Remembering McCoy Tyner

Over the last month, I’ve read some wonderful tributes to the late icon, McCoy Tyner. They’ve ranged from fans, fellow musicians (some who worked with him, some who didn’t), critics, scholars and the like. As one of the many fortunate musicians who worked with him, I’d like to give my version of the man I affectionately called “Homes.”

When describing just how much of an impact McCoy Tyner had on modern jazz piano, I thought about starting this tribute with a conversation I had with another icon, Herbie Hancock, in 1994. It was a surreal day. Verve Records was just about to celebrate its 50-year anniversary with an all-star concert and PBS television special at Carnegie Hall. The press for the event was massive. As part of the ramp up, they were sending musicians to TV and radio stations, there was major magazine and newspaper coverage, everything. On this morning, a quartet of Abbey Lincoln, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and myself were about to play on ABC’s Good Morning America. I was sitting in a dressing room with Herbie while just a small handful of crew people came in and out on occasion. I was looking forward to this moment with Herbie in a rarely experienced peaceful, controlled atmosphere. As I tried not to be too much of a pain-in-the-ass fanboy, I asked Herbie some questions about his career and about music in general. As he started telling me some stories of his early days in the Miles Davis Quintet, something hit me – it occurred to me that were no known stories of Herbie and John Coltrane ever crossing paths. I asked Herbie, “Did you ever get to meet or play with Coltrane?” Herbie’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He obviously was about to tell me a story he didn’t tell too often. He told a story about a time during a Village Vanguard run with Miles where Miles arrived at the club one night and excitedly announced to the band, “Coltrane’s going to sit in with us tomorrow night!” Herbie said the whole band just went crazy, like, “For REAL?!?” Herbie claimed he couldn’t sit still the whole night at the prospect of playing a tune or two with Coltrane. Herbie also said that when he got home from the gig that night, he “….practiced all my McCoy Tyner stuff. I wanted to try to give Coltrane what McCoy gave him.”

Think hard about that. Herbie Hancock practiced “McCoy Tyner stuff.” Was “Herbie Hancock stuff” not amazing enough?

You can look at this a couple of different ways. The most obvious thought that comes to mind is that Herbie Hancock is the ultimate professional. To do what he did was a basic professional courtesy extended to a giant who was going to join as a guest. But there’s this angle: Coltrane was going to sit in with THEM. I’m going to take a guess and say this Vanguard gig was 1964 or ‘65. By then, I believe Herbie had a personal language that was developing just as quickly as McCoy’s. However, Herbie knew that this amazing man, only 16 months his senior, was so developed, that maybe he’d take a deeper look. Unfortunately, Coltrane never came.

What was it about McCoy Tyner?

Alfred McCoy Tyner was born and raised in West Philadelphia. He grew up on May Street, a small street of row homes just off of Fairmount Avenue, in a section we Philadelphians call “The Bottom”. That street was razed in the late 50’s (or early 60’s) as the Westpark Projects were erected in its place.

Philadelphia boasted (and still boasts) one of the most fertile breeding grounds in the history of jazz. Without naming every single legend from Philly, I’ll keep it to just Tyner and his peers – Lee Morgan, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Bobby Timmons, Spanky DeBrest, Steve Davis and Reggie Workman were all born within a few years of each other. Tyner’s “big brother & sister” generation consisted of Philly legends like Benny Golson, Trudy Pitts, Jymie Merritt, Bill Carney (aka “Mr. C”), Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Oliver, Shirley Scott, Hasaan Ibn Ali (aka The Legendary Hasaan), Edgar Bateman, Philly Joe Jones, and a young man who would migrate to Philadelphia as a teenager, John Coltrane. Needless to say, he was surrounded by greatness.

I came to learn about the greatness of McCoy Tyner from someone who was a “big brother” to me, alto saxophonist Robert Landham. Even though I knew McCoy Tyner’s name, I didn’t start to get inside of his music until I met Robert. I had many, many great jazz mentors in Philly, but learning from one of your boys is special. Robert was known for being one of the best and most complete musicians in Philly. When I started hanging with Robert and his younger brother, Byron, I must have been 14 years old. Robert was 21 or 22, Byron 16. I used to go to their house in West Oak Lane and shed with them probably once a week. Robert was heavy into the music of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. Interestingly enough, I didn’t learn words like “substitutions”, “superimpose” and “pentatonic” from any of my teachers at school, I learned them from Robert. We would sit around and listen to records before, during and after jamming and Robert would break down the changes and show me what they were doing, as Byron would copy Jack DeJohnette’s or Elvin Jones’s licks verbatim. Among the many records we listened to were four of McCoy Tyner’s records: The Real McCoy, Extensions, Supertrios and Together. In retrospect, what I appreciated most about Robert was that he understood that McCoy Tyner’s playing was not simply or exclusively a result of playing with John Coltrane, as so many critics too easily assert. It certainly may have been the primary reason for his lightning speed development, but it was brewing before. Although I learned that so much of McCoy’s language was shaped by the pentatonic scale, it would be way too simple, and inaccurate, to stop there. This was a language that is much too complicated to break down and simplify in Euro terms. For starters, no one can or will be able to accurately describe feel. There’s a feel to McCoy Tyner’s playing that is very unlike any other pianist of his era, before or after. The urgency of his eighth notes are emotionally gripping. For the bulk of McCoy Tyner’s career, I find his pulse to be right in the middle of the beat. Often times, he could push, but at his most powerful, it was dead center. As far as his piano sound, the only word I can use is full. Big is accurate, too, but I prefer full. All colors of the spectrum are present. It’s African, it’s European, it’s Asian, it’s American, it’s West Philadelphian.

The first thing that attracted me most to McCoy Tyner’s playing wasn’t his vast and infinitely deep harmonic and melodic approach and feel, it was his articulation. I’ve become a stickler for articulation, musical or otherwise. My favorite musicians spoke loud and clear to me. Through my hangs with Robert, in shaping my own language, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson became my mighty three primary influences. Why? They articulated. They absolutely meant what they played. McCoy Tyner, on the other hand, (and frankly, most piano players, as a result of their left hand, thanks to McCoy) could often make any note sound good, whether or not the notes they played were in the scale of the chord. I started to devour not only the albums of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, but I was learning just as much from McCoy Tyner’s solo albums. They were lessons unto themselves.


