Reggie Workman improvising live at The New School 12/19
Jo Reed: You’re listening to bassist and 2020 NEA Jazz Master Reggie Workman. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
It would be pretty tough to name a jazz great who has not played with Reggie Workman. He was the go-to bassist at Blue Note Records in the 60s and early 70s, because the man can play in any style from avant-garde to mainstream to free jazz to the American Songbook. I don’t have the time to list everyone here, but some of the people he’s recorded with include Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Lee Morgan and Abbey Lincoln. He’s performed with Yusef Lateef—becoming part of his group, as well as with Butch Morris, Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, David Murray and many, many others. Reggie Workman was a member of two of jazz’s most important groups; the John Coltrane Quartet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Reggie also had his own groups, the Reggie Workman Ensemble and Top Shelf. He’s also worked in collaborative groups, like The Super Jazz Trio with pianist Tommy Flanagan and drummer Joe Chambers, and Trio 3 with saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Since 1987, Reggie Workman has been a professor at The New School’s College of Performing Arts in New York City. He’s known as a committed mentor to his students, sharing gigs and bringing them into projects. Some of the students he has worked with are now well-known jazz artists in their own right like Lakeisha Benjamin, Robert Glasper and Roy Hargrove.
I am truly just scratching the surface of the career of this 2020 NEA Jazz Master. Reggie Workman’s career goes back a long, long way, straight into the Philadelphia neighborhood where he was born and raised. His parents had some interest in music, but with 15 children their main concern was making ends meet and putting food on the table. But music was part of the environment
Reggie: The community is so important musically, there was music all around me. So, it was only natural that my parents said "Okay, you got to go take piano lessons." So, I went to downtown to the department stores to take Saturday lessons all the time and that was the beginning of music career for me.
Jo: You know, Philadelphia, it's like, I wonder what's in the water there? There are so many musicians who came out of Philly, you were friends with Lee Morgan and John Coltrane and Benny Golson. It just goes on and now Christian McBride, it's just amazing.
Reggie: Sure. It—it is amazing, you know, one thing is partially what's in the water and partially what's in the community and partially what's in our DNA as far as having something to say, where in the past it was not really listened to or adhered to or even allowed. So, it was kind of a cry out to the people who said, "We have a story to tell and we'll do it through music."
Jo: But, Reggie also notes there’s also practical reasons for Philadelphia’s prominence in jazz.
Reggie: We're right down the street from New York and New York is the mecca where everyone comes to hone their craft, to prove themselves, to join the—the music community.
We kept going, going, going and expanded beyond Philadelphia and most of us, as we grew, came to New York. There were times when I was in Philadelphia, when I was becoming more involved with music. All of us would get together in a car and race to New York to catch the last set in the clubs in New York, running up the turnpike and then getting back in time to go to our classrooms at high school in school in the morning.
Jo: You started on piano, when did you begin to play the bass and what drew you to that instrument?
Reggie: I had a cousin who had a band in Philadelphia named Charlie Biddle, and he was a great bass player so he would rehearse his band at my place. I would always be standing by listening to the band, and that was part of my nurturing. And he would call me over and say "Come here boy, let me show you how the bass feels." And he would stand me up on the chair and put the bass in my hand and put the bow in my hand and tell me how to do it. And I liked that sound; I liked that vocal cord. So, I was drawn to it.
Jo: I have a question. How does it feel to play the bass, to have this instrument that you're caressing as you're playing?
Reggie: It feels great. First of all, you have to consider it like part of you and it becomes your vocal cord. And through that bass you project your sound and your thoughts, through your bones as you deal with the instrument. There's a vibration that goes into your body and it affects you as a human being. As the Hindus would say, each person has a particular decibel and a particular note that is attuned to your being where—you know, how you were influenced by the planets when you were born. So each of us, you and everyone else involved has a particular note that—that relates to you and all of us who are musicians, I call us sound scientists, have to study that and know how that affects us.
Jo: Reggie, when did you decide that you wanted to make music your life?
Reggie: <laughs>That's a good way of saying it. I decided when I was in junior high school that music was a very important thing for me, because growing up in a community where musicians lived all around me—There was a gospel group right up the street. Archie Shepp and his family lived right around the corner—musicians all over. But we didn't stop at that. We went and found whomever was doing something that we thought were—was valuable and as we grew or as I grew into the music, I realized that this is an important part of what we have to do in order to transmit this message to the people who are listening to us. That's a reciprocal situation, like, you give and you receive from the people and that helps you to grow, it helps you to know that this is something that's important, that should not be given up.
Jo: I would agree, but it's also a difficult path when it comes to making money and having to support yourself and your family.
