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Wallace Roney: The Man with the Horn

Selections from previously unpublished interviews with the late trumpeter

Wallace Roney 2011
Wallace Roney, Brooklyn, 2011 (photo: Ernest Gregory)

I was the jazz guy back then—I love jazz. You can say I am a “jazz purist” if “purist” means all kinds of jazz. I was listening early, so I remember Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro when they were new. Bitches Brew was another jazz album for me—a great one. But if you mean just acoustic jazz, I don’t think that that term “jazz snob” or “jazz purist” is what I am. People have a right to love what they want to love.

But for me it will always be jazz. For example, I never got into Jimi Hendrix. When I was growing up I knew that Miles did, and I loved what Miles did on Live-Evil and—I just didn’t put the two together. I had a friend that loved Jimi, and he was trying to get me to hear what Hendrix was doing. I couldn’t use it, man. I wanted to hear Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.

Anyway, I was home one day watching TV half asleep and they had this show on the ’60s and they had a clip of Hendrix playing “The Wind Cries Mary”—[hums melody]—and I said, “That’s ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’! Miles got that from Hendrix!” So I called Miles and went over to his place. I told him about the TV show and hearing Hendrix and recognizing the tune in his music and I’m trying to get on his good side. He said, “Yeah, and another part of that tune is Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.’ ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’ is a combination of both of those.”

Man, my mouth was open. Miles said it like he was so proud of it. Then I told him how I had been going around, not liking Hendrix because I loved jazz and “I loved you.” Miles looked at me real serious. “Yeah, well, you better.”

You can say I’m a “jazz purist” if “purist” means all kinds of jazz. But if you mean just acoustic jazz, I don’t think that that term is what I am. People have a right to love what they want to love.

Every time Miles would see me, the first thing he’d say was, “How’s Buhaina?” “Yeah man, he’s doing great.” Two months would go by, I’d go on tour, come back and see Miles. “How’s Bu doing?” “Great—we just came back from…” You know. And then we’d hang.

But by September ’87 it finally came time when I had to leave Bu. I played my last tour with him and we went to the Mt. Fuji festival, and I saw Miles right after that. “How’s Bu doing, Wally?” “Uh, uh … he’s doing good,” and I started to try to get off the subject, you know? This happened a few times, and finally I think around March ’88, he looked at me and said, “Wally?” I said, “Uh, yeah?” “So, when you going to tell me you left Buhaina?” with this disappointed look on his face. “Well…” “No, don’t tell me that. You left Buhaina and now you’re playing with Tony.” “Well…”

Then Miles just smiled, started laughing. “Ohhh shit, Wally. I know you playing your ass off now, ’cause Tony don’t like no trumpet players but me.” So I knew he was cool.

From that point on Miles started telling me all these stories about Tony Williams, all these things that him and Tony used to do. There were billions of them and they were all great. Stories inside the stories. Too many to go into here. One thing I’ll say, none of them were stupid, or kinky stories.

I think Tony had heard some rumors I was hanging with Miles a lot. I know they had history and not all of it was good but he loved it. I remember one time we played a gig in Canada and Miles had just given me his aqua blue trumpet and I couldn’t show up for the soundcheck, I came the next day just in time to make the gig. I went straight to the dressing room, and when Tony saw that blue horn he went, “Now I know you’ve been hanging with Miles.”

The more time went by, the more stories Miles would tell me, and then tell me to tell Tony. I would go back and Tony would like hearing it for about five or 10 minutes, but then he’d start getting some flashback and start getting angry, then he wouldn’t want to hear any more.

One time I was at the Village Vanguard with Tony and Miles called me. “Wally, whatcha doin’?” I said, “I’m playing at the Village Vanguard with Tony.” “Come on up…” At that time he was living at the Essex House. So I would come up there and he would say, “Look, tonight, when you play with Tony, I want you to ‘peck’ first.” Pecking is a way of playing the phrases and also playing in between the phrases. So he made sure I learned how to peck.

The next day he called me and said, “How did that go?” “It was great!” “Okay, now tonight I want you to peck and then play your phrases longer and either end them before the downbeat, or stretch them over the bar.” I went on the bandstand and I did it with Tony, and when I finished each phrase like that, Tony would answer me and I’d think, “Whoa—that worked!”

So the next day Miles said, “How was it?” “It was killing.” “Okay, now tonight when you play with him, I want you to play my solo from ‘Milestones.’” It was funny—he knew I loved him but how did he know I knew his solo from “Milestones”? “I want you to play that tonight.” So I had to figure out which tune I could fit that in since we were playing all Tony’s originals. But he had one tune that was in F, so we played it—it was “Arboretum”—and I said, “Bop, bih-de-da-bop-dah…” and Tony just loved it.

Next day—“How was that?” “Man, he loved it.” Now it’s Friday night coming up and Miles says, “Play this phrase…” And he played it for me: “Da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-dah-bah-dit-deeeh. Dah-dit-dat-dee-dah.” If I play it that way, that means play the tune straight. If I stagger the first part, we trade fours. If I stagger both parts, that means drum solo.

So I had to think what tune to put this in again with Tony. I get up there, we were playing this song called “City of Lights.” I take my solo and I played that phrase, and I staggered it all and Tony went “Brrrrrrrrrrrr!!” Then he stops and looks at me. He was getting ready to take a solo and gave me a look like, “Wally, don’t do that!” The next day Miles said, “What happened?” Before I even told him he just started laughing.

I’ll never forget those conversations. You know Miles and me have the same birthday? Even after Miles died, Tony used to call me up every year on my birthday just to ask me, “Wally—is today Miles’ birthday?”

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.