MUSIC & ART HIGH SCHOOL

I attended Music and Art High School, where I met many interesting and very talented individuals. To get to school, I took a subway from the Bronx down to 125th Street in Harlem, and then took a bus for about fifteen minutes, passing the famous Apollo Theater. As an entering student, I had to take a basic piano class, since the piano was such an integral part of various music courses taught there. The first semester, we didn’t have a piano at home, so I bought a large, thick piece of yellow paper and, with a ruler and magic marker, I drew a three - or four - octave keyboard to practice on. The only problem was, I drew the keys a little smaller than actual size! That got me into the habit of cramming my fingers, which caused me to miss or play wrong notes on the school pianos. My parents bought an upright piano later that year but I never took private lessons. I was busy enough studying the clarinet and saxophone. Because of my lack of formal study and unorthodox fingering technique, I developed the mind-set over the years that I’m not really a pianist, I’m just “dabbling” at the keys. But in reality, I spent as much time or more at the piano with chords and voicings, improvising, composing and arranging as I spent with my horns. I never made the same kind of in-depth study of my favorite jazz pianists (McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Herbie Hancock, etc.) as I did with my saxophone idols - Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. With the latter, I did a lot of listening, transcribing and learning their solos. Much of this naturally filtered into my piano playing. But I didn’t copy piano players’ licks as much as I caught the “essence” or stylistic approach of their individual playing. And because I didn’t memorize their solos note-for-note so much, I’ve always felt freer improvising on the piano than on sax.

Jazz was definitely not the favored music at M&A High School. During my clarinet audition for the school, the teacher basically told me not to expect to play any jazz at the school. But some of us students carried the torch of jazz anyway. Sometimes, at lunch time, bassist Eddie Gomez, flutist Jeremy Steig (probably the most naturally talented one of us all ), myself and others would sneak off into an unattended room to have a jam session. One of the students I became friendly with at the school was Larry Willis, who sang in the chorus and played on the basketball team. He had just begun playing jazz piano a short time before we met. He introduced me to his drummer friend, Al Foster, who lived near the school. Larry and I played over at Al’s place. Al and I liked each other’s playing from the start. We formed a group that played for free in a park in Harlem. Another talented musician friend at M&A was trumpeter Jimmy Owens, a student of Donald Byrd. Jimmy and I met just before high school, playing together in a small group ensemble at Lynn Oliver Studios in Manhattan. Outside of school, Jimmy and I played in a jazz sextet comprised of four horns, bass and drums. Almost everyone in the band wrote charts. We played some free concerts around the city. During my senior year at M&A the band director picked me to be the leader of the dance band. A younger student, by the name of Billy Cobham, was the drummer in the band. I wasn’t very impressed with his playing. But then, some ten years later, when I heard him with the band "Dreams" at the Fillmore West, I went back stage to tell him how ‘fantastic’ he sounded!

Although I didn’t care for most classical music when I was younger, Debussy became my favorite composer/orchestrator. Woodwind player friend, Howie Leshaw from M&A, turned me on to Debussy's music. I love the 'colors' - combination of instruments – plus the freedom in Debussy's harmonies – moving from any sound or chord he desired to another sound or chord in a totally atypical fashion. His music has a very dream-like quality. I remember hearing a brief chord texture in one of his more famous orchestral pieces - maybe it was "La Mer". That particular chord/sound seemed to stop time and bring me back to an ancient place or feeling that I had all but forgotten!

One unique person from M&A that I met and became friends with was Mark Gartman. He played the piano with some Art Tatum influences and composed various types of music. He also had perfect pitch and could tell you what 'note' the screech of the subway train was making! Once, hanging out in his apartment in the Bronx, we had a little jam sesion playing the Sonny Rollins classic "Oleo". I was on piano and he was on.. well, he started out on the cello, playing the melody and then taking a solo. All of a sudden, he disappeared into a bedroom and came back playing (blowing through) an extension pipe for a vacuum cleaner, still soloing over the chord changes to the Rollins tune! He actually got a sound out of that thing. I really wouldn't be surprised at all if he told me he’s working on his technique to master that 'instrument’!