Archive for July, 2016


July 15, 2016

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

July 15, 2016

MVD Records

Bob Holz, drums/percussion; Larry Coryell, guitar; Mike Stern, guitar; Bob Wolfman, guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Billy Steinway, keyboards; Steve Weingart, keyboard solos on 8 & 9; John Viavattine, Jr., bass; Jesse Collins, alto saxophone; Ada Rovatti, saxophone; John Viavattine Sr., flute/tenor & soprano saxophone; Ethan Wojcik, trombone; Tori Higley, vocals.

Drummer, Bob Holz, has surrounded himself with the crème de la crème of smooth jazz nobility including appearances by Larry Coryell, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker and Steve Weingart. The first cut on this CD, “Moving Eyes” pulsates with repeatable melodic lines, haunting voices, as well as a formidable guitar solo by Mike Stern. The second cut, “A Vision Forward” and the title of this production, also has an easily remembered melody line and is heavily funk influenced. Here is a contemporary, smooth-jazz CD that incorporates rhythm and blues, rock and pop in a pleasant, easy listening way. Cut #4, “Avalon Canyon” reminds me of a Quincy Jones arrangement; a throw-back to the 70’s. It’s a moderate shuffle that features Viavattine Sr on flute. Holz captures a strong groove with sticks flashing and time locked down, cement hard. His publicist notes that on the upcoming touring group, Detroit-based Ralphe Armstrong will join the band as their bassist. I’m quite familiar with Armstrong’s notable talent from his days as a 16-year-old prodigy with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra to his illustrious career playing with the likes of Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Santana, Aretha Franklin and more. I had the pleasure of working with Ralphe extensively when I was singing jazz at home in Detroit. He’s an amazing bass player and will make a premium addition to the Holz group.

Holz began his career in Boston, attending Berklee College of Music. He went on to study with Billy Cobham in New York and would later share the stage with a host of iconic musicians like David “Fat Head” Newman, Cornell Dupree, Maria Muldaur, Dr. John, Les McCann, George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic and Robben Ford. He has co-composed all of the songs on this album. Holz sums it up by saying his goal is:
“To learn from the past, embrace the present and chart new musical explorations.”
Mission accomplished.
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Music Stand Records

Anthony E. Nelson Jr, soprano & tenor saxophones; Brandon McCune, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; Chris Beck, drums; Bruce Williams, alto saxophone; Josh Evans, trumpet.

If you have ever been in the throes of doing taxes or bookkeeping, you know how miserable and often stressful it can be. At least, it is for me. Numbers just aren’t my best friends and that kind of work drives me up the wall. I decided to put on some music while I was tediously entering numbers into my Excel program. I grabbed a new CD I had just received and WOW! Anthony E. Nelson Jr was just what I needed at that very moment. He made the work I actually hate doing a more pleasant experience. His original jazz music soothed my stress, be-bopping me into a pleasant mood. This is the type of jazz I love. Good music is so healing! Right from the title tune, I was captivated and entertained. The arrangement on “Swift to Hear, Slow to Speak” is clean and well-rehearsed with strong, harmonic horn lines that punch the melody out like a cookie cutter. Chris Beck took a stellar solo on drums and I was properly introduced to the composer by a group of excellent musicians including Nelson Jr on saxophones. He and Josh Evans on trumpet, along with Bruce Williams on alto sax, create a smooth blend of horns. This was my first time hearing the work of Anthony E. Nelson Jr., perhaps because he’s based on the East Coast, some 3000 miles away from Southern California. But I am now a definite fan. “Peter’s First Step” is another winning composition that whips me back to the late sixties when Art Blakey was swinging hard and Miles and Coltrane were breaking new ground. There is something comforting about Nelson’s compositions. Something spiritual and familiar. When I listen to this CD, I feel better. “Softly She Said” is a tale of two women, presented as an emotion ballad, soaked in blues, with Brandon McCune sounding amazing on piano and Kenny Davis rich and unobtrusive on bass, but solidly locking that groove down and making sure you know he’s there. Davis plays some very melodic bass lines, but never lets that blues-groove get away.

From the titles of these songs and the linear notes, I soon learn that Nelson brings strong Christian faith to his music. For example, the tune I mentioned above and one that I like very much, “Peter’s First Step” is a composition based on Matthew 16:13 – 19.

Nelson explains, “It’s really about what God does when we pray and listen first.”

