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Autumn Chill: Smooth Jazzers Reflect on their Hard-Jazz Heroes

George Duke
Boney James
Dave Brubeck
Chuck Loeb
Marion Meadows
Peter White
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)
Lee Ritenour
Joyce Cooling
Hermeto Pascoal
Chieli Minucci
John McLaughlin
Richard Smith
Joe Pass
Gerald Veasley
Victor Fields
Joe Williams
Oliver Nelson
Everette Harp
Marcus Johnson
Kevin Toney
Art Tatum
Gerald Albright
Sonny Fortune

Although smooth-jazz artists prefer a gentle groove to deep swing and are more likely to gig at a resort in Bermuda than a basement club in the Village, many worship the same gods as the Morans and the Mehldaus. For this edition of Autumn Chill, we asked some top smooth- and urban-jazzers to reflect on their hard-jazz heroes.

George Duke on Cannonball Adderly

I first met Cannon at a small neighborhood jazz joint in San Francisco called the Half Note Club. I was an undergraduate at the SF Conservatory of Music, around 19 years old. Never would I have believed that one day I would be part of his band and record albums with him.

My musical experiences with Cannon were immense. One important lesson was how to react quickly in accompaniment.

I asked him, “How am I supposed to accompany you when as soon as I lock into what you’re doing, you move to another key or a different vibe?”

He said, “Open your mind and your ears and stay tuned into what’s happening at the moment. If you have to think to react instead of instinctively playing, then what you play will be too late!”

This attitude had a great influence on me. Now, he could have told me what to play. Instead, he encouraged me to find my own direction by placing a seed deep inside me that took root and helped me blossom into the musician I am today.

Cannon also encouraged me to seek out other forms of music, particularly Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and rock styles and incorporate aspects I like into my own style. He also taught me that it’s OK to be a great musician and be funny. He taught me that it’s OK to play “soulful” or “funky” and still be considered a great musician. He taught me that having a hit record was OK despite what critics and pure jazz fans might think. In short, he taught me to trust in my own instincts and act on that in a positive way no matter what others thought. The main criterion was and is to keep the musical integrity at a high level no matter what.

Like Miles Davis, Cannon was a musical explorer, and he wanted me to open my mind to the wonderful palette of music that’s available to every musician.

In short, Cannon was all that and a bag of chips!

Boney James on George Benson

My friends and I at the time were just getting into playing instruments. We would just jam together and right around that time, it was probably ’73, ’74, fusion was really coming into its heyday and we were getting interested in that kind of music. I think one of the first records of George’s that I heard was Bad Benson…and you know we just loved it. [Later,] I was actually at the Roxy when he recorded Weekend in L.A., so there’s a little bit of a history there.

I think for me what I loved about that style of music in general, and George in particular, was I had grown up loving pop music. I was a kid at the time and pop music was a different thing. Pop was very eclectic when I was growing up and it was just what we heard on the radio. That could be rock and roll or R&B and all these different kinds of music. What you didn’t hear so much was jazz. Then along came people like George and Grover Washington Jr. and a whole group of artists came into our consciousness that were taking pop song structures or R&B grooves and marrying the improvisation and heart of jazz to it. That was really exciting to us at the time and it still is exciting to me now.

I think George has a lot of things that are special about him. He has an incredible technique on his instrument. He’s got an incredible grounding in improvisation and harmony, and yet he’s managed to tap into the idea of a song that can cross boundaries and not remove the intellectual element.

[Playing with George on Shine, my latest record,] was just one of those moments. For me, given my emotional connection to his music, just to be hanging out in the studio with George is one of those things where you have to take a breath and say, “Wow, this is really happening.” I had written the song “Hypnotic” and right away it sounded to me very vintage George Benson. I took elements that I loved about his earlier arrangements-songs like “Affirmation” and the entire Breezin’ record with the string arrangements. I put live strings on my song and it just seemed like the perfect setting to sort of plop him down in the middle of. As soon as he started playing, it just felt so right.

David Benoit on Dave Brubeck

I have been a fan of Dave Brubeck’s since 1960 when I was 8 years old. My parents had Time Out and it was a favorite in the Benoit household.

