© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Gordon Jack “stopped by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles and granted us permission to use his interview with pianist Hod O’Brien which first appeared in the JazzJournal magazine in June, 2001.
The interview with Hod also can be found in Gordon’s singular book, Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004.
The footnotes references are located at the conclusion of the feature as is a video that will offer you a taste of Hod’s Jazz piano style.
© - Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Hod O'Brien's musical C.V. is an eclectic mix of the old and the new. He has played with Russell Procope, Sonny Greer, and Aaron Bell as well as Warne Marsh, Roswell Rudd, and Archie Shepp, but despite making his debut on the New York jazz scene in the late fifties with Oscar Pettiford at the Five Spot, this talented pianist has maintained a low profile with the record-buying public. His latest release on Fresh Sound Records should help correct this. He was interviewed in June 2000, when he replied on cassette tape to my questions.
“My full name is Walter Howard O'Brien, and I was born in Chicago on January 19, 1936, and adopted six weeks later. My biological family on my mother's side was musical, and by the time I was ten years old, I was listening to records my step parents had by people like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. I just flipped over boogie-woogie and learned to play it by ear. I also liked Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. Later, Nat Cole got me going in another direction, but by the time I was fourteen, I was hooked on bebop through listening to "Jazz at the Philharmonic" records. By then, Billy Taylor and Hank Jones were influences, but Bud Powell was a little harder for me to fathom at first, because the music was so fast, with discordant harmonies that I didn't pick up on right away. It was powerful music, and more complicated than Nat Cole for instance, but Bud was the source for all the pianists who subsequently became my influences—like Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Claude Williamson. It was Claude who really got me into the "Bud" mode, because he was the distillation of that style, and I could understand Bud better by listening to Claude's early records.
I was seventeen when I attended Hotchkiss School in Lakeville and met Roswell Rudd for the first time. In those early years he was playing Dixieland trombone, and we used to jam with his father, who was a good drummer, and Jim Atlas, who later played bass with the Jimmy Giuffre Three. Roswell and I parted company in the late fifties and didn't meet again until the mid sixties in New York, by which time he was playing totally out, with people like John Tchicai and Archie Shepp. In 1954 I spent a semester at Oberlin College, but I was very neglectful and didn't finish niy studies by a long shot. Dave Brubeck had recorded there the year before, and I used to listen to that album because I liked Brubeck's quartet. Some of us would go into town and listen to Max Roach with Clifford Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Taylor, etc. Oh boy, the old days were great!
In the summer of 1955 I did my first professional gig, subbing for Randy Weston, with Willie Jones on drums. Willie invited me to New York, where he was playing with Charles Mingus, and I once went over to Mingus's house to listen while J. R. Monterose and Jackie McLean rehearsed the "Pithecanthropus Erectus" album. It was Willie who introduced me to the New York loft scene, where everything was happening, and that's when I first met all the Detroit guys like Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and Pepper Adams. I also remember listening to Freddie Redd, who just knocked me out. I stood by the piano, watching him with his head thrown back, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, playing all that rich, beautiful bebop.
In the fall of 1956 I started studying at the Manhattan School of Music. I met Donald Byrd there, but the only time we played together was on a recording for Teddy Charles at Prestige the following year, and it was really thanks to Hal Stein that I was called for the date. He was playing alto with Teddy at the Pad in Greenwich Village, and he knew me from a loft session, so when I visited the club, I was invited to sit in. Teddy liked my playing and said he could use me on an album he was producing for Prestige called "Three Trumpets," with Donald, Art Farmer, and Idrees Sulieman. It was my first record date, and I was a little nervous. I remember playing a big fat B-minor 7th on the first chord of the bridge on "Cherokee," and Idrees cocked his head and smiled when we listened to the playback. I loved Idrees, man, although Art's playing was beautiful, especially from that period, when he was with Gigi Gryce. But Idrees stands out as being the most interesting in terms of ideas, sound, and energy.1
Later on in 1957, at the recommendation of Red Rodney, I had the dubious distinction of replacing Bill Evans with Oscar Pettiford because Oscar didn't like Bill's playing. Bill had a new and unusual approach to time and harmony, and Oscar was apparently getting very put out with him. One night he got so mad that Red had to calm him down, which is when I was hired, because I played straight-ahead bebop, which Red and Oscar liked. I worked for about eight months with Oscar, and although he could get pretty rumbustious and difficult, he never got out of hand while I was with him. Eventually, Red's drug habits caused Oscar to change trumpeters, and Johnny Coles came in, sounding great. Sahib Shihab was in the group on alto and baritone, with Earl "Buster" Smith on drums, and sometimes Oscar added Betty Glamman on harp. She was known as "Betty Glamour" because she looked good onstage, which Oscar liked, and anyway, he thought the harp made us look distinguished!
