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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Conversations with Mr KC - Keith Copeland Interviewed - Part 2

This is Part 2 of my extended conversation with the great Keith Copeland. In this section he talks about playing with Bill Evans, George Russell, and Hank Jones (among others), recording the classic 'Return of the Griffin' with Johnny Griffin, and teaching for, and studying with the legendary Alan Dawson. For Part 1 of the interview go here

RG: So, you left the army and you started to do gigs. Did you start to study with people then? I seem to remember we were watching a video of Carmen McRae at one point together, and Walter Perkins was playing drums, and you suddenly said “That's Baby Sweets”

KC: That's right! Yeah, Baby Sweets.  I started studying a little bit with Baby Sweets when I came back from the Air Force, in New York, during that time, because I knew I wanted to try and go to Berklee.  So I wanted to get some more jazz, study some more technique.  And he was really into the march technique like Wilcoxon and stuff...All American Drummer...and all of that.  Haskell W Harr was the first book he gave me, which was also a lot of military type marches and stuff.  So we started working on that, and I did that every couple of weeks with him until I went to Berklee in September of '68.

RG: So, Walter Perkins had a very good technique - he was a serious rudiments guy?

KC: Yeah, for sure.  So I studied with him about six or seven months and then I went up to Berklee.  And my first teacher up there was a drummer...actually, he was a percussion player, he could play everything.  I went up there and got into school as a percussion major because my father said 'Don't just go up there and study drums, learn how to play mallets and all that shit because that way you'll always be working in case there's no jazz drum gigs.  You can go play in Broadway or play in a theatre or whatever'.  So I was studying mallets, xylophone and drums...and he was really into classical drum shit so I studied a lot of hard shit with him.  And the mallet shit...I really didn't like it.  It was hard.  But, I did it, for about four or five months with him...I mean, about four or five semesters with him. And I was playing drums in all of the ensembles.  So I was getting the chance to play drums.  The stuff that Fred (Buda) was giving me, technically, I could read pretty good on the drums.  And I did that, and after about five semesters of that, I got out of Berklee, in 1970, because I had become a father.  I had met my first wife.  And I was working all the time, trying to put food on the table, help her go to school.  She was close to getting her degree.  I had married in Berklee, but she had almost three years of studies as a psychology major at the school she was in, at Northern Michigan.  So when I was working I was trying to help her to go back to school to get her degree and that.  So I did, and she was helping raise my son, Wesley, who's a very good recording engineer, by the way, now.

So anyway, she continued going to school.  And finally, I think it was in 1972, she graduated with a degree in psychology, school psychology, a Bachelors.  I was gigging and going to school.  Then I started just gigging full time, in 1970, and doing a lot of gigs.  All kinds of different gigs.  But, mostly Top 40 bands.  I did that with a lot of different bands and a lot of times jazz groups would come through Boston and they needed a drummer.  And most of the time they'd call Alan Dawson.  If he couldn't make it he'd recommend me.

RG: How did you know him at that point?

KC: I didn't really know him.  I knew who he was.

RG: But he obviously knew who you were.

KC: Yeah, but he was teaching at the school, at Berklee also.  But I wasn't studying with him.  But he had heard about how good I could play.  So, he recommended me for some nice gigs.  I got a chance to play with Bill Evans a couple of nights at the Jazz Workshop.  Because he {Dawson}was doing it, but he couldn't do two of the nights because he had to go out with Brubeck.  So I got a chance to play two nights with Bill Evans which was quite an experience.  Because Bill said 'We ain't going to rehearse'.  He said, 'Just come down, and listen to it a little bit.  We'll just hit it'.  Eddie Gomez was on bass.  And I also was working, at the time, at the Jazz Workshop in a group with Ann Loring, a very fine singer from Boston.  Well she had a nice little quartet with a bass player and piano player.  And her drummer had left and she hired me.  So I got a chance to play with her.  We were opening act for whoever.  There were two clubs - the Jazz Workshop and Paul's Mall.  And Paul's Mall was the more popular venue, next door to the Jazz Workshop.  So we'd play and then the other group would come on.  And they were the feature act and we were the opening act.  And when they were on I could go next door to the Jazz Workshop and hear everybody.  So I got a chance to hear Bill every night when I was with her.  So I could get an idea what was happening.  Marty Morell was playing drums. 

RG: That was a great trio.