Most of Dave’s music was too difficult for me to play when I was a kid, but as I got older and more proficient I studied his music and developed a keen appreciation for his ability to make odd time so effortless and melodic. That was the kind of musician I wanted to be: intelligent but popular with the masses.

Once I became established as a popular jazz pianist, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brubeck backstage at the Hollywood Bowl. We struck up a friendship and performed a series of two piano concerts together. During that time, he showed me how to play “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” one of the most difficult pieces in the jazz piano repertoire. He also became my friend, which culminated in a performance of “Happy Birthday” to me on one of my landmark years at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, Calif.

He is a great friend, hero and mentor. I perform his music every time I am in concert. I also had the honor and privilege of performing with him once again this past summer at Villa Montalvo.

Chuck Loeb on Stan Getz

As a young guitarist in my early teens, I was an avid listener of pop radio. It was there that I could hear the latest hits by my favorite artists: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Little Stevie Wonder, etc. I was still a few years away from my introduction to jazz, but then something strange happened. Riding in the car with my family listening to WABC, the DJ introduced a song called “The Girl From Ipanema” by someone named Stan Getz. What was this strange and beautiful music, and what was that sound? It hit me in a way that, in retrospect, makes total sense to me now-that sound was Stan’s tenor sax, inimitable in timbre, phrasing, melodicism and swing.

I, of course, had no idea how much that sound and the man who made it would impact my life just a few years later.

Soon after that fateful car ride I started on my own journey in the world of jazz, ultimately making it my life’s work. I eventually moved to New York City and was floating around the scene playing with bands, making jam sessions, trying to land that cool road gig. So it was with quite a lot of excitement that I learned that Stan Getz was adding a guitar to his lineup and I was asked to audition. Within a few weeks I was in the band and on the road! The next two and a half years were a whirlwind of festival and club gigs as well as recordings with a true jazz legend-one that may have been the first one I had ever heard all those years ago.

I realize now that the thing that makes an artist stand out first and foremost is their sound, and in this regard Stan was a true master. He would take the stage and you could see the audience rapt by the warmth and largesse of just the first few notes he played-its effect was almost hypnotic. The other aspect that impressed me was that in just a few notes from his horn there was no doubt as to who was playing-it was instantly recognizable. The band at the time was experimenting with various types of compositions, grooves and sounds, some of which were far adrift of Stan’s usual traditional jazz-quartet setting, and it was this dedication to his pure and recognizable sound that anchored the group and indeed defined it.

Another element of Stan’s artistry was his desire to touch and move his audience. One night, as we were lured out on stage for an encore by thunderous applause, he turned to me and said, “That’s what it’s all about right there.” He was never afraid to play “for the people” and never succumbed to fear of criticism for doing so.

Also, his ears and capacity to catch and hear everything that was happening on the bandstand was uncanny. Although his harmonic knowledge was homegrown, there was never a chord, no matter how complicated, that he couldn’t find something beautiful and fitting to play over. Someone in the band once called him “Captain Radar!” He also gave us young band members our chance to stretch out in some heady settings, and always acknowledged when the music was really cooking.

Stan was no angel, and there are plenty of things that I learned not to do by observing him in action, too. But night after night I observed many things that made Stan an outstanding jazz figure and an inspiration to me as an aspiring young musician. It is amazing to me that each time I head out to lead my own band and make my own statement as a recording artist, hardly a day goes by that I don’t stop and think of Stan. How he might have picked the set list, or tempos or solo order to make the mood just right, leaning over and getting his reed just right. Or how he would close his eyes and let the music guide him to that special place where the sounds would just flow form his horn right into the hearts of the listeners. But most of all, it is the memory of his beautiful tone-that sound-that made its mark on me.

Today, when someone says, “When I hear you on the radio or at a show I know it’s you immediately,” it makes me smile to think that maybe a little bit of the Man rubbed off on me.

Marion Meadows on Sonny Fortune

In the early years of my musical journey, I had the fortune to meet Sonny Fortune. Sonny epitomized the kind of sax player that I aspired to become. His years with McCoy Tyner set him on a path of adventure and exploration. His soprano was not just sweet but fiery and aggressive.

Although Sonny was mostly known as an alto saxophonist, I had never heard a player reach like that on soprano since Coltrane. Sonny would always tell me to be cognizant of time and meter. He would practice to the metronome constantly.