Reggie: You got that right. It is a difficult path. It is a difficult path and we are very fortunate that we were able to be with people who sometimes made it a little easier for us to get—make money doing it. And that—for that reason, I'm thankful for things like the NEA and the funding organizations who support what we do, and at our age, and through the years. “Jazz musicians”, I use that word jazz in quote, but the musically commonly known as jazz, I usually say—The NEA, The Musicians’ Union, Mid Atlantic Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, you know, they are the ones who—who have people employed to go and look for who is credible and who do we need to support in order to make sure this music continues. And I do realize the importance of giving back or what they call it today, paying forward. I realize the importance of paying forward and giving back whatever is given to me.
Jo: You decided you were going to make that move to New York. When did you move to New York?
Reggie: I think I decided I was going to make that move one day. I was in high school and I had to run back and forth on the—on the highway to hear the music that I knew would help me to grow, but I also had to continue school and I had to continue to—to just be in Philadelphia. What happened was Freddy Cole, Nat Cole's younger brother, came to Philadelphia and asked me to join his band. I traveled with—with the Cole group, Freddy Cole’s quartet for a while, and then coming back into town, I could not be satisfied with staying in Philadelphia, so, I started making moves to be in New York.
Jo: You have played with everybody, practically. I don't have time to name everyone you've played with, but I would just like to have you talk about a couple and one would be John Coltrane because you were part of the John Coltrane quartet and part of some of jazz's legendary recordings like Live at the Village Vanguard. And I'm just wondering what you recall, what you remember about being part of that band.
Reggie: Well. That was a big experience in my life. John Coltrane moved his mother and bought a house in Philadelphia. He would either be in New York or come back to Philly, so he spent a lot of time in Philadelphia and I got to know him before the time that I was forcing it enough to be a part of his group, and got to know John and his music then. So, he became a part of our community, and we a part of his. I moved to New York and John eventually was working more in New York than he was on the road, developing his own voice and his own craft. He was working at the Village Gate, and I was working around the corner with Jackie Byard, Roy Haynes and Frank Strawser and myself. And Eric Dolphy was very close to John because John really loved the way Eric played. And we did work together, we did recording together, so, he knew my music; I knew his. So, they were at the Village Gate and—and John said, "I want to make some changes in my band." So, Eric said, "John, go—come around the corner, I heard Reggie's working around the corner. I want you to go around and listen to Reggie." So, we're there making music at this club and in walks Eric and John. John came in, didn't say anything, sat down, listened, and I was in awe. He left, went back to do his set at the Village Gate. A couple days later he called me up and said, "Hey Workman, do you want to join my band? We're going on the road pretty soon." <laughs> My thoughts were "Hey, is the Pope Catholic?" <laughs> Oh, that was—that was a big moment for me and I was so thankful to Eric for having made that introduction—made that happen. He actually made it happen.
Jo: Reggie Workman joined the John Coltrane Quartet. I was curious how much of a chance he had to rehearse before they actually played together on a stage.
Reggie: Those days, there were very few rehearsals because the musicians couldn’t afford to—to rent studios to rehearse. He would call me to his house once in a while and sit through the piano and say, “I want—do this chord.” And he would tell me the rhythms, show me the voicings, the keys, and so forth. And I had to get from there—I had to know all of his music. I had to know what he was thinking and where he was coming from. And he felt that, “Okay, you’re doing something that—I want that voice in my band.” So, he was willing to be patient with me while I developed. That development took such a long time because that was such a powerful group with McCoy and Elvin Jones and John Coltrane.
One thing I should say to you now when you ask me the question about the rehearsals and the music, we would have the opportunity to—to make music in a club, for a week, sometimes two weeks. Every night, five, six nights a week we would be making the same music or making new music and becoming stronger and stronger and stronger and the group's development was really on the podium with the people and we were able to develop stronger and stronger during those years because of that. Now, you're lucky if you have a job that lasts two days, once a month. It was a much different scene then. It’s how we grew and consequently, we gave to this country something very important, gave to the world something very important like a musical language and a message from on high that's coming through us to the people.
Greensleeves,” performed by the John Coltrane Quartet from the cd Live at the Village Vanguard, November 2, 1961.
During the 60s, like, people were opening up more. The world was opening up more. Our minds were opening more and we were influenced more by different cultures around the globe. That's where the music went. Those are the ingredients that we call jazz.
Jo: You also played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which I also think would be, especially at that time in your life, a—a big experience for you.