For many years, Penn’s Landing had an outstanding jazz series. In four consecutive weeks in the summer of 1987, check this out, they presented Freddie Hubbard’s Quintet (with Ralph Moore, Larry Willis, Michael Formanek and Carl Allen), Bobby Hutcherson’s Quartet (with John Hicks, Ray Drummond and Tony Reedus), Sonny Rollins (with Jerome Harris, Mark Soskin, Bob Cranshaw and Tommy Campbell) and McCoy Tyner’s Trio with Avery Sharpe and Louis Hayes. I, along with Robert, Byron, Joey DeFrancesco, Antonio Parker and other members of my high school crew were at every one of these gigs. When we saw McCoy Tyner, I was awaiting to be blown away. What I remember most from his performance that day is when they played John Coltrane’s anthem “Moment’s Notice”, at one point during McCoy’s solo, Sharpe and Hayes laid out and let McCoy go for himself. The music that came from out of that piano was indescribable. I remember at one point Joey laughing from shock and amazement. He shouted, “WHOA!!!” My sentiments exactly. For the rest of my high school years, I diligently practiced songs from every McCoy Tyner album I could get my hands on. If I ever had a chance to play with him, I’d be ready. 

That would be my only time seeing McCoy Tyner in Philly. That was all I needed, as two years later, I would move to New York and see him often at Sweet Basil, where he was a regular. Sometimes with his trio, sometimes playing solo piano.

In 1991, I received a major gift from another one of my beloved big brothers, Wynton Marsalis. As Jazz at Lincoln Center was in its infancy, they planned a John Coltrane tribute concert. On this concert would be Wynton’s sextet and other musicians including McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins. As they planned the groupings, I saw that I would play in a quartet with McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and Roy Haynes. I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. I still hadn’t met Mr. Tyner or Mr. Haynes yet. I’d certainly seen them, but hadn’t yet met them. This was the heaviest of heavy moments for a 19-year-old. I would play in that quartet as well as join Wynton’s group as a second bassist, along with Reginald Veal and drum legend, Billy Higgins. I had already worked with Billy and Joe Henderson before, so I stuck close to them during rehearsals, which took place at Juilliard, where technically, I should have still been a student starting my junior year. There was no school better than this, however.

When McCoy Tyner showed up, I was numb. He was a big, solid man. Physically imposing, but so quiet and peaceful. Mr. Haynes, of course, was just as effervescent as always. Carried himself like a rock star, even dressing the part. Still does. Smiling, talkative, dropping lots of funny one-liners. One of the songs we played was Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”. I was so relieved to see that this great man, McCoy Tyner, was actually human. He didn’t remember it. He said, “Anybody got a lead sheet?” There wasn’t one, but there was a portable CD player handy. (Remember those?) Someone had a CD of Coltrane’s “Transition” handy. McCoy took the CD Walkman, went to the piano and it all started to come back to him. Within minutes, I was rehearsing “Dear Lord” with McCoy, Joe and Roy Haynes. (I’m getting chills remembering this) We rehearsed for a couple of hours, and I have to say, I don’t think I said one word to McCoy Tyner. I was way too nervous. Roy Haynes, on the other hand, we bonded quickly. (That’s another blog. 😊) During the rehearsal, both Joe Henderson and Billy Higgins (especially Billy) would say things like, “How about that young boy on bass, McCoy? That’s your homie.” McCoy, quite simply would say, “Haha, yeah.” I guess that was good. I have some great photos from that gig. We played songs like Dear Lord, Transition, Impressions and more.


I’m assuming that sometime during those couple of days together, not only did I make an impression, but I must have talked to him and gave him my phone number, because the following year, he called me directly to play with him at Lincoln Center. This time, JALC would celebrate the music of McCoy Tyner. The show was called, take a guess, “The Real McCoy”. This was a pinch-me moment. Check out this band: McCoy, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, George Coleman, Al Foster and Sammy Figueroa. Wow. I still have a DAT (remember those?) of the performance and a cassette of rehearsal. That time, I wasn’t as nervous. I knew just about everyone on the gig, so I wasn’t as scared. I now had an official working relationship with the one and only McCoy Tyner. That gig was awesome. As a salute to our West Philly roots, one of the songs we played that night was May Street, a song he originally recorded on his 1968 album Time For Tyner. It was named after the street he was raised on in our old West Philly neighborhood.

My next time working with McCoy was with his big band a year later at the Blue Note. His bassist of many years, Avery Sharpe, had to miss two nights, so McCoy asked if I would sub. Man, I couldn’t have been more excited. Funny story from that gig. Onstage, I was positioned smack in between his drummer, Aaron Scott, and his percussionist, Jerry Gonzalez. That was the first (and only) time I ever experienced vertigo because it was SO loud! The lid was down on the piano. I saw McCoy, but I didn’t hear him. LOL! In fact, I’m not sure I heard the band! But it didn’t matter, I was building a friendship with McCoy Tyner.

The following year, 1994, I had the wonderful opportunity to record with him for the first time. Todd Barkan produced and organized the album “Prelude and Sonata” with a band consisting of my brothers Antonio Hart, Joshua Redman and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. It was basically a “McCoy Meets The Young Lions” concept, which was popular at that time with many producers. I have great photos of that session.

I’ve had a lot of cool nicknames, but almost everyone who knows me refers to me by my last name. Ray Brown and George Coleman call(ed) me “Mac”, Grady Tate called me “Boom Boom”, Benny Green calls me “Captain Hook”, a few call me – in the spirit of Snoop Dogg – “McBrizzle” or “McBreezy”, but McCoy Tyner saw me one day and shouted, “HOMES!” That nickname stuck. We referred to each other as that for the rest of his life. (Though I’m sure he called most musicians from Philly “Homes” 😊)

After recording with him again in 1998 on his Verve Records Burt Bacharach tribute album, I had one of the most memorable moments of my life.

In 1999, The Clef Club in Philadelphia threw a huge gala. They invited me, Stanley Clarke, Mickey Roker, John Blake, McCoy and many others to perform. Since McCoy and I were the only ones coming from New York, McCoy offered me a ride. He called and asked how I planned on getting to Philly. I told him I would probably rent a car. He said, “No, I’ll swing by your apartment and get you.” McCoy often traveled with a personal driver in a limo. This was no different. I was going to be in a limo with McCoy Tyner for two hours. Was this a moment or what? When he got to my apartment, I told the doormen, “You know who’s in there, man? A friggin’ living legend!” For whatever reasons, there was a police motorcade on the New Jersey Turnpike, so we didn’t drive more than 40 MPH the whole way. Our two hour drive turned into an almost four-hour drive! I had one-on-one time with McCoy Tyner for almost four hours. I was dumbfounded. As I mentioned, he was a man of few words, so I didn’t want to bug him, but I also didn’t want to blow this opportunity to pick his brain about music. He didn’t want to talk much about music, mostly family and his upbringing in Philly. Ultimately, I feel like I didn’t ask him many meaningful questions, as I wanted to respect his space, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. At some point, the trip was moving so slowly, we were afraid we’d miss the beginning of the gig. I then defaulted into his road manager, which I loved. I was on the phone with the Clef Club giving them our ETA and figuring out our path to the stage. The gig was so wonderful, as it meant the world to me to share the stage with him in our hometown. I stayed with my family that night, but I often wonder if I would have gotten more out of him (and me) had we also shared a ride back to New York.