KC: Yeah, and Marty had to take off because Marty was getting married, in Toronto, so he couldn't make it the last two nights.  I think it was a Saturday night, a Sunday matinee and a Sunday night.  So I went in and did it and I had a great time, man, playing with Bill!  No rehearsal.

RG: Can I ask you something about the music, because the thing about that trio…..I really love that trio...but one thing that I've noticed on those live albums, and I'm interested to see if you experienced this, is that they really rush.  I mean, they really rush.  Did you have that experience too?

KC: Yeah, it sounded like that, yeah.

RG: And do you think that it was coming from Bill?  He kind of pushed it a bit?

KC: I think Bill pushed it, probably, yeah.  because Eddie was pretty solid.  Yeah...but that's cool.  I was just trying to hold it together and I didn't want to get faster with them.  I tried to hold it back a little bit.  But it was cool.  It was alright, I had a good time.  I think Bill was happy with me.

RG: How old were you then?

KC: Oh, I was about 26 or 27.  So anyway, I kept playing around Boston until 1975 when I was about 28, 29.  By then I had played with a lot of people, all kinds of groups.  Top 40 groups, groups where I had to sing vocal parts to Top 40 tunes, and play drums, and jazz groups.  All kinds of shit.
I even had a gig with Jaki Byard for two weeks.  He was wild!  Jaki was playing...he played piano, and Richard Reid was playing bass.  Jaki would play, and then he'd get up from the piano, take up the saxophone, and start walking around the club playing his alto saxophone.  Then he'd put the saxophone down, come back, play some more piano.  He was a crazy guy.  But he could play his ass off. 

So, anyway, in 1975 I got this call from Gary Chaffee, who was chairman of the drum department at Berklee.  And he said, 'We want you to take the job at Berklee because Alan Dawson is leaving.  He's gonna leave Berklee after eighteen years and just teach privately'.  And I said, 'Man, nobody can take the place of Alan Dawson.  Are you kidding?'.  I said, 'I haven't been teaching nobody for about four or five years'.  And I said, 'I'm playing a lot, but I can't teach the way Alan used to teach.  Nobody can play and teach like Alan'.  He said, 'Well, we still would like to have you come and do it.'  So I said, 'Ok, I'll think about it'.  So I called Alan up.  I said, 'Alan, listen, you won't believe this, but Gary Chaffee called me up and asked me would I be interested in taking your chair at Berklee,  and I said, 'Man, are you crazy?  I can't do that'.  Alan said, 'Well, Keith, if you don't do it I'll be very unhappy, because I recommended you for the job'.  I said, 'Oh, shit!'.  I said, 'But I forgot all of that shit.  because I learned from hanging out with you.  I didn't really take a lot of lessons from you, but from watching you'.  You know.  He said, 'That's ok.  You know where I live.  You come over here, I'll refresh your memory'.  So I started studying with him regularly, after I took the job, every two weeks.

RG: That's amazing! So, basically, you start studying with him at the same time as you replace him in Berklee?

KC: Yeah, right.

 (Alan Dawson)

RG: That's an amazing chronology. I don't think I've ever heard anything like that.

KC: So I did that for three years.  Studied with him every two weeks...and teaching.  And it started out pretty good.  It was fifteen hours a week.  But, at Berklee, fifteen hours a week meant you had thirty students because you had to teach half hour lessons, and that was hard.  And when Alan left, he was teaching seventy students a week.  He was teaching thirty-five hours a week.  That's why he got tired of it.  He wanted to teach at his house.  He bought a house out in Lexington and he had a basement.  He could teach there, one hour lessons.  So I first it was fifteen.  But then I got pretty good at teaching and it started growing.  Then it went up to twenty hours a week.  And then, finally, after about two years it was up to twenty-five hours a week.  That's fifty students a week!  That was rough. 

RG: It's like a conveyor belt really, isn't it?

KC: Yeah, right.  And I started working with a lady named Maggie Scott, who's still teaching there, teaching voice but a very fine piano player.  And I started working with her, at a place called The Colonnade Hotel, with just a trio - piano, bass and drums.  And we were working six nights a week.  From 8.30 until 1.30 in the morning.  And I was teaching four days a week in Berklee.  So I was on the instrument every day.  Seven, eight, nine hours a day.  So I was really busy but it was making my chops and everything much better.  So I did that, I think fifteen months, with Maggie at The Colonnade, and then we got a gig at a place called The Scotch 'n Sirloin, and the group grew to a quartet.  We had a bass player who sometimes doubled vibes, and we had another bass player doubled trombone.  So we could switch up.  One would play bass and the other would play on the double, with Maggie.  And we stayed at The Colonnade eighteen months.  That was a little easier.  It was only five nights a week.  Tuesday through Saturday.  But it was still twenty-five hours a week at Berklee. 

