GUEST POST: Barry Altschul
Interviewed by Harris Eisenstadt, Part 2

We at D:O are incredibly pleased to present this guest post from Harris Eisenstadt. Harris interviewed Barry Altschul over two marathon sessions, on the occasion of his 70th birthday (which was in fact 6 January) and in advance of his new trio record, coming out in February from TUM. This is the second of three parts. Part one is here

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Interview – Part II (November 9, 2012)

Harris Eisenstadt: We talked about Milford Graves a long time ago… you said his was as much a percussionist approach as a drummer approach.

Barry Altschul: See with Milford, what Milford kept in all of that stuff was what makes jazz “jazz,” and that’s swing. Milford’s feeling no matter what he played whether it was rhythmical or a-rhythmical made your body move.

Can you talk about your experiences playing for dancers?

I played for a couple of ballet companies in Europe, I played for tap dancers played with Gregory Hines and Jimmy Slide and all the guys. Savion Glover I know since he’s a baby. Bunny Briggs, Lon Cheney, one of the Nicholas brothers, I played with all these guys. Jimmy Slide and I are very close. He died two years ago. He grew up with Roy Haynes actually. They were friends as children. Jimmy was living in Paris when I was there. We hooked up and became close. He had the keys to this apartment. Throughout the years I met all the cats and played gigs with all of them. Matter of fact I’m on a tap-dancing calendar with Savion and Savion’s dancing and I’m playing on a newspaper with brushes, and Bob Cunningham is playing bass.

What’s that tradition of piano-bass-drums plus tap dancers? Is that from Bojangles Robinson?

Well, Bojangles and before that with swing tap dancing…

Which Papa Jo was involved in…

Papa Jo was also a tap dancer, so was Buddy Rich, but Papa Jo was also involved with the next wave. Baby Laurence, the bebop line of tap dancers, he was the cat who started to cut Bojangles and Jimmy Slide is in that lineage. Along with cats that you’ve seen in movies, those little kid tap dancers with big beautiful eyes, that was Bunny Briggs, and two little kids dancing, that’s the Nicholas brothers who grew up to be in Hollywood movies, and Lon Cheney, ex-boxer, and Gregory Hines was younger than everyone else – well, Savion is the youngest, then Gregory and his brother, Sammy Davis Jr. too; great dancer. I worked with all these cats. They were doing the movie  “Tap” here when I worked with them, early 80s. I have a group of steps that Jimmy wrote out for me to practice, slap and slide, this and that.

Always drumset with them or just as often newspaper and brushes?

No gigs with drumset, piano and bass. You make the hits with them, their kicks, their jumps, their twirls, within blowing, within them improvising, the band playing tunes, standards. Jimmy used to like to play “All Blues” in ¾ time,  or “I Remember April” with a Latin thing…. You’re playing and you’re blowing and kicking them in his ass and then he jumps and you hit your bass drum and cymbal. You gotta watch him.

I remember you mentioning meeting Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock. Was there any playing for dancers that overlapped with the late 1960s and spending time up in Woodstock?

Well, only in gigs I turned down. There was a time that I played up in the mountains a summer two in the Catskills when I was a teenager. I played a gig at Town Hall with Robin Kenyatta and the people for Patti LaBelle were in the audience and they wanted a drummer who could play some Latin stuff. It was just before “Voulez Vous Couchez Avec Moi.” They called me to come into audition and I said no.

You didn’t audition?

I didn’t. Why would I audition if I knew I wouldn’t take the gig. I was too idealistic to not play what I thought wasn’t jazz.

Were you with Paul Bley at the time?

Yeah. And Kenyatta. He had already recorded with Andrew Hill. I did a record with Andrew and Robin was on it. So then Robin had his own group and he asked me to play with them and we did this Town Hall gig. And I got the phone call the very next morning. I was surprised, really, because we didn’t play rock ‘n roll or anything like that at all. But we did play some heavy Latin grooves. I grew up in the south Bronx; I know clave a bit.

But you were playing jazz Latin grooves, right?

Yeah, but some of the beats were Guaguanco, or whatever.

That’s a trip to me too, the whole virtuosity of young players these days, particularly Cuban musicians!

They are motherfuckers, and not just the drummers. It’s because of their training. You’re either going to roll around in the streets I suppose or your government is going to put you in school if you have the talent. I heard Irakere in Poland at the Jazz Jamboree in the 1970s and these cats were smoking. That was Paquito (D’Rivera), before they all left Cuba.

