By Charles L. Latimer, I Dig Jazz
Blue Dawn-Blue Nights is your 21st album as a leader. What’s the key to consistently making great recordings?
As long as I’m living, as long as I hear music in my head, I’ve got to get it out, and that’s the key. Just be true to hearing the music or the sound that’s in your head. The other part of it is always trying to take the music further. One step beyond.
In your bands, you always have veracious young musicians like Art Blakey had in the Messengers long ago. Why do you staff your group with such raw talent?
Art Blakey, Buhaina, we’d call him. He used to do that, but people forget, Miles Davis did it too with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Gary Bartz. Those guys were young back then. So, Buhaina and Miles understood the power of young minds, but it’s not just young minds. You must have a certain young mind, a mind that’s willing not to cheat the music, but take the music forward. That’s the kind of young guys I like.
When did you meet Miles, and how did he help shape your playing?
I started loving this music when I was three years old. That was the kind of music I fell in love with, and when the rest of my little friends were listening to R& B, I was listening to progressive jazz. And I’m talking about three years old, and I’m listening to Seven Steps to Heaven. And The Freedom Rider, because that was the music in my house and that’s the music I loved. My father was listening to it, but he was listening to other stuff, too. But I chose to hear that music, and in that music, Miles was my hero. Miles and Trane and Ornette and Cannonball, Horace Silver, and Mingus.
Then I heard Dizzy and Bird, and that blew my mind. So, by the time I met Miles, well, I was listening to him and following every record he made. And then, when I became an artist on the scene, I met him when I was 23 years old. I was playing on a retrospective concert for him, when he was getting his honorary degree. And I played on it along with a lot of his other alumni and some R& B guys, like Peabo Bryson. And George Benson.
And I was part of a seven-trumpet thing that was doing a fanfare for him, and we took a couple of choruses of Blue Beach with the rhythm section of Herbie, Tony, and Ron, and then Mile’s band came on and played afterward, his latest band with Darryl Jones and Bill Evans. Darryl had just joined the band, by the way. And Al Foster was in the band, too.
Anyway, afterward, he asked me to come up, and I met him. He said he heard me, he liked what I was doing, and gave me his number to come over to his house. And that’s how I met him.
When you and Miles first connected, and when you first went over to his house, what was the conversation like? Did you guys talk about music?
Oh, it was about music, but the first thing he said when I walked into his doorway is, “I never liked Brownie.” Clifford Brown. He said, “It’s not that I was jealous or anything, he was a nice enough guy, I didn’t think he played as well as everybody thought. That was the first thing he said to me.
At the time, you probably were a Clifford Brown fan.
I was a Clifford Brown fan. Miles was still my idol. Still, my hero. But I was a Clifford Brown fan, you’re right. But I wasn’t going to argue with him because I wanted to understand where he was coming from and learn the lesson he was teaching me, and I’m glad I did.
When you became a well-known bandleader and had a bunch of acclaimed recordings under your belt, did you ever get tired of the comparison to Miles, or people saying Wallace thinks he’s Miles Davis.
No. I never get tired of the comparisons to Miles. I get tired of the critics trying to make it into a negative. Because to me, it’s no comparison. Miles Davis is the greatest ever. What I’m trying to do is continue and push forward from the lessons I learned from him and try to play this music. I’m not trying to do anything else but play music, you know?
What was the greatest lesson that he taught you that you still, carry with you today and that you share with the young musicians in your bands?
To learn everything you can and learn everything about the music and then be yourself. And that’s one thing I think Miles might’ve liked about me that the critics or people don’t understand. I tried to learn everything he knew. I didn’t try to get just a little piece of it. I tried to get all of it.
And that’s the thing when you learn, and you want to learn all of John Coltrane. You want to learn all of Ornette Coleman. You want to learn all of Art Blakey. You want to learn all of Max Roach. I mean, every little piece, you want to learn every part of Herbie, every part of Elvin. You want to learn every part of rock music, every part of Mozart. Every part of the chief orchestrator or chief rhythm guru in Africa. You want to learn everything about it. Why it works and use it, and then come out and use it your way.
I’ve seen you in concert many times. You come out, start a tune, then you go backstage and let the band do their thing. Why do you leave?
I’m listening to shape what the musicians are doing. That’s what I’m doing. I’m still on stage. I get out of their way, but I’m listening to see where to take the music next. Where I’m going to end the song and where I’m going to blend it with the next song. From the beginning of the set to the end of the set is a continuum.
I asked that question because Miles was criticized when he would turn his back to the audience and play, and the audience felt he was being a jerk. Miles said the same thing that you just said, that he could hear the band better and he was trying to figure out some stuff. It wasn’t about that, about being disrespectful to the audience or anything like that.
Right. But with that said, I don’t turn my back to the audience, do I?
No, I just noticed that you walk off stage.
I walk off the stage. So, people can focus on what’s going on instead of looking at me while I’m playing. But what I’m doing is listening to them and trying to coalesce what they’re doing and what the next evolution of the music is going to be. That’s what I’m doing.
Horace Silver was another significant influence on you musically. When did Horace come into your musical life?
Well, Horace was an influence on me. There’s a lot of people that were big influences on me. I had auditioned for his band when I was 18. I didn’t get the gig, but Horace said to me, “Man. I could hire you right now, but I think I would be hurting you.” And he taught me to pay attention to the chord changes in the chords. He said, “I hear what you’re trying to do, but I want you to do it instead of just hitting and missing. In other words, getting every one of those chords, and if you’re going to play off the chord, understand how to play off the chord, which you try to do.”
