© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Sometimes, when John is soloing, I lay out completely.
Something important is involved here, I think. The pianist tends to play chords that the soloist knows are coming up next anyway. Normally, all the pianist does is try to give him a little extra push in the accompaniment and possibly to suggest some new ideas. When the piano isn't there, the soloist can concentrate purely on what he has in mind with fewer limitations or boundaries. Otherwise, what the pianist plays can attract his attention away from his original thought. So it is all a matter of giving the soloist more freedom to explore harmonically. Nevertheless, there is a foundation and a point of return. We all know where we are working from.”
- Pianist McCoy Tyner on playing with John Coltrane
It’s hard to imagine that the following 1963 interview with pianist, composer and bandleader McCoy Tyner took place over a half century ago.
Although it was a huge launching pad for his career his association with iconic saxophonist John Coltrane was only a small part of his time on the Jazz scene. Since John’s death in 1967, McCoy has gone on to lead a number of his own trios, a big band and a Latin Jazz group.
His style is immediately identifiable, something that is very difficult to achieve on piano, and his influence is discernible in the style of many of today’s Jazz keyboardists.
“We talk a lot about freedom in Jazz, but there are underlying disciplines too. When you have the "discipline of religion, as I have, I think you can meet the demands of music and function better. There are still a lot of pressures in musicians' lives, and it is easy to understand why some fall by the wayside. But you have to strengthen yourself to meet those pressures. You can't wait for them all to be removed from your environment.
There are reasons for the pressures and problems. People will usually think of God at a time of tragedy but not when everything is running smoothly. But most musicians believe in God, because most of them are very sensitive individuals. When I first started in music I never realized how sensitive music is, nor how sensitive we are.
My mother played a little piano, and she wanted us to take an interest in music. We had the choice between singing and piano lessons, so my brother and I both took piano. I wasn't too interested at first, but after a while I began to like it and devote most of my time to it. Although I didn't study the classics extensively, I think I had a pretty good foundation.
When I was about 16, I had my own jazz group. I had met another boy who had bought a set of drums, and then we added trombone, trumpet, and alto saxophone. The drummer, Garvin Masseaux, has been playing conga with Olatunji.
I was mainly influenced by records at that time, because there wasn't too much jazz on the radio. Bud Powell and his brother were living just around the corner from me in Philadelphia, but they didn't have a piano in their apartment, and Bud came to my mother's house to play. I wasn't familiar with his work and didn't know who he was. It was hard to understand everything he was doing, but I liked it.
Judging from the records he made with Max Roach and Ray Brown, I think he had reached his prime then, and I learned quite a lot from him and his brother Richard. They were profound musicians, harmonically and in many other ways. Bud had so much taste and creative ability that I couldn't help learning from him.
He had worked opposite Art Tatum and had plenty of other opportunities to hear him, and Bud had been greatly influenced by Tatum. I know he had a lot of admiration for pianists who preceded Art, too, just as I have.
Tatum had really become a virtuoso. His music always sounded so neat and compact. I never thought of it as being arranged, but rather as the result of his tremendous knowledge of the instrument. Anything he could hear he could play.
After I graduated from high school, I worked days and played around home for a time. There were a lot of very good musicians in Philadelphia then and more clubs than there are now. I played with a lot of out-of-town musicians who were brought in as singles, and I worked in Calvin Massey's band around Philadelphia. Calvin had a nice band. He's a trumpet player, and he writes. Charlie Parker recorded his Fiesta.
I was about 17 when I first worked with John Coltrane. He had left Miles Davis for a period, and he was a close friend of Calvin Massey, who introduced me to him. I was working with Calvin at the Red Rooster, and John was going in there for a week. He asked us if we wanted to work with him.
After that, he would contact me whenever he came to Philly with Miles. I think he liked my playing, but we would also have long discussions on music, during which
he would sometimes sit down at the piano and play. He had a lot of ideas, and we were compatible. We saw eye to eye on so many things even at that time, and I could hear the direction he was going. I didn't know what it would be like, or how involved it would be, but I could hear something in his playing that was beautiful, and we enjoyed working together.
Benny Golson came to Philadelphia when I was about 20, and I played a concert with him. He asked me to go to San Francisco with him, where we would pick up a bassist and a drummer.
Then the Jazztet was formed, and that was very good experience for me. The original group consisted of Art Farmer, Curtis Fuller, Addison Farmer, Dave Bailey, Benny, and myself. It was a very musicianly band, and it had a lot of possibilities, but sometimes I felt there ought to have been more room allowed for improvisation. Eventually there was.
