Courtesy of Reggie Workman
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH REGGIE WORKMAN
would someone leave the John Coltrane Quartet? That question still stigmatizes
Workman forty years after his departure, overshadowing his impressive
collaborations as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (with Wayne
Shorter and Lee Morgan), and with Yusef Lateef, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill,
Archie Shepp, and Freddie Hubbard. So I asked. The following is my conversation
with Reggie Workman, a groundbreaking bassist unfairly labeled "avant-garde"
and the before mentioned Trane water he has carried for far too long,
unedited and in his own words.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
WORKMAN: Because of environment. The environment probably prompted me
to want to be a part what it was because music is a part of the environment
that most of us grew up in. It was quite unlike it is today. There was
a lot of live music, a lot of live venues for new music, a lot of great
musicians who lived in the communities around Philadelphia, a lot of theaters,
a lot of activity that would encourage a younger person to be a pert of
the scene. I started as a very young person, eight or nine years old,
studying piano and I think my parents recognized that. So that is the
way I started as a young person. My parents probably recognized how music
was a part of our community and put me in touch with some lessons and
from there it grew. Now, that I look back on the situation, I realize
how much the culture has to do with the evolution of a people. A lot of
our institutions as a young person in the school systems and so forth
didn't encourage too much cultural evolution, but that was a natural thing
in our community. I think my parents recognized that and in developed
from there. I stopped dealing with piano when I was about twelve years
old, thirteen. The sports in the streets called me and so I got involved
with that and left piano to grow into another area of life. I had a cousin,
who recently passed, encouraged me. He used to stand me up by his bass
and showed me how to play it and I liked that sound. Eventually, I went
looking for it and so I started to play the bass in my final year of junior
high school. They didn't have a bass, so I ended up playing wind instruments
until a bass came, just before I graduated. Then from there, I moved over
to high school, where I got an instrument and eventually got my own instrument
and have been studying it ever since.
FJ: Give me your impression of Lee Morgan.
WORKMAN: Lee Morgan and I grew up together. We both grew up around Philadelphia
and so we played a lot together around the scene. We knew one another.
We knew the same people. He had a giant record collection, so we used
to hang out a lot. He went to a music school in New York. We often crossed
paths. He was a delightful person and tremendous talent.
WORKMAN: That happened during the time when Wayne was just growing into
himself and I was in New York. A lot of musicians convened on the scene
in New York from all over the world, Wayne coming from the New Jersey
area. We often ended up on the bandstand together even before the Art
Blakey days. Then as we grew, we all ended up in the band together. All
the people who you heard in the classic Art Blakey ensembles often would
see one another in New York over the years and during the years prior
because of just what the scene was. There were places to work. There were
jobs. There were jam sessions. There were reasons to be crossing one another's
FJ: And Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter in the frontline along with you and
Blakey in the rhythm section is why that band is so highly thought of.
WORKMAN: Of course, everyone was significant as they always have been.
As you grow, you get an idea of who's who. They are not just significant
because they have been embraced by the system. They were significant because
they had something to offer when they were very young musicians and they
always have had that gift throughout their career.
FJ: And the same holds true of your association with John Coltrane?
WORKMAN: Our association wasn't brief. John Coltrane spent a lot of time
in Philadelphia, where I am from and therefore, we saw one another long
before I joined the group. Even through the late Sixties, we spent a lot
of time traveling and making music together. He was developing and I was
developing and our paths crossed for a while.
FJ: You must have been asked this numerously through the years, but with
such a kinship, why did you leave the band?
WORKMAN: I'm a bit tired of those questions. I left the band because my
father was dying and I had to leave New York and go back home and take
care of my family, number one. Number two, John and the rest of the band
was growing very fast and John had decided that he wanted to try another
voice in his bass chair. He had been listening to Ornette Coleman, who
had Jimmy Garrison in the group and Coleman suggested he try Jimmy and
he did. That was a great union. Of course, Jimmy was very compatible with
everybody in the band.
FJ: So no regrets?
WORKMAN: I think we have an idea of what is in store for us in life and
what you can achieve and what you want to do. So be it. It is like any
FJ: With convincing albums Summit Conference, Cerebral Caverns, and Altered
Spaces, why haven't you recorded more?
WORKMAN: Looking back on that situation, I realized that while a lot of
people were spending time developing and honing their skills for composing
and developing a band, I was busy helping somebody else with their program
as being a supporting artist. You can start down that path and before
you know it, and this is a good thing to say to the younger musicians,
you will find yourself moving down that path and there is nobody that
pulls your coat, you haven't developed what you need developed as a bandleader,
as a composer, as a person who is shaping the way the music is going as
far as what the industry considers significant. That is what I see happened
in my life. Later on in life when I realized that, I decided that it was
time for me to change, but of course, when I was prepared to make that
change, I had already been through quite a few groups, quite a number
of groups, so my ideas were a little different from the average person
who was stepping into that arena and that was not always sellable in regards
to the industry's whims. I realized that as you grow your society becomes
smaller so you don't expect to be among the stars in the industry when
you want to do something different. That is what happens to the person
who decides to stick to their guns and do that. During those days, it
was a little bit different than it is now. The message was different.
