Pianist Norman Simmons is a native of Chicago, born there in 1929. Before his move to New York in 1959 he performed with Clifford Jordan and Dakota Staton, the first of many singers he has accompanied. One of his first New York jobs was to arrange for Johnny Griffin's Big Soul Band album. Norman has performed with Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Roy Eldridge, Lockjaw Davis, and currently he is pianist and musical director for Joe Williams. He records with Joe and under his own name and performed on Milt Hinton's "Old Man Time" recording.
Norman was interviewed by Michael Woods on a cruise ship in the Caribbean on May 30, 1995.
NS: I'm very pleased to be here.
MW: Let me just ask you a few questions to talk to you about your style as a keyboard artist. How old were you when you first started playing the keyboard, when you knew that's what you wanted to do?
NS: When I knew that I was what I wanted to do, well that was like two questions you just asked me, because I guess I started doing it before I knew that was what I wanted to do. So I started doing it I guess around thirteen years old. So I was kind of an old starter. I started by ear. You know we just happened to have a piano in the house, and, you know, people could come by and everybody could play a little tune on the piano kind of. Prior to that I had played underneath the piano, you know, one of those little player pianos and stuff and it had a lot of gadgets on it, pedals under the bottom, and you could pull the little lid down where the keyboard was and it had all kinds of little things on there you know, that you could work with, and it was like a little rocket ship you know? So then I grew up on top and played some things like "'Coon Shine" you ever heard of that? Get the cross hairs and laying everything on the black keys. And then from then the music, particularly Duke Ellington, I heard a lot of music and I began to just try to pick some out on the piano. I somehow began to... I somehow worked my way into things like after hours.
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MW: Greetings. We are filming on location on board the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. My name is Michael Woods, we're filming for Hamilton College and we're developing a jazz archive. My guest today is Norman Simmons, a very fine and well traveled keyboard artist. Pleased to have you here.
NS: I'm very pleased to be here.
MW: I want to ask you this question, I think we kind of started in on it before, but tell us how you got started playing the piano.
NS: Well we had a piano in the house when I was young. We are, and actually I was born, I was lucky because I was born in the depression time. My father had his own business then, and we had a piano, and we had a [inaudible]. But the piano - as a matter of fact we lived in the neighborhood where the Nat Cole family was. And I don't remember them, but people would come by and could play the piano. And we had an upright, a Stully & Clark upright, which was a player piano, a lot of gadgets on it, you know, pedals underneath and you could pull the little keyboard lid down and there was all kinds of little levers in there that would do things. So I was playing under it at that particular time when I started. And it was my little rocket ship you know. Buck Rogers wasn't around during that time. That was before the real rockets anyway. But anyway I finally grew up to it and learned to play little things on it, I think maybe "'Coon Shine" was first, and then, listening to records, listening to Duke Ellington and like that I began to pick out things on the piano. So I started playing by ear. The procedure is, I'd work myself up to something like "After Hours," I had "After Hours" in my repertoire. "Black Out." I used to kind of imitate the Ellington band and I remember doing, I remember doing it but I can't remember the name, one of his pieces. I mean I used to go to school and play them. I was in the A Capella. And before the teacher would come in I'd you know, play my little stuff on the piano, and of course there was just a bevy of little sopranos hanging around the piano.
MW: Aha. The plot thickens.
NS: Oh, yes. It starts with popularity. And when I saw that, that encourages you to go and learn a few more pieces.
MW: Yeah, okay, yeah.
NS: You know and then you discover other pianists in the school, and you go from...
MW: Who else was there?
NS: In my particular school, no one in particular that I remember. In my neighborhood I grew up, there was a guy, Earl Thomas, all of his family, his father was like our community leader. And his house was like the community center. They had about seven or nine children in the family, which you understand that when each one of them had visitors to come by, they could load the house up. So the ground floor, they had like a brownstone, three stories. The ground floor had nothing on it. That was our community center. But it had a piano, you know, maybe an old raggedy couch, a piece of lawn furniture, and we could hang, and in those days, I stayed out and I was like thirteen years old. I stayed out, as long as I did my work at home, like my mother assigned me, we stayed out all night. We could hang out on this front porch. And so he was kind of an influence, because I started by ear, but then he started taking music down at the Chicago School of Music. And that caused me to want to go down there. All of his sisters were given, his sisters and brothers, they were all given music lessons. So their family brought them, and his father was a postman, and brought them up that way. And they all were musical.
