In part-two of our interview Jim took the time to tell me about going to the University of North Texas, playing with the One O’Clock, and transitioning out of school to play with Maynard Ferguson. If you haven’t read part-one you can check it out here.
Be sure to visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.
David Ochoa: So I’m interested in what the jazz scene was like when you got to music school because I think a lot of students, including myself, begin to listen to a lot of contemporary jazz when they get to school. But what does contemporary jazz look like in the late–80’s? What were you all listening to? That’s not really a time period that’s covered in most jazz history courses.
Jim White: Well, I remember I was getting caught up. There was a lot of jazz music that I really didn’t know. But I remember people were still listening to Miles because he was still putting out records, which was a big deal, even though Miles was also recording a lot of pop tunes. I remember listening to a lot of the Elektric Band because Chick Corea was doing his thing. I was listening to a lot of this fusion-y, technical, stuff, but at the same time I loved the R&B stuff, like the Crusaders and early Yellowjackets. I also loved Cameo, Mother’s Finest, and a lot of music that came out of Atlanta.
DO: And did that stem from hanging out with those R&B musicians in Atlanta?
JW: Yeah. Everyone at school was listening to Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl and was really into fusion music. I wouldn’t say that everyone was checking out bebop, but I started getting tired of playing music that I had never really heard before, because I couldn’t play it confidently or convincingly. I realized that there were a lot of tunes I didn’t know, and had never heard the original recordings. I started asking people what recordings they were listening to, and then I would go check it out and all of a sudden, I could play the music a lot better. I realized that’s how I had taught myself all along, by playing along with recordings. Jazz music was no different. I started playing along with big band records and I started sounding better. I started getting more positive feedback by imitating the recordings.
I also latched on to a couple of drummers, most prominently Mel Lewis, and I was really hooked on swinging jazz music. I think everybody has a certain musician they listen to, and they make a connection with. By checking them out really carefully and imitating them, that’s where they make a lot of progress. For me, I think Mel Lewis was that guy in the jazz idiom. I learned so much from studying him, and that changed my approach to playing in a big band, and small group.
DO: It informed everything you did.
JW: Yeah. Exactly.
DO: So when I was doing research for this, I saw that you recorded with Chris Potter during the early-90’s. Was that for Stefan Karlsson’s record?
JW: Well, the first record that I ever played on was Stefan’s record called The Road Not Taken, and I remember I went to Houston to record it with Dick Oatts, Rich Perry and Marc Johnson. I just told you I was a big Mel Lewis fan, so I knew exactly who Dick Oatts was, I knew who Rich Perry was, and I knew of Marc from Bill Evan’s trio, so I was super nervous going down there. But all those guys treated me so nicely. We stayed down there for a week recording, and we recorded about 3 records worth of material. Much of it has never been released. It was a blast, and I really had no business being there playing with those guys, but I’m glad that I took the opportunity and met them, because you just have to just jump in somewhere.
But the Chris Potter thing you’re talking about came out later, after I had moved from New York and was living in Nashville. Those recordings were with an amazing bassist and singer named Jim Ferguson. We did a couple of records with Chris and did some live dates. That was the first time I met Chris. He is an amazing player.
DO: After a bit of time at North Texas you land in the One O’Clock. Was Neil still directing at the time?
JW: Yeah, he was still there. When I was there, I started in the Six O’Clock for the fall and spring, then after my freshman year I went out and did the Disneyland College Band and had a blast that summer. Then, I came back for my sophomore year and I played in the Two O’Clock band. [Jim] Riggs didn’t really like my playing too much, so in the spring I got demoted to the Three O’Clock band. There was a drummer named Clyde Connor who came to school from Oklahoma that semester, and I think that Clyde was the one that displaced me. Clyde is an incredible drummer, and definitely one of the best big band drummers I have ever heard. None of us could touch him, playing with a big band. However, I really liked being in the Three O’Clock because I had a lot of friends in that band. After that, I did another summer down in Florida playing at Disney World and when I came back in the fall, that’s when I started playing in the One O’Clock. I played in that band for 3 years.
DO: Did you all do any touring?
JW: We traveled quite a bit, and played gigs just about every weekend. I remember going on tours to Mexico and Canada. I still have a ton of recordings of that group because I was like the Alan Lomax of that band. The school would make recordings of every gig with that band, but I was the one that would go and make copies of them, so I still have all of the cassettes. I recently watched a a video of that band that someone posted on my facebook page. We were all just full of piss and vinegar. Everyone was just totally going for it the whole time.
DO: So was that your first touring experience with a big band?
JW: Well, I would say that my first touring experience was with the McDonalds Jazz Band. I learned so much in that band because we would travel everyday when we were on tour. There are things I learned in that band that I still carry with me today. I remember we would get on the bus and Bob [Curnow] would say, “Everybody, put your hand on your music.” Invariably there would be one of us that did not have our music. It would end up being in someone’s hotel room or sitting in the lobby of the hotel. So there are things like that that I’ll always remember.
For instance, Bob taught me that I have to have my tools to do my gig. I have to have my cymbals, my sticks, my music and I have to have the clothes I need to wear for the performance. Anything else is no big deal, but I have to have those things ,and I really learned that in playing in that band.