If you are a follower of the music, you will hear those people who made
different moves and who evolved. If you are an intelligent person, when
you listen to the growth of each one of those musicians, you will understand
where their mind is because everything is apparent.
FJ: Evidence just reissued Great Friends with Sunny Fortune and Billy
WORKMAN: Most of the music that you listen to in this world of music never
grows old. The more you listen to it, the more you hear in it because
of just what is real in the world. When we did that product, we were taking
a group to Europe to tour. I have a sister who is married to a Frenchman
and she was working for a company there, Black & Blue, the original
label that we produced the record on because of her wanted our group to
record for her and we did. It came out, but it was only for Europe. Evidence
became interested in it and put it out here. It is not something that
will grow old because all the musicians are fresh and everybody is really
playing good on it. It is just too bad that it was twenty-something years
later before people get a chance to hear what was on your mind and they
expect you to still be there. Not so. Everybody has moved onto their own
ideas and their own thoughts and their own desires. Consequently, because
of the amount of time that it takes for something to come out, that is
what happens. Bands fall apart in the interim. That was a lot like when
we were working with John. Bob Theile let John put in the contract that
if he records for him, the record must come out within "X" amount
of months so that people will not come to you and ask you to play something
that is old hat to you. Your mind has moved onto other things in five
minutes, let alone five months. When I first joined John's group, people
would ask him to play "Favorite Things" and he didn't want to
think about that. He did it because he was that kind of person who could
do anything that he wanted to do and make it fresh, but he realized very
quickly that his mind and his soul was moving so fast and the message
was so futuristic that he didn't want to paint himself into a corner,
so he had that put into the contract.
FJ: And the future?
WORKMAN: I have a group. I lost the saxophonist who was prime in the group.
He had some problems and he fell off the scene. The groups that I have
now, they vary because people have different things and I am not consistent
enough in the business to keep it together. I am trying to pass my knowledge
onto younger musicians and that takes a lot of time and energy along with
living life and things that you have to do to keep up with this world.
I am hearing certain things. I have certain ideas that I would like to
do as far as the music is concerned, but I don't want to just get out
there and do it. I want to spend some time with it before we present it.
Spending time with it means finding people who have the time to spend
with you and that is not easy to do. When you are away from the music,
you are not at your best physical state like Tyson couldn't win after
being in the joint for a few years. So you are not in the best physical
state as far as your performance is concerned, so you become a little
reluctant to just jump out there without some preparation. That is where
I am right now. Between having had the time when I was very active in
the music world and living through a time now, when I am not as active,
I would like to be, in my mind, I would like to do several large projects
which I have not done many of through my career. I am working on a opera
right now. That is the direction that I want to go in. I would like not
to spend a lot of energy and time with being a supporting artists for
other person's projects because I have learned over the years that that
doesn't work. I used to study the Hindu philosophy a lot and one thing
that that thought me was that when you reach beyond a certain point, you
leave a lot of people by the wayside. You move away from a lot of people
and your society becomes a lot smaller according to which direction you
are moving in. If you understand that reality, then you understand how
to accept the fact that your society is smaller and therefore, the reward
is smaller. I have seen some really great rewards. First of all, Fred,
I am still on the planet. A lot of my associates are not. I have a beautiful
family. I think that is a great reward. It comes back in different ways
depending on where you values are, you will realize whether it is a reward
or whether it is a detriment.
FJ: So the record opportunities have been there.
WORKMAN: Yes, I have, but I have just been really too busy with other
things to really concentrate on it. It is about time for me to do that
again. I just have not been able to do that. You can see my track record
on the net, so you know what I have done. Those two pieces had a significance
in that there was a musician who gave me the latitude to move the way
that I moved and he liked the people that I chose. I say he, and that
was Ralph Simon, who was the A&R man at Postcard at the time. I am
busy with so many other things that I am not able to just jump out and
make a document. As a matter of fact, Fred, I don't want to make a document
under the circumstances as they are now. I would rather not document what
is happening at this particular time. I would rather prepare something
that is more in tune with where my head is. For example, we did the Summit
Conference album. That was an idea that I had as far as presenting myself
and get together with the people that are responsible for the cornerstones
of this music. The other product was a sequel to that and the next thing
would be a sequel to the second. It won't be a record just because someone
says, "Let's do a record." I'm not interested in that. I am
interested in doing something significant as far as my desire and my ideals
are concerned. Otherwise, I would rather do nothing at all.
FJ: Compromise isn't in your nature.
WORKMAN: There may be only a few people who appreciate it, but I would
rather be in the company of those few than the many who don't know what
they are listening to or what you are trying to say.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and cut his own arm off with a pen knife when
he was trapped under a pet rock. Comments? Email