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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Conversations with Mr KC - Keith Copeland Interviewed - Part 3

The third part of my extended interview with the legendary Keith Copeland. In this section he talks about playing with different great bassists, with Stan Getz and his turbulent time with Stevie Wonder. Great stories and insights from one of jazz's great drummers.

You can see Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE

RG: You played with, of course, some incredible bass players in your career.  Maybe I'll just throw some names at you and then you can just say what the experience was like playing with them.  How it might be different, or what was special, or whatever.  So, Sam Jones?

KC: Sam Jones was probably the most energetic bass player I have ever played with.  His time was right in the middle, centered.  Sometimes it felt like it was on top, but it was right there.  And powerful energy, and great notes, and wonderful to play with.  Never had a moment to think about trying to hook up with him.  He was so strong you just put your hand on the cymbal and it went automatically where it was supposed to be with the time.  He was a great player.  Very special player to play with.  Very special feeling.  I had been listening to him for years, from his first records with Cannonball.  They did a record called Nancy and Cannonball that I loved very much, that he played on.

RG: You played in a trio with him, with Kenny Barron, right?

KC: Yeah, I made a trio record with him.  That was a very fast record.  I remember that date.  That was just before the Heath Brothers date.  We did this record at a studio, on 12th or 13th Street in the Village, not far from from where the New School is.  And it was real cold, like the weather you experienced when you went to New York, and Sam was trying to get to the date from Teaneck and he couldn't get in his car it was so cold.  He couldn't get the locks to open up.  So Sam was late getting to his own date.  So when Sam got there, instead of having six hours, we only had about four hours.  So there was only time for maybe two takes on each tune, and we did the whole record real fast.  And then, of course, me being the globetrotter I had to pack my shit up real fast, go outside, hail a cab, run out to La Guardia, jump on a plane, fly to Washington to meet the Heath Brothers to play in Blues Alley that same night.  I made it, but it was a scuffle.  The record came out pretty good.

RG: Yeah, it did.  I must try and get it on a more reliable format.  I have it on a cassette somewhere, I think.  Well, now that you've mentioned the Heath Brothers...Percy Heath?

KC: Percy Heath was a great bass player, man.  Perfect notes, very good time but a little bit more on the laid back side.  Percy and I couldn't get along so good.  Percy wanted to turn the Heath Brothers into another Modern Jazz Quartet.  You know, he had us wearing these...made us go out and buy suits and shit, and wear these uniforms.  He wanted everything very structured and what I was trying to play with Stanley Cowell and Tony Purrone and Jimmy, who wanted some energy sometime, I would push and go with them and try to get Percy to go with me.  And Percy wouldn't go with me.  Percy would just stay right where he wanted to be.  He'd just look at me and sort of growl at me.  But I wouldn't pay no attention to him because I said, 'Man, shit!  I am with these guys.  I want to support them'.  And I had been used to playing with Sam, so I would just ignore him and we had fallings out about that.  'You too busy, man, you got to relax'.  And he was always trying to give me some of his best marijuana to slow me down.  He always had some good grass.  Whenever we were on the road, Stanley and Tony would always ride with Jimmy and they'd put me with Percy, because they knew Percy would be smoking and that would keep me cool.  Slow me down for the long car rides across Oklahoma and Kansas and shit.

RG: That's a great story! Ray Drummond?

KC: Ray Drummond is another excellent bass player.  Same tradition as Sam Jones.  Same feeling.  Same good notes.  Great time.  Just a real great, warm feeling playing with him.  No problems with him at all.  Always had a great time with him, yeah.

RG: In a general way, since you've played with so many bass players, if I can ask you a question...  I talked to Eric Ineke – the great Dutch drummer – a guy who's played with so many people also.  I like to ask drummers this question because I think it's an interesting thing with the bass and drum dynamic.  There's a very special thing there.  Maybe I can ask you two questions.  What do you really like in a bass player?  And, what do you really not like?

KC: Well, what I like is when they play real nice melodic lines that I can follow, easily.  And I have an idea where they're going all the time when they're playing.  And I like it when their time is very focused and right in the middle of the beat.  And what I don't like is when a bass player is playing a tonne of shit real fast on the bass.  Flying all over the place but not giving me anything to hold on to so I can find where that sense of the time should be.  I don't like that.

RG: Too active...

KC: Yeah, right.  Too active.  That I don't like.

RG: Another thing I wanted to ask you about...a couple of people that we haven't mentioned.  One, of course, looms very large in your biography just because he's so famous, is Stevie Wonder.  How did that come about, playing with him?