We worked mostly at the Five Spot and Smalls, and when Oscar left for Europe in the summer of 1958, I started playing with J. R. Monterose. At first we used Al Levitt and Buell Neidlinger, but later on, Elvin Jones and Wilbur Ware were with us for several months. I'll tell you a funny story about Wilbur, who was a wonderful bass player. We were at a concert in some town where J .R.'s in-laws lived, and he naturally wanted to impress them, but Wilbur was in his famous drugged and drunk state, and I wasn't much better. I was trying to play, but he kept falling over his bass, finally ending up slumped on top of me. The two of us were sprawled on the piano, and Elvin and J.R. finished playing by themselves. Elvin got mad, and J.R. wasn't too happy, but we all loved Wilbur—he was "Mr. Time." That group also played on weekends at a rather infamous club in the red-light district of Albany, called the Gaiety.2
In 1960, I did an album for Decca with Gene Quill, Teddy Kotick, and Nick Stabulas, which unfortunately was never released. I had come into contact with Gene because "Phil and Quill" were happening at the time, and I remember learning "Things We Did Last Summer" the night before the recording. It's a great tune, and Gene played a nice version of it. Just prior to the album, I'd worked with Phil Woods at the Cork 'n' Bib, which is where I first met Chet Baker. Everybody came out to see Chet, and I had never seen the club so full. For the next three years until 1963, Don Friedman and I were the resident pianists at a club on Staten Island called the Totten Villa. We usually had Vinnie Ruggiero, who was a great drummer and probably the white man's answer to Philly Joe Jones, and when he couldn't make it, Art Taylor would take his place. It was Teddy Kotick's gig, and he booked people like Phil, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Rouse, Lee Konitz, Al Cohn, Stan Getz, and Bob Brookmeyer. We played "common denominator standards," in other words just calling tunes and blowing, with no arrangements and nothing written down, which is just as well, as I'm not a sight-reader. I liked Brookmeyer a lot, especially from those days, and I loved the "Interpretations" album he did with Getz, partly because of Johnny Williams, who was the pianist on the date. He was one of my favorites at the time because he had a rhythmic approach in his solos and his comping that was really impressive.
I started studying with Hall Overton, who was an authority on Thelonious Monk. He was also a nodal point between modern classical and the world, and that is when I became interested in avant-garde electronic music, which I studied with Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt. I dabbled in free jazz for a while, which can be great when it's coherent, but with a lot of players, it's just plain gibberish. Roswell Rudd, though, is an exception, because he plans structured sections which can be played freely, making his music successful. By the middle of the sixties I found interest in jazz falling away, partly due to the avant-garde and partly because of the popularity of groups like the Beatles, and this is when I dropped out of the music scene for a while.
I enrolled at Columbia University and eventually graduated with a degree in psychology, but I was still playing occasionally with Nobby Totah, who was a good friend. He used to invite me down to El Morocco to sit in with Chuck Wayne, and then around 1973 I rekindled my relationship with Roswell. He was teaching at a college in upstate New York with my ex-wife, and we decided to open our own club in Greenwich Village. We called it the St. James Infirmary, and it became quite a saga. His wife, Mosselle, knew all kinds of people in the Village, and as she had a gift for public relations, she became the manager. Unfortunately she was not very organized, so we ended our partnership after three months. Mosselle was very persuasive, though, and convinced the club's rhythm section, Beaver Harris and Cameron Brown, to go on strike along with Roswell! I was left without a band, so I called Richard Youngstein, the bass player, who brought in Jimmy Madison on drums, along with altoist Bob Mover, and we had a great time.
Bob was also playing with Chet at Stryker's Pub, so for a while Chet came into the St. James and did two nights a week with us. Sometimes we had Archie Shepp on weekends, and the only time the club went into the black was when Chet and Archie played together. We would actually be about $300 or so above the overhead for the week, whereas most of the time we lost money. Archie didn't play much free stuff at that time, because he had been through all that in the sixties, and he sounded great when he played straight-ahead music. Pepper Adams also played the club, and he was a big influence on me. His melodic lines were so impressive that I tried to incorporate them into my own blowing licks, so to speak.
Getting back to Chet, I think playing at my club had a lot to do with him getting back on his feet after that terrible beating and all the problems he had with his embouchure. Every night he seemed to get better and stronger, and that was when the real depth of his music started for me. He was fairly easy to work for, and we often played together when he came to New York, but for some reason, he didn't always like the way I comped. It was difficult to satisfy him sometimes, which made me resentful, because I think my comping is pretty damn good, as most people do. The only other person who doesn't is Frank Morgan, and there may be something in the fact that they both had similar ways of life. Working with Chet, though, was a privilege and honor, because he is a very important part of our jazz family and one of the great poet laureate musicians of all time. By the summer of 1975 Chet, Archie Shepp, and a lot of other guys we were featuring went over to Europe to play the festivals. That was when I decided to close the St. James, and that was the end of my career as a club owner. I started playing with Marshall Brown, who had a great book, and we had a long-lasting relationship until he died in 1983.
