Sometimes, jazz just seems to run in the family. There are the Joneses (Hank, Thad and Elvin), Chuck and Gap Mangione, Tootie, Percy and Jimmy Heath, the Brecker Brothers, the Brubecks (Dave, Darius, Chris and Danny), and the LaBarberas—saxophonist Pat, arranger John, and drummer Joe. Despite this impressive list, one should not assume that simply being a member of such a family guarantees success. We could name a number of musicians whose names you wouldn’t recognize, despite the fact that they have famous parents and/or siblings. Often, it is actually harder for such people to make it, as they are immediately saddled with the burden of “living up to” the family name.
Joe LaBarbera did not merely live up to his family’s name; he made a significant contribution to making that name what it is—despite being the youngest member. After studying with Alan Dawson at Berklee, Joe worked with such artists as Gap Mangione, Woody Herman, Esther Satterfield, Chuck Mangione, Bob Brookmeyer, and was with the Bill Evans Trio for the last two years of the pianist’s life. Since that time, Joe has been touring with singer Tony Bennett.
We spoke with Joe in Toronto, where Bennett was appearing. After the engagement, Joe was leaving for the West Coast to join his wife and daughter in their new home, having decided to leave the Woodstock, New York area where they had been living for the past few years. We found Joe LaBarbera off stage to be very much as he is on: very disciplined and totally in control. He’s also a very nice man.
KA: You and your brothers have certainl y made your mark in music. Were your parents musical also?
JL: Yeah, my father was a civil engineer, but he played the piano, and he always had bands on the side. My mother learned to play the bass so we could have a family orchestra, and we did that for a number of years. We played for community groups, did weddings and, you know, any kind of a function where you need a band, we did it.
KA: Did you find that a good training ground?
JL: It was great, because I was playing gigs when I was five years old. I was out getting my money, and going to the bank and whatever, and I was learning.
KA: You were playing professionally at five years old?
JL: Yeah. Not good mind you, but I was doing it because it was fun, and we did it as a family. We did everything as a family. We were all in the Boy Scouts together, we went camping together, took our vacations together, so really, anything that kept us together was good, and the music was a part of that.
KA: Did you know then that you wanted to become a full-time musician—a professional drummer?
JL: Not really. That was from the age of five until about the age of 13 and I mainly liked the attention I got from being up in front of people. It didn’t really register that this was what I wanted to do with my life. But at around 13, or maybe a little earlier, Pat, my oldest brother, started bringing home some records that were really important and that changed my life. They were records by people like Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans, and after hearing records like those, I knew what I wanted to do. When I heard that music, I knew I was hearing something that was really important to me, and it made a difference.
KA: You went on to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
JL: The reason I went to Berklee was because both of my brothers had gone to a state teachers college, but after a while dropped out and went to Berklee, and they advised me to go straight there. Berklee was the first school that devoted studies to jazz, and that was really where it was at.
KA: You’re still close to your brothers?
JL: Yeah, I am, but we don’t get to see each other very often, especially now that I’m living on the West Coast. But the family’s still very important to me. My own personal family—I have a little girl three years old now—is totally important to me. To me that’s everything; it’s what it’s all about.
KA: Why the move to L.A.?
JL: A lot of reasons—some personal ones regarding my family. My wife Carol’s family is out there, and it’s best that we be near them at this time, but there are also some professional reasons. I’ve kind of changed my attitude lately. You know, I was always a New York-style person and I always wanted to be in on that scene. But when Bill Evans died, it changed a lot of things for me. I was working with him at the time, and New York just doesn’t seem the same to me. Now, this could be totally in my head, but the way I see the scene without Bill or his spirit there, it just doesn’t have the attraction for me anymore. So I’m anxious to get started on the West Coast, play with some different players and see what’s happening out there.
KA: Will this move make it easier with Tony Bennett’s tours? Is the Bennett group out of L.A.?
JL: Actually, it makes very little difference. Now, there are two of us in L.A., and two of us in New York, so it doesn’t really matter.
KA: Okay, so back to your formal education. Did you graduate from Berklee?
JL: No, I studied there for about two and a half years, and left, mainly because I was anxious to start working. I learned a lot during the time I was there though. Alan Dawson, who was my drum teacher, is a very fine drummer himself, and I think it would be a mistake not to mention him and what he did for me in the short time that I studied with him.