DO: I know you’ve lived in New York and I know that you’ve played with Maynard Ferguson, but can you talk to me about your transition out of school?
JW: Well, when I was in school, there were a lot of North Texas guys playing in Maynard’s band. After I had just gotten into the One O’Clock band, Maynard’s band called because they were looking for a drummer. I really wanted to do it but I knew that if I didn’t finish my degree, I probably wouldn’t come back to finish school. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to get out of school as early as I could, but I wanted to finish my degree. They didn’t call again until 1992. I was still playing in the One O’Clock at the time, and Maynard’s road manager, Ed Sargent, otherwise known as “Big Daddy,” called me up asked me if I wanted to come out because they had a spot. I didn’t want to come until a certain date because I wanted to finish my last exam so I could graduate, and he told me they needed someone to start two weeks prior to that. I told him that there was no way I can make it, and he just said that they have to go with someone else, and if they work out, they’ve got the gig. I told him I understood.
At that same time I first heard about an amazing, young Derek Trucks, who was about 13 years old. Bruce Hampton, who helped raise me musically, along with Jeff Sipe, Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, and all the guys in Atlanta, was trying to get me on Derek’s gig. Derek was playing dates with some older musicians as he was just a kid at the time.
DO: Right, and he’s out there touring with older musicians.
JW: Yeah. Derek’s manager Bunky Odom called me and sent out a demo of Derek that was produced by Chuck Leavell, and it’s unbelievable. Derek sounded incredible. I remember Igoing to Atlanta and I went and met Derek, and we played together. I had a blast, but Ed Sargent called me back and told me that it wasn’t really working out with that drummer, and asked if I might still be able to come and do the gig? At the time I had just finished my degree, and had always dreamed of playing Maynard’s band. Of course I said, “Yes!”
So, I went and met him the band in Philadelphia and started the next night. I got to do a lot of great things with that band even though I only stayed with that band for the rest of the year. We went to Japan, and we did a tour of Europe, and I got to do a record with him. I also learned a lot from the other guys in the band, most of which were older then me. The rhythm section was a bunch of young guys that are great players. Doug Bickel was the pianist, and Dennis Marks played bass. It was a good experience for me.
DO: What was Maynard like during that time? Because he must have been in at least his late 50’s, right?
JW: Oh, he was older than that. I’m not sure on his exact age, but he was great. It’s funny because every tune had an extended drum solo. I mean, more drum solos then anyone could hope, or want to play in a night. Maynard would always stand off to the side of the stage and watch–really tune in. I thought, “Man, he must really like my playing. I’m soloing on practically every tune.” Then I realized that my solos were really just an opportunity for the horn players to rest their chops! [Laughs]
But there were a lot of open drum solos and Maynard was incredibly supportive. He would come back and hang with us on the bus. We rarely rehearsed.
DO: So they just kind of gave you the book, told you to check out the recordings, and they would see you on the gig?
JW: Yeah. I mean I never rehearsed with the band. Ever. We just started that night in Philadelphia and it was great. I had a blast, and met some great musicians. That’s when I first met Brian Blade. When we recorded Maynard’s Footpath Cafe, Brian was with a group called The Jazz Futures, who opened up for us at this jazz club in Belgium. His playing totally blew me away. Joey [DeFrancesco, the great organist who was just in town for the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival] reminded me that the first time I met him was when we were playing at a big, outdoor festival at the Pine Knob in Detroit. At the time, Maynard was negotiating a deal with GRP Records that never came to fruition, but we played on that festival with Larry Carlton, Joey, Arturo Sandoval. I remember that Gregg Bissonette was subbing with Larry Carlton that day, and it was great to meet him. He has been a big influence on me too. Maynard’s gig was great because it gave me an opportunity to be heard. Anytime people can hear you play, it’s a good thing. People need to hear you in order to get other opportunities.
DO: Going back to Maynard for just a second, did you all ever ask him about playing in Kenton’s band, or City of Glass? Did you all manage to coax any stories out of him?
JW: There are stories! There’s a book written about Maynard and I remember including some Frankie Dunlop stories that Maynard told me. I always loved Frankie’s playing with Monk, and with Maynard’s band.
Frankie, evidently, couldn’t read music, however he wanted to play in Maynard’s band really bad. Sonny Rollins apparently told Maynard that Frankie loved his band, and really wanted wanted to play with him.
So, Maynard told me that they had Frankie come to Birdland to play. When Frankie sits in, he’s looking at the music on his stand, and he’s nailing everything. So Maynard goes over and looks at him and realizes that he’s looking at the wrong chart, but he’s looking at it like he’s sight-reading it for the first time. Frankie didn’t want Maynard to know that he couldn’t read music! Maynard had to tell him, “You know, that’s not really what we’re playing,” but of course he ended up playing in Maynard’s band and sounded beautiful. I love his playing in that band. A Message From Birdland is one of my favorite recordings.
Maynard had a lot of great stories like that, but I really wish I knew more things back then to ask him. Now, of course, there are a lot of things I’d like to ask him, but I just didn’t know enough at the time. Once in a while Maynard would come back and hangout with the band. He loved talking about the history of the music.
Be sure to visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.