You know Larry Harlow? “Orchestra Harlow?” Fania All-Stars? One of the originators! You know his nickname? “Judo Miraculo,” the Miraculous Jew. All through Spanish-speaking countries he’s the only white or Jewish cat that not only has been accepted, but has influenced real Salsa music. And they called him the Miraculous Jew. We grew up together. We were very close friends. He started out as a jazz pianist, went to Music and Art High School, got a gig in the summer up in the mountains in a Latin band. Didn’t know shit but was intrigued. Knowing where clave is. The cats argue amongst themselves about where clave is. This cat absorbed it. He couldn’t play it, he studied it, and his improvisational capabilities – which weren’t that extreme – were perfect for that shit. And wow, man, he’s superbad. One of the original cats.

Did you work with Don Pullen?

Oh yeah, a lot. We were Capricorns. There were three of us: me, Don and Woody Shaw, Capricorns. And either Juni Booth or Stafford James played with us. Gigs here and there.

That made me think of Don Pullen, talking about Latin music. His Latin playing is unbelievable.

Bobby Battle was one of his drummers.

That dude is a motherfucker. I don’t hear his name much at all.

I don’t think he’s playing much anymore. I heard he was working for the post office. I played in Sam Rivers’ band with two drummers a number of times and Bobby was one of the other drummers.



Sam Rivers
The Quest
Red : 1976

SR, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums.


Was it a regular group with two drummers or just once in a while?

There was a bunch of projects with Sam and two drummers. It was another project of Sam’s. I worked with two different drummers, both playing drumsets, me and Bobby Battle; me and Warren Smith; me and Charlie Persip.

That’s another question I had. The big bass groups that you worked with (documented on Peter Warren’s Bass Is) at the time made me wonder, were then any big drum groups playing gigs? You know, besides Pieces of Time, M’Boom… bigger than that… in the lofts?

Well, M’Boom came later. There was a thing that Rashied, Milford, Andrew…

Right, and Kenny Clarke. “Pieces of Time.”

But this was before that… and with Don Moye, too. It was when everybody was in Paris hanging out. You know, everybody hung out with Klook there. But this was before that. Original Music: Stanley Clarke.

That’s what he was doing besides playing at the Vanguard. Last night he was playing Ravi Coltrane, Marcus Gilmore, and Chick Corea at the Blue Note.

Marcus, huh? Oh man, I’ve known him since he was 6 years old. You know, ‘cause me and Roy were social friends rather than musical friends. We hardly spoke music to each other. I didn’t want him to feel like I was picking his brain, so whatever he talked about I took it in, but I never really questioned him about music. He was always very proud of Marcus. When Marcus was 12 years old Roy said “you know what Marcus just taught me… a one-handed roll.” I said “can you do it?” He said “not yet.” 12 years old Marcus was able to do that and showed it to his granddad. I heard Marcus, I think it Roy’s his 80th birthday, and I sat at the family table. I had never heard Marcus play as an adult, and in Roy’s band at the time were Christian McBride and Josh Redman, and Danilo Perez. Great band. And Patitucci.

I heard some of them with Graham Haynes at the Vanguard in the late 90s.

Right. So it was intermission and I lean over to Roy and say, “you know, I’ve never heard Marcus play.” So he looked at me. He goes back, plays a tune and calls Marcus up to play. So I’m sitting at the table and Marcus is on the drums and Marcus is looking at all of us, and if you close your eyes you’d think it was Roy. He’s playing just like Roy, and then all of a sudden he looks at Roy and he had a look like “Happy birthday, Grandpa,” and then zoom… and then he went into his own shit. And it was fabulous. Out there and totally different than Roy. He wanted to say “look. this is where I came from.” But Marcus’ favorite was Elvin. I remember we were backstage, a bunch of us; Art Blakey, Elvin, Roy, Charlie Persip, me, Art Taylor, a bunch of cats… and all Marcus wanted to do was talk to Elvin.

I mean Elvin just shaking your hand was an amazing thing.

Plus you know Roy and Elvin were kind of different parts of the same concept, kind of.

How so?

Look, Trane had Roy be the sub, kind of, if you look at it that way, because of how open you could play with Roy. But they took it from different sources.  I knew a cat from Pittsburgh, his name was Bernard Chambers, who played between Roy and Elvin, and this cat was a bitch. You know, when we were kids you played like somebody for about a year or two and then if you still did, you were put down.