KA: What did he do for you?
JL: Well, I could barely read drum music when I got to Berklee. I had played saxophone, clarinet, and drums all at the same time from about the age of five through high school. In fact, I played saxophone in the high school stage band rather than drums. So I could read music, but I was really terrible at reading drum music because I just wasn’t working at it. My biggest problem was being able to transfer what I saw to my hands, because I was so used to working my fingers individually on keys. Alan really got my reading together in a short amount of time.
Plus, his overall concept of four-way coordination did me a world of good. He recognized right away that I’d had experience playing music and that I understood music. He expanded on that by giving me certain exercises to help me play more melodically and within the framework of a tune. That’s one of Alan’s big points: practicing playing on song structures, or whatever structure you might be improvising on. That helped me out a great deal. As for technique, he has some great exercises to get your chops loosened up. Overall, he improved my ability to play the drums and play music.
KA: Was there much that you had to learn from a technical perspective?
JL: No, I had pretty good ability on the drums. You know, I could play, and I could keep time, but I just needed to brush up on my reading, and Alan did me a world of good in that department. He’s got a few students out there; Tony Williams and Harvey Mason among them. He’s probably one of the finest teachers that there are today.
KA: When did you leave Berklee?
JL: I left Berklee in 1968, and went on the road with a pop singer. His name was Frankie Reynolds; not a big name, but he was pretty much in the style of Tony Bennett. I was with him for about a year before I got drafted.
KA: You were in the army?
JL: Yeah, but I was really very lucky, because that was like the height of the Cambodian bombings. To get in a band, number one, and to not even be shipped out, that was a miracle.
KA: So you were playing during that time.
JL: I was stationed in Fort Dix, which is only about 90 minutes from New York. We were playing marches. We used to march up and down the streets of Philadelphia every weekend in a bit of a parade.
KA: That must have been interesting.
JL: Well…let’s just say it was better than being shot at. I don’t make light of that period, and a couple of times I did get to go to New York and sub for Buddy Rich. He was having back trouble at the time, so I went out a couple of times and did that.
KA: How long were you in the army?
JL: Two years. After I got out, I worked with Chuck Mangione’s brother, Gap, in Rochester, in a kind of cocktail-lounge situation before going on to work with Woody Herman for a year. Then I was with Chuck for about four years before going to New York City. That was my big move to actually get into playing jazz full time, and I did in fact do that. I got to play with all of the people I wanted to play with, you know, Jim Hall, Phil Woods, all of them. I must’ve played every club in New York. Every club in the Village for sure; the Village Vanguard, Seventh Avenue South, Sweet Basil, and Harper’s.
KA: When did you meet Bill Evans?
JL: That must have been around October of 1978. I was working in New York and just starting to get busy in the studios. I was getting some calls for jingles, and Helen Keane, who was Bill’s manager, called me up and said that Bill was looking for a drummer. At first, I actually said “No,” because I had been on the road with all these bands, and it’s always the same thing. After a while you either get bugged with the music, or the money, or the personalities, right? So I didn’t really want to go right back into that. But Bill was playing at the Village Vanguard, and eventually I decided to go down and play a set. I tell you, it was like putting on a suit that was made for me. The three of us just clicked. Bill even came over and said, “Have you been checking out my books or my records, or what? You know the arrangements and everything.” It was just one of those things, and from then on I was hooked. I still didn’t know if I wanted to do it full time, but after playing a couple of nights with him, I just had to do it because I was getting to play exactly the way I wanted to play with truly one of the greatest musicians of all time.
KA: There was a lot of interaction between the three of you in that group. Did you find that to be a challenge?
JL: The challenge mainly was to try and play up to Bill’s level, because he set a standard that was unbelievable. As for interaction, it was automatic. That’s the way he was, and fortunately, the three of us were similar in that respect. It started right away, and just got better and better.
KA: How long did you work with Bill Evans?
