Altissimo references aside, Lenny Pickett‘s tenor saxophone is one of the most recognizable sounds. You can spot Pickett’s horn whether he’s standing next to Doc Krupa, Chester Thompson, David Garibaldi, and Lenny Williams in Tower of Power or when he’s blowing over the opening credits of Saturday Night Live. While Pickett has one of the most easily identifiable sounds, very little is known about the legendary tenor saxophonist. In a professional recording career that spans more than four decades, Pickett has only recorded two albums as a leader (Lenny Pickett and The Borneo Horns in 1991 and more recently, The Prescription). Although this portion of our very long interview with Pickett won’t get into the details of why he’s only released those two albums, it does offer plenty of wisdom from a master who learned his craft the old fashioned way.
Read Part 1 of our interview with Lenny Pickett
Revive: Let’s talk about the oodlehorn.
Lenny Pickett: [Laughs] That’s just what I called it. It was the clarinet; I didn’t know the name for it. I wanted to be a clarinet player – I think? When you’re young you hear a sound and it just appeals to you. It’s so random and I don’t know why I picked that. But clarinet was the sound that I had an affinity for. I barely had a record player at the time so I heard more music on daytime television than on records. We had a phonograph, but we had six records.
R: One of my teachers once told me that he could sing the entire Beethoven’s “Eorica Symphony” when he was a child not because he had great ears, but because he had a limited access to music. Do you think that the amount of music that’s available is bad for the culture?
LP: I think there’s too much music. There’s a glut of music. Stravinsky, whose father was an opera singer, recounted a story in his biography where he traveled a long distance – maybe to St. Petersburg or something like that. He wanted to hear this opera but there were no recordings. After days of anticipation, he arrived at the theater and listened intently to what [he] was getting because [he] was only going to get it once.
I grew up in a time where there was a lot of electronic media around. Depending on what resources your family had, you may or may not have had that many to listen to. We had one of those suitcase phonographs that you could carry around with you and a few records that [we] kept in a little case.
Now you can get music instantaneously as a download or [through] streaming and you don’t have to really work for it at all. You receive it instantaneously so you don’t look at it as something that you’ve had to struggle to go hear. You take it in very different way. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing; it’s just a very different way of approaching music.
The idea that you can carry around an iPod with 4,000 songs in it is not remarkable at all; its kind of commonplace at this point. As a teenager, I had a few dozen records and I listened to them intently. I wore the grooves out on those records.
And if you got the new Stevie Wonder record then you would bring it over to your friends house and get all your buddies around you, put it on, and listen to it together. It was like a group activity you know? You’d finish side one and you’d sit there and contemplate and someone would say, “You should turn it over.” Then you’d turn it over and listen to the other side.
It’s just a more ritualistic experience. I think the ritual of listening to music in recorded fashion has pretty much disappeared. But it used to be an actual ritual. I think the idea of hearing live music is still pretty sanctified. People look forward to concerts. I think that’s really the future of music and the value of music is in visiting live performances.
R: I read in and interview that you used to play at a lot of parties and dances. That doesn’t really happen anymore. Do you think that the DJ culture sort of changed that?
LP: Well technology changes the way we experience things. When you had to take an ocean liner from New York to London and it took a couple of weeks, you took travel more seriously rather than, “Where’s my flip-flops? I think I’ll go to California.” You go then you come back and it’s no big deal, but if you had to take the train then you would have a very different idea about it.
The DJ changed the way people dealt with music. It started a long time ago. There were DJs when I was growing up; it wasn’t an unheard of thing. It just wasn’t as satisfying as live music. It’s much easier for a DJ to program if you’re using contemporary computer technology for DJ. You can beat match and get things flowing smoothly and have a vast library of things to draw on. If you’re not beat matching to one song, you can leaf through other songs to match what you’re looking for.
You could construct a playlist that was very difficult if you were doing it with just vinyl. Also the sheer weight of vinyl made it hard. You had to be more selective so the DJs tended to be a more niche type of DJ.
But if you had a versatile party band that would cover Top 40 and whatever else you wanted to hear, you could improvise things. They were more spontaneous. When you go to a party and dance, you want the music to be with as much as you’re with the music. So a contemporary DJ can do that, they can feel what the dancers are feeling and they can approach that. It was more difficult in the past.
Bands could always do that. If you needed to extend the ride out to your song because everybody was dancing then you kept playing until that died down. I think that part of it has allowed technology to DJs to be more responsive to the dancers and that’s made it a more satisfying experience, which makes it more attractive to people.
