Dr. Larry Ridley: The Roots that Have Produced the Fruits

June 7, 2011

Dr Larry Ridley

An accomplished musical force with decades of experience as a sought-after accompanist, soloist, and bandleader, Dr. Larry Ridley is also one of the staunchest advocates for jazz education and the appreciation of the music’s roots in African-American culture.

After studying at Indiana University and making a name for himself in his hometown through collaborations with the likes of Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, Ridley made the move to the NYC area where he continued to study, perform, record, and teach the music he loves.  Notable musical pairings with such heavyweights as Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Slide Hampton, and Red Garland (among many others) in the ‘60s led to a regular gig as Thelonious Monk’s bassist through the mid-1970s.

Dr. Ridley then headed the music department and jazz program at Rutgers, before retiring in 1999, and currently teaches and lectures at Manhattan School of Music, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and elsewhere.  While remaining active as a performer (and occasional recording artist) through to the present day, Ridley now also serves as executive director of the African American Jazz Caucus (AAJC) and contributes a regular column to JAZZed.

We recently spoke with Dr. Ridley to learn of his life as a student and teacher of the language and culture of jazz.

JAZZed: Dr. Ridley, you’ve been such an influential educator for so many – who were some educators who had significant influence on you as a musician?

Dr. Larry Ridley: The early “educators” who continue to be significant influences on me as a musician and as a human being have to be defined in a holistic way. It begins with my father, mother, siblings, paternal/maternal families, religious and extended families at large, my daughter, my great and great-great grandchildren, my nephews, my wife Magdalena, et al.

I have had many great teachers. My third grade teacher at George Washington Carver P.S. 87 in Indianapolis taught and instilled a sense of pride in me as an African American/Cherokee Indian with a tad of European. Her name was Mrs. Pauline Morton-Finney. She was a brilliant woman who served along with Ms. Mary McLeod Bethune, as an advisor to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt during her husband’s Presidency. Mrs. Morton-Finney introduced us to W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Phyllis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, Chief Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, etc.

My “big brothers,” David Baker and Jim Harrison, have always been, and continue to be, major role models and mentors – David since I was a teenager.

JAZZed: What first drew you to jazz, specifically?

LR: At an early age I was hearing jazz, blues, European classical music, and some country music on the radio and records played by members of my family and others. When I heard Jascha Heifitz playing the violin on the “Bell Telephone Hour” on the radio, I told my mother that I wanted to learn to play the violin. I began to study at five years old with Ms. Ruth McArthur, who had established a music conservatory for young African Americans in Indianapolis. Ms. McArthur met Fabian Sevitsky, the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. She made an arrangement with him to have the first violinist, Mildred Lind, teach others and me at her conservatory.

Mother went with me to all of my violin lessons and took mental notes and made me practice daily. She watched and coached me while I sat on the stool practicing in front of her vanity dressing table mirror. When I finished, she let me go out to play with my childhood buddies, in the Lockefield Gardens Apartment complex where we lived. I love and thank my mother and father for instilling a sense of discipline in me. It sure has paid off in my many accomplishments.

My uncle, Ben Holliman, played the saxophone and guitar professionally and was a friend and contemporary of Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Reginald DuValle, and Hoagy Carmichael, among many others. Uncle Ben had me playing “Boogie Woogie” on the violin with him playing guitar when I was about six years old. He was always encouraging me. I loved and respected him greatly and loved hearing his stories about his experiences as a professional musician.

When I was twelve or thirteen I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis to hear the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert. I always knew that I wanted to play jazz but not on the violin. When I heard Ray Brown playing bass with Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ella Fitzgerald, that was it. A neighborhood friend worked at a pawnshop and arranged for me to get a plywood bass. So, switching from the violin, I taught myself the bass clef, the basic positions and began playing by ear and reading music. Freddie Hubbard’s brother Earmon Jr. played the piano and was the one who exposed us to Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Thelonious, and Dizzy. He also introduced me to Oscar Pettiford and Charlie Mingus recordings.

Jimmy Heath, Larry Ridley, Percy Heath

JAZZed: Did you ever have any more formal training on bass?

LR: Well, a couple of years after that I bumped into Monk Montgomery on the street and asked him if he would give me bass lessons. He gave me his address and told me to come by his house. When I got there he was rehearsing with his brothers Wes (guitar) and Buddy (piano) along with Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson on tenor sax, and Sonny Johnson on drums. They played a couple of numbers and Monk called me over to pick up the bass. Man, my stomach was churning. I don’t remember the tune, but I must have done all right because Wes turned to me smiling and gave me a compliment.

Monk then said that he was going to Seattle and California to set up some bookings for a new group he was forming called the “Mastersounds” and wanted me to sub for him at the Turf Club playing six nights a week with a matinee with the “Montgomery Johnson Quintet.” Man, my nerves were racing, but I hung in there with them. Some of the tempos on tunes like “Cherokee” were up there. I am forever indebted to them for taking me, a young teenager, under their wing teaching me on and off the bandstand and giving me confidence that I could become a jazz bass player.