Reggie: Oh yeah. That was very important too. It's different—very different also because Art Blakey was a different character than John Coltrane. John Coltrane was the kind of person who, he was busy working on his craft. I'll never forget the time I asked him "John, well how do you want me to interpret this part of your tune?" And he stopped me and said, "Listen man, I'm having a hard-enough time playing this saxophone. Don't ask me how you're supposed to play the bass. You figure it out. This is the song, this is the key, and I want you to bring something to the beach besides sand." So, those were lessons to me. Now, Art Blakey was a different kind of person. He was a—more like a—a very rigid, very specific leader who wanted his band to look, and be, and act a certain way and he wanted everything to be shaped around what he wanted to have happen and the way he played.
Pensativa’” performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from the cd, Free for All. Blue Note Records, 2004.
So that was a new lesson for me, to—to be able to perform with somebody who needed that and didn't want to give you the freedom and you had to fit your music into where he was. But, Art Blakey was very strong and very slick in that he always brought somebody into the group who was a powerful musician and put them in a position of being music directors. In this case, it was Wayne Shorter and he had people like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and Jackie McLean and—and Cedar Walton and he would extract music from most of them. Myself, being a younger person in the field of music, I was busy developing, learning everybody else's thing more so than dealing with my own, which is what I'm about at this late date, creating things of my own. Fortunately, I partner with a young lady who is a choreographer, writer, Maya Milanovic and we've been able to work a lot together and—and she was encouragement for me. We became a partnership, and a team and developed a lot of good things together, which we're still working on even today. And I think that's what keeps me alive.
Jo: You were the go-to person for Blue Note. As you worked as a supporting artist for all these artists, I'd like you to talk about the kind of strengths that a supporting artist needs to bring to various groups because it's so different from a musician like the first violinist of the symphony and all respect to the first violinist of any symphony, but they're playing the same notes that they play, with jazz, the music known as jazz, it is something different. You're expected to be able to do what Roscoe Mitchell calls spontaneous composition. So, can you talk about what really is needed when you're the supporting artist?
Reggie: Yeah, that's really important not to take anything away from the—the beautiful people and the—the craft of—of European classical musicians.
Jo: Not at all.
Reggie: Well, in the jazz world, as a supporting artist, you are expected to have your own voice, first of all. One has to really bring their own sound. Secondly, they have to bring the technique and the ability to perform whatever composition is before you, and have to bring a concept and an awareness of what has been done before so that you don't travel the same path and step in the same sound, do it the same way that it's been done before. People want to hear something new. It's okay to turn on your stereo system and hear the same thing over and over again ‘til you get tired of it. But when you come to hear live music and when you come to make live music, we all want to hear it better today than it was yesterday. And each supporting artist has to have that craft so that he or she has an idea to make it better, to add themselves to it, to make it contemporary and fresh.
Reggie Workman improvising at The New School, 12/19.
Jo: I wonder how being a supporting artist with so many musicians helped you to develop your own voice.
Reggie: You know, as—as far as developing with so many situations and so many musicians and so many different people, it gives you a strength with different people. Let me give you an example. Art Blakey, I mentioned before, was very, very definite about the way he wanted the group to be and very definite about the way he was going to keep the time. He was not going to compromise with you. You had to do certain things to give to him what he needed, but without losing yourself in the process. And that's—that’s a fine point because we as artists have to learn how to support. Yusef Latif needed something very different than Art Blakey needed. He had a different way of approaching the music, he had a different group of people who he would rather make music with and I was fortunate enough to be there.
Jo: And I want to build on that because when you decided you were going to lead your own ensemble, what were some of the thoughts and what is it that you wanted to say, and walk me through how you chose who to say it with.
Reggie: Okay. Well, the things that I wanted to say were, since I had been working with so many people who were dealing with composition, rigid paths, a specific way of doing things, specific notes to perform with, to perform a tune, as opposed to when—when you're working with somebody who is open like Cecil Taylor or John Coltrane or—or Albert Ayler. And many of the musicians at that time were ready to move over as I was ready to move over, having done that the standard way for such a long time. I began to move, especially when I met Maya. We began to do things where—that were more open, more spontaneous and—and not the status quo, but yet, there was an idea, there was a plan, there was a story line. I was in a class earlier today where one of the students wrote a piece which had a real brilliant line, definite for everyone to play. Then, when we got to a certain part of his piece, it opened up into just a modal expression where everyone could do and say whatever they knew how to do with that particular mode. And when we got there, many of the musicians were like, "What do I say now?" because they were so roped into, like, being secretaries taking dictation. They were not able to come to the executive suite. And I had a conversation with them about that, and that that's a conversation that I wanted to have with the world when I was moving into trying to do things myself. Yet, I would never and did not want to lose the thing that I made of. I did not want to lose the quality of the music that brought me to this point because that is me. And so, it's a combination of things that I want to project. I want to project the openness, that good futuristic thought without losing the—the heartbeat, without losing the—the depth and the meaning.