MW: How old were you when you started to learn how to read music?
NS: Now that's an embarrassing question.
MW: I didn't mean it that way, but I'm getting at something.
NS: Reading is something because you know it's funny thing. I have to mention this about reading. It's something that I discovered. You know, and I think it's still today, when you're playing the piano they don't teach you how to read. You know and so that's one thing that I began to learn that I try to teach myself. It's what reading really is. So when I started taking lessons for instance, if you can call that learning to read, I was about fourteen years old when I finally started taking some lessons down at the Chicago School of Music. And reading is something that's just sort of built into your lessons that becomes, that you sort of take on gradually. And I say that I didn't learn to read then because immediately, since I had started playing by ear, music was, the minute I read the notes to see what it was, it was absorbed.
MW: That's what I wanted to get at. Because most of the musicians I know who started learning music by ear, they hear a sound that they like or an artist that they like that's producing a sound that they're drawn to. And then they try to reproduce that sound. And for instance like when I coach my, I coached a Black gospel choir for years. They couldn't read notes. But any line I could sing to them they could sing it back, with all the inflections in there. And so, you know, I feel that sometimes when you learn that way, your ability to express is deeper.
MW: Because when I learned, don't feel bad, I was up in my twenties when I learned how to read music.
NS: Well I was getting around to that part too.
MW: But when you have the page in front of you, something ... the emphasis seems to be that of execution rather than expression.
NS: How you described those people that learned by ear, to me that is a primary element. Because to me the ear is number one. Number one. And even some of our great classical composers sort of played by ear. So the ear is number one, and as I say, because even reading music is a form of memory. So consequently the idea is if you have this ability to absorb a tone, be able to repeat it and retain it, then being taught to read can be easier.
MW: Now I want to ask you, I noticed on your resume that you've played with some incredible artists, and we're going to try to focus in a little bit on Joe Williams because some of this documentary is built around him, but I've noticed that you also, last night particularly in your show behind Joe, you are such a fine accompanist. You seem to understand how to play so sensitively behind a singer. Tell me what it's like backing up a guy like Joe. Tell us about playing that role, of playing the piano behind a vocalist like that.
NS: Well, I'll go back to the beginning, because to me everything goes back to kindergarten. And listening to Duke Ellington, the one thing I noticed is I said that I tried to imitate his band on the piano. And I noticed just right away the individuality of the people in his group as soloists, and how the music was written around them. And to me, I orchestrate for one thing. It gives me that lead voice and it frees me to orchestrate because this lead voice is taking care of the melodic part. And then I can do composition in the back. And that's the basic concept. When it became officially, officially accompaniment, because I was coming before with sensitivity, but Carmen McRae explained to me and laid down the foundations which I now can like theoretically explain what accompaniment really does, how it work, and what it is. Because she plays the piano too. And when I joined her, she explained to me what it was. And that's what I use basically. So Joe is very easy to accompany because I know this, I guess I accompany most people very well for the simple reason because you're doing an instant arrangement. And you're already deciding where it should go based on what the person is doing. Where to increase the emotion. Where to diminish the emotion. How their breathing is. Where their phrasing is. And you begin to orchestrate accordingly like that. But someone...what makes it come out so good is that also when you have a great artist, they deliver that information to you, you know? So they are making it easy for you because they are so formulated, they're so ... where they are going and how they want to feel is so definitely delivered. Just like you pick up a noise, I pick it up there and that's what allows you to bring it to another level, a really great level as a great artist.
MW: I wanted to say this. I saw, you know, your performance last night with Joe and it seemed to me like there was just marvelous levels of unspoken communication going on on that stage. And just the way you all played together, the dynamic levels, the little fluctuations in the tempos, some of the intros that the time just seemed to float until you wanted it locked in to a specific beat you know. How many years does it take to learn to do that? And if there was a young keyboard artist coming up today, what would you tell them to how to do some of these things?
