Q: How long have you been blind?
A: I lost my sight in 1968 when I was five years old. My Mom is also blind, so she helped me a lot early on in coping with the problem. She found special schools for me where I could go to learn Braille and skills to become more independent. Neither of my parents tolerated self-pity. Their attitude encouraged me to take advantage of any new technology or information available that would make the disability less disabling or easier to deal with. Thanks to my parents, I have always believed that if you face (and even embrace) a problem or difficult set of circumstances you will find some type of solution or at the very least, learn to cope with it better. I think that may be what attracted me to jazz from the beginning. This music has always made me feel better—more confident—and it put me in touch with great men and women who overcame adversity, like Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Mary Lou Williams.
Q: When did you start playing the piano and did you take lessons?
A: I first started trying to play piano at churches and in other people’s homes when I was five. At age eight, my parents bought me a piano, and from then on, I would listen to the radio and try to learn whatever I heard. These were songs by people like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson Five. I didn’t have an official piano lesson until I was twelve years old. By then, my musical tastes had started to develop and I started to focus more and more on playing jazz and studying classical piano music. Before I started taking lessons, I could not have told you what key I was playing in. I had no concept of correct piano technique—fingering, pedaling, scales, arpeggios, phrasing—nothing at all. My first teacher taught me a lot about those necessary fundamentals.
Q: Do you play any instruments other than the piano?
A: I played alto and tenor saxophone all through middle school and high school. I also played drums, although I never took lessons. It helped me as a pianist to have experience playing other instruments. For one thing, it helped to give me a better idea of the limitations and possibilities of instruments other than the piano. For example, a saxophone is limited to playing one note at a time, whereas on the piano, you can play not only many notes at one time but even many melodies at the same time. On a saxophone, as you hold out a note, you can continue to make it louder, while on a piano, as soon as you play a note, it immediately begins to get softer. Playing the drums was good for understanding rhythmic counterpoint and it also taught me about one of the most difficult aspects of playing jazz—good, clear, stable (yet flexible) rhythm.
Q: Can you read music and how do you learn music if you can’t see?
A: I can learn music different ways: by reading Braille music notation, listening to recordings of a piece or listening to someone else playing a piece slowly, separating the hands so that it’s clear which notes are played by the left or right hand. Louis Braille invented the Braille music system so that he could play organ music. Braille music notation uses the same system of 6 dots that literary and mathematical Braille use. However, the dots mean completely different things. Just about anything that can be notated in standard written music can be written in Braille music. The biggest drawbacks with Braille music notation are that it’s cumbersome (very bulky to handle) and it’s difficult to use because you obviously cannot see more than one line of music at a time. So you must memorize it line by line as you go, which is very different from the way that you listen to music. I find that I use both Braille music and an aural approach to learning music and both have advantages and disadvantages.
Q: Did you study classical music and do you still play it?
A: I studied classical music, mainly so I could learn proper piano technique, phrasing and pedaling. I continued studying through college, where I focused primarily on Bach preludes and fugues and partitas, Beethoven sonatas, and Chopin waltzes, preludes and etudes. I still work on learning as much repertoire as I have time for now, and continue to work on refining my skills as a pianist all the time. Music is a lifelong quest, and you have to try to get better every time you play your instrument.
Q: You always encourage young musicians to study the music of the early jazz musicians. Why?
A: I didn’t really see rapid improvement in my playing and understanding of music until I started studying jazz and classical masterpieces. This is because when you study any masterpiece of art, the information is both inspirational and instructive. You gain the knowledge that inspired someone greater than yourself. It gives you a much deeper understanding of the essence of both the musical instrument and the particular genre. I encourage both young and older musicians to study the great masters of music, and I believe it is very safe to say that our institutions of higher learning exist for that very purpose. When any group (musicians, writers, scientists, etc) builds its future on the unlocking and understanding of previous great achievement, it protects the standards of the discipline and gives that discipline the necessary tools to grow, improve and become stronger through time.
Q: Jason Marsalis has been in your band since he was 17 years old. What is it that he brings to the group?
A: Jason Marsalis brings such a keen understanding of the role of percussion in a jazz band. He has always been a student of the music, has exceptional ability, genius level intuition, and knows the jazz language inside and out. The most impressive thing about Jason is that he always lets the music determine what he should play. He lets the musical situation dictate what his choices should be. Also, he has such a command of the drums that he can convey a startling amount of expression, whereas too many drummers (especially younger drummers) tend to play at only one or two dynamic levels. Jason has developed into a great soloist who can draw from Africa and the Caribbean as much as he draws from the jazz canon. He keeps up on new records that are coming out and older recordings that are being reissued that should be checked out. Jason has all of the music that we’ve played over the years in his head. We don’t use written music at all with the trio. He is an absolute joy to work with.