Earlier that same year, Joshua Redman, Brian Blade and I played a week with him at Yoshi’s in Oakland, where McCoy did an annual two-week January residency for many years. It was magical. We played the entire “The Real McCoy” album each night. I have a cassette of one of those nights, also.

Speaking of that Blue Note classic “The Real McCoy”, it made me think of McCoy Tyner, the composer. It occurred to me that many haven’t quite given their due diligence to that side of McCoy’s legend. Everyone knows all of the songs from “The Real McCoy”, but it has surprised me how many (especially musicians) don’t know songs like Reaching Fourth, Contemporary Focus, May Street, Nubia, The High Priest, African Village, Vision, Peresina, Sahara, Song For The New World, Inner Glimpse, Forbidden Land, The Greeting, Fly With The Wind, and Walk Spirt, Talk Spirit. This is but a very small sample of McCoy Tyner’s compositional output. With this, I’ve found that the Coltrane worship, which is undoubtedly justified, has inhibited the jazz intelligentsia from seeing McCoy Tyner’s music as nothing more than “Coltrane Influenced” or “Indian or Middle Eastern Influenced”, which, to me, is a sideways way of still saying “Coltrane Influenced”. That, is not fully accurate. For example, one of the attributes of Thelonious Monk’s music is that you don’t need to hear Monk playing it to know it’s his song. His style and personality are so deeply ingrained in his music, you can tell it’s a Monk tune no matter who’s playing it. For my money, McCoy Tyner’s music is the same. Go play a song like Inner Glimpse. There’s absolutely no one else you could think of except McCoy Tyner. Play Song For The New World, Atlantis, Celestial Chant or Ebony Queen. The DNA of those songs are so strong, no matter how creative you get, many of his tunes demand that you play them almost exactly like him.


As the naughts began, I was thrilled to play with him at Yoshi’s a few times – in 2003 in a trio with Lewis Nash (see my FB tribute), which was probably the height of my musical experiences with him, and again the following year in a trio with Jeff “Tain” Watts. Tain, Joe Lovano and I made a live recording with him for a New Year’s Eve run at Yoshi’s in 2006, also. Lewis Nash, Terence Blanchard, Gary Bartz and I also got to record with him in 2004 on the album “Illuminations”, which also won a Grammy. He even recorded one of my original songs that I composed for the session, “West Philly Tone Poem”. To have such a fruitful musical relationship with a man I loved so much meant the world to me.


Another smoking gig we did in 2004 was at the Newport Jazz Festival in an all-star quintet with Michael Brecker (another homie), Ravi Coltrane and Roy Haynes. That gig is on YouTube.


Around 2006, Melissa and I went to see McCoy at the Blue Note. He was playing in a sextet with Terell Stafford, Gary Bartz, Ravi Coltrane, Charnett Moffett and Eric Gravatt (yet another homie). After they finished the first set, I hung out with the guys on the break. Terell pulled me aside and said, “You should go see McCoy.” He said it with almost a tone of concern. I asked if everything was ok. He said, “You should just go see him.” I knocked on his dressing room door and slowly opened it. Privacy and a peaceful intermission simply just doesn’t exist in most jazz club dressing rooms, so I certainly didn’t want to add to the anticipated crowd, but Terell made this sound important. As I slowly walked in, I could see that there wasn’t anyone there but him. He was just sitting there on the couch, quiet as a mouse. He looked up and said, “Hey, Homes!” I seem to remember Lewis Nash was with me, also. We sat down and just hung with him. He seemed a bit melancholy. He wasn’t unpleasant, just a shade down. Whatever was going on, it was great that Nash and I were able to lift his spirits a bit. He went back on stage for the second set and killed it – just as he did the first set.

Unknowingly, my last time playing with McCoy Tyner came later that year as Joe Lovano, Jeff “Tain” Watts and myself played a New Year’s eve engagement with him at Yoshi‘s. It was to be recorded for his first release on his new label., Half Note Records. It was such a tremendously joyous week as people such as Angela Davis and Bobby and Rosemary Hutcherson came and hung out at various points during the week. Just a couple of days before our run started, James Brown passed away on Christmas Day. I was on standby, as I knew I would have to fly back to New York for his funeral, which was to be held at the Apollo Theater. When I got word that his funeral would be held right smack in the middle of the week, I knew I had to tell McCoy. Before I even finished telling him what the deal was, McCoy stopped me and said, “Homes, I know that was your main man. You go to the funeral. I’ll get somebody to cover for you. Just get there and back safely.” That Thursday morning, I got on a plane, flew to New York, went straight to the Apollo, headed back to Oakland on Friday morning and was back onstage with the cats on Friday night. Was I fried? Did it matter? Both things had to be done, no matter the cost. Pay tribute to a deceased legend and get back to finish the gig with a living legend.


Perhaps the sweetest moment I shared with McCoy in his final years came in 2012 when his quartet played in South Orange, NJ at SOPAC (South Orange Performing Arts Center). By this time, it was clear that his health had deteriorated. He was quite detached, not introducing the band or making any announcements to the audience. After the show, I went backstage to say hello. Instead of knocking on his dressing room door, I tried an experiment. As I walked down the hallway, I just shouted at the top of my lungs, “HOMES!” From behind his door I heard a happy “HEY!!!!” I was so happy. McCoy came out of his room smiling so wide. We had a nice conversation for about ten minutes. He said to Melissa, “You know this is my Homes! This is West Philly right here!”

After that night, I saw McCoy two more times – in 2014 when the Jazz Museum in Harlem gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2017 when Jazz House Kids presented him with the same award. Both times, he was surrounded by family as he was in a fragile state, so we didn’t really get to hang, but I was so happy to see him.