His influence on me is apparent in my playing. People often ask me where that fire comes from in my soprano playing, and my answer is always, “Sonny Fortune!”

Lee Ritenour on Wes Montgomery

Like every guitar player who arrived on the scene in the ’60s, I owe a great deal to Wes Montgomery. I think that’s probably why I recorded my tribute album to him, Wes Bound, in 1993. For like all of the great jazz legends-Miles, Dizzy, Bird-his style permeates even into a new century. He’s one of those rare artists whose approach to the instrument is so original that it stands the test of time. I find his approach so captivating that it’s intoxicating for me-to hear and to play.

It amazes me that so many of today’s young musicians are not familiar with Wes. I think he should be right up there with Ellington, Armstrong and Miles, as he’s had the same kind of impact on guitarists that those people have had in their respective fields.

Peter White on Django Reinhardt

I first came to the U.S.A. from the U.K. in 1975, and even though I only had a small suitcase, I still managed to pack my Django Reinhardt LPs. Obviously, at that time my Django collection was something that I just couldn’t live without.

Jazz guitar had never really interested me as a teenager-it seemed to me to be a flurry of notes, each one sounding pretty much like the last. Phrasing and dynamics didn’t seem to matter as much as producing a consistent tone. That was my impression, anyway. Django changed all that. After I bought my first Django recording, I was immediately transfixed by his phrasing and use of dynamics. And my God was it ever romantic! I had often thought of jazz as being clever, but never romantic!

I immediately felt akin to him, especially after I discovered that he was born in Belgium, barely 50 miles from the French village where my mother was born.

Growing up in England, I learned to play guitar by listening to the blues as played by every English guitarist of that time, such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, but now I seemed to be listening through the mists of time, to guitar playing unhindered by the pentatonic scale and the 12-bar sequence, using harmonic variations that I’d never heard before. Django was cool, but he could also be fiery, with a temperament that didn’t seem to be concerned with finesse. The passion behind the notes as they spiraled out of his instrument was much more important to him than getting a consistent tone. He would end a phrase with a pronounced vibrato and then send that note off into the stratosphere with a flourish up the guitar neck, almost as if his hand could hardly contain the passion of the moment.

Yes, Django was a huge influence on me, and he taught me and so many other guitar players that even though you can play the right notes in the right order-without passion you have only won half the battle!

Joyce Cooling on Hermeto Pascoal

Hermeto Pascoal is one of the most creative musicians I have ever heard.

Among other things, Hermeto taught me that music is everywhere, in everyday sounds-sounds found in nature as well as synthetic, mechanical sounds. I went to a workshop of his and he demonstrated that very concept by having an audience member record a mundane sentence, something like, “I went to the store today,” into a cassette recorder. Hermeto then played the sentence over and over until he found the exact melody created by the subtle inflections in the voice. He then harmonized the melody in true, outrageous, spontaneous Hermeto style, and ended up with an incredible piece of music created right before your ears and eyes in about 10 minutes.

The same thing with grooves. For example, windshield wipers that move at slightly different speeds can create some wild polyrhythms. Add the raindrops in there and you’ve got a symphony. Putting the Hermeto spin on everyday life really opened my mind, and has actually made otherwise intolerable, irritating sounds (like heavy traffic) truly inspirational.

Hermeto knows no limits, and every time I get stuck writing or find myself in a rut with my playing, his spirit pops into my head and coaxes me to think expansively, unconventionally and creatively.

Since then I have listened-really listened-to the sounds, melodies and rhythms around me that literally fill every second of every day.

Chieli Minucci on John McLaughlin

I first discovered John McLaughlin’s music and guitar playing when I was 15 years old. I was at that famous Central Park concert in New York City by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The performance forever changed my ideas about music.

I sat there with 3,000 other teens and twentysomethings, in awe of the power of McLaughlin’s music and the equally mind-altering abilities of keyboardist Jan Hammer, drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Rick Laird and violinist Jerry Goodman. This was during the golden age of jazz-rock fusion, where the same crowd that attended a Rolling Stones concert would be seen at a show like this! (Check it out for yourself: The recording of the Central Park concert became Between Nothingness & Eternity.)