(Stevie Wonder)

KC: Well, with Stevie...I was actually working with a group called The Nine Lords in Detroit.  I think at a place called Ben's High Chaparral.  Stevie had just put this new Wonderlove band together.  They were rehearsing in New York.  This was around the time he was doing Music Of My Mind.  He was recording all the stuff in the studio.  He was playing all the drum tracks on it.  He's a very good drummer.  Not technically, but feeling wise.  What he wanted to hear, he could play it.  So anyway, Gene Key was living in Detroit.  That used to be his Musical Director before Stevie decided to form this Wonderlove band where there would be no Musical Director.  Stevie would be the Musical Director.  Gene knew he was looking for a drummer.  So he had a drummer and they did one gig somewhere – I think it was in, if I'm not mistaken, I think it was in Fort Wayne, Indiana – and the drummer missed the plane to get to the gig.  So they had to call to Detroit to get somebody from Detroit to fly down to make the gig who didn't know the music.  I think they got one of The Four Tops drummers or somebody to come in.  So then Stevie said, 'I gotta get another drummer that I can depend on and can make planes.'  So Gene knew I was in town with this group and he came over and heard me play.  He said, 'Listen, I'm gonna fly you to New York with me tomorrow and we're gonna go meet Stevie and you're gonna play with Stevie tomorrow at a rehearsal.'  I said, 'OK'.  

So we got up early in the morning.  Flew to New York.  I met Stevie, we played, jammed for about two hours.  Then they took me to the airport, got me back.  I got back to Detroit in time to make the gig that night.  Didn't hear anything.  So I was working with The Nine Lords and Kim Weston, who was married to Mickey Stevenson, a big producer for Motown.  We went from Detroit back to Boston.  Played for a week in Boston at The Sugar Shack.  Then we went to Washington to play at a place called Pitts Motor Inn.  While I was in Pitts – we were there for ten days – I got a call.  Evidently, Stevie had tried a couple of other drummers after me and didn't like them and then I got a call.  The call said, 'When you finish Sunday night in DC come to New York and meet the band.  You're going to rehearse for two days.  Then you're going to go to Chicago and play at the Oriental Theatre with Stevie.'  I said, 'OK'.  So I went up there that day.  Broke my butt and got up to New York.  Rehearsed for two days with the band.  Stevie didn't come to the rehearsal!  He was out in California, messing around.  I don't know what he was doing but he was out there doing something.  

(Gladys Knight)

So we all met in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre.  Of course, we didn't have enough time to really do a decent rehearsal.  So Gene Key was there – he was still trying to hang on to be Musical Director.  He gave me this big book of music that he had written up for me to play the show.  And then the guys in the horn section – Dave Sanborn was in the band, Trevor Laurence, Steve Madaio - they had their ideas of what they wanted.  Then Stevie had his ideas of what he wanted.  So I had three different things coming at me about what everybody wanted.  We had a show and we were playing opposite Gladys Knight.  Her band was opening up for us.  They had horns.  She had a rhythm section.  And another group called The Constellations which was, I think, Dionne Warwick's backup singers.  They were good.  Anyway, Gladys kicked our ass, man!  She was so tight!  And Gladys' drummer, Al Thompson, used to be Stevie's drummer.  And he was great, man!  He had a great backbeat, great time and he knew her shit.  He was functioning as the Musical Director for the horn section and for Gladys and they killed!  So I was feeling kind of bad, man.  Because I felt like I couldn't play because I had so much on my mind – to concentrate with trying to satisfy all of these three different opinions.  

So the next day we finally had a really good rehearsal and we got it together.  And then we started playing, we started kicking butt.  And we finished out the week long stay and we did well.  So I stayed with Stevie for about seven months.  But the only thing I didn't like about Stevie...Stevie, every time there was a drum solo, Stevie wanted to take the drum solo!  So I had to learn how to play...and then when he finished playing all that shit on the piano he would make his way over to the drums which wasn't that far away and stand next to me.  And I had to figure out a way to get up, get him seated, get the sticks in his hand without losing too much time, so he could take a drum solo.  And this shit went on for four or five months and I got tired and I said, 'When am I going to get a drum solo?!'  And really what he wanted me to do was to try to play all of his licks.  And I didn't want to do that.  I said, 'I want to play my shit.  I'm not going to play your shit.  I don't want to sound like you.'  