JL: Two years, and for me, that trio was one of the best playing experiences I’ve ever had, because I was actually able to be myself totally. You know, there was no role that I had to play—don’t sound like this guy or that guy, just go out and play yourself—and it was welcomed by Bill. I may sound like I’m blowing my own horn, but I was proud of that group. You can count on two hands the number of times a group of musicians have really sounded like one voice and have really made a musical statement. There wasn’t a night when I wasn’t racing to that gig, and at the end of the night I felt like something really was said. I used to go home and feel great. It doesn’t happen all the time. What you have to understand as a performer is that you can’t expect it every night, and you can’t expect it with every job. So you come to really revere the times when you have had it, and I have. We went all over Europe and the U.S. together, and I got to work with one of my heroes. Bill was probably the most influential piano player in the last three decades, and to me personally, he was a hero. He was a hero before I worked with him, and afterwards he became even more of a hero, because he was a no-compromise kind of musician and a no-compromise kind of individual, even off the bandstand. He was the kind of person you’d hope you could be more like. He came up with a style of playing that was totally unique at a time when hard bop was fashionable, you know, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was such a simple format with piano, bass and drums, but it was almost like expressionism, you know. In fact, it was exactly like that—three people playing spontaneously and sounding like one voice in a more free-flowing or maybe delicate sound as opposed to what Max or Art Blakey would have gotten. Harmonically complex, but lyrical and melodic—a very beautiful type of playing.
KA: You refer to Bill Evans as a no-compromise musician. Do you see yourself as having made compromises?
JL: Sure. Most of us have. There was a time when people were always pointing an accusing finger at a musician who was thought to be “selling out.” But really, that doesn’t even apply, because there’s a reality to this business that means staying alive and keeping your self-respect. When I was with Bill Evans, to me, that was like one of the premier jazz jobs in the world. But when we were off, I used to work club dates with accordion players or whoever, you know, just to stay alive; just to make the rent. So I feel there’s no selling out, unless you’ve totally turned your back on something that you firmly believe in. I’m a sideman, so there are a lot of things in the business that I just don’t have to deal with. People like Chuck Mangione or Tony Bennett have to deal with the producers, the record company people, and the money people. When you’ve got those types of people telling you, “sell X number of records or you’re out,” that kind of pressure sometimes makes you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily want to do in order to stay up there. But Bill Evans was willing to just ride the crest of wherever his artistic ability took him. In other words, if he was hot this year and people were loving it, great, he wasn’t changing what he was doing; but if it wasn’t popular the next year, well, then that was fine too.
KA: Do you find this tour with Tony Bennett much different from other groups you’ve toured with?
JL: Not really, the life-style is exactly the same. My brother Pat said something a long time ago, referring to jobs where you travel: “The music changes; everything else stays the same.” And he travels more than I do. He’s in Europe now, with Elvin Jones.
KA: So you don’t enjoy the traveling?
JL: It gets tiring after a while, and now that I have a family, I would certainly like to be home. But this is how I’ve chosen to make my living, and at this particular moment, it’s what I’m doing, so I can deal with it. Fortunately, my wife can deal with it as well, which is a miracle, because it’s hard raising a child alone most of the time.
KA: How often are you away?
JL: It’s hard to pin down. To give you an example, I was home yesterday, I’m working today, and I’ll be home tomorrow. The longest I would be away from home on the outside would be three weeks, but that happens very rarely. Generally, we go out for 10 to 15 days, and then we’re back home.
KA: Do you see yourself continuing on here for a while?
JL: It’s hard to say, really. I can’t answer that question until I see what’s happening in L. A. But down the road, I don’t see myself traveling forever and ever.
KA: What kind of future is there for a professional musician who does not choose to travel?
JL: There are actually quite a few options. Take, for example, the band we worked with today. You’re looking at a band that’s full of great musicians, and they’ll all stay here and play a variety of jobs. The thing with traveling is that if you want to do only one specific type of playing, whether it’s jazz or something different, then you can’t stay in one city and do it over and over again because people get tired of it, so you have to travel with it. But if you’re willing to do different things, there are a wide variety of gigs out there.
KA: There’s a large recording industry and movie industry on the West Coast. Are you looking to get into some of those types of things?
JL: I could handle that. But you know, I just really want to concentrate on playing jazz again. I mean, that’s why I started to play the drums; that’s why I got interested in it.
KA: Does it bother you that you haven’t been doing more jazz? I’m assuming that after doing a tour like this you don’t have the energy to do as much as you’d like on a creative level.
