Without dynamics, you have no music

Without dynamics, you have no music
The two-handed pianist
The magic of the piano
Piano preferences

Talking in 1969

I’ve been with the Thad Jones, Mel Lewis Band almost three years. Hank Jones was on the band first. Actually, it was originally going to be three leaders—Hank, Thad and Mel. I came in to sub for Hank many times, and finally he couldn’t do it continually; so I just stayed on. I’ve missed a few of the band’s dates, but the very, very important ones I try to make.

This band is free, it’s relaxed and it’s comprised of probably the greatest musicians in the world. If not the greatest musicians, the greatest soloists in the world, without any doubt. So there’s a tremendous amount of musical freedom allowed a chord instrument; even more, in many ways, than is allowed a single–line instrument. Because almost any chord in relationship to a particular note that I play, if it has a relation and value, it works, because you’re going in a certain direction with this band. In some other bands, you try to play those kind of things, they don’t fit. Here you are free to move and express yourself, because they can hear everything you do. They can understand and know what context you’re doing it in. Which is hard to find in anybody’s band. It has just about everything to do with the way it’s written—and the guy that’s up there conducting it.

There’s no feeling of the piano being just part of the background. The music is written with everyone in mind. When Thad writes, it’s about each person that’s going to be playing in the band. He sets it down and conveys it in such a way that you know you’re with someone who is completely aware of your capabilities, and even so, allows you room to expand on those capabilities. Not like other bands, where you play oom–chunk, oom–chunk, oom–chunk all night.

The only limitations in this band are set as a result of the discipline that you have maintained over yourself. And you were chosen because of that kind of discipline in the first place.

That’s the reason for this kind of band. Look at Snooky Young and Richard Williams; these are two of the finest trumpet players you can find, and they are so because they spent all those years getting background. Richard Davis—there’s an example of someone who has maintained the highest kind of discipline toward his instrument in the musical business. People who have been playing for over thirty years and have kept this level of quality, you find that they’re bound to really be together when they play together. That same thing holds true even when they’re not with this band and are individually involved in other things.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a situation where Snooky or Richard or Danny Moore or Pepper Adams haven’t been giving everything that they had. Jerome Richardson—one of the best lead alto men, and now I would have to consider him one of the best lead soprano men, because he plays it equally well. Jerry Dodgion—who can ask for a better player on flute and alto? In every case, you’d have to say: “Well, this was the best guy I could find on this instrument right now.” So with men like this, there’s always room for a pianist who chooses to try to extend that musical realm so that it fits not just what we call fuzz, but includes all music, you see.

Before I left Detroit, I was quite active as a trio pianist. I had my own trio, working in clubs. When I went to Juilliard, I stayed in New York for about three years without working with anyone. In 1958, after joining Benny Goodman’s band, I started to do quite a few jobs around with different players, such as Charlie Mingus and Lionel Hampton. Then I joined Sarah Vaughan. I began working with a lot of singers rather than groups.

Being an accompanist is as important as being a soloist. If you give all of your attention to one without the other, you find that when it comes time to accompany another instrumentalist you can’t do it.

Sometimes, in a band like this, I need help when I’m accompanying, and I get it from Thad Jones. If, for instance, I’m not sure whether I should be playing 2/4 or double time or something, he gives me the appropriate hand motion. It’s to aid in the complementing of the whole group. Without dynamics, you have no music.