Mr. Nelson has endeavored to inject hope into his music; hope and praise and peace. That’s what I got from it. New Jersey native, Anthony E. Nelson Jr is a musician, composer, arranger and most importantly, a man of significant spirituality and religious substance. I salute his numinous concepts and celebrate his creativity, channeled from the great beyond and offered to us like a gift or a rainbow.
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Mack Ave Records

John Beasley, piano/arranger/conductor/Fender Rhodes/minimoog; Benjamin J. Shepherd, Reggie Hamilton, and Rickey Minor bass; Gary Burton, vibes; Grégoire Maret, harmonica; Terreon Gully, drums; Tom Luer, tenor saxophone; Danny Janklow, alto saxophone; Ryan Dragon, trombone; Tom Peterson, bass clarinet; Gabriel Johnson, trumpet; Francisco Torres, trombone; Brian Swartz, trumpet; Bob Sheppard, alto & soprano saxophones; Bijon Watson, trumpet; Gary Novak, drums. Thelonius Monk voice excerpt from French interview. Jamie Hovorka, Gabriel Johnson, Mike Cottone & James Ford, trumpets; Wendell Kelly, Ryan Dragon, Lemar Guillary, Eric Miller, Paul Young & Steve Hughes, trombones; Justo Almario,saxophone; Tom Peterson, Jeff Driskill & Alex Budman, woodwinds; Adam Schroeder, baritone sax; Joey De Leon, percussion.

A cacophony of sound bursts from my CD player and startles me into alertness. It’s not really dissonant, but more like organized chaos. It’s the second cut on John Beasley’s newest Compact Disc release that has snatched my attention. This entire recording celebrates the great work of composer/pianist Thelonius Monk. The tune is “Skippy,” where the horn section is beautifully arranged and Bob Sheppard shines on alto and soprano saxophones. Bravo to Brian Swartz and Bijon Watson on trumpets with Gary Novak holding everything in place on drums and taking a stellar solo. The musicianship, the arrangements, the compositions; they are all thee wrapped in a bundle of energy that only someone brilliant like Beasley could organize.

Beasley is joined by two other creative and competent producers; Ran Pink and Gavin Lurssen. Beasley, however, has arranged and conducted this entire album. The take on “Round Midnight” is beautiful in an odd way; perhaps I should have referred to it as an ‘odd beauty.’ Of course we all know how beautiful this Thelonius Monk composition is, but Beasley has taken it to new depths with funky, hip hop drum licks and unexpected chord changes that hauntingly thrust the listener into another dimension of understanding. The transmogrification of this standard, Monk jazz tune shows how daring and delicious Thelonius, the composer, really was and how talented and improvisational Beasley is. He, like Monk, is one of those people with his ears and inspiration in the outer limits of music. The orchestration on this project is awesome, as is the musicianship. Bravo to every member of the orchestra that brought Beasley’s arrangements to life. Gary Burton offers a wonderful vibe solo on “Epistrophy”. On “Oska T,” you actually hear Monk speaking about his musicianship and its effect on fellow musicians. Surprisingly (I discovered in the liner notes) both Beasley and Monk were born on the same October 10th day, but several years apart. If you appreciate and admire the music of Monk, this Beasley tribute CD is a must-add to your collection.
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PND Records

Senri Oe, piano/composer; Jim Robertson, bass; Reggie Quinerly, Andy Watson & E.J. Strickland, drums; Yacine Boulares, saxophone; Olga Trofilmova, trombone; Paul Tafoya, trumpet; SPECIAL GUESTS: Sheila Jordan, Lauren Kinhan, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens and Dylan Pramuk; Also vocals by Junko Arita, Mitch Wilson. The New School Singers and Travon Anderson.

Here is an interesting and artistic project. Pianist, Senri Oe, born September 6th in Osaka, Japan, has chosen a variety of vocalists to sing his original compositions. Back in the day, songwriters searched for voices that could properly sing and sell their songs. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were very lucky when a vocalist named Dionne Warwick arrived at the studio to demo their compositions. The Gold Record results were a blessing to both songwriters and singer. I don’t hear any outstanding Pop stylings on this CD, but I do hear some pretty awesome songwriting and some excellent deliveries by a number of singers whose credits firmly establish them as working professionals. One iconic voice is that of Sheila Jordan, who (at 87) is still interpreting jazz and is on the move, teaching, gigging and traveling worldwide. Senri Oe has often mentioned her as inspirational and she interprets his first song titled “Tiny Snow” quite well. Saxoponist, Yacine Boulares, also adds his talents to the song in an unforgettable way.