In closing, I can only say how fortunate I was to spend quality time on and off stage with an American icon who was one of the most important, most influential musicians in the world. I urge all critics to stop simply calling him “John Coltrane’s pianist.” Yes, he definitely was that, but he was so much more than that. In describing Miles Davis, nobody ever leads with “Charlie Parker’s trumpet player.” Nobody ever leads a Herbie Hancock biography with “Miles Davis’s pianist.” They definitely say that much later in the story, but it’s not the knee-jerk, over-simplistic lead in. McCoy Tyner was a great pianist and composer who created new piano language, led an enormous number of great bands, mentoring many young musicians along the way, the same way John Coltrane mentored him. Lead off with that.

Rest In Peace, Homes. We will miss you so.


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Some of you know what a TV and movie junkie I am. There was also a time when I was actually a TV commercial junkie, too. Well, let me clarify that. I’m not a TV or movie junkie in the sense that I just watch them simply for my own entertainment, but I’ve been told that I’m one of the few geeks that actually pays close attention to all of the end credits. I like finding out who the key grip was, the dolly grip, the truck driver, the food service company, the Foley artist, the gaffer, and needless to say, the composer(s). I’m not sure I really believe I’m one of a few that does that, but whatever makes the story work. 😉

When you’re a child, certain things stick in your head for the most subjective reasons, particularly TV commercials. The more I think about it, I think most TV commercials are actually made for kids – even adult products. For whatever the “hook” is that some producer wants the viewer to get, I think kids often get it first. Kids actually will hold the Rice Krispies to their ear and listen for the snap, crackle and pop. Some kids often think all champions actually do eat Wheaties. I remember suggesting to my grandmother that she get Dawn dish detergent because it did a better job at “cutting through grease,” and to also get Mrs. Buttersworth pancake syrup because it wasn’t “runny like the other brands.” I really did take these commercials to heart! There’s also the mind control game of playing something over and over again so it gets into your subconscious. Meaning that you actually don’t like or even care about the product, but you just remember the commercial. How many slogans can you remember off the top of your head without even buying the product? “Squeeze the Charmin,” “Where’s the beef?” “Have a Coke and a smile” “Frosted Flakes – they’re grrrrrreeeeat!” It was only after I started learning how to compose and arrange that I asked myself, “Who wrote the music for some of those old TV commercials?” Ok, well how’s this for randomness…

Growing up in Philadelphia, I often would watch WKBS – channel 48. WKBS showed a bunch of old syndicated TV shows like I Love Lucy, The Munsters, The Honeymooners, McHale’s Navy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, etc, etc. They were also the local TV affiliate for the 76ers. A lot of the commercials were from local businesses. Since WKBS was an independent station and not the local affiliate of one of the major networks like NBC, CBS or ABC, I’m assuming that buying airtime on channel 48 was way more feasible for small businesses. One of the most random commercials I remember from my childhood was from a local business called The House of Gayer. If memory serves, it was a beauty salon. Even as a kid, I felt their commercial might have been done a little on the cheap. It was dark and the text font seemed a bit primitive. I don’t remember ever seeing a face, just still photos of the salon and a semi-scary voiceover. (Somehow, I always remember seeing this commercial just before I would go to bed.) However, it had the coolest background music! Because the commercial had a mostly dark blue or black theme, the music felt a little scary, but for whatever reasons, I LOVED the song. I would look forward to pulling the covers just below my eyes when the commercial for The House of Gayer would come on as I would be kind of scared, but absolutely fascinated by this music.

I was 11 years old when WKBS went off the air for good in the summer of 1983. I was so sad. It was the end of a chapter in Philadelphia television history – and the House of Gayer commercials.

Fast forward 35 years.

Since the last time I saw a House of Gayer commercial, I’ve devoured and absorbed as much information as I could about great film and TV composers, and had the great fortune of working with many of these legends such as Quincy Jones, Jack Elliot, Patrick Williams and the man who has been such an inspiration to me not just as a musician, but also as a person, the great Lalo Schifrin. The first time I worked with Lalo was around 1998 when he called me on the recommendation of Ray Brown. Although Lalo is the composer of one of the most recognizable themes in the entire world with Mission: Impossible, I also knew of Lalo as a fine pianist and one of the chief arrangers for Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith and many more. Even without Mission: Impossible, he was one of my compositional and arranging heroes. Over the last 20 years, I’ve recorded twice with him as part of his Jazz Meets The Symphony recording series and toured with him even more. (Lalo is also the man who initially got me interested in smoking pipes! One of my greatest memories is going pipe shopping with him in Sydney, Australia.)

Yesterday, for whatever reasons, I was moved to listen to the theme song to Mission: Impossible. It just seemed like the song to listen to at that moment. I opened up the Tidal app on my iPhone and entered “lalo schifrin mission impossible” in the search field and got in my car. Instead of just saving the single track in my “favorites,” I “liked” the entire album, which was a Verve Records compilation called Mission: Impossible and Other Thrilling Themes. Without looking at my phone, I just assumed I’d hear the usual selections that you’d find on most Lalo Schifrin compilations – themes from Cool Hand Luke, Mannix, Enter The Dragon, Dirty Harry, The Cincinnati Kid, Rush Hour and more. When the drum pattern started on track 2, I thought, “This is kinda hip.” Lo and behold, the basses and the flutes came in on top of the psuedo drum march and I SCREAMED!!! For the first time in 35 years, I heard the background music from that old House of Gayer commercial!!! I couldn’t believe that it was Lalo Schifrin’s music that had been licensed for one of the most random commercials I’d ever seen! I badly wanted to pull off the road and enjoy it, but I was going south on the Garden State Parkway. Not the best place to pull over and listen to music.

When I finally had a moment, I saw that the name of that House of Gayer song is actually called Machinations. It was originally recorded for a 1968 album of Lalo’s called There’s a Whole Lalo Schifrin Goin’ On. (cute title!) The song itself sounds similar in nature to what Lalo composed for many movies and TV shows at that time. I wonder if it had been used as incidental music in some TV show? I’m going to have to ring Lalo and find out.

Hearing that track made me feel like I’d been reconnected with an old friend and reintroduced me to my 11-year-old self. Thank you, Lalo Schifrin. Didn’t realize you’d been a part of my life for as long as you have!


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When it comes to music and culture, I’ve always been curious and eager to learn. Sit me down with a great musician and I’m dying to learn what that person knows. I’m always particularly excited to sit at the feet of an elder. Elders have taught me that new ideas, especially musical ones, are rarely new, they’re just recycled and given new clothes. So when I hear a person, particularly a critic, say they’re waiting to “hear something fresh,” that to me has always signaled a particular sense of arrogance. There is so much music in this world! Have you really studied and listened to……everything? Forget music from Africa, India, Asia, the Middle East, South & Central America, Russia, Eastern & Western Europe…how about music inside the country in which we live? Do you really know what music in the Appalachian mountains sound like? Do you know what Cachi Cachi music is? Do you really know the subtleties between salsa, cha cha or merengue? You ever heard Mormon folk music? You know what Corrido or Conjunto sounds like?