In 1977, I did three months at Gregory's with Russell Procope and Sonny Greer. I took the place of Brooks Kerr, who was hospitalized, and although it was just a trio job, Aaron Bell used to sit in on bass sometimes. Brooks was almost raised with the Ellington Orchestra, because his mother could afford to have them play at her apartment when he was young. When he was older, he used to go on gigs with the band, and if Duke forgot something, he would have Brooks play it for him, because he knew everything that Duke had written. Brooks often had Ellington sidemen play with him, but the mainstays were Russell and Sonny. Russell made no bones about not liking bebop or Charlie Parker, but I managed to turn him on to "A Night in Tunisia," which he eventually liked a lot.
When they left, I stayed on with Joe Puma and Frank Luther. The job lasted until 1982, but Joe let Frank go after a couple of years because Frank's playing was getting too outlandish. Joe said, "I'm trying to play Dixieland and he's playing Stravinsky!" Although when Frank buckles down and plays time, he's one of the best there is. A lot of fine guitarists like Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney, Attila Zoller, and Chuck Wayne used to sit in, and whenever Joe Pass was there, he and Puma would really go at it. We had some great times, especially when "Papa" Jo Jones came by and played brushes on a newspaper, which was a real trip. Stan Getz sat in one cold January night when the club was nearly empty, and a guy came in looking for girls. When he saw there weren't any, he stood listening for a while and, walking to the door, said to the owner, "Well, he ain't no Stan Getz!"
In 1982 I recorded with Allen Eager on his first record date in about twenty-five years.3 He had been involved in racing cars and hanging around with society people, and when he started playing in the studio, it was as though he had never blown a sax before. I was pretty shocked, but he kept at it, and slowly but surely, the lines got longer and clearer. It was as though he learned to play again in the space of half an hour. He didn't sound anything like I remembered from the forties or fifties, when he was with Fats Navarro or Tadd Dameron, but as he loosened up, he became more coherent from tune to tune. In fact at the end of three hours, when we did "Just You, Just Me," which was our last title, he played something that was worthy of Lester Young. It was a gem, just a perfect solo. He was a temperamental guy, though.
Phil Schaap brought him to the West End in Manhattan around that time, and Phil booked a straight-ahead rhythm section for him. Halfway through the first night, Allen decided that he didn't want to play that way, so he fired the band because he wanted to play completely free. He hired a new group of free players for the next night and continued the gig in that bag. I don't know what he's doing now, but I think he's living and playing down in Florida.4
In 1984 I recorded with Warne Marsh and Chet Baker in Holland.5 Warne was a very important saxophone player who used the upper partials, which are the tones above the sevenths, and his ability to handle that part of the harmonic spectrum was remarkable. On the record date Chet really didn't know what to do, so Warne took charge and ran the whole show. He picked the tunes, blew on the changes without stating the melodies, then retitled everything so he could get the royalties. It was around this time that I began collaborating with Fran Landesman by putting music to some of her poems,6 and my wife, Stephanie Nakasian, recorded one of our tunes, "Mystery Man," on her 1988 CD with Phil Woods.7 Fran and I made a demo of eight songs, which we sent to Bette Midler because they would have been perfect for her, but I don't think they ever got past her henchmen.
I have already mentioned some of my early influences, but there are many other pianists who are important to me, like Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, George Wallington, Duke Jordan, and especially Al Haig, who almost defined the sound of bebop piano. I love Jimmy Rowles, who was a sort of white version of Thelonious Monk. He had an offbeat way of coloring and harmonizing that was uniquely his. Dave McKenna, too, is incredible. I love the way he gets that walking bass line going with the right hand comping and blowing a melodic line, while making it all sound smooth and fluid. It's amazing that anyone besides Art Tatum can play that much solo piano; he's a one-man orchestra. Dave is just as good in an ensemble setting, and he makes his cohorts feel needed, unlike Art, who I'm told used to make them feel superfluous.
At the end of 1999 I recorded a trio album for Fresh Sound that is my best yet.8 It has Tom Warrington on bass and Paul Kreibich on drums and should help publicize the West Coast tour that Stephanie and I are undertaking later this summer. She and I work a lot together and will continue to do so.
1. Trumpets All Out (originally issued as Three Trumpets). Prestige OJCCD-1801.
2. Nick Brignola dedicated his original "Green Street" to the club on Reservoir RSR CD 159.
3. Allen Eager, Renaissance. Uptown 27.09.
4. Since this interview, Allen Eager passed away, on April 13, 2003.
5. Chet Baker/Warne Marsh, Blues for a Reason. Criss Cross 1010.
6. Fran Landesman of course has written many fine lyrics, and none better than "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," with music composed by Tommy Wolf. It was originally featured in a 1959 Broadway musical titled The Nervous Set, a satire on the Beat Generation, with Larry Hagman as Jack Kerouac and Del Close as Allen Ginsberg. The score also included "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men."
7. Stephanie Nakasian, Comin' Alive. V.S.O.P. 73.
8. Hod O'Brien, Have Piano . . . Will Swing! Fresh Sound FSR 5030 CD.
Hod is featured in the following video with Ray Drummond on bass and Kenny Washington on drums performing Bob Dorough’s Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before.