JL: Well, actually, I do have the energy, but there’s just not the opportunity right now. Number one, Tony takes up at least 30 weeks a year of my life, and I have to save a certain amount of time for my family. Also, to be truthful, there’s been very little in the way of creative jazz playing that’s come my way since I’ve been doing other things. What happens is that people generally categorize you, you know. Once you’re doing a show-biz job, they forget about you—there’s always someone else they can get. It also has a lot to do with being available.
KA: Throughout your career, you seem to have worked with very positive people. People who, when you mention their names, don’t have any scandal or any of that other type of life-style that is often associated with the music business. Is that by chance, or is it a combination of chance and hard work?
JL: That’s actually by design, if you want to know the truth, because I have to be able to get along with the people I work with, otherwise it’s no good. So there’s no point in even thinking about working with somebody who has a lot of hang ups or who you can’t get along with, because you have to spend a lot of time with them when you’re traveling. Personally, I don’t like anything that interferes with the music; anything whatsoever. When you’re on that bandstand, that’s it. You’re there to play, and I don’t want to hear anything about hang ups or anything else.
KA: The life-styles of many musicians, and particularly jazz musicians, have always been very closely linked with things like drugs, until it’s become almost like the illicit part of jazz—a motivating force for a lot of the musicians, or so the media would make it out to be.
JL: Well, yeah…it’s closely associated, but when you say the motivating force, I think really it’s a buffer or a padding that a lot of musicians use to cancel out something in their personal lives so they can get up there and play. I don’t know any musician— and I’ve known some hard drug users—who would tell you they play better or reach a plateau of consciousness through drugs. Usually they’re just trying to mask something that they can’t deal with. I’ve lost some close friends through drugs, and I feel pretty strongly about it. Maybe I’m intolerant in my attitudes about that side of the business, but that’s the way I feel.
KA: Is that your Catholic background?
JL: I guess in part. I used to go to Catholic school, with the nuns. You can imagine the shock when they asked us to bring in pictures of what we wanted to grow up and do. I must have been in about the 7th or 8th grade, and I brought in pictures of ‘Trane, Miles and Shelly Manne. The nuns were sure they had failed.
KA: In a 1974 article, you mentioned Miles Davis as one of the greatest musicians in the 20th century. What are your thoughts today?
JL: I just bought that new album, Star People, and I love it. The last one didn’t do too much for me, but that’s just a personal opinion. I’m so happy that he’s back playing, because more than ever the music needs a force of his caliber out there playing, and I’m also really happy that he’s got John Scofield in his band. To me, Scofield is one of the bright new stars of jazz and of the future. Miles sounds as strong as ever, which is amazing in itself, because you just don’t put the trumpet down for six or seven years and pick it up again and come back sounding like that, but he’s done it, which to me, is incredible. I’ve always been a Miles Davis fan. I’ve been listening to his music and going to see him perform for years, and I love him. What made it easy for me to follow the transitions in his style is that I followed him right along, just like I followed Sonny Rollins and Coltrane. They started out doing standard tunes using the basic song form. They played that, and played that to perfection as far as I’m concerned, so the only possible step really, outside of just continuing to compose more material in that style, was to go with something different, you know, like the fusion thing.
KA: So when he came out with Bitches Brew you saw that as a progression?
JL: I loved it. He just floored me. I mean, his use of electronics and the style that they were playing were fantastic. Even on his current album, if you could just take Miles away from the rest of his band, and just listen exactly to Miles, he really doesn’t sound all that much different than Miles playing on Porgy and Bess or Milestones. I mean, he sounds like Miles, and the same is true of Coltrane. I know he lost a lot of people when he got into Interstellar Space and a lot of those albums that sounded far out, but to me, ‘Trane always sounded the same. He sounded like ‘Trane. It was the other people who made it sound so radically different from what he’s done before.
KA: It’s been noted by fellow musicians that you’re a lyrical drummer, much more so than the new school of drummers. Do you agree?
JL: Yeah, I think so. That’s because, being 35, I had a chance to hear some of the really great drummers, and lyrical drumming was the style that was happening when I was a kid. You know, Elvin, Max Roach, Philly, Shelly Manne—these were the drummers I listened to, so there was no way I could develop anything but a lyrical style.
KA: What do you think of the new school of drummers?