One of the trademarks of John’s guitar playing that attracted me so much was his ability to seamlessly go from rock to jazz. I’ve since aspired in my own musical life to blend styles. Being primarily a rock/blues-based guitarist, I found McLaughlin’s adventurousness to be freeing. He is a virtuoso, able to play effortlessly over shifting harmonic changes and tonal centers, all the while maintaining his blistering approach to the guitar itself. That has always been the intended approach of my own style of playing-hopefully a mixture of passion and fire at all times!

Secondly, I’ve been strongly influenced by Mahavishnu’s writing, in that I’ve also often experimented with combining eclectic styles as well as odd-meter rhythms. McLaughlin had his own approach to this arranging style of superimposing layers upon layers. The technique, the concept, was attractive to me. I’ve found myself writing like a chameleon at times: jazz, fusion-rock, New Age, prog-rock, smooth jazz, R & B-all the while trying to layer different elements on top of each other. On Jewels, my first solo CD, I wrote the title suite in tribute to John.

Richard Smith on Joe Pass

When I was 17 years old, all I wanted from life itself was to play like Joe Pass. If I was given the chance to have a duo like the one he had with Oscar Petersen, John Pisano or Herb Ellis, to play for $50 a night in a steady house gig at a nice joint, then all of my dreams would be answered. Joe was my favorite guitar player, period. Joe was a genius at bebop, but he was also a great blues player and that in particular is what got me-his blues playing, and, of course, his ridiculous chops. He was the original shredder! I would take a banged-up cassette recorder into the practice rooms at my high school, and later on the University of Oregon, and from 6 a.m. until my first class at 8 a.m. I would practice songs and chops. I literally wore out A Salle Pleyel, Virtuoso, Two for the Road and Porgy and Bess.

My senior year of high school I was living in England and traveled from Liverpool to London to catch Joe’s solo set at Ronnie Scott’s club. I was so excited that I ran backstage after his first set and was literally speechless-nothing came out of my mouth, other than to eventually spit out, “Joe, you’re the greatest,” or something equally inadequate and obvious. After a few minutes of this nonsense, he put his guitar into my hands and said, “Well, after all that, can you play?” By this time I couldn’t even hold onto the guitar pick, let alone actually play anything coherent. I think I finally managed to squeeze something out on the instrument, and if I recall, he was very kind, regardless of what I actually did. I will never forget that exchange, and his graciousness. I didn’t have the money for a hotel, so after his third set and many farewells, I walked around Soho in a buzz, forever inspired, until the busses started running at 6 a.m. the next morning. What a remarkable influence he had on me.

I will be the first to say that my smooth-jazz recordings don’t sound very influenced by Joe. Shortly after moving to L.A., I immersed myself in many other styles and sounds that were to profoundly influence my artistic sensibilities. But Joe didn’t really sound like the musicians that he was most influenced by either: Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian.

I indeed feel as though I am a part of a proud tradition of studio, sideman and jazz guitar players in Los Angeles, the way Joe was, indulging in the broad, expansive palate of the West Coast sound, which for me includes smooth jazz.

Gerald Veasley on Charles Mingus

One of my few regrets is that I missed see-ing Charles Mingus live, up close, in all his fiery splendor. Now I listen to his recordings and squint back though the years trying to visualize his command of the bass and the bandstand.

I actually read Mingus before I listened to him. A friend gave me a copy of Beneath the Underdog, Mingus’ autobiography, and it took hold of my postadolescent imagination. The Mingus I encountered was mythical, larger than life, a man with a robust appetite for living in its many forms. Carnal and ambitious, he lived a life that didn’t fit neatly into society’s frame-a perfect hero (or antihero) for a 21-year-old male.

Oh, and he was a heck of a bass player and composer, too. I would discover that later.

“Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” the first Mingus composition that made an impression on me, revealed a composer who wrote outside the frame. At first, “Lovebird” appeared to be a beboppish strut, propelled by a melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a ’50s-era TV detective drama. Then, just when I got used to the downtown pace, the song dissolved into lush romance.

“What is that?” I wondered. “Maybe this tune is what they mean by ‘the sound of surprise.'” In Mingus I heard a kind of jazz that was satisfying in a fresh way. Satisfying like Hitchcock. I couldn’t tell what was going to come next. I had to pay attention.

