When I left New York City some eight years ago, I was a jazz saxophonist who wanted to learn to play jazz piano. Many of my friends in the business didn't understand why I wanted to leave "the Apple." Years later, I told bassist Harvie Swartz the names of several nationally known jazz "headliners" that I'd played with as a member of a "local" rhythm section. "You know," he remarked, "you'd never have worked with all those people if you'd stayed in New York."
Never? Well, certainly not that early in my career. With barely four years of piano playing under my belt, I found myself on the bandstand with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Harold Land and the late Blue Mitchell.
When a sideman is hired for a jazz group in New York, he usually will stay with that band for at least a few weeks. He then has time to absorb the music, to develop a working musical relationship with the band leader, and to settle in with the rest of the rhythm section. A member of a local rhythm section has few such advantages. He will work, more often than not, with somebody he's never seen before. The gig will run at most a week--maybe only one or two days. There's no time to digest the music and the style of the band leader. In a lot of ways, being a sideman here in Washington is very tough training. One must learn to react and adapt almost instantly to the many styles of music encountered in just a few weeks' work.
I have had opportunities to work regularly with a local rhythm section. This helps--if you know your rhythm section, you have one less unknown to deal with. For almost a year now, the B.W. 3 (myself, Tommy Cecil and Hugh Walker) has been working as a unit (although we all continue to free lance). In 1978, I did quite a bit of trio work with Steve Novosel and Bernard Sweetney. It was in that year that I began to discover the challenges and rewards of being a "backup" artist to so many jazz greats.
Challenges and rewards? Sonny Stitt is a good example. He's a brilliant saxophonist; he's also one of the toughest horn players to support: he never rehearses; he might call, without warning, any tune in any key at any tempo. Sonny is also the guy who walked up to me after our first set together and said--with a big smile--"Marc, it doesn't matter whether you're black or white. We're here for music."
More often than not there is no rehearsal; that isn't necessarily bad. Jazz is an improvised music with certain esthetic conventions that are supposed to be understood by each player. These conventions concern form, style, the role of each instrument, etc. If all the players understand these conventions in a similar way, and if standard, familiar tunes are being played, an unrehearsed band can sound very good. Still, you never know when you get ready to play with somebody for the first time; it might click, or it might not. The music usually improves as the week goes on--but not always.
Sometimes artists do require long rehearsals. The Harold Land-Blue Mitchell "book" included interesting original material by Harold, Blue and Cedar Walton. Thanks to this pair's challenging tunes, relaxed attitude, respect for individual musical expression, and patient but thorough rehearsal technique, the week was a great musical success.
Long rehearsals don't guarantee success, though. Frequently, artists will overrehearse to try and compensate for their own musical inadequacies. No amount of rehearsal will do that.
I find myself in all kinds of musical situations. Perhaps I'm supporting a veteran such as Eddie Harris, who recorded one of the first jazz records I ever bought, and who can play creative chord changes at breakneck tempos. Maybe it's the legendary Milt Jackson, who's been a jazz musician longer than I've been alive, and who plays be-bop as though he owns it. Maybe it's Emily Remler, a talented guitarist 10 years my junior, whose beautiful tunes are lyrical and soul-searching. Or maybe it's Bob Mintzer, a fiery saxophonist and thoughtful composer whom I knew years ago in New York as a young newcomer, but who today is an integral part of the Jaco Pastorius band. Personally, I love the variety in all this. One thing about my work--it's rarely boring.
Whether the musician I'm backing played with Basie or plays with Pastorius, I've got to support him or her musically so that the artist feels comfortable. At the same time, I have to maintain my own individuality. After all, I have my own bands, my own tunes, my own musical direction. At times this can be tricky, but if I do it right, my playing will be musically sympathetic as well as original. Perhaps that's why one of my favorite pianists is Herbie Hancock: he's individualistic and innovative, yet flexible enough to fit comfortably into a wide range of styles.
If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: Our jazz musicians are as fine as any. I should know. I've played with a lot of great horn players, and I'd rate Buck Hill with anybody. I've played for a lot of great singers, and Clea Bradford can sing with anybody. Back in 1978, Harold Land and Blue Mitchell told me, Steve Novosel, and Bernard Sweetney: "You're the best pickup rhythm section we've ever had." In 1979, Steve Kuhn needed a drummer for an ECM record date and a national tour; he could have called any drummer in New York, but he called Mike Smith. Ella Fitzgerald could hire any bassist, but she calls Keter Betts.
Of course, my favorite Washington musician is my wife, vocalist Toni Wilson. I must unabashedly admit to a certain amount of personal prejudice in this matter.