Excerpt from Interview with DENIS CHARLES 1/17/87, Philadelphia
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CAD: How did you develop your unique cymbal approach?
DC: I was born in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I played music when I was 7 or 8 years old. I played the bongos in a band. My mother and father separated and I stayed with my father until I was 11 in St. Croix, then I moved with my mother who was living in Harlem on 118th St. I was very fortunate because on the street my mother was living on it was only a block away from Minton's Playhouse. I went to school around the corner from Minton's so I would see Monk 's name, Art Blakey's name, Lockjaw Davis, etc. In Harlem at that time ( this is around 1945) jazz was all over Harlem just like rock is now. Charlie Parker, Fat Girl, Fats Navarro, Monk, Bud Powell, it was beautiful. Art Blakey lived around the corner from me on 117th St. I started listening to the music. I heard a record by Bud Powell and Fats Navarro with Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes was the drummer. I used to listen to drummers all the time but Roy Haynes got to me! In 1949 I said I want to play like that. I taught myself, I tried to learn how to develop my independence in both hands. It drove me nuts too, I finally got it.
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CAD: Do you see any comparisons between the New Orleans rhythms and the Caribbean rhythms that you are more familiar with?
DC: Oh, definitely. I would talk to Blackwell a lot about that. A lot of what he does goes back to African rhythms which Blackwell is very much into. Blackwell has been to Africa; there is definitely a connection there. . . .
. . .I feel very blessed, really, and honored because the tradition snatched me up just from me listening. I revere Charlie Parker and Monk along with Miles, etc. It 's such a beautiful music for me to feel that I 've contributed just a little bit to it. I 'm honored; this is my whole life. It 's a struggle and still continues to be. I view it as a continuum; I 'd like to be part of the continuum. Sometimes you play a record by Billie Holiday or Bud Powell and it will just touch your soul, it 's so beautiful.
CAD: Where do you see your place in the realm of that continuum?
DC: Just to be playing regularly with people like Luther Thomas, Billy Bang and Steve Lacy. Especially when you know the history of this music. The history of it keeps me alive. I still love to listen to those records by people who are even now contributing. It 's a long history, name after name after name. . . .
. . . Bang and William Parker and a bunch of the other younger cats, they somehow made me feel very good when they had me play with them. I get so much out of just being with them, they are young, they know the history of it and they are trying to contribute . . .
. . . The cymbals are very important. I traveled with Art Blakey and his Messengers for 3 months, he had McCoy Tyner, Billy Harper, Joony Booth, Billy Hardman and Slide Hampton... Art was always my inspiration, it was a thrill, like a saxophonist being with Charlie Parker. I learned so much from him, we lived together in the same hotel rooms. He told me ... "The drummer has got to have control, the drummer is the traffic director; he knows just when to play the head of the tune." When he wants it up at the start of the next soloist the stick is flat on the cymbal. So the cymbal is singing! And then he crashes. BOOM! Then the next soloist comes and Art dies down
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CAD: Are you optimistic about the rest of your life?
DC: Oh, definitely. I 'm like Joe Henderson said, "totally committed" and that 's it! I 'm hopeful and I 'm going to keep on every day. Every day I practice and exercise and this will be every day `til I leave here. I just would like to have a pad, keep myself clean and eat well and, of course, play. That 's all I want to do.
Copyright 1987 Cadence Magazine. (CadNor Ltd). This is an excerpt from an extensive interview with Denis Charles from the October 1987 Cadence (Jazz) Magazine. (Vol 13 #10).
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