JAZZed: Let’s talk a little bit about the jazz scene in Indianapolis.

LR: Indiana Avenue was the main (but not the only) street featuring jazz in the African American neighborhood clubs and theatres in Indianapolis, much like the black neighborhood main streets in many cities. There was the T(heater)O(wners)B(ookers)A(ssociation) and others that booked the various bands in what was affectionately called the “Chittlin’ Circuit.”

Many big name artists and bands performed in Indianapolis: Duke Ellington; Count Basie; Lionel Hampton; Jay McShann; Louis Jordan; Tiny Bradshaw; Earl Hines; Charlie Parker; Billy Eckstein; Rusty Bryant; “Bull Moose” Jackson; Jimmy Smith; Milt Buckner; Sonny Stitt; Cannonball and Nat Adderley; George Shearing; Phineas Newborn; and so on.

Indianapolis had numerous venues, such as, Sunset Terrace, Georges Bar, Henri’s, Cotton Club, Missile Room, the Topper, Clown’s Playhouse, Northwestern Tavern, the Madam Walker Theatre Center, British Lounge, Cactus Club, Mr. B’s, and Hub Bub.

“Indy” has produced innumerable great local and nationally renowned musicians: Noble Sissle; Ben Holliman; Wes, Monk and Buddy Montgomery; Jimmy Coe; Leroy Vinnegar; Philip Stewart, J.J. Johnson; Carl Perkins; Erroll Grandy; David Baker; Freddie Hubbard; Benny Barth; John Bunch; Willis Kirk; Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson; Sonny Johnson; Tillman Buggs; Virgil Jones; Melvin Rhyne; Phil Ranelin; Michael Ridley; Al Coleman; Henry D. Cain; Will Scott; Al Finnell; Tiny Adams; Sarah McLawler; Buddy & Paul Parker; “Killer” Ray Appleton; Eugene Fowlkes; David Hardiman; Mingo Jones; John Dale; Larry Liggett; Dickie Laswell; Henry & Harold Gooch; David Young; Slide Hampton and his fantastic family band…

Larry Ridley and Thelonius Monk

JAZZed: So how did you first start making a mark on the scene, yourself?

LR: In the 1950s, I created a band of young teenage “Turks” and called us the “Jazz Contemporaries” with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, James Spaulding plaing alto, tenor and flute, Paul Parker on drums, Walt Miller on piano – later replaced by Al Plank – and, me on bass. Our repertoire included Max Roach/Clifford Brown and Art Blakey Jazz Messengers arrangements. My uncle’s Martin and Tom Ridley knew the owners of George’s Bar, who hired us for a couple of months to a six-nights-a-week with two matinees engagement. I also created all of the newspaper ads and flyers. We created a lot of attention throughout the Midwest and the club owners made money.

JAZZed: Can you discuss your time at Indiana University? What was the music program like at the time? Were there any professors who you really connected with?

LR: I received a violin scholarship to the IU School of Music in 1955 long before there was a Jazz Degree Program. My big brother, David Baker, (the architect of the IU Jazz Degree Program much later), was already a student there. The African American gentleman who facilitated entry for both of us to IU was Dr. Roscoe Polin, president of the National Association of Negro Musicians.

My degree pursuit was a B.M. degree in Music Education. I played violin in the IU Philharmonic Orchestra, the IU Opera Orchestra and viola in a String Quartet. In my sophomore year I switched to become a contrabass major studying with Murray Grodner.

While there was no formal Jazz program at the school, there were a number of guys there who played jazz: David Baker, Alan Kiger, Lanny Hartley, the Holly Brothers (Kermit and Bernie), Joe Hunt, George Bright, Welth Hutchinson, Jerry Tyree, Morris Hubbard, Dick Washburn and Al Cobine. Jamey Aebersold became a freshman student in my junior year there. We all played at jam sessions as well as many gigs in the area. I also played many gigs in David Baker’s Big Band. We played at the French Lick Jazz Festival and the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, where we won the top college band honors.

JAZZed: How did your studies at Lenox differ from IU?

LR: The Lenox, Mass. School of Jazz was a summer program in the Berkshires at the Music Inn. David Baker and I met Gunther Schuller when he came to IU performing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1959. He contacted John Lewis of the MJQ to give David, Al Kiger, and me scholarships to attend that summer.

This was an extremely memorable experience in my life and career. I was able to hang out with, learn from, and bond with so many of my heroes, such as, Max Roach, Percy Heath, Kenny Dorham, Bill Evans, Marshall Sterns, Dr. Willis James, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Connie Kay, and George Russell. It was also special meeting, rehearsing, and performing with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.

One of my former students at Rutgers, Michael Fitzgerald, wrote a very nice piece giving the history and details of the Lenox School of Jazz experience. It is available online at: www.jazzdiscography.com/Lenox/lenhome.htm.

JAZZed: When did you first realize that you had an interest in becoming a music educator, yourself?

