JAZZ MAGAZINE (Paris) 481 May 1998
Interview with Jean-Paul Ricard

Before rejoining the Outlaws in Jazz, he had played with, among others, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Jimmy Giuffre, Archie Shepp. . . . A little bit of effort, jazz fans, so as to not forget for a second time this drummer who was again silenced the night of March 25th.

In 1954, I often went to Carnie's Inn in Harlem. One night, Cecil Taylor was on the piano. There were drums there, but nobody would play them because no one liked what he was doing. I had been listening to Bud Powell and Monk, and I thought ‘his sound is different'. . . . I wanted to play so badly that I said to him,
 "Can I play a couple of sets with you?"
 "You want to play? Really?" When we finished he asked for my phone number. He called me the next day and said, "I want you to come over." Before playing the piano, Cecil had played drums. When we met, he gave me a drum lesson right there. Through him I met Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger. . . . In the nightclubs, people couldn't understand how we could play this music! The owners of Five Spot, Joe and Iggy Termini hated us. Twenty years later at New Five Spot, Cecil played with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille -- the place was packed. Afterward, I went backstage; Cecil was changing, dripping with sweat, and I saw the Termini brothers come in, "Cecil, would you like this, would you like that?" Later, Cecil said to me, "It took me twenty years but now I have them by the balls."

 There was a concert I'll never forget. It was a festival, and we were supposed to play after Dave Brubeck. We had rehearsed for two months before the concert -- Cecil played fabulous things . . . . The day of the concert there was a really huge crowd. Brubeck had finished his set, and Nat Hentoff announced "The Cecil Taylor Trio with Denis Charles!" Cecil came out from backstage and said "We're not going to play the pieces we had planned."

 "What are you trying to say?"

 "We're just going to go up on the stage and play." "So why did we rehearse for two months then? You're crazy." We practically came to blows. "I'm going to play alone. You're not going to play," he said to me. We both got angry. And then he started playing really violently.

 After a while the people got bored. Cecil called me. I sat behind the drums and I said to him, "I'm not going to play." The bassist started to play. Cecil was pissing and moaning. I waited until they were exhausted and I just played a huge press roll on my drums. Nat Hentoff commented "The drums sounded like a machine gun." And actually I did feel like a machine gun. On the drive home, which lasted hours, nobody said a word. When we got to my house, I got out of the car with all my things, and I said to Cecil, "That was the last time we are going to play together." Afterwards, we did become friends again. He was constantly saying to me, "Denis, you always want to play in straight time, it's a bunch of shit. Just play, that's all."
 And I would say to him, "I don't want to make noise, I want to make music."
 "You can make music just by playing the drums." No tempo, just sounds.
 A couple of months later he was playing with Sunny Murray. Cecil woke me up to sounds. I tried to play free, all the while keeping tempo. Certain drummers who play free just make a lot of noise. I want to stay sensitive, 'open to' the conversation.

 I did play in a group with another drummer; he made a competition out of his love of freedom. -- I had already participated in a "drummers' session", with Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, Steve McCall. So this drummer was playing really strong, he "was screaming" and I was playing really low. After the concert, my friend asked me, "Wy didn't you play?" I did play, but softly -- I wasn't there for a fight. I wanted what I played to make sense, not simply to be banging on everything.

Do you remember recording 'Soprano Sax' with Steve Lacy?

I was too young then, and I had the bad habit of not practicing enough, and the tendency to speed up the tempo. With Steve, on the other hand, I had to be more 'regular.' Later I played in festivals with Steve, and Ronnie Boykins it was better, I had practiced more. When I met Steve and Cecil, they practiced all the time. I had never seen that. Now Steve is a master, like Bobby Few. I recognized Steve from his first note; a lot of people play the soprano, but he has a sound that is so dense that you think you are hearing Pan's flute.

You also played with Gil Evans?

Gil asked me to play at Birdland on the same night as Miles Davis with Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Cannnonball Adderley. I was very nervous. The orchestra was composed of excellent instrumentalists, several were studio musicians. I didn't know how to read music; I pretended I did. I said to myself, the intro is six bars, then 4 bars... Philly Joe Jones came by, read the score and got on stage. He played and was magnificient.. he was really the kind of drummer that the orchestra needed. He came to see me backstage and said, "Dennis, I have bad news. The orchestra's morale is really low, I think that they are going to ask me to play the gig, but you will be my guest every night we play" and he put me on the guest list for the whole two weeks. I told him that I was very sorry, I had done my best. He said that all I had to do was keep playing. He invited me to listen to the orchestra and to Miles. Philly ‘s playing gave me goosebumps.. Another night, there was another beautiful drummer, a warm guy who knew how to read and how to swing.. Elvin Jones... When I finally played with Gil at Birdland, I said, I am not ready and Gil responded "I want you to make the gig, of all the drummers in New York, I want you to play."