Lauren Kinhan might not be a household name, but her singing career is distinguished, with stints as part of the New York Voices and Bobby McFerrin’s Vocabulaires group. She’s also toured with Ornette Coleman. Kinhan sings “Very Secret Spring”. Becca Stevens vocalizes the title tune, “Answer July.” What a beautiful composition! She has also penned the words for “Answer July.” For some reason it reminds me of UK pop singer/songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae. Another favorite of mine is “Just A Little Wine” with a haunting melody that recalls composer Janis Ian’s song styles from the 1970s. Jon Hendrick’s lyrics are beautifully interpreted by Theo Bleckmann. This is a lovely tribute to the talented pianist/composer and artist, Senri Oe.
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DOUG WEBB – “Bright Side”
Posi-Tone Records

Doug Webb, tenor saxophone; Joe Magnarelli, trumpet; Brian Charette, organ; Ed Cherry, guitar; Steve Fidyk, drums.

From the very first, sweet strains of tenor saxophone that leap from my CD player, I know it’s Doug Webb. I’ve been listening to his style and enjoying the excitement he creates on stage for three decades. Webb has been featured on over 150 jazz recordings and has added his blues soaked style to tracks used in hundreds of television programs and movies. He’s an on-demand, Southern California, saxophone session man for television and film. This, his seventh album release, is funk-based with Manarelli on trumpet blending well with Webb’s saxophone licks. Webb has penned seven out of the twelve songs on this CD. His composition skills showcase smooth technique and a love of melody. The addition of Charette on organ spices things up and thickens the stew when Webb puts the pots on to boil. This is particularly obvious on cut #3, “The Drive”, where everyone of the musicians seem powered up and propel their improvisational skills at a fast clip. I found Webb’s composition, “Melody for Margie” to be beautiful, promoting a visceral emotion. Another of his compositions I enjoyed immensely is “One For Hank” where Cherry on guitar gers to stretch out, as well as Charette on organ. All in all, this CD swings and Webb is flying above the solid rhythm section, as daring as a man on a trapeze. His music is exciting.

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July 13, 2016

By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In Henry Franklin’s case, it’s absolutely true. His father, “Samuel “Sammy” Franklin, made his mark in Denver, Colorado first playing violin, then trombone and finally mastering the trumpet. For years he performed with the George Morrison Band and honing his craft as part of the popular YMCA band in Denver. Later, he found himself in Kansas City as part of the Benny Moten Band. He also played in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, Andy Kirks band, and a number of others before he decided to form his own musical organization in Los Angeles. The Sammy Franklin Orchestra entertained at various west coast clubs, as well as fraternity and sorority dances. Once settled into the Los Angeles music scene, probably one of the things he found most attractive (other than the good weather and crush of music jobs) was pretty, little Vera Wysinger, a native of California and a registered nurse. They married and up popped Henry Carl Franklin, who today his friends fondly refer to as, “the Skipper”.

I recently asked Henry Franklin how he got that nick name of “the Skipper”?

“I borrowed it from my son. On our first album for Black Jazz Records in 1971, we titled it, ‘The Skipper.’ Pianist, Bill Henderson (Kamon), had written a tune for his God son, (who is my son) and he named it Skipper. People associated the album title with my name and they started calling me ‘The Skipper’. My son’s a Junior, but he’s the original Skipper”.

When I asked Henry about his dad and the music business he said, “He had a popular society dance band in Los Angeles, but he wasn’t into Bebop. I turned him on to that. I used to bring the cats over to our house and that’s when he heard it. His main message to me was to practice, practice, practice.”
At eighteen years old, Henry Franklin had followed his dad’s instructions and was already part of a popular local group with vibraphonist, Roy Ayers.

“Roy had the Latin Jazz Quintet that included Bill Henderson (piano), sometimes Elmo Jones on piano, me and Carl Burnett (drums). After high school, Elmo left and went to school at Howard University. Nobody’s heard from or seen him since,” Henry told me.

Ayer’s Latin Jazz Quintet played at Frat Houses, private parties and eventually night clubs. The fledgling group used to follow Cal Tjader around every time he would come to town. People would hire Cal for entertainment when they hosted parties and Henry said their group would go in and play on Cal’s intermission.