Q: Bassist Rodney Jordan joined your group in 2009. What is it that is special about his playing and what does he add to the group?
A: Rodney brings a rare combination of scholarship and soul to our group. He is always trying to get better. He constantly challenges himself to work on the details necessary to become an even better musician. Rodney is very intelligent and he has very quick reflexes so when Jason and I play something, he hears it immediately and has an appropriate musical response. Rodney and Jason play together as if they’ve played together for years and years. Like Jason, Rodney learns music thoroughly—he memorizes it. He says that he does not want to be limited by having to look at the notation as we play. He wants to be free to hear and react spontaneously. He loves the history of the bass, and continues to study Bach cello suites as well as Jimmy Blanton, Paul Chambers, Reginald Veal, and his predecessor in our trio, Roland Guerin. Rodney puts it all together into a package that gets more impressive by the day. He’s playing more bass every time we play together. He inspires Jason and me with his dedication and work ethic. And, if that’s not enough, he’s a great teacher who, year after year inspires his students to reach for the highest possible standards.
Q: Why is it important to mentor young musicians?
A: Jazz is an art form that is grounded in a tradition of older musicians mentoring and inspiring younger ones. This goes all the way back to the beginning with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. When you mentor a young person, it helps to confirm that things that you thought you knew are actually true. Every student is different, so you must reach deep to find the strategy that will unlock those issues for that particular musician. Jazz is a music based on integration and collaboration. When played properly, each musician gives an individual view of rhythm, harmony, form, blues, and melody. But, in addition, each musician must leave enough space in the music so that he or she can respond to each of the other musician’s views on those same musical principles. Mentorship guarantees that we won’t lose our foundational principles as we pass this music on from one generation to the next.
Q: Which jazz style is most important for a developing jazz musician to know?
A: They’re all important. I don’t subscribe to the notion that we should limit ourselves to one stylistic period. A holistic view provides the most inspiration. If the concepts introduced by Jelly Roll Morton in 1923 are appropriate to a musical situation, then you use that sound or that conceptual information. If you need an abstract soulful sound, like that Ornette Coleman from the late 50s, then you can draw on that. What makes jazz so great is the range of individualism that is in the music as a whole. Like our great American society, we have many successful individual and group approaches that have worked throughout our history. Our tolerance of new ways of doing things, and our ability to disagree respectfully while still aspiring to the height of achievement makes our democracy our most precious gift.
Q: How do the ensembles that you lead and play in differ from each other? What makes them special?
A: I love playing with my trio because we have almost telepathic communication now. Every time we play together, the music takes us into uncharted territory. We are always exploring new approaches to rhythm and playing chord changes. We like hearing the form of each song in interesting and new ways.
Both Rodney and Jason inspire me to create new tambours and colors, and they both have such command of the jazz language that there’s never a boring moment. We have a huge trio repertoire of original music and standards that covers the gammit from the American Songbook of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Rogers and Hart, etc., to Miles, Monk, Trane, and Duke. We also love the great trio masters like Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson.
My most recent project is our big group called The Modern Jazz Generation. The group is full of young, talented musicians. It’s been great to watch them grow and mature into their own individual identities. Each one of them shares in helping to build this band. Some of the guys like to arrange new music, others enjoy transcription, while still others just love to play and get deeper into the music.
With the Modern Jazz Generation, we have been exploring different music, which is also a lot of fun. While we have a lot of original music that we love to play, we have also been exploring the works of great jazz masters such as Bud Powell, Earl Hines, Monk, Chick Corea, Horace Silver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong.
I don’t play solo piano shows as often as I used to with all of the ensemble work that we do but when I do play solo, it’s a special occasion. Preparing for a solo performance requires a lot of work because to make it an interesting show, your technique and command of the piano must be sharp, precise and on point. It also requires a different state of mind, since the piano is front and center throughout the whole performance. Your imagination and creativity have to be functioning at a very high level to keep the public into every note that you play. It allows me to explore the piano in ways that are different from other musical situations and I really enjoy that challenge.
Finally, I also love playing with symphony orchestras, especially with my trio. It’s a special experience because we get to bring classical musicians into a truly authentic jazz environment and vice versa. We get to create a new sound by combining elements of both art forms, and because it’s jazz, the performance is always different every time. It’s really an incredible feeling to hear a great orchestra do what it does, while we improvise and bring the natural spontaneity of jazz. It keeps us all on our toes.