(The Rolling Stones)

So we did this for a while and then we were on a tour with The Rolling Stones.  We had opened up for The Rolling Stones in Vancouver.  We were the opening act on that tour and I did three weeks with them.  And when we got to Dallas we played a gig...the only thing I didn't like about the tour was Stevie had signed the contract with the money on a weekly basis.  So he got a certain amount of money for each week.  But the Stones could add shows and fill up them big arenas.  We were playing twice if they wanted to and we didn't get no extra money for that.  I said, 'They're getting extra money for it.'

So, anyway, we got to Dallas and he did some shit when we were playing.  He started waving his hands up and down.  I didn't know what he was doing.  And he had set a tempo on something, I don't know what tune it was...Signed, Sealed, Delivered or whatever...but, evidently, after he had set the tempo he didn't like the tempo, he was trying to change the tempo.  He wanted to make it faster or something.  So I got pissed, man!  So I made it fast, REAL fast!  I was trying to teach him never to do that again.  I'm trying to teach the bandleader something.  So I made it real fast and we finished the tune, finished the set.  And then he called a meeting – he liked to call meetings.  Whenever there was something wrong he'd call a meeting of the whole band.  He called a meeting and the meeting was directed at me.  He said, 'That was almost a perfect show except there was something wrong in the rhythm section.  Something was wrong with the time.'  So I said, 'Listen, motherfucker!  The only fuckin' thing wrong with the time was you were fuckin' with the time.  Set it one time and then you made it like you wanted it to get faster.'  I said, 'I made it faster.  I made it real fast.  If you hadn't been fuckin' with it and left it where it was so we could finish that tune like it was.  You have to be responsible for the getting the tempo right when you call it.  If you call it wrong you have to live with it.'  So I was really out.  Everybody was looking at me like I had snapped because they had never heard me speak to him like that before.  Well, I had.

RG: So what was his reaction to that?

KC: He didn't say shit.  I just walked out of the meeting after that.  I said my shit and that's it.  So I went back to the hotel room and I packed my shit and I left.  I left him in Dallas.  I didn't ever play with him no more, I split.  I'm not going for this shit no more.  This shit's going to happen again.  So they called me.  They found out that I had split.  They sent Ralph Hammer, the guitar player, out to the airport to talk me into staying.  I said, 'No, man. I'm not taking no more of this abuse.  This is ridiculous.'  That on top of the drum shit, the solo shit.  'I don't need this.  We ain't making that much money.  I could make this much money staying at home.'  So I stayed at home and I did good.  I never looked back.  That's what happened with Stevie.  But I really loved working with him when things were going well.  He was a great musician.  He still is a great musician.  I loved playing his music, and I loved his tunes, and I loved that band.  But I didn't like the abuse.

RG: Stan Getz?  You played with him...

KC: Stan Getz was a trip.  Stan Getz was a real trip, man.  I worked with him with Jim McNeely, and sometimes George Mraz, sometimes...who else played bass?

RG: Marc Johnson, maybe?

KC: No, not Marc Johnson, sometimes Rufus.  Worked real good with Rufus.  Worked real good with Jim McNeely and Rufus.  And it worked real good with George Mraz.  Stan was like a split personality.  Sometimes he was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world.  And other times he was a real prick, man.  Sometimes he'd ask me to rub his back, to give him back massages, and I would, when he was being nice.  Then other times I wouldn't do shit for him, man.  He was really a trip.

The first time I went out with him on a long tour he booked me into Washington, to Blues Alley, for four nights and he paid me 150 a night which wasn't bad for Blues Alley.  And then we left there, we started doing these one nighters through the mid-west.  And all of these one nighters were in big places...all these places I had been before.  Chicago, University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana...all these places.  And all of these big joints he was still paying me 150 a night.  And I know he wasn't paying the other guys that.  But, because he had started me off at 150 in the club he figured I was stupid enough to think that that's what it was supposed to be.  So I kept doing it, I did that first tour, but I used to get mad at Stan.  And Stan's health wasn't that great, but he wanted to play with a lot of energy.  So whenever he was having a good night he wanted to play with a lot of energy.  I'd bombard him with all that Elvin shit that I knew.  I said, 'Oh, you feel like playing tonight?  Play on this, motherfucker!' Boom!  I was throwing everything I had at him.  That shit was kicking his ass sometimes.  But that's because he had been so weird to me sometimes.  

So I remember the last night I played with him after a tour.  We played in Dallas, at the Caravan of Dreams which was a big club, held about three, four hundred people.  He had been acting strange.  We played that first set...I put so much shit on him that first set he had to go lay down on the couch somewhere to rest, to get ready for the second set, because I really layed some shit on him.  I shouldn't have done that, that was terrible.  But I had the strength and the technique to do it so I did it, because he wanted some power.  