So I did that, and then finally after eighteen months of that, I got tired.  I said, 'Man, I got all of these chops and I can play, but I'm not doing anything.  I'm not growing as a player'.  So I said, 'I gotta try New York again'.  So I tried New York again.  When I first got down there the first guy that gave me a gig was Sam Jones.

RG: That's not a bad first gig in New York!

(Sam Jones)

KC: Yeah, he gave me a gig with his little quintet.  It was Tom Harrell, Bob Berg, Fred Hersch and me and Sam.  Nice quintet.  We started playing some gigs...played some nice gigs.  Then he put together a big band with Tom Harrell.  Tom did all the writing.  It was like a five brass, four reed band.  I think it was Fred Jacobs and Tom Harrell...I can't remember the third trumpet players name...different players.  He had, I think, Harrell, Pete Yellin, Bob Mintzer, and Pat Patrick or Ronnie Cuber would player bari, and Sam and myself, and Fred Hersch or Ronnie Matthews would play piano.  And we had a steady...I think it was a Monday or a Tuesday night out in Gullivers in New Jersey.  I would do that and I would still, occasionally, do some gigs up in Boston because I wasn't working a lot.  Just a little bit with Sam.  And I'd still go up there and do a couple of gigs and then come back to do that steady Tuesday night with Sam's big band...and some quintet gigs.  But, all the guys in the band were raving about me, saying I was playing really good.  And I started getting more calls.  And then finally, after about six months, I got a call from Jimmy and Percy Heath to take the spot that Tootie Heath had vacated with the band.  Because he wasn't getting along with his brother, Percy.  So I got that gig.

RG: So you were with the Heath brothers for a couple of years, right?

KC: I was with the Heath brothers about eighteen months.  We did one very good record, called “In Motion”,  for Columbia.  And we travelled all over the country.  We didn't go overseas together, but all over the country.  Two cross-country tours with them, and a lot of gigs around the New York area.  Played The Vanguard with them, did a lot of nice gigs.  Then after I left the Heath brothers I got the call from Billy Taylor...while I was with the Heath brothers.  Actually, the Heath brothers was a nice gig but it wasn't consistent money.  It was spotty.  You'd have one or two weeks and then you'd have a week or two off.  But Billy was working all the time and he was paying good money.  He was paying $350 a gig and we were getting one or two gigs a week so I decided to go with him, and some of the gigs were with symphony orchestras so I got a lot of good experience with him.

RG: And who was playing bass in this trio?

KC: Victor Gaskin was playing bass.  We travelled all over.  We went to Europe.  The first overseas gig we went to Budapest, for the State Department, played some gigs there.  Came back...and right after that I started working with George Russell while I was working with Billy Taylor.  That was some of the hardest music I ever played in my life, George's shit.  Oh man, George was nuts, man!  He wrote some shit that was so hard.  Actually, I had gone with him in 1980, while I was still with Billy.  I had just joined Billy and, I think it was on the gig that we went to Budapest...I had some gigs with George, in Italy, with the RAI radio orchestra in Rome.  So I had to figure out a way to get to Budapest...I went to Budapest with Billy, stayed there a weekend, and I had to travel out of Budapest by myself...change planes in Zurich and get to Rome to meet George.  And I went down there and I did that for about ten days...some real hard shit.

(George Russell)

RG: I remember you telling me a story at one point that he wrote music that he actually couldn't play himself.  When he would play at the keyboard it would get in the way of the  music.

KC: Yeah, but that was in a later group.  But he had a small group for a while, when he wasn't doing the big band.  It was Graham Haynes, Roy's son, playing trumpet, John Stubblefield, myself...he had another piano player in the band, a young guy, Brad Hatfield, played real good...  Bill Urmson played electric bass.  So, yeah, George wrote some shit for that little band.  We went, also, a cross-country tour a couple of times with that small group.  But, most of the time it was big band, and most of it was in Europe.  He had a bunch of horn players that he used from England.  So we'd go to Europe and he'd pick them up and take them around different places in Europe.  Let me see...Courtney Pine was in that first band that we played in England, for the Arts Council in England we did a tour...a lot of good people.  So I was doing gigs between Billy Taylor and George Russell a long time.  That must have been up until about 1984/85.  And then I kind of just left on my own after that, and that's when I started working with Hank Jones.

