, but it was very interesting to hear it with two guitars, (the other musicians, apart from Arthur on bass, were Brad Shepik on guitar and Mark Ferber on drums), it gave it a very different and attractive sound. At the end of the gig I ran into Matt Garrison which was really a pleasure - I hadn't seen him since 1993 when he was a student at the IASJ meeting in Siena in Italy, so it was nice to see him again. Of course apart from running this great venue he is also an incredible bassist……

Sunday also gave me a chance to meet with and catch up with the guitarist and arranger Dave O Rourke, an Irish jazz export to NY, and someone I've known since we both met queuing up to see Louis Stewart play in the late 70s in Dublin. Dave runs the fantastic Jazz Standard Jazz Discovery Program at the club of the same name, a development program me for youngsters in New York which both gives them an educational element and an opportunity to play in one of NY's finest clubs. As always it was great to meet up with Dave and talk about the past, present and future of what's been going on with us since we last met. Dave's made a serious career for himself in NY, as an arranger and composer, and is without doubt one of the most generous people I've ever met in the business. Dublin's loss was NY's gain….

(Left to right - Lindsey Horner, RG, David Gage, Chris)

The following day was a busy one - beginning with a trip to Brooklyn to have a session with Matt Jacobson - an Irish drummer livening in NY for a year on a Fullbright Scholarship - and some other young musicians. We just got together and played through some tunes and some open improvising. It was an effective way to loosen up and reconnect to the instrument again in preparation for the recording, and all the young guys sounded really good.

Then we were off into midtown Manhattan to meet one of my oldest musical friends Lindsey Horner, and visit the very legendary bass shop owned by David Gage. If there is an acoustic bass Mecca anywhere, then this is it - the signed photographs on the wall alone are testimony to the fact that this is the the place to come and buy a bass, or have a bass repaired, or just to chew the fat and see what's happening in the bass world. The shop has a great vibe - a sense of professional pride in their work is in the air, and you get a feeling of old-school craftsmanship from meeting the people who work there, and from watching them at work. I'd never met David before, but Lindsey introduced us and he very kindly gave us a tour of the building, which is being refurbished upstairs and is deceptively big. Floor after floor of basses….. it doesn't get much better than this if you're a bassist, and we even were invited onto the roof, which had a spectacular view, and from which the photo at the top of this piece was taken.

Then it was back to Brooklyn to meet my brother Dara, who's been living and working as a Drum and Bass DJ in New York for almost twenty years. We met him and his partner Meredith, and again had fun catching up, at a great Turkish restaurant  where I ate not wisely, but too well…. it's always a dangerous thing to eat so much food when slightly jet-lagged, especially when you know that you've still someplace to go - and we really had somewhere special to go - the Village Vanguard to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

The VJO is truly the Rolls Royce of jazz orchestras. Their combination of a tradition stretching back to 1964, the opportunity to play every Monday night over such a long period, having the best writers composing for them (Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely), and having a band bristling with great soloists and players has made them into the extraordinary unit they are today. I usually try and see them whenever I'm in NY, and on this occasion they were at the top of their form. The set contained an extraordinary long form piece by Bob Brookmeyer, followed by two signature McNeely pieces, and all this bookended by two great swinging Thad pieces. Hearing this music, played so brilliantly by this band, in the most famous jazz club in the world, is what makes New York special for anyone who loves jazz and its traditions.


The following day we began the serious work - the reason we came here in the first place, to record the music. But before going into the studio, I'd booked some rehearsal time at Michiko Studios, a favorite professional rehearsal space for New York jazz musicians. That become clear in that while only there for a few hours, I ran into Mark Helias and Nasheet Waits (great guys both - Mark told me he'd got an Irish passport since I'd seen him last!), and saw Lennie White crossing the lobby.