Now with the college shaping the young players, it’s hard not to sound like Joe Henderson or Coltrane.

And they say “what’s wrong with sounding like that, they’re great.”

But there are so many interesting tenor players now who don’t just sound like Coltrane or Rollins or Wayne. They also honor and bring in Lester and everything before it. You know, Gene Ammons, all this pre-60s language.

Well it’s the same thing when Bird came on the scene. It was so powerful that all kinds of cats sounded like Bird, they couldn’t help it. Actually the only cat that didn’t sound like Bird at that time was Lee Konitz.

To switch gears, I’m interested to hear about your involvement with the Jazz Composers Orchestra Alliance. Did that came out of working with Paul Bley, and you were hanging with Carla Bley?

Yeah I was playing with Paul Bley and you know…

Did the JCOA precede the October Revolution?

It came out of the October Revolution. I was playing with Bley, there was a space above the Village Vanguard that was used as the home base, and you know the big band was formed I suppose, and I was there. I did a record and a tour in Europe… mainly the money pretty much came from German radio and TV.

And Michael Mantler was involved?

Was that (the album) Jazz Communications or was it just Carla? It might have been. It probably was with Michael.



The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra
Fontana : 1966

 You’ve mentioned a trio with Sam and Jimmy Stevenson that played during the October Revolution. Did you play and other concerts that month?

Yeah, with Valdo Williams; he’s originally Canadian.  He was a Bud Powel-influenced pianist who really freed it up.

From Montreal?

I think so. Not sure… and then he became a drummer. Studied with Sam Ulano for a number of years and is supposedly – not sure if he’s still alive – a great drummer. I met Valdo in the city… I played with him just before I played with Paul Bley. Stu Martin, I think, turned me onto him.

Who else was on Valdo’s gig?

Reggie Johnson, the bass player. One of the most workingest bass players of the period. Bunch of Archie Shepp records, Jackie McLean stuff; very flexible, open player. I think he lives in Switzerland now. I also played with him in a number of bands. We played together with Hampton Hawes and Sonny Criss. I played with him with Carmel Jones and Leo Wright. I played with him with Babs Gonzales. Three bands. And these were bands, not just a gig. In the 70s with Carmel and Leo Wright, Hampton Hawes and Sonny in the 60s, and Babs Gonzalez in the 70s with Clifford Jordan.

Didn’t you live in Rome with Paul at some point?

A little bit, six weeks or so. We were sort of passing through.

Were you with Paul exclusively at the time?

Pretty much. We did a really long gig in Madrid; three weeks or six weeks in a club, and there were a bunch of people living in Rome at the time: Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Ornette.

Why were they living in Rome?

Because the Italians were into supporting the music. So when we came there was this guy Fabio de Santis. He was a very rich furniture designer. He has a chair in the MOMA called “Ode to Ornette.” Anyways, he produced a concert with all of us, so while we were there we got this gig for a month in Riccione to play on the Adriatic Sea. I played brushes for a month at a resort area on the beach. Sometimes outdoors, sometimes indoors; all standard tunes.

Work gigs. You guys weren’t playing free?

We needed the money and they offered us this gig. We played standards. It wasn’t really free. That’s how I really got into playing with brushes. You can’t play louder than so and so. Well, than I’ll play with brushes. It was really about the money plus were laying on the beach and the women, summertime in Italy, what are you going to say, no? So, that was fabulous. And then from there, well, we worked a lot in Europe and I stayed in Europe a lot. I got to know Europe from working with Paul. I got a reputation from working with him. I was able to stay on my own. I lived in Germany on my own and in Brussels. I lived in Europe three periods: the first period was in the 60s, two times I think, from the beginning of 66 to the end of 67, then I came back for a minute. Then I went back for another year or year and a half. Then later I went back for 10 years, but I was always going over to play and lots of time just stayed after the gig for a while. l also lived in London during the Circle days.

Was that when you were playing with Chris McGregor?

Yeah, I was living with him and the South Africans. I knew Moholo Moholo from before Chick Corea. I met him with Paul Bley in Copenhagen. Johnny Dyani and Louis were living in Copenhagen at the time.

And Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi?

I think Dudu was in Switzerland at that time. That’s when he met his wife. So I had already known Chris and that’s when I stayed with him. I got very involved with the ANC.