" No thank you, I told him, I am too scared."

 "At least come to a rehearsal and decide after that, he said. I went and I felt OK and Gil said to me, "Denis, I am satisfied." I hadn't played very strongly, just ‘fishing' on the cymbal,... but I was nervous -- I was at Birdland where all my idols had played. I asked myself if I were dreaming.

When you met Jimmy Giuffre, did you feel ‘ready'?

Not ready enough. I played with Jimmy, Steve Lacy and Buell Neidlinger in 1959 at the Five Spot. Ornette Coleman came -- it was right after he had recorded "Something Else" with a pianist. "Dennis", Steve said to me, "you have to hear this guy". He had me listen to a record and one night, with Jimmy, I began to understand -- it was with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.What got to me was their different sounds as they played together.

 Another night Ornette was playing in a club and Coltrane and Gil Evans were who really liked his music were there; and so was Lou Donaldson, who didn't like the music. "Partons," he said to his friend, "this is really shit." On his way out, he passed close to the stage and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Is this guy a saxophonist? His sax sounds more like a horse." Ornette, who was playing with his eyes closed, made his sax ‘whinny' right in the middle of his solo.

 I took lessons with Blackwell. Jimmy Guiffre began to go to see Ornette a lot, he was excited by the music -- Gerry Mulligan and lots of musician were just bowled over by Ornette. He was like a tempest... At one time, when Billy Higgins had some problems, I said to Ornette, "It's going to be pretty difficult to replace him, there isn't another drummer like him in New York." He said to me -- "There's a new guy arriving tomorrow..wait and see." It was Blackwell! I asked him to teach me some things, but he wasn't always so happy about it because I couldn't read music. After a few months I said to him 'Fuck Reading.' And he finally showed me some simple exercises, interesting ones, that he did every day.

He trimabalayed everywhere with his sticks ... He tried to help me learn to crawl before standing up and he was right. He had me bang des noires a 50 pendant de heures. I was bored, but he was right .
 You must have technique, you can't express yourself if you dont practice.
 He wanted me to commit myself to the music, not the drums. After the Five Spot, Ornette didn't get any more boulot. Blackwell, Charlie and Don were broke but Ornette remained very elegant, always with a beautiful woman on his arm, but noone wanted to pay him.

You played next with Sonny Rollins?

One night. It was with Bob Cranshaw and Jim Hall. After the concert, Sonny came to talk to me.. "Denis, everyone in the group wants you to feel comfortable. But Jim Hall, I am sorry to say, doesn't feel comfortable playing with you." I could understand it, I had been nervous during the concert. At that time, I hadn't committed myself to the drums like I have now. The problem was that we didn't have any gigs. With Cecil, I played twice a year. It is hard under those conditions to sit down and to practice every day. Some people do it. Don, Ornette, Charlie, Cecil, Steve, don't have any money or any gigs, they are suffering, but that have a strong feeling and they survived, they immerse themselves in their art. I am not like that. Charlie didn't have anything to eat and he continued to practice. I really admire them.

Then you worked wih Henry Grimes and Roswell Rudd...?

We played Monk Compositions with Steve in 1963. We didn't make much money. I never comfortable. Blackwell and Higgins were sitting in front of me and Steve said to me "PLAY, I want you to play the drums." Then my wife died and for 10 years I didn't play.

When did you meet Charles Tyler?

I had moved to Harlem and one night I went to a concert with Steve McCall, Wayne Parker and Billy Bang -- they played free. Billy came up to me and said, "I know you, you played with Cecil Taylor, I have the records." Two years later he asked me to play with him. In between I had learned to read music. We began to rehearse with Michelle Rosewoman and Charles Tyler. I had gotten serious, I understood Blackwell's advice. I made myself exercise the way he had shown me to. It took me two years. ....

I heard/understood the new concepts, with Steve in Europe and with Don Cherry. They had practiced a lot and I had to practice too. Nothing must be allowed to get between you and it, to divert your focus. Not a woman, nothing at all, all that goes after. Practice every day and play with other musicians. It took me years to realize that. Now I know, its my life, it's what I must do. I am amazed by Blackwell, Higgins, Charlie, because they knew this from the beginning. It's not only in music, to do anything you must practice, whether it's painting or cooking. Now I understand and I have a whole reservoir of ideas and inspirations that come to me from all these great musicians. I am completely open to playing with others. I knew all the greats, very well, but at that time I was more a fan than a musician, I was lazy but I loved the music; I was too lazy or too young. One day, Blackwell said to me, "If you aren't going to practice, just throw your sticks in the garbage."

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