Yeah, I didn’t think you did.

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career is being the host of the NPR/WBGO/JALC radio program, “Jazz Night in America.” The show is now in its fourth season and is aired on over 200 stations nationwide. If you’re a listener, you will notice that while the show covers music and festivals in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Ojai, Miami and St. Louis, a large portion of the music comes from the central nervous system of jazz, New York City. Towards the end of our third season, we decided that we would take the “show on the road” in a much different way. Instead of going to a city that is known for its jazz scene, why don’t we take the show to a city that is not necessarily known for its jazz scene and search it out. Since jazz is a National treasure, you should be able to find it anywhere in the nation, right? My role as host would be expanded. I’d be in the trenches interviewing people, playing with different musicians, searching out the jazz history of the town. The town we decided to hit first? What could make more sense than the town they call “Music City”: Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville’s always been an enigma to me. It’s by far to country music what New York City or New Orleans is to jazz. But while Nashville is not known, nor ever has been, particularly known as a jazz town, many of my favorite musicians live there – Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Keb Mo’, Victor Wooten, Jennifer Hartswick and Jeff Coffin. The question we ask in this show?

Why Nashville?

It’s going to be a challenge writing this blog, because I certainly don’t want to give everything away. You gotta hear and see the show! 😉

Up until the time I started to spend time with and perform with the great bassist Edgar Meyer, I had no real knowledge of country music. As a kid, most likely as other kids in Philly, country music to me meant the TV show “Hee Haw.” Watching Roy Clark and Buck Owens was fun, but it didn’t teach me anything about country music. I guess it could have had I not been a kid simply looking for a good laugh. I also remember seeing the usual-suspect country artists on TV like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell. Charley Pride always stuck out, as I never saw an African-American country music star. But even he couldn’t pique my interest to the point of actually learning about country music. I also had no idea that Ray Charles had been considered an innovator in the country music world. Ray Charles was such an innovator in soul music, it never crossed my mind that country music fans loved hits of his like “Georgia On My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” I’m upset at myself for taking so long to discover his “Modern Sounds In Country and Western.” Talk about a truly groundbreaking record. Whew! Describing Ray Charles as a genius will always be a gross understatement. Later on when I became a professional, I learned about the deep country music roots of jazz musicians like Charlie Haden and Gary Burton, but even after all that, I still didn’t search out any country music. That was a style of music I figured I’d never have to address.

The first jazz musician who ever pulled my coat to country music was Russell Malone. Sometime in the 90’s, he told me what a big influence guitarist Chet Atkins had been on him. I’d never heard a jazz musician cite a country artist as an influence – especially as an instrumentalist. He got me curious enough to listen to Chet Atkins. Russell also urged me to talk to George Benson about Chet Atkins, as George deeply admired him, also. As I did some cursory research on Atkins, I also learned that guitarist Tal Farlow started in the Grand Ole’ Opry. At that point, I was curious to find out exactly what the Grand Ole’ Opry was. I saw it on TV, but I never really knew what it was. It actually started out as a radio show, of which it continues to be 93 years later. The program became so popular among the locals, it was forced to move out of its radio studio and into the legendary Ryman Auditorium where it stayed for almost 30 years until 1974. Now, the Grand Ole Opry resides in its own theme park, Opryland. Now that’s what you call business expansion! The greatest names in country music have played there, got trained there, learned the ropes there. Just like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Opry was fiercely dedicated to its community and its culture….and housed a real tough crowd.

During its hey-day, the Apollo was THE haven for black music and black culture. You heard jazz, soul and gospel. Not so much rock, country, or mainstream pop – except Motown artists, of course. The Apollo represented the community. That’s not to say white artists couldn’t perform there. They by all means did, but they were there playing music of the community. Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and Dave Brubeck were Apollo regulars. Even Buddy Holly played there. (I’m dying to know how he was received.) In terms of being a cultural haven, the same could be said for the Opry. You could certainly be black and play there, but you better be playing the music of that community. Also like the Apollo, they sometimes branched out from their usual programming to mixed results. In 1968, with the hippie generation amassing much of the country’s attention, the Opry decided they’d experiment by booking The Byrds. It didn’t go so well. They performed to a booing, hissing, heckling audience. In 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis played there and did exactly what he was asked not to do – use profanity onstage and play his rock ‘n roll hits. In 1979, country music superstar singer, TV star and Opry booker Porter Wagoner decided he’d really shake things up – almost literally. He booked none other than….(you ready for this?)….JAMES BROWN! Both Wagoner and Brown had to know the first ever r&b booking at the Opry wouldn’t exactly be welcomed with unanimously open arms. Brown wasn’t exactly booed or heckled (even Opry fans had to at least respect his showmanship), but a frenzied, soul-stricken audience they were not. Hats off to the late Mr. Wagoner for indeed shaking things up with that gutsy move. On the other hand, I believe it was the last r&b show he ever booked there. LOL! Hey, you know, life is about risk-taking and changing. While the Opry has remained true to its tradition of presenting the best in country music, the Apollo, on the other hand, has opened its doors wider than ever to all different styles of music. My first appearance there in 2004, I was the musical director for a somewhat unusual Apollo headliner, Carly Simon. 🙂

My first real country music (or more specifically, bluegrass) experience as a player came in 2008 on an impromptu gig with Ricky Skaggs and the Kentucky Thunder. It was a benefit concert for St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa’s animal rescue foundation, ARF. I was there to play a duet set with Bruce Hornsby. We played our fun and wonderfully blurry amalgam of classical, jazz and pop. Until this day, I couldn’t tell you if the crowd dug it or not. Considering the other performers on the bill that night – Skaggs, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan and comedienne Kathleen Madigan, I can’t imagine we were the biggest hit of the night. 😄 However, imagine my surprise when Ricky Skaggs asked me to sit in with him. Bruce was already slated to sit in, but Ricky asked me to come and join in, too. His bassist was an amazing player from Nashville named Mark Fain. I’d met Mark once before and he was (and still is) one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet. I assumed Ricky would want the bass parts doubled, but Ricky asked me to come up front with him and solo. I would be a virtual second fiddle player. “Oh, s***!” is what went through my mind! For the life of me, I don’t remember what song I played with them, but Ricky looked at me and said, “You got it!” I soloed over what felt like a very fast 12-bar blues in G! This was no different than playing an arco solo with Benny Green’s Trio! In listening to the language of bluegrass, however, I knew better than to sneak any tritone substitutions in. I mean, I could have, but….nah. After my solo, playing the I-V repetition on the bass part didn’t seem so strange to do. Playing bluegrass bass has different subtleties from jazz, obviously, but it’s not like I have to completely rethink everything about the basic harmonic function of the bass. I loved it. Ricky seemed to enjoy the experience and even asked me to join him again at a later date. What fun. But still, I only knew slightly more about country – or bluegrass, rather – than I did the day before that gig.