You lived with them for how long?

Oh, months. Nine months, maybe. Dave (Holland) was there, Circle was there, so I lived with the Africans. I lived with Chris and his wife and their baby, Andromeda. Me and Louis and Mongezi shared a bedroom. Literally. When we had girlfriends over… sharing a bedroom.

Chris and his wife and kid had their own part of the apartment and Dudu lived with his wife in a different part of town. They had the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath. We played gigs with me and Moholo together.

My friend (UK pianist) Alex Hawkins has been playing with Moholo quite a bit, playing duos and stuff. I heard Louis also with Leo Smith recently, and he sounded great.

Louis is great. I went on a tour of Mozambique with the Brotherhood of Breath; two drummers. Santi Debriano was the bass player. Paid for by the Mozambiquian government.

We stopped a civil war. For the days we were playing they called a truce so everyone could come hear the concert in the capital, Maputo. They really did. They canceled our tour into the mountains because they said they couldn’t guarantee our safety, but they could in the city because they called a truce.

That’s not far from South Africa geographically.

Right. There was an artist ban on South Africa and they asked the Brotherhood (to play in South Africa). Chris had a meeting and we all said no.

Are you recorded with that band?

No. I have tapes. So Chris said “good” because he was going to turn it down anyways, but a few days after since we turned it down we were like heroes. We were getting gigs form all these other countries. “The best offer so far is from Mozambique. I can bring the whole band,” he said. So we said, “whatever’s happening, do it “

So in the middle of those nine months you went to Mozambique?

No, this was later, in 1988. (During that nine-month period in London) I played at Royal Albert Hall with the big band. Mongezi died during that period. It was the early 1970s.

I used to be the peacemaker with the South Africans. Ronnie Scott used to have a club, the one that was on Gerard. He was doing what he does in his club. This was around the same time as John Stevens and also (Tony) Oxley. You know, Derek (Bailey) and Evan (Parker) and all those cats.

Did you meet those guys through Dave Holland?

No. I met Dave and all those cats at the same time. I was there in England for whatever reasons. I had already been working with Paul Bley. I had a reputation. You know, (John) McLaughlin, (John) Surman, they hadn’t left England yet. They were working at Ronnie Scott’s new club. Joe Henderson would come and use Dave.

Tony Oxley was the house drummer for a time, right?

Oh yeah, Tony’s a great drummer. A lot of cats used him… you know, Johnny Griffin or whoever. So anyways Ronnie Scott got the new club, but the rent was paid on the old club for the year, so he had two clubs and he was cool. He said to the SME (Spontaneous Music Ensemble), to John Stevens, to Chris, everybody: “You got the club. You got it for a year. You want to get known, do what you want. Run concerts, throw gigs.” And they did, and it was organized. It was run pretty well. But every now and then the South Africans would get drunk and get homesick and fight among themselves. I mean fistfight amongst themselves, throwing tables and chairs. Not amongst anyone else, just amongst themselves.  But it seemed that I was the only cat that could stop it. There were many times that Ronnie Scott called me up. I’d be sleeping or something. “Can you come to the club man? They’re going crazy.” And you know, it was like, once Dudu was really mad at something. It was between him and Louis and I said, “who’s the one who’s going to hit me?” None of them did. You know Louis calls himself Moholo twice. You know what he is? He’s a king. There was once an argument at the ANC headquarters. The people that were hanging out at the time were all these wonderful writers and painters: the guy who wrote Seraphina, all these South African intellectuals. They were all involved with the ANC in London. There was once an argument and the guy said to Louis, “you must respect me because I’m older.” Then Louis said “but I am Moholo.” He shut him right up. It was great. There was a scene in London, a scene in France…

With the Chicago cats?

Before that. The Chicago cats are second line cats as far as the world scene, 1964-7-ish. The NY cats were the first line cats. We opened it up for everyone.

When Muhal was living with you (in the 1970s), is that how met them all?

Well I knew Braxton from Circle, from Chick. I met Braxton at the Village Vanguard. He came down to hear a trio gig with me and Dave and Chick. I didn’t know anyone from Chicago before them. He came with (Jack) DeJohnette. They had a concert the night before, the Creative Construction Company, with Richard Davis, Steve McCall, Muhal Richard Abrams, somewhere in Manhattan. And we were playing that weekend at the Vanguard. We were playing opposite Roy Haynes’ band with Freddie Hubbard, packed crowd, plus it was our first trio outing, and Braxton sat in. He was introduced by Dejohnette, I think.