R: Most people can immediately identify your sound when they hear you even if the remark is along the lines of, “That sounds like the music on Saturday Night Live.” Was playing to people dancing a primary vehicle for how your sound was developed?
LP: That’s what we did! That’s what the job was! That was the job description. My first gig was at 14 with James Levi and the Funk Machine and we played for people to dance; that’s what it was about! It was getting in a room full of people and they danced. Everything subsequent to that was for the same thing. I was in a band that did Steve Winwood’s stuff and Zeppelin covers and we played for frat parties and people danced! That’s what you did. We played for fashion shows and other things but mostly we played for parties or club venues that had saw dust on the floor. That’s what people did; they danced. They got beers and danced.
That was all of my work up until the time I started playing with Tower of Power. Then I started doing concert work with them. But even when I first joined them, we were still playing clubs where people danced and the occasional high-end party where people would dance.
If you go anywhere else in the planet – outside of the Western world and the United States – where people are playing music, people are dancing at the same time; its just part of the deal. I don’t know how to separate the two things. The energy – the interaction between the dancers and the musicians – was key to my experience as a young musician because you’re trying to get inside of their heads to make the dancing feel better.
I’m sure – even without consciously trying to understand it – that a lot of how I play was influenced by that activity. It was a really important part of my experience. That’s what’s really interesting about jazz; it was dance music and it’s still dance music even in the ‘60s. Musicians like Lou Donaldson had music that you danced to. It was only around in the ‘70s and maybe early ‘80s where it petered out and it stopped happening.
I talked to Chico Hamilton about it during an interview and I asked him, “What was it like when people stopped dancing to your music?” He said, “Yeah, I remember and it was a terrible time.” He was really upset about it. He was a guy that grew up in L.A. and played dance bands. So it was very depressing for him when people stopped dancing at his gigs. A lot of musicians felt the same way.
The music became more concert oriented and more cerebral in some respects. But there was always a simultaneous cohort of musicians – along with the ones that were playing concerts – that were still playing dances. I think what happened was that you saw a high level of virtuosity in some of the funk bands in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
A lot of the musicians were the same people. My stepfather was trumpet player and he played in a band with a guy named Jesse “Soul” James and he played with a guy named Johnny Talbot who had a band called De Thangs. All his buddies like Morris Atchinson and Bobby Forte were guys who I met and played with Bobby Bland and B.B. King, but they were bebop players. As much bebop players as Dexter Gordon, but they could also switch over. It’s the same with Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. These were guys who played a lot of dances and a lot of parties but also played bebop gigs.
That wasn’t that unusual. Look at John Coltrane’s history; he played with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson for a while. He was part of that scene. You can hear it in [Coltrane’s] playing later on. You hear the energy of someone who understands the exchange between the audience and the musician. There’s a level of excitement that happens and you can feel the correspondence with the audience. You know he’s someone that played in a church and at dances because he played with that kind of responsiveness to people. It’s something that jazz education doesn’t emphasize.
R: I’m sure that your students at NYU get that from you. But why do you think that other schools don’t do that?
LP: My class is about running the history of different kinds of instrumental music and we do instrumental covers of songs. It goes all the way from swing music to a very contemporary sounding stuff. The problem with the idea of jazz school is that there is a problem with the nomenclature. There’s a problem with the word jazz. It’s not clearly what that is. Was Miles Davis playing jazz when he was doing Bitches Brew? Well if he was then wasn’t Sly Stone on some of his more experimental moments jazz also?
R: Was Tower of Power jazz also?
LP: Yeah, if Lou Donaldson was jazz then “Squib Cakes” is definitely jazz. If you can have Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the same category as Dave Koz and Kenny G without any difficulty. If they’re sold in the same area of a record store – when we had record stores. If you type in jazz and they all come up. We’ve spread the definition of the music out so thin into so many different areas that we’re not even sure of the nomenclature anymore.
I’ve had private students who love ska. So we do ska! If he likes ska then we’ll listen to UB40 and the Skatalites. We’re going to listen to the music that he’s really interested in listening because that’s what he’s interested in. There is no such thing as ska school! You can’t take the ska program at NYU; it doesn’t exist.
But it’s a catchall for all the different types of music that doesn’t fall into the classical music category. I think it’s still a mistake because there’s a lot of crossover in contemporary times of classical music and improvised music. It’s getting to be all mixed up and you really don’t know.
The good thing about doing the school thing is that I’m available to be with the players. The knowledge I’ve got and the experience that I’ve got can be – in some way – imparted to people who are learning.