NS: Well it's a funny thing. A young keyboard artist approached me with a question similar to that. And he said, you know, "how do I get to that point?" And it was a very simple answer. Time. Because as you go along in life, you know, and music is an expression of all of the things you are in your history, your techniques and stuff, as you begin to compile them, you know, as much as people know you just can't know all of these things until you've had some time not only just to have heard about them but in some kind of way, delve yourself in them. Because it's an emotional thing. And you can't just totally express things that you are unfamiliar with. It takes time for you to come in contact with the experience to be able to do it. You know, as you know, a lot of things we delve, like Gospel you know? This is something they understand. Or classical. And then you switch them to another area and they don't have the feel for it.
MW: Let me talk to you about playing the piano in a Gospel setting. Because I teach a course on the history of jazz. And I tell many of the students, I said if you attempt to fully and completely understand jazz, but you know nothing about the Black church, you're going to miss something. Because some of that feel that comes, like you're talking about the church, the Black church is the center of the whole African-American community. And a lot of us started in church, myself included. And that feel is still there, where, I'm going to explain it this way and then I want to hear your input on it, where the emotional content of the music is far more important than the objective design. For instance, if a soprano is singing a well known hymn, let's say "Amazing Grace," and you go to church. If you say, I don't want to hear the melody, I already knew the melody when it came. I want to know how you feel about it. Tell us one of your experiences that you got from playing Gospel music or listening to it or including it in your sounds that you now deliver.
NS: That's very difficult for me to try to reach and try to tell you specifically what that is necessarily. I may be still in the process of trying to analyze that myself. Because sometimes we used to like to say we had it naturally. And sometimes I find that it is part of our experience, there are things that are built in that help you with that. Sometimes it doesn't come totally naturally. And yet and still, by being in that community where that's happening, that's how you get it. And that goes back a long ways in the history of the African-American when they first began to improvise the music. So that's something that goes back even further than I guess the Gospel church. You know I read Southern's book, what was that name?
MW: Eileen Southern's book?
NS: Eileen Southern's book. And she was very kind of descriptive about that in the beginning about how when they were all in the Protestant church and stuff like that how they just automatically improvised some of the standard stuff. You know, because I guess the way they sort of chanted from where they came from, these straight notes didn't satisfy something you know, so they had to take them, and write in this feeling. And also the rhythm - something I began to notice too, is that I began to look at, even on television, and when I see the Africans dance, they're still using afterbeats rather than the downbeat. They got that little extra beat in there when they dance you know, that was not in the European experience. And this effects the feeling of the music a great deal. And when I try to get people to get the feeling in there, there's one thing I try to get them into is the afterbeat. Because that's the beat that frees you. And this is one of the things I think that frees the improvisation is the afterbeat. Because that first beat is so strong and so dominating, that once you hit it, it tends to stop everything. It's not a starting beat, it's a stopping beat. So when you come down on that beat, everything just lays, it doesn't come up again. So to me, this is where I saw some of this represented, it takes the emphasis off the first beat, and then it evens the beats out. It doesn't make the second beat heavier, it just takes that heaviness out of the downbeat. You know, and that sort of frees you. That makes you float a lot more.
MW: That allows it to flow better?
NS: That's right. So if you play that, when I do it with singers, and I make them do the African beat, a lot of them can not sing and pop their fingers. But if they can do that then they have to relate to where this is falling, it changes everything immediately. Immediately it changes everything.
MW: You know I was going to say in jazz, you know one of the most subtle parameters is that of what happens to the time continuum. You know so the fact that you're saying that the second beat, by putting the emphasis to the second beat and allowing the first beat to feel as though it's implied rather than stated, allows information to flow over longer periods without it having to be punctuated all the time. Then another thing I'd like you talk about, because I heard you doing this is your playing...
NS: But the other thing you just mentioned, rhythm, and I heard Wynton Marsalis capsulize this thing, that the next thing in the line is rhythmical improvisation.
MW: That's what I was getting at. Talk to us about that.