Jo: Your trio, Trio 3.
Reggie: Oh yeah.
Jo: With Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille.
Reggie: Yeah, indeed.
Jo: How did the three of you work together? That's a real collaborative endeavor.
Reggie: Yes, indeed. We've been together for so many years, since the 80’s. We—we have an idea that all of us are bringing something to it and we all respect one another's craft enough in order to give whatever is needed for it to become bigger and better. And we enjoy one another's music and—and abilities, and each time we get together there's always something new and something special that comes as a result of it.
Equilaterial” written and performed by Trio 3, from the album Time Being. Intakt Records, 2014
Reggie: They go back with me all through those years. Therefore, they understand that path and they understand that language well enough to be able to do what I think is important, to be able to speak that language, to go to that place without losing the direction, without losing the depth. And those—those are the things that I want to do with any group or any composition that I put together. That's the kind of quality that I want it to have. It's a lifetime endeavor.
Jo: You’ve incorporated spoken word into your music, you incorporate dance into your music. You incorporate some theater into your music.
Reggie: It's like a conglomerate of experiences. It's like a marriage of—of all the things that we do in—in the world, in life. I believe in—in putting all of those things together, I don't think they should be separated.
Jo: Well, you did the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival—I think is an example of something you presented that really was a marriage of all that.
Reggie: It sure was. I'm glad you mentioned that because the idea of the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival was—was trying to revere what the late John Coltrane brought—brought to us, his music and the fact that he also told the world, “It is important not to lose the spiritual aspect of whatever you do” because this is the thing that's going to reach all people because spiritually we are all the same. And that is why the music has developed and reached all corners of the globe, because it's spiritual and all people are involved with it. So, in order to underline that idea what I did with the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival was put a large ensemble together, thinking about the Africa/Brass project that we did with John Coltrane. But then, thinking about where does the church fit into here? Let's bring a church choir into this music, and therefore, I asked Charles Tolliver to transcribe some of the music of John Coltrane that can be sung by a church choir. Therefore, we might be able to encourage some of those deacons and sisters from church to look at John Coltrane's music and look at modern jazz and be a part of it—understand that we're all talking about the same thing. So, we lasted a few years giving that kind of music to the people.
Jo: Teaching has also been an important part of your life. We're at The New School where you've taught for 30 years. You and—and Maya were co-founders of the Montclair Academy of Dance and Laboratory of Music. So, you have little kids and you have college students. You reach out across the board and I'm wondering—Here at The New School, what is it that you try to impart to your students? How you help them try to find and develop and have the confidence to have a musical voice?
Reggie: You have to bring them, first of all, some place to start—something that they know about and that they how to do and then give them the challenge of making it unique unto themselves. In this music and this sound that we know—this 12 tone galaxy that we live in, there is—is one way of looking at it, but there are galaxies beyond our galaxy which has more tones, more things that will allow you to be more expansive in what you say. And once you understand that—that as a reality, you understand that there are no mistakes that you can make, but it's how you justify whatever note or whatever place or whatever area you find yourself in. I want all of the musicians who--, all of the artists who come through, close to me, to understand that this is important for us as a life's path and it's going to only help us and help the world if we're successful.
Jo: Reggie, your students here at The New School, you play with so many of them—with current students and former students and I just imagine it must be so gratifying.
Reggie: Well, you know, having been here many years—and it's really gratifying to see them carry that seed that you planted in fertile soil to grow and go on to the next place. And—and have it grow colored by their experience and their knowledge of what they want to do. And then often they come back and say, "Okay, here's me today. Listen to my CD." And then you can hear that they have developed from point A to point L. That is really gratifying. It gives us some feeling that we must be doing something correctly.
Jo: And finally, you have been given many, many, many awards—many, and now you've been named an NEA Jazz Master. Can you tell me what that award means for you?
Reggie: Well, that—that award, it means that what I have been doing for many years has been acknowledged nationally by people and an organization by a nation that validates my thoughts that this music and what we do to keep it alive and to make it grow is—is very important and valid, and I'm inspired by it. I'm blessed. And because of this fortunate award that I am being given by NEA, I am able to connect with people—like, Roscoe Mitchell was somebody that Maya and I were working with a long time ago and here, ten, 15 years later, we come together again because of a common acknowledgement, and I love it.
Jo: Thank you so much, Reggie, and thank you for years and years and years of wonderful music.
Reggie: Thank you.
Jo: Thank you.
Reggie Workman improvising at Erie Jazz Festival, 2017
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, and when you do, leave us a rating on Apple because it does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.