The following year, I got the thrill of all thrills as I got to record with none other than Willie Nelson on his album “American Classic.” It was an album of Willie singing jazz standards. Unfortunately, the standards weren’t done in his signature outlaw country style, they were done in more of a straight, pop-jazz style. It was so great being in the studio with Willie, but I was hoping we could have met him on his musical turf a bit more. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter – we were with a legend. I heard some great stories and got to experience his energy. I hope I get to play with him again one day.

This brings me to Edgar Meyer. Not only has he been one of my greatest inspirations as a musician, but he’s also been a great teacher of bluegrass and country music traditions. When we went on our first duo tour, I asked him to school me on the “real shit.” He decided he’d school me specifically on bluegrass. He already knew that I’d played with Bela Fleck, but he turned me onto Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers (who were labelmates with James Brown at King Records in the 60’s), Earl Scruggs and Sam Bush. I was already familiar with names like Jerry Douglas, Stewart Duncan (who now plays with Diana Krall) and Chris Thile, but Edgar got me to dig deeper. I deeply enjoyed listening to all these musicians. I was feeling the vibe.

When I made a trip to Nashville in 2013, I went to the legendary Robert’s Western World on Broadway Ave. along with Benny Green, Lewis Nash and Chris Potter. We just randomly picked a spot to go into and hear some live music. We got lucky as we heard guitarist Chris Scruggs – the grandson of the great Earl Scruggs. The band was smokin’. Chris’s bassist, Jared Manzo, had a strange contraption mounted just off the side of the fingerboard of his bass. It looked like he was using a drum brush to play it. I kept staring from the audience like, “What the hell??” Turns out, it was a drum skin or pad actually on the bass. He indeed was using a brush to play beats two and four. Dude was playing bass AND drums (sort of) simultaneously! After their set was over, we all had a GREAT time talking with these cats. Jared taught me the history of the mounted-acoustic-bass-drum-pad. It was created by a bassist named Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance. Lightnin’ was a very prolific Nashville session bassist in the 50’s and 60’s. He was also pretty much the house bassist at the Opry. He was Nashville’s Ron Carter, if you will. 😄 Since the Opry didn’t allow drums, Lightnin’ created this mounted drum pad to give the Opry bands a little extra rhythm. Lightnin’ played on almost every country record out of Nashville for almost 20 years. Perhaps his biggest innovation, however, is creating the Nashville Numbering System – a system that allowed musicians who couldn’t read music to follow along.

Man, I love learning this stuff.

As for this recent trip with Jazz Night In America, our first night in town started off with a visit to Rudy’s Jazz Room, a very hip, new jazz club. The best compliment I could give it is that it felt a little like a New York jazz club. Dedicated listeners open to all types of musical expression were in abundance. There wasn’t one group, but five groups performing. This was a showcase for Ear Up Records, a label run by saxophonist Jeff Coffin, a man who many feel is the life blood of jazz in Nashville. Each ensemble played a 20 minute set of daring, original music. Saxophonist Evan Cobb, pianist David Rodgers, saxophonist David Williford, the duo of bassist Jon Estes and saxophonist Douglas Mosher, and bassist Jonathan Wires all played exciting sets. Again, I can’t give everything away in this blog, but the music was great. 😉

Sunday was MAD busy!

On Sunday afternoon, I moderated a panel discussion at the Nashville Jazz Workshop – a non-profit organization run by pianist Lori Mechem and her husband, bassist Roger Spencer. It’s a big building (I’m guessing just over 5,000 square feet) with multiple rooms for its many jazz education programs and rehearsals. It also contains a performance space, which also makes this, along with Rudy’s, one of Nashville’s preeminent live jazz venues. On the panel with me were Jeff Coffin, saxophonist Rahsaan Barber, guitarist Lindsey Miller and violinist….oh, pardon me…FIDDLE player, the great Joe Spivey of The Time Jumpers, one of Nashville’s most popular bands. For about 90 minutes, we talked about life as a musician in Nashville. Stay tuned for the video.

After we left there, I had to hit one of my favorite places, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the Broadway strip. Timbo, Whitney and Victor were working behind the counter that day. As a kid growing up in Philly, my two favorite record stores were 3rd Street Jazz & Rock and The Sound of Market Street (which, funny enough, was not on Market Street 😄). Both of those record stores, like all great ones, didn’t just simply have employees, all the people who worked there were also historians. Most great record stores have salespeople who not only can tell you the ins and outs of all the music you’re buying, but they can also lead you through history and tell you what you might also like based upon what you’re buying. Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop is no different. “Timbo”, in his ten gallon hat, greeted me with a “Howdy, partner!” Seriously. 🤣 As I browsed the entire store – the CDs, records, books, clothing, autographed 8×10’s of all the famous people who visited and/or jammed there, it really felt like the country version of 3rd St. Jazz & Rock. The music that was playing over the system was super hip. It was a fast, swinging thing. All of a sudden, a four-bar drum break happened. This drummer had amazing chops! Almost sounded like Max Roach. I went to Timbo and asked what it was. He said, “My friend, you are listening to the Texas Troubadours! Greatest Western Swing band ever, led by the man this store is named after, Mr. Ernest Tubb.” Ernest Tubb was one of the most successful and respected musicians/bandleaders in the history of country music. His radio show, “Midnight Jamboree” was broadcast out of his record store in front of a live audience for about 50 years. It was actually a jam session where the greatest names in country music – Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis and Dolly Parton, would drop in and jam. Though that show is no longer broadcast out of the record store, it’s still on the air! It’s second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry for longest running American radio show. Jennifer Herron is the host.

As for the store, I can guarantee Timbo, Whitney and Victor combined, know as much, if not more, about country music than ANYONE in any museum in the world. They were so cool, personable and helpful. If you don’t know much about country music, Ernest Tubb Record Shop is the school you should attend.