NS: Rhythmical improvisation you know? And it's the same thing. Once you get into the afterbeat thing, it influences, you know because a lot of songs are written with this pentameter where it arrives on these beats. And once you move that out of the way you have to improvise. Now the other thing, now to take this sentence and give it a rhythm, and already you're on the alternate beat. So it's demanding something from you already. Now how you find that a lot of times, vocally you find it in the lyric you know. Once you begin to understand, the same thing, an emotional thing that I find with emotional players, and I'm from Chicago which is a Blues place. So that chain, right from the Gospel goes right into the Blues and so you find that same kind of emotion there. And so the point is in the phrase, there always seems to be a part of it that is more important than the others. And this creates a shading, the part that you tend to emphasize, where the yell is, you know, it makes everything else fall differently. So that's the thing about it. There is a point in the phrase that begins to become more important than the other points that create this emotional feeling. And when you can realize some point in what you're trying to do, where you're going has an arriving point and the other parts have a sort of an approach. You know I happened to notice it in even in Ahmad's playing a lot when I used to listen to his playing. And in Chicago a lot there was that going places, as opposed to everything being important along the way.
MW: In other words there was a hierarchy. Sometimes the volume is more important or sometimes the tone color was more important.
NS: It was sort of, I would say the note, and then everything goes with the note you know. I would tell them lyrically in a sentence, there's probably only one word per phrase that is the most important word, and everything sort of leads to that. When you realize what that is, that will cause you to make the decision of where and when I'm going to place this word. At what volume. So if the lyric line is such that this particular word, the way you wrote it is in a low pitch, you may need to move it to another space. Well that changes the whole line of how you get there. If you want this to stand out. Also because you know in the diction of Carmen, with Carmen's diction, she was like that in her expressions. You know she was very particular about her diction. And even though everything else was very clean, Carmen could evoke emotion from people because she simply was able to choose a word and just sort of stab it right into you. And it's the comparison that allows you to hear everything else. And I had a lot of people, we'd come off the stage and she'd say "you know I heard that song a lot of times but I never really heard the lyric." Because you know it's that contrast that keeps your ear hearing. Like the silence in certain spots, you did it so that you set it up so that here's where I'm going so that you can for yourself get it. But if everything is of equal value, then you tend to lose a lot of it.
MW: Or you take information for granted.
NS: Yeah. Like when we, even in singing, [inaudible] to sing something, and they'll be singing Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta, and then nothing goes like that. You know we used to sing like scuba uba nuda. Every other line is kind of shaded, even in Bebop where there is that evenness. You know, they are shading things. There is just a quicker vibration. But in the other forms of music, it was much more [sings]. You know what I mean? So there is a syncopation that's happening inside. Like [sings].
MW: Ghosting some of them notes.
NS: That's right. But you have to know which ones are important, you know what I mean? And that in itself creates a rhythmical feeling, you know, when you are able to make those choices.
MW: Now I want to ask you something. When you are talking about ghosting notes here, and you're talking about this shading. I wanted to ask you, doesn't that take a tremendous amount of technique on a piano? Because on a saxophone, you're dealing with your own wind pressure against the mouthpiece. You can get all types of articulations by how you use your embrochure. On a guitar you can bend the string or you can put vibrato on it like B.B. King does. But on a piano, a piano is a digital instrument.
NS: And mechanical.
MW: And mechanical. So give us a little idea of how you go about accomplishing that. How do you impose your will over this digital thing?