But he also said some shit to me, and I never forgave him for it, in Washington.  At the end of the Washington gig he said some shit to me about...'Yeah Keith, I almost had to let you go, man.  You almost weren't good enough to hang with me'.  I said, 'Oh yeah?  Ok.  I'll remember you said that, Stan'.  Because I had been there about a month before with George Russell playing at the Smithsonian, playing some really hard shit.  We had to play The African Game and some other shit for about an hour and a half straight.  And I killed!  And the guy that reviewed us at Blues Alley said 'Yeah, Stan sounded great and Stan had Keith Copeland, George Russell's drummer, with him and he sounded great'.  So the reviewer had heard it and thought I sounded wonderful.  But Stan was telling me some shit.  I think that's why he only paid me 150 a night, because I wasn't coming up to par for him.  I said, 'Well, we'll see if I come up to par for you the next time, motherfucker!  I'll let you know I can come up to par!  You need more!  If you want more, here's some more!'  I gave him plenty to work with!

RG: That's a great story.  You're not in a very exclusive club of people he was weird to, that's for sure.

KC: Stan was rough, man.

RG: Just a couple more questions...I know you made at least one recording with him, maybe two.  I don't know if you guys played live or not.  Paul Bley?

KC: (laughs) Paul Bley!  We did a date and there was some problem with the technical stuff on the date.  He wanted me to play some brushes and the brushes I was using were wire brushes with metal tips coming out of the end.  And every time I was playing with these brushes there would be some metallic clicks that would come through the line.  So we'd get something going good and we'd have to stop because of these clicks.  So finally they found some brushes in the studio that were plastic brushes and I started using those, no problem.  But we had wasted about two hours trying to figure out what these clicks were.  But Paul played some of the strangest shit I ever heard!  Me and Paul and Bob Cranshaw.  Bob Cranshaw, who was another wonderful bass player.  He usually plays electric but he brought his upright to the date.  If it hadn't been for Bob Cranshaw I could have never gotten through this date.  Because he was the rock, he knew what to do.  And Paul was playing some strange shit, even going out of the form of the tune sometimes.  Turning the time around, and I had to fix it and catch it.  But the record came out pretty good actually.

RG: Yeah, I remember.  It was called ‘Bebop, or something?

KC: Bebop!  There's nothing but bebop tunes on it.

RG: I was thinking about that just before we talked.  You must be the only person on any instrument who has played with both Stevie Wonder and Paul Bley.

KC: (laughs)

RG: Definitely!  I don't think there's anybody else who has that range of experience!  The final thing I wanted to ask you about, Keith, because you've lived in Europe since ''re twenty years, I guess, in Europe now.  And, of course, you originally grew up, came up, in the scene in the States.  What would you say was your experience of the difference between being a professional jazz musician living in Europe and being a professional jazz musician living in the States?

KC: Well, when I first got over here I was very busy and I was running around like I used to run around in the States.  But after you stay over here about four or five years they get used to you over here.  It's not a novelty.  If you come over here from the States on tour, you're a novelty.  So you get  treated a little bit better sometimes.  But if you stay over here too long you become sort of local.  And that's what happened, I became local over here.  That was the only difference.  So I don't play as much because when I was a novelty I got the really good money, and I got the chance to play with the really nice people, at the right places.  But now, I don't play so much because I can't get the right money all the time.  And I don't feel like going out and busting my butt if the money ain't right, you know.  The States was ok except those last few years I was in New York I was traveling so much I got to see New York from the airplane more than I did from being on the ground because I always saw it landing or taking off.  That's what I was always doing, going places from New York.  And I said, 'I love New York, but I never get to see it except from the air.'  And then I was teaching a lot in New York.  You know, I was teaching at the New School, I was teaching at Long Island University, I was teaching at Rutgers for seven years.  I was teaching at so many different places.  Teaching upstate, there was a little school up there.  I was teaching there a little bit.  Anyway, it was a little bit too much and, over here, it was a lot sometimes but then it slowed down.  Especially about three or four years before I had my stroke, but then after my stroke it slowed down a lot.  But that was the main difference between New York and here.

RG: Well listen, Keith, thank you so much...

KC: Yeah, Ronan!

To finish - here's a track from one of the trio albums that I had the privilege of playing with Keith on, with Tommy Halferty on guitar - it's a swinging workout of 'All of Me', typical of the way this trio played.