After about six months with the Jazztet, I got another call from John. He was forming his own group. I had a decision to make. I knew there was something with his group that I wanted to do, but yet the fellows in the Jazztet had been so nice to me, and they had helped me quite a bit, musically and otherwise, that I felt I owed something to them. I had to be honest with them and myself, and in the end I decided the best thing to do was to go where I could be really happy, where I could contribute more and really do some good. So I went with John.
I think I made the right move. I wasn't concerned then with whether or not John's group would be successful, for I feel that the majority of good listeners will always support good music.
I know a lot of good groups are formed and disappear, but usually they break up because of personal differences. If the guys conducted themselves right, thought more about producing good music, and generally took care of business, then I believe they would stay together longer. Music has to be the first interest. More dollars will come later.
It's important, too, for a group to be composed of men — real, true men — who will accept their responsibilities. I am proud to be part of an organization where each one is dedicated to the whole. And I really enjoy it.
People sometimes say our music is experimental, but all I can answer is that every time you sit down to play, it should be an experience. There are no barriers in our rhythm section. Everyone plays his personal concept, and nobody tells anyone else what to do. It is surprisingly spontaneous, and there's a lot of give and take, for we all listen carefully to one another. From playing together, you get to know one another so well musically that you can anticipate. We have an over-all different approach, and that is responsible for our original style. As compared with a lot of other groups, we feel differently about music. With us, whatever comes out—that's it, at that moment! We definitely believe in the value of the spontaneous.
So far as we are concerned, too, a lot depends on what John does. A rhythm section is supposed to support and inspire the soloist, and it is a very sensitive thing. How each one of us feels can determine so much, but when I come to solo I may be inspired by what John has played and by the support Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison are giving me. It's all too personal to analyze on paper, anymore than it's possible to say why one person likes chocolate and another likes cookies.
Sometimes, when John is soloing, I lay out completely.
Something important is involved here, I think. The pianist tends to play chords that the soloist knows are coming up next anyway. Normally, all the pianist does is try to give him a little extra push in the accompaniment and possibly to suggest some new ideas. When the piano isn't there, the soloist can concentrate purely on what he has in mind with fewer limitations or boundaries. Otherwise, what the pianist plays can attract his attention away from his original thought. So it is all a matter of giving the soloist more freedom to explore harmonically. Nevertheless, there is a foundation and a point of return. We all know where we are working from.
You can establish your feeling in music so that the public recognizes it, but you can also develop it within a recognizable framework. Sometimes people don't want to hear the development. They only want to hear it as it was in the primary stages. "He isn't playing the way he was," they'll say. "I don't understand what he is doing." But the roots are actually still there, and when the flower blooms the people may not accept it, though it's all part of the same thing. Then their acceptance will depend on their getting more familiarity.
That's why I think there should be more good jazz on the radio — and at times when the music can be exposed to a larger listening audience.
I've often contemplated that word "jazz." I believe early jazz came out of the churches, through the spirituals, which were a form of worship. Then there was the period of the blues, which were played in very different places. Back in those days "jazz" used to mean something else, and that's one of the reasons, I think, why many people still look down on it now. Yet I believe the music itself is one of the most beautiful art forms that exist, but the word used to describe it is just not good enough.
You are exposed to so much music today that you cannot always pinpoint influences. I know that when I used to listen to Max Roach's band I was impressed by the harmonies Richard Powell used to play and by his use of the sustaining pedal on chords. In fact, one of the strong points of his playing was his beautiful harmonic conception. I never copied what he did, but I certainly appreciated it.
I may find myself playing a phrase from another musician, but I never consciously copy, Guys ask me sometimes how I do this or do that, but I don't have any preconceived formula. You can almost subconsciously acquire technical devices, of course, like Richard Powell's way of sustaining chords.
One reason I have so much respect for the older pianists is that in their period there were so many different styles. There were many good musicians among them, and they knew their instrument, and it wasn't so much a matter of copying one another. Many of the younger musicians today involve themselves in a particular style instead of trying to learn the instrument, which I think is very important.
I'm not saying they don't know the instrument, but I think they make an error in trying to duplicate another style rather than try to play the way they feel about things. I've been told that at one time everyone was trying to play like Earl Hines. That could have been good, provided you didn't get hung up and limited to what he was able to do. I think another musician can show you the way, maybe inspire you, but I've never wanted to be an exact copy of anyone else. I'm 24, and I guess I'm still evolving. You can't rush maturity.”
“Tyner Talk: John Coltrane’s pianist discusses his musical background, beliefs and goals - as told to Stanley Dance.”
Downbeat - October 24, 1963