NS: I've often wondered about that. Over this instrument. Because I can listen to these players and I'll mention Jamal, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and hear them, and after all these gears that have to work when you touch a string, they can still deliver their personalities through there. And, but for me and maybe for some other players also, and imagination too, that's the other thing about the instrument, would be the same thing. Say for instance when I went to music, if I just heard maybe these little piano books or whatever you was giving me, then the piano would sound like a piano. But you see I'm not hearing piano. I'm playing the piano, and so consequently I came up in the saxophone era so a lot of things that I'm doing are saxophone for instance, or maybe a whole trumpet section, you understand? And so consequently I go after the instrument to try to draw those effects out. I may be doing guitar sometimes when I'm playing the Blues you know? We were talking about Dave McKenna, who was on the boat last night who is a master of playing the bass line, and Mike Rensey, who also is on the boat, he's on as a passenger right now but Mike is a great arranger. He's done a lot for singers, he's a great jazz player. He was on there with Mel Torme when Mel got married. He's a great man. We were talking about Dave McKenna, and the fact that he is such a master of playing - guys play bass lines but it's the same thing, theirs don't sound right. But he was in there playing right then, and the thing is the bass fiddle doesn't have this aggressive approach at the piano. So sometimes when he's playing his bass line, it's not thunderous, it's just underlaying. So if I go down and play a bass note, I want it to sound like a bass fiddle. So I just draw the sound out. I don't try to get - boom - I just say - oom. You know what I mean? You get that touch so the gears are just humming down there. And so you can hear the top of what he's saying that there's two levels going on. Well piano players, they're playing these bass lines. So it sounds like a piano [scats]. And he's saying [scats]. You know what I mean? And so you just feel that vibration, that emotional part of the string instrument gives you. And that's what you're trying to get out of the instrument, out of the piano. Not these individual, all these notes stringing, but this linear, just one string that's it's coming out of.
MW: You're talking about a person with great interpretive abilities, and great conceptual abilities.
NS: Well I think that's what we say is imagination. In imagination you can be hearing something else is coming out of your instrument, but in your imagination ... you listen to Joe, and it's a good example. And he explains it sometimes on the stage. What he is saying is coming out as a voice, but he could explain the voice. Like when he came up and he says he's listening to the choir and he's singing all the parts - the soprano part, and the you know? So the point that you wonder about, in your imagination, is his high notes and stuff like that, that's because he thinks that way. He doesn't think about this one range or whether it's bad. He goes up and becomes a soprano. And that keeps that part alive because in his imagination it's really alive you know? Or when he imitates a trumpet. If you hear John Hendricks do this it's so authentic, well they don't confine the voice, if you can understand that the voice can do a lot of things. You know, and that's the idea of looking at music as specifically music only. I did a seminar, I went over with Rufus Reid and a bunch of other musicians to Australia. And I had the vocal department you know. My claim to fame over there is all of the other instructors used to come by because the vocal department was full of ladies. But you know there was two teachers there. One of them, Judy, maybe it was not Judy Bailey in Australia, but somebody that I knew, she plays piano and sings and she was the other instructor. When we opened up, we kept everybody together for the opening lecture. She brought in a record of Danny Kaye. And the same thing she wanted them to understand what the voice could really do. And I'm still looking for that record, I've got to look her up and get it for me. But she put that record on, and Danny Kaye did so many things with his voice, imitates so many things, so they can free them from this idea of just singing these notes you know? So this is the same thing we go back again to the Gospel singer. You understand? Because if I can put it this way, in the jungle you've got all these birds making these sounds, and this is what they've learned. This is what they have built into their voice and learned the notes from one point to another it can take them, there is imagination right away that recalls, and many times that's what it represents, it reminds you of something else. And in their tradition, all the sounds that was going, that you recognized, your trees blowing or a monkey squealing, they had all that in their vocal repertoire. And all of it comes through, the notes or the opportunity, they can kind of remind them of that as they go there. And it just took them back home.
MW: I would like to ask you a question now about have you had occasion to work with Count Basie at all? And then even if you haven't worked with him, can you tell us how his style of keyboard playing helped that rhythm section. Everybody talks about that being the big band rhythm section.