The way Mingus toyed with familiar milieu-sanctified church shouts, bawdy blues, elegant bebop, lyric ballads and anything else he could get his hands on-arrested me. Here was a composer who didn’t play by conventional jazz rules.

With Mingus as an influence, is it any wonder that I’ve had such a schizophrenic jazz life myself? I’ve played avant-garde festivals in Germany and smooth-jazz cruises in the Caribbean. Baptist churches, R&B recording sessions, sweaty jazz clubs, starchy concert halls-it all feels like terra firma to me.

Like Charlie, I’m a recording artist and bandleader. At one time in history (let’s call it B.C.-Before Charlie), the idea of the bassist as leader was a dangerous idea. Mingus blasted a hole in the convention of the horn player or pianist as de facto bandleader. That opening has remained clear and safe for others to follow. Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, et al., owe a debt to Charlie.

And there is Mingus the bass player. His lines have a bristling energy-solid yet never settled. When I listen to Mingus play, I see bass lines that are swooping, dancing and driving-always headed toward a destination, one that he’s certain of, and one that we’re dying to see. Again, you’ve got to pay attention.

Paying attention may be the point of it all. Mingus, the man and artist, living outside the frame, demands our attention and we benefit by taking our blinders off and seeing other possibilities. He coaxes us to come play outside, too.

I’m not totally outside the frame yet, but I’m getting there.

Kirk Whalum on Peanuts Whalum

Trying so hard to emulate my heroes such as Hank Craw-ford, Arnett Cobb, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington Jr. and, in particular, my uncle, Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, has finally yielded the more enviable fruit of having developed my own sound. I owe a great debt to my uncle Peanuts. The warm, passionate, almost gospel sound that came through his horn as he ripped through jazz standard after jazz standard is still very fresh in my mind from the first time I heard him when I was a 12-year-old saxophonist.

If I were a fairy-tale writer instead of a saxophonist, I would probably write my fairy tale about an incredible saxophonist, vocalist and pianist who, with all the poise, dignity and charm of a Sir Lancelot, would defy the shallowness of a 21st-century entertainment industry and make his national debut at the tender age of 77! He would spryly but cautiously (betraying the wisdom of his years) take the stage of the Pageant Theatre in his beloved St. Louis, alongside youngsters like Jonathan Butler, Wayman Tisdale and his very proud nephew and proceed to rip us apart like so many paper dolls! The audience would explode into hysteria, wondering, “What have done happened?” They would gawk at the 5-foot 4-inch giant of a sultry-voiced charmer and say, “Did I miss you on American Idol, Peanuts?”

My uncle Peanuts Whalum indeed did just that! He wowed me almost 36 years ago. And he indeed wowed that crowd recently in St. Louis-the city where he had been neatly tucked away in piano bars for over 50 years. He wowed Dave Koz and the folks at Rendezvous Entertainment-so much so that they signed him! He wowed the cruisers on both the Dave Koz & Friends cruise and the Jazz Cruise 2006!

So tell me, do fairy tales come true? Stop by myspace.com/peanutswhalum and consult some of Peanuts’ new fans! In the words of Jonathan Butler, “This guy has a future in this business!”

Jay Beckenstein on Oliver Nelson

I was born in ’51. I think most of the records that really affected me were probably right around ’61, ’62, so I was only 10 years old when I first heard The Blues and the Abstract Truth. But at that age I already had fantasies about being a musician and I’d been playing the saxophone for five years. I’d been listening to a lot Coltrane’s soprano playing at the time and I dug it all, but when I first heard Oliver’s sound on soprano, it was like a whole different kind of animal than the sound Trane got. [Nelson’s] approach was so very pristine and in tune and beautifully controlled and beautifully rounded, much the way Cannonball [Adderly] had that kind of sound on alto. And that really knocked me out.

I play all three saxes but I’ve really always enjoyed playing soprano sax, and that was a big influence, hearing [Nelson’s] sound on soprano sax-hearing a soprano sax not sound annoying.

Frankly, in my early years when I was being influenced by people, I never imagined that I would be a pop-jazz musician or anything of the sort. I never saw [Spyro Gyra’s] earlier work as being pop-jazz. If by pop you mean popular, then yes it was popular. We always thought it was more coming out of a Weather Report, Chick Corea kind of thing.