If you go to Cuba and look at the age differences in Los Van Van where there are people in their 20’s and guys in their 70’s and it’s not a problem. My band – the SNL band – has a guy who is 30 years old and I’ve got a guy who is 69 years old. This is the way it should be. Musicians should hang out with each other and it should be all different ages.
Groups like El Gran Combo have veterans and new kids. It’s the same thing with Tower of Power. They have the newer brass players who are in their 20’s and early 30’s and Doc Krupa is 66 or 67 you know? It works. When I joined the band I was 18 and Rick Stevens was 35 or 37 or something. That’s what you really want. You want to be with people with more experience and people with less experience [because] it helps in both directions. You learn contemporary music from people that are younger because they’re bringing that to you and showing you what they’re listening to and they learn traditions of approach, methodology, and they get to discuss what the experience is like.
That’s being provided in the universities to some extent. But the notion of jazz as a math problem is something that I resist. The same thing happened in classical music when the Second Viennese School came along. There was some early adherence that was interesting like Roger Sessions and Elliot Carter. But not long after all you had people teaching 12-tone composition as if it was a math problem! Some of that’s it’s interesting but it turned the audience off completely. Contemporary classical music lost its audience.
A lot of the damage was done by the academies by taking it from being an art form to being something you can teach by rote. Jazz is even more fragile in that respect. The way you learn jazz traditionally is through records or at the knee of another musician. I learned it by going to jam sessions with Bert Wilson, hanging out with my stepfather, and meeting musicians and playing along with them. It can still be learned that way. There are plenty of players around, but it’s now defined as course. So there’s coursework of harmony, history, and all this stuff.
But Steve Turre had Ryan Keberle as a student one time and Ryan was working on this Wayne Shorter song and he didn’t know what changes to use because it was different at different times. So Steve called Wayne up and asked. They got Wayne on the phone and Wayne was like, “Sometimes Herbie played it like this and sometimes he played it like that. We played it in different ways.”
So this orthodoxy about chord changes and the way that’s dealt with is a new phenomenon. I just did a little study because I’m playing at the Jazz Standard and I wanted to do a couple of standards so one of my pick was “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver, because Horace just passed. I was looking through the different recordings and I couldn’t believe the plethora of possible changes that were there.
There was so many different ways of interpreting that song harmonically and rhythmically. It just went on and on. I even looked at various published versions of the chord changes and they were all disagreeing with each other. Trane felt totally comfortable changing the chord changes to “Body and Soul.” All of us should.
Michael Wolff has a really interesting video on his instruction for jazz harmony. What I got out of it after watching it a couple of times was you could pretty much play anything at any time and justify it. A lot of it was how you want to angle it into the song. How do you convince people that this is the thing that is working?
It’s a lot about approach, attitude, and gesture and having that being equal in value to harmonic complexity is a really important thing to understand. Music of the African-American Diaspora from reggae, salsa, Afro-Cuban music, jazz, swing, rock & roll, disco, and any of those kinds of music that came out of that idea have a few things in common. They have a sense of interlocking rhythm where all the parts put together are what make the whole and the weaving of the sounds is what makes it interesting. They do it in all different ways but it’s a very African concept. The other this is that gesture is just as important as anything else.
Watching Ray Barretto bounce his conga on the floor and play it at the same time is as important as anything else. Watching a windmill guitar stroke is as important as anything else. Watching Jimi Hendrix gesticulate during his playing is as important as anything else. Watching the attitude of a drummer flipping his sticks around and all that tell you something about the music and the communication.
The physical gestures that go into the music are [heard] in the sound. It’s kinetic music because it’s music about movement and dance. It’s about a community of musicians playing together describing something together simultaneously and weaving their sounds together. And it’s about physicality.
If you take away the physicality and the inter-woven aspect of it, you remove the essence of what makes that music common. If you listen to the way that drums, bass, and piano work on a Little Richards record, then you’re hearing some of the same thing in Los Munequitos de Matanzas. It’s the same – it’s a different expression of the same thing.
That’s important to remember because then if you look it at it that way then the leveling factor is that it becomes equivalent of a language with different dialects. It has to be respected. To disrespect someone’s music because it doesn’t have the so-called sophistication of yours is to miss the point.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Lenny Pickett as he talks about his life on the road with Tower of Power and details about his new album with the UMO Jazz Orchestra, ‘The Prescription.’ To order your copy of Lenny Pickett’s new album, click here.