Early in the evening, we went back to Rudy’s to cover The Barber Brothers. Saxophonist Rahsaan (who’d been on the panel with me just a couple hours before) and his trombone-playing brother, Roland, played all the “grits and gravy” jazz that I don’t get to hear too often on a regular basis anymore. Rahsaan was honking through that horn so much, he should have walked the bar! As for Roland, if I may, I’ll give you a food visual of his trombone playing – his playing was like braised short ribs. Ha’ mercy!

Later that evening, we would cover an EDM group, Big Gigantic. I wondered why we were covering them, particularly since they were not from Nashville. It was just a stop on their tour. It made more sense as I found out my friend and trumpeter/vocalist Jennifer Hartswick would be a special guest on their set. I called Jennifer to get the skippy on Big Gigantic. From the description she gave, it sounded like they had a little Skrillex vibe happening. Very unlike Skrillex, however, along with the laptops, one guy played saxophone, the other played drums. This sounded interesting. I told Jennifer we were coming to cover the gig and she said, “You should sit in!” I’m always down as long as it’s ok with the bandleader. She assured me these cats would give a thumbs up, and they did. Sitting in with an EDM band in front of almost 2,000 hyped-up, screaming millennials was not originally on the to-do list, but it was great! Turns out, I actually knew one of Big Gigantic. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and I played together many years ago in Boulder, CO when he was a member of The Motet. Small world!

On Monday afternoon, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to interview its curator Michael Gray and Dr. William Levine, English professor and Nashville music historian. We had an amazing two-hour discussion about the history of jazz and country in Nashville, and many musicians like guitarist Hank Garland, who were skilled in both genres. Needless to say, we veered off into my other love, r&b and soul. Even became familiar with the early r&b/blues recordings of John Coltrane as a sideman with Nashville vocalist, Christine Kittrell. You will enjoy that conversation.

Later that evening, I had one of the best times of my life as we covered the band that Joe Spivey’s in, The Time Jumpers. They are to Nashville what the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is to New York. People come from miles around to take in a Monday night of country standards, gospel and jazz played by some of the most incredible musicians you ever want to hear. The Time Jumpers often accompany Vince Gill, though he wouldn’t be present on this night. All of the musicians are highly trained, highly skilled improvisers. Getting to sit in with them was an all-time musical highlight for me. I’m bursting at the seams to give you more details, but again, you’ll see the video. My main man Edgar Meyer and his wife Connie were there to take in the fun as well.

When we were first planning this trip, we were hoping to have three things to do on Tuesday, our final day. That morning, I recorded an NPR Night Owl segment with the great Keb Mo’ and Jennifer Hartswick. Keb is another one of my favorite musicians who conjures up images of pork rinds and chicken gizzards with hot sauce. As for Jennifer, I still can’t quite figure out how a product of St. Johnsbury, Vermont (?!?!?!) could have so much genuine soul. It’s mind bending. You’ll dig the blues we played.

The second event sadly couldn’t come together in time. There was hope that the one and only Dolly Parton would join me in a duet at the legendary RCA studios. The original plan was to find a legendary country music artist to join me in a duet session. To me, there’s no one more legendary than Dolly! She was out of town and couldn’t join me, but her manager actually responding to our request made me feel so good. Dolly, I’ll be back! 😜

After a lunch break, we headed over to the home of pianist Beegie Adair. Beegie is the matriarch of jazz and country piano in Nashville. She’s been living there since the early 50’s and has been a part of the country music studio scene as well as the jazz scene ever since. Spending 90 minutes with her was an enlightening experience. Getting facts and insights from a person who was around when these mythical stories happened is what I live for. She was a gracious host and it was a pleasure to speak with her.

We closed out our final night in town with an obligatory visit to a Nashville institution, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. “Hot Chicken” is a Nashville specialty, like a cheesesteak and a hoagie is to Philly. Hot Chicken is chicken marinated in buttermilk then fried in a pasty hot sauce that’s so tasty, it makes you – as they say down south – wanna slap yo’ momma! That chicken was mean, Jim! There’s lots of Hot Chicken places in town, but it’s unanimous, Prince’s is THE place.

Going into this trip, I had high expectations. I knew I was going to be “wowed” with information and discoveries. I get such great excitement meeting great musicians and new people. Traveling to a major city as a radio and webhost and not as a performing bass player was new. My mind and body’s conditioned at this point to always be in “soundcheck/warmup” mode at around 4 or 5pm and prepared to hit a stage around 8pm. This time, I had to be up at the crack of dawn to go over interview questions and get make-up for my camera shot. (No, not quite, but you know what I mean! 😜) For this trip, at 4pm, I was not at a soundcheck. At 8pm, I was not onstage. I was a shade out of my element, but it was great! To be “out of your element” is scary for many people. The unknown or the possibility of confronting beliefs that could be shattered are debilitating for many. Fortunately, the unknown or the unfamiliar doesn’t scare me….within reason. 😜 As a musician, country music is the one style I’ve never had too much experience with. These four days in Nashville absolutely blew my mind. I learned so much about the people, the places, the things, the music history that make that city so loved. I wish it were a mandate that somehow all Americans must do a culture exchange. I also wish musicians were government-appointed ambassadors of peace. I mean, we already are, but it should be official.

Thanks, Nashville. See y’all soon, ya’ hear? 😜

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It’s Still Not Sinking In

In sports, there is a clear objective – to score more points than your opponent. If you play a team sport, there are times when your individual performance may not be great, but if you score more points than your opponent, you still have achieved success. If you partake in an individual sport like boxing, gymnastics, track or tennis, room for a less-than-average performance becomes considerably smaller, but you can still win. Art, on the other hand, is the complete opposite – there is no score. There are no statistics to determine greatness or lack thereof. Art is subjective. How does it make you feel? What does it say to you? If you’re not well versed in certain forms of music, visual art or architecture, the subjectivity of art could make you uncomfortable making a call of whether it’s “good” or not. But there are many parallels in sports and art, particularly in my field of art: music. There’s preparation, strategy, intellect, skill, the ability to improvise, most importantly, to capture the heart and mind of the spectator or listener.

There’s a concrete mantra that both athletes and musicians practice: Start strong, end strong. As a performing musician, the general rule is you start and end your concert with your strongest pieces in order to leave an impression. In sports, you must establish the tempo (there’s another music parallel) to determine the flow of the game. In both team sports and individual sports, towards the end of a period or round, it’s wise to end on a strong run. For 58 years, the Philadelphia Eagles have always run out of steam during the last song of the night. The Eagles have always been like a singer who accidentally coughs while holding their last note. Except, this year at Super Bowl LII, they finally took a lozenge and drank some hot tea.

Now using strictly football talk, here’s the story from a fan’s historical lens.