NS: The Basie band, of course you know Basie plays piano, and during the period of time when Joe, well Joe has always gone back as the Prodigal son, but during the time that I became regular with him Basie would always tell Joe, "why don't you bring your own piano player, you know, because everybody else does." Joe didn't bring his own piano player because he was the Prodigal son. So when he went there he went home. And he started even taking me but I didn't get a chance to play, you know. He would bring me and I'd stand in the wings, not until I think after Basie passed did I begin to then play in the band, which was a good experience. Because Basie's thing, and the same thing when we talk about on the stage and the communication, this is something I learned through Basie and Duke. I had to begin to realize that when I'm sitting at the piano, the same way I'm getting it from Joe, I can't holler across the piano to tell the musicians what I want. I had to learn how to play it in the playing. And so it's the same thing, and Basie made the same kind of adjustment in his band that Ahmad made with his group, because Ahmad is a great pianist too. But when he put that group together with Vernel Fournier, it was their talent that formulated that style that helped to conquer it. Because Ahmad had a definite style prior to that. But when they began to do what they do, Ahmad left space for them to do it. Miles picked that up. He comes and he sets the pace, he commands where it's going to go, then he lets them go. Ahmad comes in and he makes the statement, the difference is it was just the rhythm section. And to me, that's the other thing with me all the time. Even when I sit down and play solo piano, I don't think of myself as a piano player, I think of myself as a rhythm section. So that's that imagination thing again you know, as a rhythm section. So this is what I think about Basie being underneath all the time, is the rhythm section. So you're sitting there and you're creating these rhythms, and the rhythm and the pulse that's going on. And this is a lot of times what you're playing with, you're playing with this pulse and you're making this pulse breathe, and you're laying this pulse against whatever is going on out there, and effecting it with just this pulse thing you know? So Ahmad and all of them, Basie had that, where they could sit down and deliver that kind of information to the band. That was another definition that I just read, Joseph Campbell, and I have one of his books. I'm going to get his thing on myths and stuff like that. Very profound stuff. But he explained that an artist is a technique, an artist is a technique, and that is to say that in other words you can bring a Sal Nestico arrangement into Basie or Quincy Jones and when they play it, he's going to make it come out Basie. You understand what I mean? There is an understanding there. So when he is there, the way he is going to set it up, there is a concept that he has that is a technique that this band formulates. And when everybody comes in there, they find out about this and everybody sort of melts into it. But it is in him. There is this technique of a lot of things, there's no telling what it is. Part of it is the dancing you know? And this impetus that the band has to dance. And you'd be surprised when you're a leader and you conceive all these things, your experiences, a lot of times the sidemen haven't taken time to conceive all these things, because they're not responsible for getting the check from the guy. You know when you have to meet the man you're being paid by you start considering how the band expresses. And pretty soon this becomes knowledge that you have that all of a sudden it becomes a technique. And when you see it is successful you begin to retain these ideas that succeed. And so all of a sudden the same thing, Basie was of course Kansas City and the Blues and the feeling was there, so that part is incorporated in the band you know? But he had the ability, at some particular time, and I would attribute it, because the secret I think is Freddie Green. You understand what I mean? Basie said "hey I've got to let this happen." You understand what I mean? I've got to let this happen. I'm just going to come in and just sort of just urge it on at times you know what I mean? And keep the band together. But this is where we lay it. This is that main pulse underneath it that everything is going against.
MW: I want to ask you something about Freddie Green real quick. Now you know Freddie Green played that unamplified guitar and he just chunked them chords in there. But the sound of that unamplified guitar was a very soft sound. If Basie had hit the same chords that many times of the keyboard, he would have been an obtrusive sound. But he knew, he said if I can get that sound very subtle, to kind of just chunk along under the band and then I just color over the top of it.
NS: Well let me tell you something else too. And it also had to be expressed, I remember reading something about the Duke Ellington orchestra, the Duke Ellington music they was doing down in Washington, D.C. in the archives down there. And the guy that was leading the band, his name doesn't come to me immediate right now...
MW: You talking about Dave Linker?