“Cal liked Roy Ayers and our band, so he let us play on their break and it turned out to be a thing. Every time they came into town, we’d be hanging with Cal and his group.“

It had to be very inspirational to Henry and his group of youthful musicians striving to be jazz artists, hanging out with the likes of Callen Radcliffe Tjader, born in 1925, who was already firmly established in the music business. Tjader was combining the music of Cuba and the Caribbean with acid jazz and rock. The 1960’s may have been one of Tjader’s most prolific periods. Franklin would have been rubbing shoulders with Tjader’s historic bandmates like Lonnie Hewlett, known for his singing and piano playing; Armando Peraza on percussion; bassist Eugene Wright (fondly called, the Senator), drummer Al Torre, and pianist Vince Guaraldi. During the Verve years Tjader worked with Donald Byrd, Lalo Schifrin, Willie Bobo, a young Chick Corea, Clare Fischer, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Burrell. So Franklin was surrounded by examples of excellence early on. At that time in his career, Paul Chambers was Franklin’s hero.

It wasn’t long before Henry was married and working for the City of Los Angeles in Animal Regulations. At night, he still pursued his music and on weekends sometimes traveled to nearby cities to perform. For a while, Franklin played with a group called Little Joe and the Afro Blues Quartet, formed in 1963 by Joseph “Little Joe” DeAguero. In 1967 their group, featuring Little Joe on Vibes, Franklin on bass, Bill “Kamon” Henderson on piano, Varner Barlow on drums and Jack Fulks on flute and alto saxophone, was performing in San Francisco.

“I was in San Francisco working with Little Joe and the Afro Blues Quartet. We had a little light-weight hit record with the same instrumentation as Cal Tjader; vibes and stuff. We got this gig. Our first time out of town, we went to San Francisco for a weekend. It just so happened that Willie Bobo was working around the corner at a club; the Matadore. He came in on his break and checked out the band. I guess he liked me ‘cause he asked me if I wanted to join his band in New York. I said yes, but you know, I didn’t believe him. Three days later, he sent me a ticket. I had a little day job then, because I was married with a family to support. So, I talked it over with my wife and she said, yeah – go ahead. Right away, I quit that City job and moved to New York. I was really blessed and lucky ‘cause I got to stay at Roy Ayer’s house and didn’t have to pay rent or anything. He had gone to New York before me with Herbie Mann. Yeah, that happened a lot in those days. You know, the East Coast band would hear somebody from the West Coast and they’d call them to work; Roy Ayers, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Herbie Lewis, all those guys got calls. So it was my turn. I got the opportunity and I took it.”

It was about a year of touring before Henry would wind up back in Los Angeles at the famous Memory Lane Supper Club, a hot jazz spot in the African American community. That’s when Henry decided he’d had enough of being on the road with Willie Bobo.

“So I gave two-weeks-notice and it just so happened that in the audience one night was the South African jazz trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. He was just starting up a new band and asked me if I’d like to join his group. I said, heck yeah. The result was my first Gold Record for the hit recording of “Grazin’ In the Grass”.

Henry Franklin has found his way onto the recording sessions of several icons and not all of them were jazz musicians. Stevie Wonder called him to add his solid, double-bass, low notes to the “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” album. Boom! That became another Gold record accomplishment.

Franklin recorded with Gene Harris and the Three Sounds on “Soul Symphony” for Blue Note Records in 1969 and “Live at the It Club” in 1970, Volume one and two. In 1972, he joined Woody Shaw in the studio to record “Song of Songs” for Contemporary Records. By 1973, he was playing with Hampton Hawes and recorded for the Prestige label, the “Blues for Walls” album. That same year he was recording with Bobbi Humphrey on her “Bobbi Humphrey Live: Cookin’ with Blue Note at Montreux.”

Franklin was a hot commodity on bass back then. No sooner did he finish his stint with Humprey, he was back in the studio with Julian Priester on the “Love, Love” album for ECM. If he wasn’t in the studio, he was on the road with jazz nobility like Freddie Hubbard, Willie Bobo, Archie Shepp, O.C. Smith, Count Basie and Al Jarreau. He had already started composing and one of his original compositions was sampled by the musical group, “A Tribe Called Quest.” He’s been on the bandstand working with such icons as Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. Henry pushed his musical limits. He experimented outside the bebop music that he loved so deeply, working with John Carter and Bobby Bradford. Henry recorded two albums; “Self-Determination Music” and “Secrets.” He worked with the great Pharoah Sanders, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, jazz vocalist Joe Williams and Bobby Hutcherson. He’s appeared on more than 150 albums as part of their rhythm section and worked with some of the biggest names in jazz history.

Henry expressed disappointment with some of the jazz releases and styles of youthful players in today’s jazz spotlight.

He told me, “I miss the melodies in the music. There’s no melodies anymore like there used to be. You used to be able to identify a song with an artist. You can’t do that anymore. See, If I asked you to name five Freddie Hubbard songs, you could tell me. But if I asked you to tell me a Wynton Marsalis song, you probably wouldn’t be able to think of one. There’s a lot of feeling with these young musicians and a lot of great technique, but I come from the bebop era, where music and composition is more than just technique.”

