The Jazz world seems to be divided into two camps as far as location goes: there are people who say that New York is the only place they could ever live, and people who feel like they could live anywhere. I believe that great music can be made anywhere, and since moving here, I even see some advantages to living outside of the NYC bubble. However, what isn’t debatable is that in the NYC Jazz, unexpected and amazing things can happen without notice.
One of these things happened to me at the Jazz Masters performance at Birdland. The Jazz Masters quartet is one of many ensembles produced by Milan(SP?), a wealthy Italian benefactor who gets interesting ensembles together and produces them through Jazz clubs like Birdland and the Jazz Standard. This particular ensemble has been gigging for five years, and included Steve Kuhn, Dave Liebman, Buster Williams, and Billy Hart. I went mostly because I had never seen the powerful duo of Billy Hart and Buster Williams play together live, although I’ve seen them apart countless times and have heard them on record since I started listening to Jazz.
The music that night was interesting, Steve isn’t the kind of player you’d expect to hear with Buster and Billy these days, he has more of a trio-like presence, and hearing them function as a rhythm section was interesting. Preliminary research shows that they haven’t played together before these engagements, so on top of a different style of playing, you have to add that Kuhn is effectively waltzing in on a 40 year relationship in the rhythm section, something which is tricky no matter who the pianist is. The overall feeling worked fairly well.
Seeing Liebman in front of it all was interesting as well. I can’t help but have Coltrane partially in my head when I hear Liebman play, and in this situation I was contemplating the various rhythm section members’ connection and feeling towards Coltrane. Kuhn played with Coltrane in 1961, and Billy and Buster were in the absolute thick of things during the years when Coltrane was far and away the prevailing influence in Jazz. It’s interesting to think about how the feelings toward that style of playing would differ. Regardless, Liebman sounded good as always, and he definitely raised the bar of the performance once he got onstage.
The most interesting part of the night was after the music however. Earlier that day, Tootie Heath, who was in town by chance after a stint at Dizzy’s, called me and asked me if I wanted to go see Al Foster at the Vanguard. When I told him that Al Foster was playing next week, he asked what else was going on, and I said that Buster and Billy were playing, and that he should go see them.
When he walked into Birdland, he was accompanied by Louis Hayes and Kenny Washington. They had just come from a BBQ place in Harlem where Kenny had taken them both for dinner. They were seated three feet from Billy’s drum set, and Billy didn’t notice them until Louis got up and moved the music stand closer to Billy so that he could better read the music.
I have witnesses, and I’ll maintain myself that the level shot through the roof once Billy saw that Louis and Tootie were behind him. He and Buster freed up, started daring Liebman to go to new heights. It was quite amazing, and I certainly got the rhythm section lesson that I signed up for. On top of that, the final solo of the evening was a three chorus drum solo by Billy, and I can easily say that I’ve never heard him sound that good, live or on record. It was transcendent, and everyone in the room knew it, most of all Kenny Washington, who just shook his head through the whole thing.
The after hang was of course, amazing. Sheila Jordan came and conversed with Kuhn, her good friend. The talk was amazing among the drummers and Buster, talking about everything from old times to pranks that everyone played on Billy Higgins when he was in the hospital, to who actually played which tracks on Herbie’s “Fat Albert Rotunda” (Kenny posed the question, he knows that it was partially Bernard Purdie, partially Tootie, but he was pretty sure that certain tracks are Grady Tate. Tootie couldn’t remember the session too clearly, but Buster remembered Grady being at the session.) There were stories of Tootie playing with Coltrane, Billy Higgins asking Kenny politely to sit in on Cedar Walton’s gig (which of course he gave him), and notes comparing what happened when Louis and Tootie played in Monk’s trio. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to get into specifics, I’m not sure what they would want known.
It was my first time hanging with Louis. He’s unsurprisingly a great soul, just like Tootie, Billy, and Buster. He’s never gotten his due, I’m hoping that he does soon. Kenny was telling me that there are some stickings that he’s figured out of Louis’ that were completely new when he recorded them while working with Horace. Another note that Tootie made: he and Louis(and Ben Riley, he says) played with exactly the same people in the late 50s early 60s, because they came to town at the same time. He says the only person Louis played with that Tootie didn’t was Horace Silver, who he never got a chance to play with.
The most interesting thing was the different energy that each musician gave out. Sheila was only there to hang out with her friend Steve, although she got a kiss on the cheek from everyone. Liebman stayed mostly to himself, talking with a friend at the other side of the bar. Buster, Louis, and Tootie were talking about old times, making jokes at each other’s expense. Kenny and Billy were the most interesting to me, however. About two thirds through the night, they retreated a bit and just talked with wide eyes about how much they idolized these three musicians, telling stories of what they lifted, shows they saw, records they loved. It made me realize that they were at some level, just like me, in awe of these great musicians, only wanting to be as close as possible to soak up their essence. I’ve always said that about Billy, that is one of the oldest men I’ve met that has a mind which operates in the modern arena of Jazz, one of respect and scholarship, and it was great to see that Kenny was the real deal too (I suspected, of course). Both men love the music as much as anybody else I’ve ever met.
The hang(of 75 year old men hanging at midnight, mind you) ended as quickly as it started, with Tootie making fun of Louis, taking too long to say goodbye, not wanting to leave. I left with him, so that I could walk him to his temporary pad on 2nd ave and 4th st, if only to walk by St. Marks and hear him tell whatever story of the Five Spot was in his head at the time. I treasure those walks. Say what you will, nights like this can’t happen anywhere but here.
I should probably quit Jazz for not getting a picture of myself with all of the masters, but I did manage to grab one of the drummers together. These iPhone cameras ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Damn those guys look fresh. They’re fly in Ethan’s picture too. Pity I have to wait until I’m 60 to pull of those shirts. I’m worried that I might have to be from the 70s too…
Kenny: Man, you know Buddy Rich had some chops
Tootie: Who? Oh you mean Belly Rich? Fat m***********!
“Talking about Coltrane. Fattus! He was so fat, man… I used to call him Fattus. He used to call me Slimmus.” —Tootie Heath