What was it like to join the Lionel Hampton Orchestra just out of your teens?
Frankie Dunlop, Oliver Beener, and Curtis Fuller all looked out for me. Curtis would always talk to us about playing with John Coltrane and Art Blakey, and Oliver Beener was a soulful trumpet player who took me under his wing. Those guys set the tone for what it meant to be a jazz musician. I loved those years, man, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
It sounds like you were also learning how to mentor younger musicians.
Of course! Art Blakey would always feature us and encourage us to write for the band. I learned that no matter what we wrote, it never changed the sound of the Jazz Messengers. We weren’t trying to write like Wayne Shorter’s or Lee Morgan’s version of the band, but we still had that Messenger sound. That’s how I’ve always led my bands, giving everyone room to create.
Speaking of Wayne, I’m so grateful that he and Herbie Hancock are still among us. It’s something I don’t take for granted.
Exactly. That’s the reason we did Absence. I don’t want to do a tribute to Wayne after he’s gone—I want him to know how I feel about him now!
And it’s not necessarily just about doing Wayne’s music. I mixed original compositions and Wayne’s music because he’s always encouraging people to step up. And the way he talks about writing … It ain’t about notes on the page. It’s about intention. Blakey used to say that Wayne has the imagination of a child, that Wayne’s mind has no limitations whatsoever.
I’m excited for Iphigenia, the opera he’s writing with Esperanza Spalding. How did you first meet him?
We met years ago, when I was playing with Blakey, but it wasn’t until I was teaching at the Monk Institute that I got a chance to be around him and Herbie Hancock. Wayne’s been a mentor in a very unique way. I’ll sit next to him, and he’ll start dropping knowledge, stuff I mull over and go, “Wow!”
Can you share an example?
One time at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, he told me a story about a violinist who was so despondent about her unsuccessful auditions that she was close to committing suicide. When the violinist told her mother what was happening—Wayne is narrating—“her mother said, ‘It takes courage to be happy!’”
That phrase hit me like a ton of bricks. You’re out there doing what other people want you to do and expecting happiness to arrive, but you have to fight for it. It takes courage! That turned my life around. Wayne is that type of dude.
Great story! Herbie is such an inspiration too.
He’s another one that doesn’t wallow in the past. He’s like, “Okay, next!” The little bit of DNA I picked up from those guys makes me constantly search for the next thing. It’s always a challenge, you know, because you have to throw your fears away.