Speaking of technique and instrumentation, I asked Henry Franklin if he played Fender bass.

“I did and I don’t. When I was with Freddie Hubbard he had me playing fender bass and O.C. Smith liked that sound too. I like German bases. Both of my upright basses are built in the 1940’s. They’re not that old but the sound is what counts. One’s a Hoyer and the other’s a Wilfer. Unfortunately, you can’t just play acoustic bass on a gig anymore. These days everybody uses an amplifier.”

Henry decided to start his own SP record label in 1990. He was frustrated with big record labels and various hired producers telling him what to play and how to play it. He wanted a platform to market and produce his own creative compositions and ideas. Even more importantly, he wanted to perform and record the bebop music he has loved so passionately over the years. The result is a roster of seventeen albums on SP Records, with the ninth one being released April 15, 2016. It’s titled, “High Voltage” and is a tribute to McCoy Tyner featuring a group he calls, Three More Sounds. They include Bill Heid on piano, Henry on bass, Carl Burnett on drums, with special guest, Chuck Manning on saxophone.

I listened to the soon to be released “High Voltage” CD featuring seasoned veterans of jazz, all intent on celebrating McCoy Tyner. This CD showcases Henry Franklin’s tenacious bass and also introduced me to the composer skills of Bill Heid. The trio opens with “Brother George,” a laid back groove and memorable melody that makes you want to whistle along, reminding me somewhat of Tin Tin Deo. Heid has a crisp, clean approach in the upper register of the piano, with busy fingers tinkling the piano keys like waterfall droplets. There is something refreshing about his playing. On this first cut, Franklin’s solo is a crowd-pleaser, with his deep contra bass always present and supportive in the background. Franklin is just as magnificent when upfront and in-your-face as a solo artist. On Heid’s composition, “Unit 8”, Chuck Manning leads the way with gusto and verve on his tenor saxophone to establish the melody. The trio follows brightly, marching full force ahead, waving flags of musical brilliance with Carl Burnett propelling the group on drums, straight-ahead, and putting the ‘con brio’ in the piece. Heid utilizes all eighty-eight keys on this one, flaunting his piano skills in a polished, delightful way. The mix is so clean that I feel I am sitting front-row-center at some cozy jazz club enjoying these gentlemen in person. Having worked with West Coast engineer Nolan Shaheed myself, I’m not surprised at the clarity his engineering skills bring to this recording. Both the McCoy Tyner songs they feature, “The Greeting” and “Mellow Minor” are performed in majestic ways, like one would expect from kings of instrumentation. I’m sure McCoy would be well pleased. Franklin has contributed an original composition titled, Under Tanzanian Skies.” It’s very melodic. Manning immediately captures my attention with his sweet, sexy, soprano saxophone solo. Heid’s right hand continues to mesmerize in the upper register and he gets to dig deeply into his blues roots on this tune. “High Voltage” featuring ‘Three More Sounds’ is a beautifully produced piece of art from beginning to end. You are guaranteed nearly fifty minutes of continuous, jazzy listening pleasure on this Henry Franklin Production and record label. His legacy continues, full speed ahead!

James Leary: A Solid Bass Brick In The Foundation Of Jazz

July 6, 2016

James Leary: A Solid Bass Brick In The Foundation Of Jazz
Originally published (Jan 25, 2015, 11:41 AM PST) – by as part of Dee Dee’s Jazz Diary.

Interviewed & Written by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

James spoke with conviction. “People like James Brown, you know, he and his audience recognized that everybody listens to the bass. Well, you know in the South, bass was always something that people loved. When the bass solo came or the bass voice, everybody shouted ‘Yeah’ ”

James Leary is a mild mannered, soft spoken, humble bassist with a well documented history in jazz. Not one to toot his own horn, he’s remained a solid brick in the foundation of several iconic bands including Bobby Hutcherson, Earl Hines, Nancy Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Count Basie Orchestra. He played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Johnny Hartman, Rosemary Clooney, Max Roach, Esther Phillips, Eartha Kitt, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent, Major Lance, Red Garland, Randy Weston, John Handy, Don Shirley, and many more. I’m honored to say he even played on my recently released CD entitled, “Storyteller”.