NS: No it wasn't David at this particular time. Gunther Schuller. He had to explain to the band at that time that they understand you see, the Basie band for instance and the Duke Ellington band, that was one of the first things I noticed is that the swing of the band did not rest on the rhythm section. That underlying, that separation of the two you see, and that's what they really - in other words the horns swung by themselves. And so consequently a lot of times we'd get a big band and the big band drummer seems to take over. Joe has to explain that a lot of times because he's out of the Basie college. So he'll tell the drummers you know, I've seen Frank Wess do the same thing, hey, don't catch everything, just sit there and lay it down. And let the horns play. You know what I mean? You don't have to hit everything or do everything that's to be done you know? So that is a Basie thing. They have this level, and sometimes when I say when I go to do a sound check, I say we have to have, at the start of this, absolute pianissimo. We have to have this acoustic level that we can go to, that we can go up from there. So don't give us too much electric so we can't get down there. Where there is that underlying thing that when you go down to the bottom of the Basie band, there is always going to be Freddie. You know what I mean? And so consequently they have to continually relate to that. And that creates a definite dynamic. Duke didn't play a lot of piano. Again, there was some time, and that was one of the things when I was listening to him, that whole band seemed to be resting on Jimmy Blanton. And so that was a dancing bottom that was happening in that band. You know? And Sonny Greer played there unobtrusively, not commanding and demanding. So consequently here you have this line. Not this [scats] but [scats] and Duke would just let it happen. You know what I mean? Play his little runs and little introduction you know? I'll tell you a story about Duke. I'm in the Regal Theater, a young man, this was the first time that I got that close to him so you know he was my number one influence you know, so this was exciting for me. I'm backstage and you know they have a half hour when the curtain comes down and everything. So in the meanwhile he's got all these stars in the band, almost everybody and somebody in every section of his was on the top of the Down Beat poll. Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown, Ben Webster - no Ben wasn't in on it, this was the band with Clark Terry and them. But there was Clark of course, Johnny Hodges was still there, Harry Carney, all these leaders are still in the band. Louie Bellson is in the band, you know? So it's time for the show to go on. The half hour. And the guy comes to ring the bell at a half hour, 'cause there's no one in the theater at that particular time. I mean backstage. Then they bring up the movie screen, and the other curtain is getting ready to come up, so we get into fifteen minutes. Five minutes. All along at that particular time there's nobody on except Louis Bellson. So when the curtains is coming up, Louis just starts to playing. This is what Duke would do, I seen Duke do the same thing, he's got something, if it's him by himself he'll start, if it's two, he's got an arrangement for everything you know, he does not get uptight. The show goes on. So Louie just starts to playing. And these guys are just walking across the stage and the curtain is coming up and they're walking invisibly across the stage, taking their time with their horns and stuff like that. And Louie is soloing you know? When he gets enough of them out there, maybe six or seven you know out there, then he hits it. [scats] They're playing "Jam with Sam" in unison. [scats] You know I have the record at home. [scats] And they're just playing. In the meanwhile, Paul's solo is coming up you know. Paul is coming up down from the basement, the band room was down in the basement. Here comes Paul creeping up the stairs you know. [scats] and he's about at the top of the stairs. [scats] This is his solo. He runs from the wings, slides right into the microphone, meanwhile, the guy backstage, the band is out there cooking, the guy backstage is hollering "Duke! Duke!" Now Duke is upstairs in the rafters someplace in his dressing room, you know. The band is wailing. Here comes Duke downstairs, takes his time and stuff like that, and says hello to a few ladies, the band gets toward the end of the tune and Duke strolls out and stands in front of them, cuts the band off, walks over to the other side, plays a little introduction on the piano, the band struck up again, and he walked right out the other side, socialize again. So that band had something special, but that's the thing that I noticed, the horn section, they swing. So consequently you could understand how this too is delivering something as a component to the rhythm section, and the rhythm section is feeling that they're holding this band up, so even though they both function very well, there was an independence you know? And that affected how Basie's style, how he played. I don't need to prompt this band and pound on them to make it happen, this band is just resting on ... you know so when we say Owww, people know it's in there, it's that contrast again. Because they're not going to come all the way down here and just let it ride. [scats] you know?
MW: Now that takes, that really takes listening. You know you have to listen. You know today a lot of youngsters today, they play too loud.
NS: Joe has a phrase, he says if you can't hear the rest of the guys in the band... and maybe Basie used to say this ... because I can see him saying this to the guys, but if you can't hear the rest of the people in the band, you are playing too loud. So again, you know, and that allows you to determine where that level is. Because you come down and if you come down so that you can hear, the whole thing comes down to a blending level you know? And it's the same thing like with the touch on the piano. Like if you're going to play complicated chords, it's not, it's a different thing to try to dig them into the piano as opposed to just play it so that you just draw the sound out of the piano and then they will blend and you get a balance you know, a balanced attack.