JL: I like it fine; it’s just that I find a lot more that interests me in the other style. Actually, the sound is what is really important. All of those drummers that I mentioned had their own sound, and do have their own sound. Today there are a lot of drummers who are playing really well, but they all seem to go after the same sound out of their drums, and to me, that limits their development. I think that you really have to work on your own sound as well as your ideas. If you play a record by Max or Philly or Art Blakey, you know immediately who it is just from their sound; whereas with a lot of drummers today, those that are recording anyway, you’d really be hard pressed to identify them. But I guess the new drummers are a product of their generation in the same way that Max, Elvin, and Philly Joe are products of theirs.
KA: And Joe LaBarbera is a product of his.
JL: Absolutely. I guess it’s a continuing process. I learned from Elvin, Buddy Rich, and Max—they were the storytellers. I heard the story, it registered in my brain, and it comes out of me sounding a little different. If somebody comes and hears me play, and gets a little bit of me and a little bit of Elvin, Buddy and Max in the bargain, then that’s great. But you still have to work on developing your style.
KA: Have you done any teaching?
JL: Yeah, when I was living in New York I had a number of students, but when our daughter was born, we wanted to get out of Manhattan, so we moved up to the Woodstock area. After that I just couldn’t keep contact with the students. Unless I can do it on a regular basis, I really don’t want to do it.
KA: Did you enjoy the teaching?
JL: I did, and I had some good students who are out there now, and that feels good. It’s tough out there, but I think I’d give any drummer planning to make a career of music the same advice I got when I was in high school. There were a lot of people then who were willing to tell me, “Forget it. You can’t make a living playing jazz.” If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a million times. But I had a friend at the time who was the bass player with Maynard Ferguson’s band in the early ’60s, and he gave me the best advice I ever got. He said, “If you want to play badly enough, you’ll play,” and that’s the truth. I mean, that puts it right in your lap. If you really have the desire, then you’ll do it.
KA: You’ve never been at a point where you’ve thought about giving it up?
KA: Never gotten that rough?
JL: Oh, it’s been rough. I can remember coming home one night from a job in New York where I got paid 11 dollars. I said to Carol, “This is crazy. I just did a job in New York for 11 bucks!” But you have to persevere. You know, the next day Bill Evans might call, or who-knows-what may happen.
KA: What’s your motivating force?
JL: The fact that I really love playing the drums. I love music.
KA: What kind of equipment do you use?
JL: I have two sets of drums. They’re both Gretsch, and in fact, they’re old Gretsch drums. I have a small set for jazz playing that consists of a 5 x 14 snare, two 8 x 12 tom-toms that are mounted on the bass drum, a 14 x 14 floor tom, and an 18 x 14 bass drum. They all have calfskin heads on them. I use K. Zildjian cymbals from Turkey with that set. The set that I use with Tony is a set of Gretsch also, a 6 1/2 x 14 snare drum, 8 x 12, 9 x 13 and 16 x 16 tom-toms, and a 14 x 20 bass drum. These all have Fiberskyn heads, and I use the Avedis Zildjian cymbals made in the USA.
KA: And the sticks?
JL: I use a stick that’s made here in Canada, called the Kirkwood C model drumstick. The sound difference between the two sets is enormous. Working in a totally acoustical situation as I did with Bill, the calfskin heads were everything.
KA: Your setup is somewhat unique. How did you arrive at it?
JL: It’s all just for convenience and ease of playing. As for sitting so low, I’ve sat at a few drumsets where I was sitting high, and I always had the feeling that I was reaching down into the drums. That always caused me to arch my back, which I find uncomfortable. By sitting low I can always keep a straight back, and I feel like I’m playing up into the drums. When I was with Chuck, I had some pretty weird angles. I think I had everything almost straight up and down. That’s been changed; I’ve flattened things out more. It all depends on what I’m playing and who I’m playing with. Over the last five or six years I haven’t really changed anything. Now I have kind of a flowing motion between the snare drum and tom-toms.
KA: I’m surprised you were never criticized for setting up your drums like that.
JL: No musician, really, would say anything about another person’s concept of how to set up a drumset. Alan Dawson would be the first person to tell you to have things the way they are comfortable for you. I feel today that having cymbals straight up and down like I did back then—almost vertical—is uncomfortable. But back then I didn’t, so if someone had told me not to do that, I wouldn’t have listened.
KA: I noticed some difficulty with the sound equipment today. Is that very difficult in terms of performing?