RG: OK, so tell me about that.

KC: Hank Jones, man!  You'd work with Hank Jones...he'd bring in only got a chance to look at it one time.  Put it up in front of'd run in down...and he just thought you had a photographic memory.  You'd run that shit down and you'd have to play it that night on the gig.  And that's how you learned the music - from that one rehearsal and playing it on the gig.  And he could play anything, man.  He could read anything and he could play anything.  And he could swing!

RG: And who was usually the bass player in the group?  Were there different bass players?

KC: A lot of different bass players.  Rufus played sometimes.  Victor played a couple of times, Victor Gaskin.  There was a lot of different bass players.  I can't recall them all now...a lot of well known bass players.  Eddie Gomez did it a couple of times.

RG: You were with Hank then for a long time...

KC: Six years.  Up until about '91/92.  The last time playing with him was in Paris, at a club La Villa.  That was after I had come over here.  I think it must have been in...I came over here in ' it must have been in '92...late '92, like November or December '92 or early '93 we played at La Villa.  And that's the last time I played with him.  Pierre Michelot played bass – that was a great hit, the first time I had ever played with Pierre Michelot.

RG: And then you moved to Europe in '92/93 to teach in the university...

KC: In Cologne, the University of Cologne.  I started there in October and I taught there a year.  First, I lived in Cologne for about two months.  Then I moved back to Frankfurt because I was always flying back and forth to the States, because my Grandmother was getting up in age and it was always cheaper to fly from Frankfurt than it was from Cologne.  And I always had to get up at three in the morning to catch the train from Cologne to get to the airport to catch the first Singapore flight to New York that would get me there around eleven in the morning.  And I’d have a whole day to deal with her.  And I used to go back to the States to take her to the Doctor and get her checked out, and go grocery shopping.  I was going about once a month to the States.  After that, I moved to Frankfurt, and the lady I was staying with, Irmela Stumm had a house here near where I'm living now in Frankfurt, and she was very good friends with Ute.  By that time me and my second wife had broken up and I wasn't trying to really get involved with any women that much then, I was just doing my commute up to Cologne and doing my gigs.  She said, 'You staying in the house too much, man.  You gotta get out.  You gotta meet some people'.  So she took me out on a blind date with Ute.  That's how I met Ute.

RG: There you go, and here you still are!

KC: This is nineteen years later.  I have my twenty year wedding anniversary in June.  So I guess she knew what she was talking about!  So we hooked up and then I moved in with Ute about six months after we moved in, and I've been here ever since.  Yeah, it's been great, man.  She's been very supportive of everything that I've done and encouraged me. 

She saved my life, man, in 2005 when I had a serious stroke.  I started making funny noises in my sleep because of this blockage in my brain.  And she called the emergency people right away and they came, and they checked me out,  and they said, 'He's having a stroke.  We gotta get him to the hospital, right away'.  They were here in seven minutes.  They got me to one hospital, and they checked me out, and they said, 'Yeah, he's having a stroke.  He needs to have some ventilation.  He's gotta have some oxygen'.  They transferred me to the Uni Klinik in Mainz, where they had a bed available in the intensive care unit there.  And I was there about three and a half weeks.  They put me in an artificial coma, drilled holes in my head, relieved the pressure on my brain.  Then they woke me up out of the artificial coma, and then they sent me up to Bad Salzhausen to a rehab, and I'll never forget that trip.  I was in a van, and I was riding in this van up to Bad Salzhausen and I kept dreaming that I was in a plane flying from Japan back to New York.  The van was making a lot of noise, man, and I said, 'Where am I man?! Must be on a plane somewhere'.  Then we finally got to Bad Salzhausen and I realised that I had been in a van.  Then they put me in there and I stayed there five months.  They had just woken me up so I was a little dazed coming out of the coma. 

At Bad Salzhausen the doctors...because they had told Ute, in the Uni Klinik that, 'You pretty much can forget about him playing any more drums anymore because of this shit.  The shit he had in his head ain't gonna let him.  He ain't gonna never recover from that shit'...but they worked with me at Bad Salzhausen. When the doctors found out I was a drummer they told her, 'Bring some drums out here'.  So she brought a small set out there for me, and they gave me a little room where I could put them and set them up.  'That's the best thing he can do.  Just let him work on them, and go two or three times a week to play these drums because he's got to use everything to do that.  And he loves that so that'll help him get back together'.  So that's what I did for about ten weeks out there.