We had four hours to get through seven pieces of varying degrees of complexity - both Chris and I knew the music, and Tom and Dave are both incredibly quick and skillful, so it doesn't take them long to learn new music. In the time that had elapsed since I released 'Renaissance Man', I had written quite a bit of new music, and as someone who composes a lot, I had many compositions which had never been recorded before, so I wasn't short of material. I'd selected pieces that I thought would work for the instrumentation and and the players, and had written two new pieces that I felt would fit well in the overall shape of the recording. It was clear as we went through the pieces that most would go down with little trouble, and a couple of pieces would require a fair bit of work. At the end of the session I was happy that we'd knocked some of the rough corners off the pieces, familiarized ourselves with the shape of them, and made great strides towards ensuring a fruitful two days in the studio.

That evening we went to see Dave's quartet at the 55 Bar - the club he's made into a regular spot for his bands and music. I envy him the luxury of having a place like this to play on a regular basis - this is still the only way you can properly develop music. Dave's quartet, which on this occasion featured John Escreet (piano), Eivind Opsvik (bass, and subbing at the last minute for an indisposed Dan Weiss, Nate Wood on drums. Dave has definitely done that most difficult of things - developed a group sound, and it was a pleasure to hear a working band tear through original material like that. The fact that Nate Wood could play the music so well despite subbing at the last minute, was yet again a testimony to the wealth of talent in New York.

In the Studio

So, at last we got to the studio, the legendary Systems Two in Brooklyn. Incredibly well run by Nancy, Joe and Mike Marciano, this studio is one of the best jazz studios in the world. I say 'jazz studio' because it is set up and run with a complete understanding of the requirements for jazz musicians, and the people who have recorded there read like a who's who of contemporary American jazz. When you record there you can see why it has the reputation it has. I first went there in the mid 90s, recording with Steve Coleman, and was knocked out by how quickly they got a great sound and how easy the whole environment was to work in. Recording is not easy - it's such a different environment to live playing, and sometimes it's hard to get a natural atmosphere going and overcome the potential sterility of the studio.

The difficulty of getting a natural atmosphere can be compounded by poor studio equipment and slowness of the studio engineer and technicians. There's nothing more counterproductive to creative playing than hanging around for ages waiting to get a decent sound or for the engineer to set up the mics. In Systems Two this never happens, and when we arrived everything was set up - music stands, headphones, personal headphone mixer (a HUGE timesaver!), mics, guitar stands - and though there were isolation booths around the saxophone and drums, there were great sight lines everywhere and everyone could see each other, and get a good sound on the headphones.

In the first day we recorded four of the seven pieces, two of which went down very easily and two of which required more work. Again we were helped in our work by the great sound in the studio, and the speed that our engineer Max was able to organise things in the control booth and get a great natural sound for playback purposes. In recording, there are a lot of balancing acts going on - how many takes do you make? Will you get a better take if you do another, or will it get stale? How finicky do you have to be about getting things technically perfect, versus allowing things to sound natural despite the odd glitch here and there? What needs to be fixed in the studio, or what can be fixed afterwards in the editing? All of these things need to be balanced, and there's nothing that helps you more in making your decisions than experience. Even then you can sometimes get it wrong.

(The setup for our session at Systems Two)

But I was very happy with the first day's work, and with such great musicians I always knew that we'd get a good result.

Next day it was back to the studio, and we finished the recording, the very last note being logged at exactly 4pm - the designated finishing time for the session. The big piece on this day was 'Hands', the first movement of my guitar concerto, built on a riff that I love, and here adapted for the quartet. There are quite a lot of tricky passages to be negotiated on this piece, but eventually negotiate them we did - which was a relief, because prior to the session I wasn't sure if it would work in this format or not, but I was very pleased with the final result.

And I was very pleased with the final result of this trip to New York - thanks Dave, Chris and Tom!

I've written before concerning the amount of musicians in New York, and it being a double-edged sword, but it's always great to visit and it's certainly great to have the chance to record there with such great musicians. So much incredible music has been recorded there over the years and it was nice to be even a tiny part of that history.

If you'd like to see some more photos from the session, click HERE

And in case you're interested in getting a taste of what we recorded, HERE are a few short clips of some of the pieces we did - the CD should be out later this year - watch this space!