JL: I’ll tell you the truth, when I was with Chuck Mangione, the sound system ruled my life. But I just decided somewhere along the line that I wasn’t going to allow that to happen, so I’m at the point now where I don’t care if I have a microphone, or if I have a monitor. I can go out there, do the job, and by radar or whatever, I’ll get through it.
KA: You’ve come not to depend on it—to work in spite of it?
JL: Absolutely. You have to keep your sanity.
KA: You’ve said that you prefer the intimacy of small groups to working in front of large crowds. How do reconcile that with what you’re doing now? Do the crowds bother you?
JL: Not at all. I did say that, and I prefer a smaller crowd for Bill Evans’ type of playing, and any type of creative thing, but I don’t think that even a large crowd would be a problem, because they’d react in a different way. Now with something like Tony’s thing, where there’s a rhythm-type number where people can clap their hands, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Whereas someone like Bill wouldn’t play the same type of tune, and the reactions wouldn’t be the same. But I’ve come to enjoy the crowds. When we did The Land of Make Believe album here at Massey Hall with Chuck, the crowd was fantastic. The place was so hot that the people wouldn’t leave. They had to open the doors in the middle of winter and let the cold in before the people would leave. They were going to stay forever. We did nine encores. So there have been good experiences like that with audiences. I think a good rule of thumb, as far as audiences go, is don’t go out on Saturday night if you want to hear the music. You get the dumbest crowds on Saturday night. I don’t care if it’s the Vanguard or wherever, you get the dumbest crowds. And it’s difficult, especially with something like Bill’s music where attention is necessary. But when it’s right, and you’ve got that empathy with the crowd, and they’re feeling it just as much as you are, that’s more addictive than any drug I’ve ever heard of, because that’s why we’re out there.
KA: Do you like the challenge an audience presents?
JL: Absolutely. You know, when I was a kid, I used to read articles about musicians who said that the whole thing is to relate to the audience, and you have to be able to communicate with people. Well, I couldn’t really understand that, because I was just trying to learn how to play licks and ideas—play the drums. But when you get older, and when you actually work in front of people night after night, you understand that the audience is everything. You’ve got to get it across to them, otherwise it’s no good. Working with Tony, I think the key to the whole thing is that this is a show, and there are certain things that the artist needs to rely on night after night so that he can do his bit. Whereas in a totally improvised situation, it can be different every time. But say, for example, if I were to decide to play “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” all out “crash bang” tonight, then that would be wrong. You have to be able to adjust yourself to the mood of the job you’re doing.
KA: Doesn’t that get monotonous, doing the same thing night after night?
JL: Of course it does. You have to look for little ways that you can dress it up for yourself to keep it interesting. But there’s just a little range there that you can work with so you don’t throw the artist or the band off.
KA: You have experience in trios, quartets, big bands and orchestras. Does your concept change for each situation?
JL: Not that much. In any of those situations there’s a certain art of accompaniment that you have to have. With a big band or orchestra I may have to be a little more obvious with the time. As for how I’d approach those different situations, it’s pretty much the same thing: playing time and setting up certain figures. Accompanying.
KA: Can you elaborate on the art of accompanying a singer?
JL: You approach it with the realization that the singer is the reason people come to hear you; the singer is the star. That’ll help to clarify your role. You have to really be sparse for certain singers. Tony can sing all over the beat, and he can “back phrase,” which means that he can stretch a phrase out that might be written in the next eight bars, but he might be singing it in the last eight bars. You really have to keep the phrases open; you won’t necessarily want to play a fill at the end of every eight bars. Play as little as possible until you figure out the singer’s style, then go from there. Generally, my approach is to underplay it until I feel comfortable enough to add certain things. If singers can explain themselves in musical terms, that makes things very easy, but if not, you find yourself trying to translate things that non-musicians are trying to explain to musicians. That takes a lot of patience, because they may have a valid point, even if they’re not saying it in the best musical terms.
KA: Tony Bennett has a certain image. Tonight, I understand, he’s being given an award by a black publication here for his Civil Rights involvement, and his commitment to the Civil Rights program through out the world. I believe he’s also one of the artists who has refused to go to South Africa.