His big bass sound is majestically performed on a Bernedel upright bass built in 1834, or on his English Panormo bass built in 1909. He also plays an electric Fender bass and entertains around the Los Angeles area and beyond. Surprisingly, his first jobs in music were as a rhythm and blues pianist in Little Rock, Arkansas. Leary played piano in bands featuring Teroy Betton, Ben Pruitt, Thomas East, Robert Trezvant, David ii, Jimmy Mayers and York Wilborn; groups that worked all over the Arkansas area.

JAMES: “My mother’s brother, Cornelius Torrence, who later moved to Chicago, played great boogie-woogie piano. My father’s brother played a little boogie-woogie piano. They both played by ear and I learned from both of them by watching their hands. All of my grandparents owned pianos. My mother’s mother, Ethel Torrence, is the one who bought a piano and my mother was kind of a musician. She played trumpet, bugle and a little piano.

I grew up in the South end of Little Rock, down below Roosevelt (aka 25th St). That was the black area. Above 25th was the white area. Then there was a conclave of white folks below 25th on Broadway, a beautiful neighborhood that stretched down into the hood. Little Rock was really strange. It had enclaves of white and black. They could be up the street from each other, but without interaction. There was a street called West 9th Street that had black businesses – grocery stores, drug stores, pool halls, cleaners, the Gem Movie Theater, etcetera. We didn’t even deal with white folks at all because of Jim Crow and segregation. If you wanted to get a job, all the bus drivers were white; all the municipal workers were white. After a while that stopped, but maybe the first ten years of my life I never saw a black postman. They probably were the first ones to integrate. My grandmother knew some of her white neighbors, but I don’t think they ever had a friendship.

“My grandmother bought a piano when I was six or seven and I took lessons. My cousin, Pat (Mpata) and my sister Barbara played piano. They were so much better than me that I quit and decided to be a football player. I was really a good football player too, until at the age of fourteen I broke my leg. I had to stay home and a visiting teacher came to the house. At that point, the piano became my best friend.

“At fifteen, I had a teacher named Art Porter, Sr. who was the Horace Mann High School choir director and also a jazz pianist. He would sometimes have his jazz trio play at Horace Mann and I was already trying to be a piano player, ’cause I had heard Ahmad Jamal and I was trying to play ‘Poinciana.’ And also I played on talent shows behind different people including ‘the Lyrics’ because my name was Leary and sounded a little like lyric, they named the group after me. My neighborhood friends, Jack Gay and Tomas East were very interested in music. Jack Gay’s brother-in-law had a record collection and we would go over and listen to it. I had been listening to Ahmad Jamal and I would put my ear to the speaker to hear that bass. I was already leaning towards the bass, when I heard this piano player named Charles Thomas playing and I said, I’ll never be able to do that. He sounded like Wynton Kelly. So, even though I was making gigs as a pianist, at fifteen I found myself loving the bass. When I heard Art Porter’s trio and the bass player, I think that pushed me over the edge.

“At the time, I was a working pianist. I think I was making $30 a week playing piano with a rock and roll or rhythm and blues band. But I went down to the music store and bought this bass. I had been down there looking at it 3 or 4 times. I decided, ok that’s it. I’m getting that bass. It cost $135, was painted black and had a hole in the side. So that’s when I became curious about playing the bass; around the tenth grade.

“Israel Crosby is the one who was playing with Ahmad Jamal and if you played piano, you had to play Israel Crosby’s bass line and rhythm. So Israel Crosby was my first inspiration. Then my English teacher gave me the record “All Blues.” When I heard Paul Chambers it was over. It was Israel Crosby and Paul Chambers. I didn’t know about Mingus until a little later on a Columbia sampler album I heard, ‘Mingus Ah Um’ (Leary starts singing the bass line to me in his rich baritone voice) and on the same sampler album, Dave Brubeck with ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’. You know, I started listening to the bass as a piano player.

“Art Porter, my choir teacher in the eleventh grade, started a big band. It was the first time my high school had ever had a big band. So I played bass in the big band and I didn’t even know where F was. I was starting to learn. I sang baritone in the choir. I wasn’t really good enough to step out there as a soloist (he mimics the famed Leon Thomas jazz yodel) and I probably would have had to work really hard to be a solo singer, but I was a good ensemble guy.

“One guy who played trumpet, a great musician; his name was Teroy Betton and he embellished my piano playing. Teroy taught me the changes that Hank Crawford played on ‘Misty.’ He (Crawford) had an arrangement on Misty that ‘swung’. So then I started analyzing Hank Crawford while I was still playing piano. I didn’t play bass then. Later, when I played the bass, I would always figure out what the rest of the chord was from what was played in the bass line, because that’s how I played piano.