LR: I realized that I wanted to be a musician and music educator based on my earliest educational experiences in the 1950s observing the lack of African American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian Studies curricula inclusion throughout the European American Educational System. I felt the need to dedicate my life and career as an African American jazz performer and African American jazz educator. My point is teaching, “Inclusion to recognize the Roots that have produced the Fruits.” The roots of the Jazz Tree begin in Mother Africa and the fruits are the various global jazz hybrids that have evolved from those roots. This in no way makes it exclusive or exclusionary. It points to teaching the roots that many beautiful fruits have evolved from. But remember that Maestro Duke Ellington stated, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that Swing.”

JAZZed: Well put! Let’s talk about your time at Rutgers.

LR: My years at Livingston College of Rutgers University, beginning in 1971 to my retirement in 1999, were a wonderful period and segment of my life. The philosophy of the new College was based primarily with answering the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Demands for Ethnic Curricula Inclusion, and to quell the civil unrest and riots in many cities in the United States. The quality of activist intellectual colleagues was fantastic with individuals such as Maria Canino, Lloyd McNeil, Dan Newman, Daniel Goode, Nathan Heard, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Cade Bambara, Philip Corner, Frank Jennifer, Bernie Charles, Mel Gary, Sonia Sanchez, and so many others.

Rutgers president Edward Bloustein and his wife and two members of the Board of Governors were ardent supporters of me and the Jazz Degree Program that I developed at Livingston.

I became the chairman of the Livingston Music Department in 1972, designed a BA jazz performance degree curriculum, later an MA degree in Jazz Performance and brought in outstanding full time Jazz Professor faculty members. I received several yearly grants from the New Jersey State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts to bring in guest performers, artists, and lecturers, which included the likes of Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Machito, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, Lucky Thompson, Roy Haynes, Bob Cranshaw, Milt Hinton, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, and many others.

I retired from Rutgers in 1999 and am now Professor of Music, Emeritus. I am still developing projects utilizing the fantastic archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies. The archives have grown and expanded so much, based on the original Marshall Stearns Collection, which was given to Rutgers.

Larry Ridley and Sonny Rollins in Japan

JAZZed: Can you talk about your current role at the Manhattan School of Music?

LR: I began teaching bass part-time at MSM beginning in 1991 when Dick Lowenthal was the head of the Jazz Program. I am still there with the current program head, Justin DiCioccio.

I am really enthusiastic about my new role as a lecturer in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University Program headed up by my “little” brother Phil Schaap. I just recently finished an eight-week course entitled, “Thelonious Monk, the Man and his Music.” The response by the attendees was fantastic and I was able to share my personal friendship and musical association with Thelonious. Later this winter 2011, I will again do a course lecturing on Thelonious and one on my “homey,” Wes Montgomery.

JAZZed: What are the goals and mission of African American Jazz Caucus (AAJC), and what’s your role in the organization?

LR: I am the AAJC executive director. Our mantra is, “Working together works!” Our Mission is dedicated to protecting, preserving and perpetuating the rich cultural heritage of jazz, which is one of our indigenous musical art forms. We are a 501c3 not for profit organization. Jazz is an art form that has its origins, spiritual, heritage and cultural roots in Africa, African American communities and the African Diaspora. The AAJC is proactively working to maintain the aesthetic integrity, heritage, legacy and historical facts germane to the music emphasizing “The Roots that have produced the Fruits.” We are engaged in creating programs and providing services to further jazz education and jazz audiences. The Caucus invites and encourages proactive members to share their expertise in our networking with national and international communities.

We have established a collaborative partnership with Dr. Ronald Myers (former AAJC Chaplain) and the National Association of Juneteenth Jazz Presentors (NAJJP). This is an important National activity of working with communities acknowledging the historical importance of June 19, 1865. This was the date that the slaves in Texas were the last to learn that the Emancipation Proclamation freeing them from slavery had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln in the year 1863. The further goal is to have the local communities to recognize and acknowledge their native born contributors to the African American Jazz Legacy.

JAZZed: What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching, for you?

LR: Being able to impart reliable credible information, expand research sources, techniques for growth and discussions to share and enlighten people. It is a “Two Way Learning Street” to create dialogue and not monologue.

JAZZed: What’s the most frustrating?

LR: Encountering individuals who are narrow minded and are not willing to research and cross reference information to enable their continuing and ongoing growth. Also, people who want instant “Stardom – ‘American Idol’-style” without putting in the time doing their homework and who become legends in their own minds.

JAZZed: As a performer, what’s your proudest achievement?

LR: To have God-given multi-talents and not abuse them. My website, www.LarryRidley.com, lists the many greats that I have had access to and continue to have to enable my further overall spiritual, technical growth and awareness in my lifetime.

JAZZed: What advice do you have for your fellow educators?

LR: Do not shortchange or limit yourself and your students’ knowledge in your teaching by not giving them a thorough grounding, research techniques, knowledge, awareness, and exposure to the importance of the African Roots and the lineage of the African American Jazz Legacy that has produced the Global Jazz Fruits.

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