RG: I remember seeing a great photograph, at that time, of you playing the drums there.

 (Keith playing the drums at his Rehab clinic in Bad Salzhausen)

KC: Yeah, and at the end of my stay there I invited an organ player and a saxophone player out to Bad Salzhausen, we did about an hour and a half concert for my doctors.  I wanted to show them that I'm pretty much fully recovered.  So then about a month after that I started doing some gigs, and I'm still playing, but just not as much as I used to.  Because I don't want to push myself so hard, don't put no stress on myself.

RG: You did enough of that over the years!  I always remember when we played together that you always had these extraordinary itineraries that you would tell us about – 'I've got to go to Munich and then the next day I've got to take a train to Stockholm to take the boat to Malta to...'.  You used to do these legendary itineraries!

KC: Oh, man, unbelievable! I remember flying from Vancouver to Toronto to Frankfurt.  Right after playing in Frankfurt, I saw Randy Brecker in the airport.  He yelled at me and said, 'Hey, Keith! I just played with you yesterday'.  I said, 'You did?'.  He said, 'Yeah, I was in the recording studio doing some trumpet solos on a record that you had done up in Brussels'. We had recorded a record there with Tony's brother, who played violin.  And I think Toots Thielemans was supposed to come in and play on this date but he couldn't make it so they got Randy to come in and play.

RG: So he'd just been playing with you...

Yeah, so he said, 'I've just been playing with you.  Where are you heading?'.  I said, 'I've got to go catch a plane to Budapest to meet some people there to play a gig, with Ann Malcolm and Reggie Johnson.  I haven't seen Randy I think since then.  But I remember that, and I remember flying back from New York, getting right off the plane, getting in a rental car and driving straight to Paris to play a gig with Jimmy Woode the same night.  That kind of shit.  I used to do that.

RG: You made Marco Polo look like a stay-at-home kind of guy!

KC: Man, I was rolling, man!  I was doing a lot of wild shit.  Can't do that no more.

RG: Let me ask you about various things and people you've played with.  A couple of people I'd like to ask you a little bit about - you were on a very famous record, it was famous among my generation, which was ‘Return of the Griffin’.  Maybe can you tell us something about that?  How it came about?  I think Griffin was doing what Dexter had done a few years before.

KC: Yeah, right.  Well, Johnny was back and his first rhythm section was Walter Davis, and James Leary was playing bass, and who was playing drums?...West Coast drummer, I can't remember his name...but that was his first rhythm section.  And they went out for about three weeks and Johnny  wasn't really totally happy with what he was getting from them.  So halfway through the tour he wanted to get another rhythm section, so he got Ronnie Matthews and Ray Drummond and somebody told him to call me.  So we were the second rhythm section for Johnny, and we went up and we played one gig, at Amherst, at the University of Massachusetts.  It went really well.  Hardly no time to rehearse, just one short rehearsal and then we hit.  The next gigs were three nights at Jazz Showcase in Chicago, same rhythm section.  Played three nights out there.  I think NPR recorded some of that, there's some live tapes of that.  I don't know if I can find them, but I know they're here somewhere.  And then after the three nights in Chicago, we went back to New York, then we flew out to L.A. and played three nights at Concerts By The Sea, in California, in Redondo Beach with the same rhythm section.  That was great!  Three nights! 

Then after that, we flew up to San Francisco, went to Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and did Return Of The Griffin.  We just had one day off after we got up here, rested, and we hit it.  And we did the whole record in about five and a half hours.  But we had been playing a little bit, played almost three weekends together, and it was great, man!  Johnny would challenge you, man!  He could play fast, man, he liked to play fast! I remember one time - we were in Chicago - he had been playing some tremendous tempos, man, and I was trying to keep up with him and keep it going.  Then he called a ballad, and I was so tired after playing all these fast things I was almost falling asleep.  And Johnny was playing, and Johnny turned around and looked at me and did this, {makes the classic head-on-hands sleeping gesture} and smiled!  Put his head on his hands and smiled like this, he said, 'I know you so tired.  That's ok'.  Didn't say nothing, but I never got tired no more after that.

Here's Keith burning through 'Autumn Leaves' with Johnny Griffin from 'Return of the Griffin'