“Art Porter gave me a five or six night a week job on my new bass with the hole in the side. So I quit my rhythm and blues gig, which really pissed off the R&B band leader because we had jackets printed ‘York Wilborn and the Thrillers’ and I was their reliable piano player.

“I’m saying that the bass is half of the music, the way we like to hear the music. In the gospel church you hear that organ bass rollin’. You know I used to go to the sanctified church just to listen to that organ. We always paid attention to the bass. People like James Brown, you know, he and his audience recognized that everybody listens to the bass.
Well, you know in the South, bass was always something that people loved. When the bass solo came or the bass voice, everybody shouted ‘Yeah’ (Leary sings to me the 1951 hit record by Billy Ward and the Dominos, ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and we laugh).

“When I left high school and Art Porter, I went to North Texas State. I had my first bass lesson with Alan Richardson. I also met guys who were mentors and who were students. One guy’s name was Mike Lawrence. Mike Lawrence showed me quite a few things, mainly chords. I was learning melodies to some of the Art Blakey tunes. And another musician there was Billy Harper, the saxophonist who played with Lee Morgan. He was with Lee Morgan when Lee Morgan got killed. We (Harper) would go play gigs with folks like Fathead Newman and people who were coming through like Marcus Belgrave (trumpeter) and the guy that played tuba and baritone saxophone, Howard Johnson. This is when I was a freshman in college. I’d be with all these musicians and learn all these other tunes. I also took an Improv class. That’s when I started realizing there was more than standards. There was this other music over here. And that’s when I started learning other kinds of harmony. I knew hundreds of standards, but then I started learning the music that the beboppers were playing. You know, Coltrane and all those kind of songs.

“I later met Pharaoh Saunders in the driveway of my Little Rock home where my mother had moved. Pharoah was visiting relatives in North Little Rock and was leaving to join John Coltrane. He lived in New York and encouraged me to move there.

“I left North Texas State and I spent 3 years at a black college in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was called Arkansas AM & N but now it’s known as UAPB (U of Arkansas, Pine Bluff). Then, I didn’t have a real bass teacher and I reverted back to keyboard playing with various R&B bands. But I played bass with jazz groups. I would listen to records, transcribe things off records, and … sometimes guys would have sheet music from other professional groups and I would study those. I studied intensely. There was another guy named John Stubblefield who played tenor saxophone and another piano player named Sonelius Smith, although I think I showed him more on piano than he could show me. Sonelius Smith is still a pianist right now in New York. And there was Joe Gardner, a trumpet player who used to take songs off of Lee Morgan records and we would play all this music. 1967, our group participated at Intercollegiate Jazz Festivals in Little Rock and in 1968 (in St. Louis) I met George Duke. He was with a group from San Francisco State. I graduated from UAPB in ’68 and remembered that conversation with George Duke about San Francisco. In addition, my maternal Aunt Lois and Uncle Scotty lived there. That made it easy to move to San Francisco where I reconnected with George Duke. The second day there, I met local musicians Bill Bell and Mike Nock. Mike recommended me to John Handy, who was using Mike White, a violinist. Nock and White had started a band called Fourth Way. We rehearsed daily and finally we played a night at Both/And. After that, I started playing with major artists at the Both/And Club after Delano Dean, (the owner) found out about me. To my amazement, the first group was the Bobby Hutcherson/Harold Land quintet.

“I also worked with Thelonius Monk from 1970 into 1971. John Heard had moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and George Duke started to hire me. I enrolled in Grad school at San Francisco State during that time studying Bass with Charles Siani at SF State and a virtuoso bassist named Ortiz Walton who lived in Berkeley. Independent of Siani, Walton guided me thru some technical aspects which helped improve my tone and musicianship.