That said, maybe [Nelson explored] some of the elements that make up pop-jazz, [such as] a clean production technique. [Nelson’s] records were pristine. Oliver did work with Quincy Jones, so I can see where Oliver sort of had a pop-jazz thing, but I never thought of him as such. But particularly what he did with kind of big-band arranging for movies and scores in L.A., and one particular record, I think it was Sound Pieces, it was just a beautifully produced record. When I started making records I was concerned with the records being controlled and beautiful.

The two big records for me were Sound Pieces and The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and that was Eric Dolphy. It had nothing to do with the pop-jazz thing. There’s one particular solo [on Sound Pieces] that absolutely moved me, and may be the reason I ended up playing soprano saxophone. It was on “The Shadow of Your Smile.” [Nelson plays] an absolutely, phenomenally emotional, arcing, killer solo. And that’s another thing. I’ve always thought when I take solos-especially ones where…they’re rather extended-I always try and be aware of a bigger picture, not just go around the changes a few times, but come up with shapes and densities and contours, so that, at the end of the solo, you’ve really created something that has a whole body to it, a beautiful form that rises in the right places and has some kind of emotional breath to it. And that solo [on “Shadow”] just sweeps you away, and he builds and builds and builds. I can still sing the solo in my head.

Victor Fields on Joe Williams

Of all the great singers I admire, Joe Williams is my favorite. Although famous for singing the blues, Joe began his career as a balladeer. It wasn’t until he joined the Basie band that he became a blues singer. I listened carefully to his music, and through him I began to appreciate his mastery of diction and phrasing and other essential elements of vocalizing such as lyric interpretation and stylization.

In 1963, well into his 40s, Joe returned to his first love, the ballad. I love ballads, too, and I could definitely relate to his decision to risk everything in pursuit of a passion. I walked away from a corporate career to live my dream. There were no guarantees of success. On the contrary, as an independent artist I was given very little chance at all. But I never listened to the naysayers. Just like Joe, I listened to my heart.

In 2003, Jillean Williams honored me with an invitation to perform “Five-Two Blues,” a song I had written as a tribute to her husband, at the 15th Annual Joe Williams Music Scholarship Fundraiser in Las Vegas. I never met Joe Williams, but two of his closest friends, John Levy and Johnny Pate, shared memories of their friendship that I will treasure for a lifetime. It was through the people who loved him that I discovered what a wonderful, kind and generous human being Joe Williams was.

Racism is not a comfortable issue to discuss, but it’s a topic that can’t and shouldn’t be avoided when discussing Joe’s career and the state of jazz, past and present, for the black male jazz singer. Joe continuously struggled against the indignities of racism that challenged and limited his career. His lesson to me and to all of us is to never accept limitations. Nor should we place limitations on others. Always challenge life with courage and dignity and remember that it’s always about the music.

Everette Harp on Stanley Turrentine

My first big influen-ces in mainstream jazz were Stanley Turrentine and Dexter Gordon. Although I was primarily an alto-sax player at the time, these two players were very influential in directing me toward the style of jazz I was to irrevocably fall in love with. Stanley Turrentine was the first strong influence, though. I was 4 years old when I got my first sax, and by the time I had turned 8 years old I discovered John Coltrane’s Soultrane record in my parents’ collection of gospel LPs. While I was able to grasp a couple of songs on the record, the rest of it was a bit too much for my young mind to absorb. But it absolutely whetted my appetite.

By the time I turned 14 years old and was in junior-high stage band, my band director turned us on to more players. Stanley Turrentine was one of those players. He let me chose a song by Stanley to learn, and we did an arrangement for big band. The song was “Don’t Mess With Mister T.” It was my first transcription; I learned it note for note, nuance for nuance. I guess what touched me the most was how melodic it was, and thought provoking. Not a banal solo by any stretch, but one of maturity, character, melodicism and patience. Stanley’s sound was so unique. The way his vibrato quickened at the end of his phrase just as he let go of a note was absolutely his signature. Since I had come from a gospel singing background, the way he bent notes, almost morphing them from one to another, to move seamlessly from one phrase to another as if a singer was actually pouring out words to you, was what made me want to emulate him so much. You were able to feel every essence of soul and feeling he put into his solos.