JL: Right. I think he was also the first white artist—I may be wrong, but I think I’m right—who performed at the Civil Rights march in 1960. In fact, we did one last year for Coretta King in Atlanta, that was a ball with Stevie Wonder.
KA: Does that kind of political statement conflict with musicians, do you think?
JL: Not at all. I think jazz particularly is a political type of music. I mean, it’s expressing a certain point of view that isn’t necessarily the tradition. Getting back to Bill Evans, we were supposed to go to Russia. A big tour was planned, and it would have meant a lot of money for Bill. But about a week before we were supposed to go, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Bill not only canceled the job, but wrote a letter to downbeat, which was the only place that he could express himself as a musician, explaining why he wasn’t going to go and make this Russian tour. I just found out about six months ago that people in Russia got hold of the magazine, and when they read this, Bill became some kind of a national hero over there, because he really believed in what he was doing.
KA: In an article on you written a few years ago, you stated that you didn’t want to lead your own group for a long time because you didn’t feel you had the strength musically. Do you feel you’ve found that strength?
JL: Well, no, I don’t think I have found the strength because I haven’t written anything. You know, to be the leader of a band, you’ve got to direct the music. Now I’ve learned that from the best. You’ve really got to be able to control the music totally. Give room to the other players in the band to express themselves, but if the band isn’t a direct expression of your musical ideas, then I really fail to see where you have any right being the leader. I’m a side man, and to me, that’s not a negative term. To me it’s very healthy to come to grips with that immediately, because your job is to provide accompaniment. You know, the minute you start trying to step out and do anything other than accompany, then you’re wrong. Your purpose is to give the best accompaniment you can to whoever is up front. If they turn around and say, “You go,” then fine, you go; but that’s your job. Being sideman, to me, is a good thing. I like attention as well as anybody else, but when you’re talking about real headliners—people who can go out and command the attention of a huge audience— that takes a certain kind of personality. Maybe I don’t have that. I haven’t really tested it, to be truthful with you, but I’ve seen Tony go out there and sing one song and people just go to pieces. And the same with Chuck and Bill. But there are a lot of sacrifices that also have to be made on a personal level, that to me, just aren’t worth it. I feel good about where I am.
KA: Can I ask a fantasy question? Who would you love to be playing with?
JL: I ask myself that all the time. You know, there’s probably a list of people a mile long that I’d love to play with, but to pick some right off the top, I’d like to work with Freddie Hubbard, and McCoy, and Joe Henderson. These people, I love their style. There are quite a few people out there. I’d like to play more with John Scofield, who’s one of my favorites, and also Alphonso Johnson, a bass player who I worked with years ago with Chuck Mangione. He’s always been one of my favorite bass players, and he’s in L.A., so maybe I’ll look him up. Like I said before, I really have to get back into playing more jazz. I really feel personally that I need to get back into a playing that is expressing me. The few times that I have gone out and played jazz in the last couple of years, it was there, you know, like I hadn’t been away from it at all. It was waiting to come out, so that tells me that there’s no danger there, but you know, let’s get to it.
KA: Do you think jazz musicians are being treated better within the music industry than they once were?
JL: Definitely. What’s happened is that there’s a new awareness in the business end of music, and jazz musicians, and musicians in general, are picking up on it. There are books out now, there’s even a course at all the schools so that musicians are more prepared when they walk into a record company and they are told, you know, “Sign over your life.” Musicians know better, and that’s good.
KA: I heard a recording on the radio this morning that you did with Bill Evans in 1979 in Paris.
JL: Right, that was a radio broadcast in Paris, and at the time, it wasn’t planned to be an album. But when Bill passed away, they were just looking for anything that was of a high quality recording-wise and performance-wise that they could use as an album, and that turned out to have some pretty good material on it. So there are going to be two releases from that, and two releases from the Village Vanguard in New York.
KA: You seem to be very disciplined, bot ! as a man and a musician. I see you as a person who is out there working, making a living at your craft, and doing that for a certain set of goals. Then there’s another part of you that might want to be doing something very different, but until that’s ready, you’re not going to do that.
JL: Exactly. I think that’s hitting it right on the head. I mean, it makes more sense for me to be doing something that is achieving a goal, whatever that goal is in my life, than to just be doing nothing. And I don’t know exactly what’s ahead with this move we’ve made to the West Coast, but I’m hoping for good things, and I’m ready for them.