“In 1972, I was working with the great vocalist, Joe Williams at The Boarding House with local piano master Bill Bell, the great Eddie Marshall and me on bass. I also was working with the great swinging pianist, Martha Young, at a Berkeley, Ca Marina hangout, 2 days a week; a large restaurant with a piano bar area called Solomon Grundys. John Heard was subbing with the Basie Band and had to split back to LA. I was called for a rehearsal as a temporary, one-time sub (so I thought) with Basie’s Band at the Fairmount Hotel Ballroom. Their run was over at the hotel. To my surprise, Basie asked me to see his wife about something. I thought it was to be paid for the rehearsal. Mrs. Basie offered me the Basie gig and hired me after that rehearsal. Six months later, in May of 1982, I was given notice from the Basie Band. I was told Cleveland Eaton came off of temporary leave. That was not the understanding I had, but that’s the music business, so I returned to the Bay area. During the next period of time I freelanced around San Francisco and did a recording session with Jon Hendricks and Company, featuring Michele Hendricks. About a year later, I rented a U-haul truck and moved to Los Angeles to study Film scoring privately with the great Nobel nominee, Orchestrator/Composer and former UCLA professor, Albert Harris. I started working with Maxine Weldon playing Fender Bass. My friend, Randy Randolph was her pianist and versatile Washington I. Rucker was the drummer. Randy also got me on a gig with Jake Porter. Jake Porter auditioned me for his regular Sat/Sun Brunch engagement at the Bonaventure Hotel. That was 1983 and into 1984. Hank Crawford had hired me on Electric Bass during that time in 1983 and in April of 1984, I quit Jake Porter’s gig at the hotel. I asked my good friend, bassist Al Mckibbon, (father of beautiful Allison Mckibbon) to fill the required two weeks notice as a favor. I then played a two week engagement in Oakland ,Ca. with Hank Crawford featuring drummer Jimmy Smith and Calvin Newborn, a great guitarist from Memphis, Tennessee. I always played Fender bass with Hank.

“I returned to Los Angeles and got a call from conductor, George Rhodes. In March of 1984, I started my 5 year stint with Sammy Davis Jr. Life is movement!!!

Dee Dee: Tell me about your latest project – the “James Leary Tribute Choir Recording Project.”

JAMES: “Art Porter taught his high school choir how to be great for competitions and all kinds of stuff. So I already realized the depths and the sound and the sonority of a choir. I decided to go all out for this project when I was subbing with the Luckman Orchestra and we were playing “Shout,” Mary Lou Williams’ music with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Albert McNeil Jubilee singers, featuring Carmen Lundy and Cedric Berry. With those 250 voices behind me in that ensemble, well I had never heard anything like that before; perfectly in tune; flowing with the pauses and all the dynamics. That’s when I knew I had to compose for a choir.

“I like big band music too. I started writing music for the big band in college. I didn’t start writing for choir until later. When I got the Finale Softwear Music Notation program, I was subbing for Phyllis Battle (the vocal instructor at Billy Higgins’ World Stage music space) and this is maybe ’95, around that time. Before that, I was writing for a small vocal group. Even in high school I wrote for voices, because usually I arranged the songs for a small group of guys in a singing group. But later on, somehow it morphed into writing for a choir. I knew the depths of a choir. When I heard the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Albert McNeil singers together, that pushed me into wanting to get that caliber of performance from a choir.

“I’ve been a composer ever since I was fourteen years old. So, I would just hear something and I would arrange it for choir, because I had Finale Softwear, where you could actually hear the voices back at you as you write them. I started writing more and more, because I like the sound of it. Sometimes I would write something for instruments and then transfer that to choir. At times instrumentalists say, man – your music is challenging, and singers have said the same thing. But I want to have a certain sound.

“In order to get that, I needed a person who could read and sing it right then; the first time down. I tried to get some of my original music sung, asking this conductor, Dwight Dickerson’s brother, Charles Dickerson to help. We went over to Nolan’s studio (the No Sound Studio in Pasadena) and these singers Dickerson recommended arrived. But I had to go one by one and teach them the music, even though they could read. So Carmen Twillie, a friend of Nolan’s, (the studio owner/engineer) saw me toiling line by line to teach them and recording everybody one-by-one. She said, oh no – no – no. I’ve got some people who can do this right now. So Carmen Twillie called these three people that I never heard before and they were studio session singers. They walked in the studio and they were standing in the middle of the studio with my written music when I heard all four voices sung together masterfully. I worked with this group because I could afford four people. They were super pros and made performance suggestions from time to time that enhanced the music tremendously. So that’s when I was determined to try and get a larger choir with the caliber of the Master Chorale. Because my music is challenging and also, these master singers don’t really have time to stop and donate their services. They’re excellent and they deserve to make the paper.”

James leary recently concluded an Indiegogo effort for his “James Leary Tribute Choir Recording Project”. You can hear samples of this music at You can also enjoy his YouTube performances with greats like Sammy Davis Jr. and George Rhodes, the Count Basie Orchestra, 5 Basses play Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” with Donald Dean on drums and John Clayton & Nedra Wheeler among the featured bass players and more.

When he’s not composing, performing or producing, you’ll find Leary teaching and inspiring children at the Vision Theater in Leimert Park as part of MusicLA, a community arts outreach program. He provides piano lessons to local youth. Here is another jazz icon living here in our Los Angeles community, deserving of our adoration and support.