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Dr. Larry Ridley, AAJC Executive Director Bassist Extraordinaire

Jazzed Magazine • Jazz ForumNovember 2010 • November 19, 2010

Since the late 1970s Dr. Ridley has been working in an advisory role with the Honorable Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) on numerous jazz projects, E.G., the NEA Jazz-Artists-In Schools Program (1978-1982), the drafting of House Concurrent Resolution 57 (1987) and the Jazz Issues Panels presented annually at the Congressional Black Caucus Conferences in Washington, DC.

The AAJC and NAJJP Partnership’s Current and Developing Plans: The African American Jazz Caucus, Inc. (AAJC), along with our partnership with Dr. Ronald Myers and the National Association of Juneteenth Jazz Presenters, Inc. (NAJJP) are proactively working to further the broadening and defining of our working collaborations. Our goals include bringing Jazz to underserved National and International communities acknowledging our African American Jazz Legacy by emphasizing “The Roots that have produced the Fruits.”
For further information please contact us at or by telephone (212) 979-0304.

In this month’s column for JAZZed, we are featuring a wonderful and insightful interview of the legendary/innovative/genius jazz pianist Erroll Garner conducted and published by the late great drummer Arthur Taylor in his book, Notes and Tones, Da Capo Press, #169;1977, ISBN 0-306-80526-X.

“I wrote ‘Misty’ from a beautiful rainbow”

E.G. – I never had an influence, for the simple reason that I loved big bands. I think this is where part of my style came from, because I love fullness in the piano. I want to make it sound like a big band if I can. I wasn’t influenced by any pianist, because when I came up, I didn’t hear too many. We used to have places like the Apollo Theater where you could go and hear big bands. They used to come to Pittsburgh and play at the Stanley Theater. I saw all the great bands. I knew Mary Lou Williams when I was a kid. When Fats Waller came, the piano was so sad that he played organ. I’ll never forget how he took that organ, blended in with the band and made it sound like forty-four pieces. That sound was the most fantastic thing! I thought, oh my goodness, how can he do that? That’s something new to me. I love Jimmy Lunceford, and I love Duke. Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie taught me how to keep time. Those two bands really laid that on me, and it was a thrill. I think Freddie Green is one of the greatest timekeepers in the world.

A.T. Did you have any doubts when you started as a musician that you would be successful, musically and financially?

E.G. When I started out as a musician, I was happy just to get to Fifty-second Street; I didn’t think about money. It was an honor for me to be able to join Slam Stewart. I had heard of Slam for years as Slim [Gaillard] and Slam. I looked up to both of them because of how they could play. I would say that Slam and Oscar Pettiford are two geniuses of the bass. At that time, when Fifty-second Street was going, everybody had a job. You could walk from one place to the other, all the musicians were working. Miles [Davis], Max [Roach], everybody was there. We all knew we needed enough money to pay our bills and get a few things out of life, but it wasn’t based on how much you’re going to pay me this week and I have a hot record now and if I play back at this club again I want this amount, not what he paid me before. I know I make a little money, but I do put it to good use as far as my family is concerned.

When I’m playing the piano, the amount I’m getting paid is not what’s on my mind. That’s a fact. I don’t believe you can play thinking about how you’re going to get the money and run like a thief, like a lot of artists say. It’s all right to say that if you don’t like your boss. All they know is that they paid five or six dollars for an album they have at home, and that’s what they’ve come to hear. They don’t want you to jive around, pretend, not be the real you and talk about how you don’t like your boss. They don’t even know him. Sixty percent of the audience wouldn’t know who the boss of the club was or who the promoter of the concert was, because that doesn’t interest them. All they want to know is if you’re there and if you’re going to play what they have at home on a record. Audiences are never supposed to be played cheap.

A.T. Have you changed any of your material in recent years?

E.G. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed it so much as I tried to improve on it. I play a little bit of rock and a little Dixieland for kicks. I might do that in a club, but not in a concert. Whether I get it from someone else or create it myself, I’m always looking for something new. As I can’t read music, I don’t have to say to myself, this is an arrangement I wrote six months ago and I have to play it note for note. I get as close as I can. Each time I play “Misty”- and I play “Misty” I would say a thousand times a year- I add a little something. I feel that if you liked it last night and you come back to hear me tonight, maybe I can do it better. At the same time I’m creating, and it’s not becoming a bore because of sticking to one certain pattern.

A.T. How did you come to write “Misty”?

E.G. I wrote “Misty” from a beautiful rainbow I saw when I was flying from San Francisco to Chicago. At that time they didn’t have jets, and we had to stop off in Denver. When we were coming down, there was a beautiful rainbow. This rainbow was fascinating, because it wasn’t long but very wide and in every color you can imagine. With the dewdrops and the windows being misty, that fine rain, that’s how I named it “Misty”. I was playing on my knees like I had a piano, with my eyes shut. There was a little old lady sitting next to me and she thought I was sick because I was humming. She called the hostess, who came over, to find out I was writing “Misty” in my head. By the time I got off the plane, I had it. We were going to make a record date, so I put it right on that date. I always say that wherever she is today, that old lady was the first one in on “Misty”.

A.T. What does “who chi coo” mean, and how do you spell it?

E.G. Just the way it sounds. Who chi coo is an expression that Sarah Vaughan and I used all the time years ago, because we were very good friends. We used to hang out together in Atlantic City. It means “magnificent obsession.” If I dig what you do, what you’re playing, you’re a magnificent obsession; if I don’t, I say nothing. So when I say “Who chi who chi coo,” that means you really are a magnificent obsession. They decided to name me that. They always say: “Hey, Who chi coo.” People who don’t really know me call me Erroll. But Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae all know me as Who chi coo, and that means they love me as much as I love them.

A.T. I hear you once said that one of your finest musical experiences was some recordings you did with Charlie Parker. Is that true?

E.G. Definitely! I took care of Bird in California when he was sick. We used to play together on Fifty-second Street. Bird was with my group when I got to California. We had Bird, Red Callender and Harold West, who was a great drummer. Playing with Bird was an experience. Every night he would put something new in the tunes we played, like changing chords, playing different progressions. You never felt that you had to play the same thing you had played the night before. We used to wail! That’s what I dig. It was one of my greatest experiences; his mind was so fast. Other than playing the saxophone, Charlie was a very brilliant man. He had knowledge and believed in a lot of things people don’t believe in today, like education.

A.T. What was your impression of Bud Powell?

E.G. To me, Bud was the second greatest thing to Art Tatum. Tatum was way out there. He was a genius, ahead of his time. Bud came along later to add on what Tatum had. Let’s face it Bud was a genius on the piano. I knew Bud when he was with Cootie Williams. He was another Tatum, only much more modern, adding to what Tatum had already laid down for the classical pianists and for everybody. I always say Tatum was the master and that Bud developed what the master left. Fantastic! That’s what Bud was to me.

A.T. Do you play for yourself, for your audience or for the musicians?

E.G. I always play for my audience. I can’t play to empty tables and chairs. Let’s face it

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