MW: Let me ask you, if you had to name for us three of who you think are all time, your all time favorite keyboard artists, you only get to pick three.
NS: I have to go, I have to go like influence. And I'd have to say that was Ahmad Jamal, and I'd have to say Oscar Peterson, because Oscar actually took the time, Oscar turned the corner for me. In other words prior to Oscar, I was out of that Duke Ellington mode and I was like a background player. I didn't know pianists until I worked opposite him one week at the Blue Note and observed him and watched the piano playing and that kind of a thing. But he took the time to talk to me on two or three occasions. At that time he took time, he set the criteria for my technique then, because I had had this operation and he could see that I was having a problem. And he stopped me. This was like 1953. And he and Ray Brown - he had just come out Canada and he and Ray Brown had teamed up and they were doing a duo actually. And he took the time to stop me and explain to me some things to me about piano playing, just two or three things on the table between the time that he was going on the stage and I'm coming off. I was with Flip Phillips and Bill Harris, he had just left the Woody Herman band. And in that short time he laid down a piano criteria for me that after that just sent me out leaps and bounds. And Ahmad Jamal, who again, he was so effective. He was one of the like what you'd call a prophet in your own hometown which doesn't happen? Well he was it. He was in Chicago. When he came to Chicago he came from Pittsburgh, but we sort of, I don't know if we adopted him or captured him. Because we like to feel he was from Chicago. 'Cause Chicago is such a great musical place for one thing, that a lot of guys, all those guys that came up from Memphis like George Coburn and all and Harold Maeburn. They almost feel like they're from Chicago because when they arrived, something happened in their musical experience. Well when Ahmad got there, the same thing. This was present in people like Nat King Cole. We were all hearing that at the time, you know. But to hear a person in person to come and the first time I heard him I mean it was there. When he was playing gigs with people before he formed the first trio, people were following him around and tape recording him. You know what I mean? And when he formed his first trio, the club he worked in, you couldn't get in there. You couldn't get in a little club, it wasn't as wide as this and a long club like that. And him and Red Crawford and Eddie Calhoun. And he had formulated this technique even then. When he was playing with everybody else it was in his playing. But then when he formed this trio, Eddie Calhoun has got those maracas and he's playing [scats], and Ray Crawford instead of playing like this he's playing on the back [scats] on the guitar. So here you've got the guitar is now playing ching-ching-ching-ching-ching, and he's out there going doon-doon-doon-doon-doon. And I'm telling you the truth, they had something goin' on there that was unbelievable. So that was again, a concept, a technique that was together. And he played more piano. Vernel Fournier was in my group and he wrote "Poinciana" when he was in my group. Because he wrote that rhythm. And I had played with Israel Crosby at the Bee Hive, when I first went to the Bee Hive to play, Israel was there. Israel started going out with Benny Goodman and stuff like that. Vernel was still in my group when Ahmad pulled him. But when he put them two together, and right now, I played last week and the bass player did [scats]. Israel had a sound and a melodic approach again, and Vernel's unique way to play. When they came to New York City for instance, I heard Vernel play when he came up from New Orleans. So he's another one that we sort of adopted in Chicago. He came up from New Orleans and the first time I heard him play we were on the west side, I walked in some club and again I could hear right away, this cat had a way of playing the drums that was something else.
MW: In other words a personality was there.
NS: Well it wasn't a definite thing there. To him was a combination of things. Because I sit and talked to him just recently. And you know when you start teaching people ask you questions and you start to figure out how to explain this stuff. You don't explain it to yourself as long as you're playing it. But when people start to feel it, you say, now really what is it you know? Because here he had this jazz thing, this Latin ability you know, built in and then underneath that was that New Orleans. That New Orleans powered strong, solid beat that was there. And he's breaking it up on top with these other things. And I began to see that that was there and it's the same thing with Ahmad. They had that thing that they had that was the underlying thing.
MW: Let me tell you we've had a marvelous time here discussing the history of jazz and piano technique with Norman Simmons, and we've been filming here for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. And thank you very much.
NS: Oh my third piano player before we go.
MW: Okay, real quick.
NS: Hank Jones. Hank Jones. Don't forget it.
MW: Thank you.
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