Where did you meet Chick?

Did I meet him when he was playing with Blue Mitchell? Or maybe with Art Blakey? I don’t remember where I met Chick (Corea).

Did he hear you with Paul (Bley)?

I’m sure he did. I’m sure all those cats heard me with Paul. I don’t really know. I didn’t check the audiences but for sure I know Keith did. I saw Keith in the audience checking it out.

Did you and Keith work together?

No, we didn’t. Everyone checked Paul out. Herbie, McCoy, all those cats.

Did Circle ever play opposite Mwandishi?

No, we were always in the same town though. Me and Billy Hart used to hang out in the US and in Europe…

When I read Bob Gluck’s book about Mwandishi, for a lot of people my age, we didn’t know Mwandishi at first. It’s some of the hippest Herbie ever. And Circle was hitting at the same time. Are those two different kinds of free playing? Or are they all just the same but different? Because they improvised whole sets right?

Well, I mean, one of the freest bands I ever heard was Miles, with (Jack) Dejohnette, Keith (Jarrett) and Chick (Corea), either Liebs (Dave Liebman) or maybe even Wayne (Shorter). Man, that shit was out! So I don’t really know, what do you mean different? Mwandishi was a commercial success, though.

Not according to Herbie in Gluck’s book. He said he ended up losing money.

Yeah, but he got known on the commercial scene, on the rock scene, the funk scene.

Right, Double bills with Jefferson Airplane or whoever, but people didn’t know how to deal with it.

He was making more money than Miles and Miles was jealous of that. But that was probably with Headhunters.

Seems like there was period in jazz rock before it became very commercial…

We went the other way, totally the other way.

So Circle wasn’t a commercial success?

No, it was critical success, a creative success only looked at in retrospect, only years after, not at the time. And as far as our work was concerned, everybody was interested in what Chick was going to do after Miles Davis; Chick and Dave, let’s say.

Whatever the working or reason for it, you guys worked. You worked a lot, right?

But not “a lot a lot.” Nobody works “a lot a lot.” Three or four months a year…

For one band that’s a lot now.

Maybe now, but when you talk about cats like Dizzy booked two or three years in advance, or Dreams or Steps Ahead, they were working much more. We had professional agents. It wasn’t like we were trying to get the gigs ourselves.

And the fees were cool right? Big festivals?

Yeah, but you know, look, the cats now make more money then anyone ever did, more than Miles, Sonny Rollins, during the height of Miles’ and Sonny Rollins’ fame. Wynton Marsalis wipes them out. That includes whole group of trumpet players from Wynton’s generation, money-wise, Terrence, etc., and for sidemen $3000-3500 a week plus expenses. That’s a lot of expenses. So that means the leaders are making more than that and coming home with a profit, otherwise they couldn’t pay those salaries. You figure they have quintets, so $14,000 to sidemen plus their money plus the agent’s money plus the management plus travel. They’re making $40-60,000. Man, we didn’t do that. And that’s per week I’m talking about. Keith Jarrett pays his cats $20,000 a gig or whatever.

Not in 1971.

No, in 71 he was a sideman, and working with the top cats who paid the top money at the time, you know plus cost of living adjustment. There’s money to be made now.

Which is strange because how could fees go up if the audiences are smaller? I guess the audiences go to the big gigs.

It’s a world market. You can’t make your money just being here in America and that’s it. You gotta record and get known. Problem now is you get known through education ways, winning the Monk competition or this or that.

You ever see Ethan Iverson’s blog?  He’s a great writer. Anyways he had this thing with this cat Eric Lewis, Wynton’s piano player for a few years; this is recently. This cat left Wynton and the jazz world. Ethan wrote talked about the faux athleticism surrounding these competitions and what that does to the music and at the same time the kind of bread that comes out of it and this cat Eric Lewis has left it all behind. I forget if he won the Monk Competition that year. He left it all behind and he was just on “America’s Got Talent” or something. He stands up like this (I stand up and play air piano like Jerry Lee Lewis) when he plays the piano; the whole shtick.

Look, who was it, King Curtis, Sam Taylor? Those early 1950s tenor sax players were great bebop players.

I got a better idea…

Let me make some money!

[continue to part three]

Category Barry Altschul, guest posts, Harris Eisenstadt