He never seemed to waste notes, saving them for the right poignant moment to evoke just the feeling he needed to draw you in. His use of space is the maturity I was speaking of. The way he would pause after a phrase ending down low, only to reenter belting out a high note, as if to say “Hey, you know what I mean!” was always breathtaking. His tone was, in one word, awesome.

Stanley really knew how to speak through his horn and that’s something that really seems to be a lost art. I think we sometimes get caught up in the “Look what I can do” mentality, such that we forget that style is the real connectivity between man and that piece of metal we are blowing through. In this world of mimicry and sameness, we’ve forgotten how to find our own unique inner voice, and learn to speak to people from our hearts, through the saxophone. Playing music is one thing, but making music is altogether something different.

Stanley Turrentine never let us forget that.

Marcus Johnson on Quincy Jones

When I was in the ninth grade and expressed an interest in jazz piano, my sister Lisa bought me albums by the Quincy Jones Big Band. I knew I loved the arrangements when I spent more time listening to Quincy’s band than I did Earth, Wind & Fire. The sound of the different sections and the way he melded them together to make a musical “chocolate cake” definitely spurred my appetite for jazz.

But the biggest influence, and the source of my greatest respect for Q, is his perseverance-his ability to be the “Alchemist.” He took a life full of stories that would bring the average man to his knees and turn him to dust, yet he came out in the end with gold-even platinum. This is the mark of a true leader, the true stamp of success. Through all that was said and all that was done, to him and by him, in business and in life, he’s still doing his thing. To me, that’s what jazz and life are all about.

Kevin Toney on Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner

Since no one musician or artist has shaped my musical character and style, I have to talk about a quintet of five essential traditional-jazz pianists who have profoundly influenced my style, musical language and thinking.

Art Tatum showed me that the pursuit of excellence is always an ongoing affair. Art deeply inspires me to continually strive to reach for the highest plateau of individual expression. His imaginative recordings from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are still fresh harmonically, and they are still today the benchmark to which any pianist, regardless of style, should aspire.

Fats Waller invites me to have fun. His playing is so whimsical, humorous and technically brilliant. I have also been influenced by his great sense of showmanship and entertainment. Fats was inspirational in helping me understand the concept of playing very difficult music (stride piano) and making it feel good.

Wynton Kelly is the pianist who showed me how to swing. He’s the go-to pianist for understanding that making music that feels good is fundamental to great jazz performances.

Herbie Hancock helped to revolutionize modern jazz piano. His wide-reaching musical landscapes have continually pushed the envelope. He has inspired me to always seek adventure, excitement and newness in my music. His sense and taste for harmony, composition, beauty and class has left timeless impressions on me and countless other musicians. His style is still dominant and it set the bar for piano playing and musical thinking over the last 45 years.

McCoy Tyner’s music inspires me to seek God’s presence and power every time I sit down to play. His powerful playing with John Coltrane and his subsequent solo recordings are pure energy and spirit in action. McCoy inspires me to perform music that is honest and from the heart. He shows me that music making is truly a spiritual experience that is to be shared with everyone. As a true original-an innovator-his music constantly motivates me to seek uniqueness, joy and gratitude.

Gerald Albright on Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley

When I think back and remember the mentors in my life who helped to define my sound, I initially think of two: Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley.

I grew up in a household whose record collection was flush with James Brown albums. On most of these recordings, Maceo seemed to be the common thread in James’ sound. I was immediately drawn to Maceo’s sound because it had so much clarity. The way he approached his improvisation was with the ultimate content of rhythm, which proved to be a wonderful extension to the music of James Brown. I always appreciated that he didn’t overplay, but always found the right notes to execute at the right time.

I was introduced to Cannon-ball Adderley in high school. For me, Cannonball opened up a whole new level of improvisation. Yet, at the same time, he was soulful in his approach. His sweet, consistent sound massaged my ears for many years, and it continues to. A genius in his own right, he seemed to effortlessly solo through chord changes like no one I’ve ever heard before. Another aspect of Cannonball that I truly enjoyed was his intelligence, and the way he spoke, with the most impressive articulation. Originally Published