So Horace really influenced me because I was so hurt I didn’t get the gig, I sat home and I learned every part of the harmonic structures that I was playing in, and that’s why Miles became even more important, because he really showed me how to take those chords and how to take the notes, and bend the chords a certain way. He taught me even more than what I was trying to get to, you know? So, it became a quest to advance what you can do melodically and harmonically.
After you got your chops together, did Horace eventually hire you?
No. Only on those auditions. But Horace was so beautiful. I’ll tell you a great Horace Silver story. I did an audition, and he kept me up there for the week, and he paid for the hotel, and we talked, and that’s when he was telling me things. I’d go in his room and play for him, and he would instruct me on how to play chords. He’d say, “Right there. You missed a chord right there.”
That was 1978 or 79. And then six years later I was playing with Tony Williams. And we were playing in a club called the Montmartre in Denmark.He was there. By that time, man, I had been stretching the harmonies and trying to go beyond what I had already learned, and I was going for it.
And Tony was encouraging me too, and I had been hanging with Miles, and when we got through that set, Horace Silver jumped on the stage and grabbed me and hugged me. He said, “Wallace, wow. You played your booty off, man. ” And then I thanked him, I didn’t know what else to say.
And then he went to Tony Williams and started bragging to Tony about me, so Tony comes to me and says, “Man, Horace was just raving about you.” I didn’t tell Tony the story, the beginning- And then one of my friends who was playing with Horace had told me, “Man, Horace was talking about you. He was talking about when he first met you and how great he thought you were then, but what you evolved into now.”
What’re your thoughts on where jazz is now?
Well, I don’t have any thoughts where jazz is now. That’s like saying where life is now. I can say what life is today, but then a million years from now, it’ll be different. So, you must accept where things are. You can’t tell whether it’s good or bad, you must live it, you know?
If a young musician says to you, “Mr. Roney, I’ve studied your career, and I loved the direction that it’s in or it’s gone in. What advice can you give me, so I can have a career that’s like yours, or better?”
You can’t have better. There are two reasons why you can’t have better. Whatever your career is, it is for you. So, it can’t be better than mine because it was for me. So that’s number one. You can’t have better.
Number two, how are you going to have better than playing with Miles, being with Miles Davis, playing with Tony Williams, being with VSOP, playing with Sonny Rollins, playing with Jay McShann, Elvin Jones. Even people that were my peers never got a chance to do that. And hang with Ornette Coleman. So how are you going to get better than that? It’s not possible. But even though it’s not possible, that’s my life. So, their life, they’re going to have to find what’s better for them or what’s best for them.
If you studied my career, I appreciate that. I hope there’s something in it that can inspire you. That’s what I would say. And I would say if you ask for any advice play this music because you must. Don’t play this music to become a star. Don’t play this music because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. Play it because you must, because you love it.
If you don’t become a star, then what? Are you going to quit the music? Because not everybody’s going to be a star, even though they might deserve it. What if you don’t make a lot of money? Are you going to stop? Well, if you didn’t, then you might as well stop it because some people don’t make a lot of money. And so maybe you don’t win all the awards. Maybe you don’t win anything. Is that your reason for playing? You got to go deep down and find that deep reason for playing. If nothing happens, will you still play?
In your experience, how many jazz musicians have that mentality?
All the great musicians did it for that. Even the ones that became stars didn’t count on being a star. Miles wanted to play with Charlie Parker. And he kept learning and getting better because he wanted to play with Bird. He wanted to catch up with Dizzy, he wanted to learn all that stuff Bird was playing, and Thelonious Monk was playing. It had nothing to do about being a star, you know.
I don’t think Charlie Parker even thought about being a star. He needed money. But man, Charlie Parker, on his days off, went across the street to the tavern and played because he had to. John Coltrane never stopped practicing because he heard something. Other musicians might try to do it because they wanted to be a star, or they thought of it as a profession, but some musicians saw more of it. And if you’re going to play jazz, it’s got to be more than a job.
Going back to “Blue Dawn-Blue Nights” is there anything you’d want to add about its creation?”
I had taken these guys, these young musicians, and they come to my house, and they want to learn, and they want to ask me questions about these great artists that I played with like Herbie and Tony and Ornette Coleman and Wayne, and of course Miles and Art Blakey and Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins and all these people, and I would gladly show them stuff and tell them stories.
We started writing songs, and they’d write these songs, and I’d start showing them some techniques. And I’m talking about the correlation between music and all the music in the world, and the next thing you know, those guys, they became a band just in a very natural way. And they were at the house all the time rehearsing. And we just went right in the studio, said, “Let’s take it in the studio. Let’s try these things.”
And it worked out. It flowed very well. And when we would play, suddenly, there was a beautiful synergy that came from this band. Unfortunately, my nephew didn’t stay in the band because his father felt like he was better served to play with him than my band.
Emilio Modeste, the saxophone player on the new album, is 19, and he has an aggressive approach and tone for his age. I heard him in Stanley Clarke’s band at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
He’s one of the original ones that came over and hung around the house for years.
Are you going to record more with this band?
Let me put it like this. As long as I’m playing music, I will record with my band, and as long as my band is a band, that will be what’s on the record. And in the same way that Bird did, the same thing that Art Blakey did with Horace and Kenny Dorham, and then Horace and then Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons.
The same that Miles did with him and Trane. Everybody, they have a band. You record with your band, and you keep recording because you’re documenting the evolution of the music being made. So, if this band sticks together, there will be another record. If someone leaves for some reason, like my nephew left, then he must be replaced with the next guy. The music keeps going forward.