During the 1966-‘67 NFL season, it was decided that the winner of the NFL Championship Game would play the winner of the upstart, six-year-old AFL’s Championship Game. This “ultimate” championship game would be given a name: The Super Bowl. After Super Bowl IV, the AFL would merge with the NFL and two conferences were created, the NFC and the AFC. There are now 32 teams in the NFL. As of February 4th, 2018, there were 13 teams that had never won a Super Bowl – the Eagles, Lions, Vikings, Jaguars, Panthers, Texans, Browns, Bengals, Bills, Chargers, Falcons, Titans and Cardinals. For historic analysis, let’s eliminate the Panthers, Jaguars, Texans and Titans, as each of those teams are 25 years old or less. They’re babies. The Falcons, Vikings and Bengals were NFL expansion teams created in the 60’s. The Bills and Chargers are part of the original eight that made up the AFL in 1960. That leaves us with the granddaddy teams of the NFL, the Browns (73 years old), the Eagles (85 years old), the Lions (87 years old) and the Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals, who played their first game a whopping 98 years ago. As of 11pm, Sunday, February 5th, the list of teams that have never won a Super Bowl shrunk to 12, as the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, 41-33.

To understand why my beloved Eagles’ Super Bowl win is so hard to fathom, it’s all about history. Before the Super Bowl era, the Cleveland Browns won four championships. They were a dynasty in the 40’s and 50’s. Since the Super Bowl era began 51 years ago, the Browns have had only 17 winning seasons. Their last being in 2007. They are also the third team in NFL history to go winless in a regular season. Since their back to back heart-stopping (but heartbreaking) playoff losses to the Denver Broncos in 1986 and ‘87, the Browns have made only one playoff appearance. Let’s not even discuss Art Modell. Unlike the Eagles, the Browns have not been expected to win a Super Bowl for a long time. Browns fans CAN say three things:

1. Next to Philadelphia, they may have the most loyal fans in football.

2. Although it was long ago, they did once dominate an era.

3. The greatest running back who ever lived (some would say the greatest player, period) played for them: Jim Brown.

Before the Super Bowl era, the Detroit Lions also won four championships. Three of those four titles came in the 1950’s as players like Bobby Layne and Doak Walker were their stars. They cooled off in the 60’s as the Super Bowl era dawned. There wasn’t much to get excited about as a Lions fan, as they made only three playoff appearances between 1967 and 1991. The main reason for their early-90’s resurgence, came courtesy of the man who many would say became the next greatest NFL running back of all time, Barry Sanders. The Barry Sanders-era Lions were always good. Unfortunately, good was just never enough as the Lions made first-round exits in four out of five playoff appearances during Barry’s era (1989-1998). Since Barry, the Lions have again been eliminated in the first round of their four playoff appearances. Each time, as a #6 seed. Again, unlike the Eagles, the Lions have not been expected to win a Super Bowl for a long time.

Since the Cardinals played their first football game in 1920, they have won just two championships. Their first one came shortly after their debut, 1927, and their second in 1947. With the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, this means the Cardinals now own the longest championship drought in professional sports at 71 years. Since 1947, the Cardinals have made the playoffs only NINE times. Five of those nine have been in the last decade. They’ve also moved twice – from their original place of origin, Chicago, to St. Louis in 1960, then from St. Louis to their current home in Arizona in 1988. They technically have four players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but considering two of those four are Emmitt Smith and Kurt Warner, who, let’s face it, will always be recognized as Cardinals second (or third), let’s say in all fairness, only two pure Cardinals are in the Hall of Fame – Roger Wherli and Aneas Williams. In their one Super Bowl appearance in 2009, they gave the Pittsburgh Steelers all they could muster, but a now-legendary, improbable circus touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes, heartbreakingly ended a Cinderella season for the Cardinals. There’s not much you can say if you’re a Cardinals fan. (if there is such a thing 😜) The Cardinals have two bright spots:

1. Over the last decade, they’ve become one of the more exciting teams in the NFL. Hopefully, they can sustain that.

2: They will undoubtedly have their third “pure” Cardinal in the Hall of Fame when the great Larry Fitzgerald calls it a career.

Now, the Eagles. Like most Philadelphia natives, I have invested a lot of time, love and energy into our beloved football team. So much so, that when I moved to New York City in 1989, I never once considered not rooting for them. For the last 29 years, I’ve often been the lone Eagles fan in a Giants or Jets bar. Dangerous? Indeed. Lunacy? Perhaps. But I’ve always bled Eagles green.

Our history compared to the three other non-Super-Bowl-Champion grandfather teams doesn’t differ too drastically. From the Eagles birth (1933) to the first Super Bowl (1967), the Eagles won three championships – 1948, 1949 and 1960. Through the 60’s and 70’s, the Eagles weren’t a very good team, going 113-160-9 from 1960-1979. I got lucky. I saw my first Eagles game in 1980, as they were rising to the top of the NFC under head coach Dick Vermeil. We went to the Super Bowl that year. (Just imagine, my first year watching football and the Eagles go to the Super Bowl!) Immediately after the Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, my uncle Butch brought me with him to Veterans Stadium. I couldn’t figure out why we were going there AFTER the game. But I soon discovered he just wanted to go and watch all the crazy people celebrate as they tore up Broad Street. It was exhilarating. Everyone was so happy. I became an Eagles lifer. As for the Super Bowl, as all of us who were around remember, the Eagles were favored against the wildcard Oakland Raiders. There was no way we’d lose that game. Well, we did, and I discovered what it REALLY meant to be an Eagles fan. Those Eagles decayed quickly as Vermeil retired due to a newly minted word, “burnout”, after the strike-shortened 1982 season.

After stumbling for a couple of years, the Eagles were back on top, sort of. Buddy Ryan came to Philly after being a vital part of the 1985-86 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears. Owner Norman Braman and Ryan put together a team for the ages – Randall Cunningham, Reggie White (HOF), Jerome Brown, Keith Byars, Cris Carter (HOF), Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Byron Evans, Andre Waters, Keith Jackson, Wes Hopkins, Eric Allen and more. This team was the team that was supposed to be a dynasty, destroying opponents at will, hoarding all the Lombardi trophies. Well, it didn’t quite workout that way, as we not only didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, we didn’t even win a PLAYOFF game under Buddy Ryan and this “dynasty” of a team. They certainly were one of the most popular, most entertaining teams of its era, but who needs to be popular and subpar?

After Buddy was fired in January 1991, offensive coordinator Rich Kotite took over as head coach. We showed flashes. Finally even won a playoff game (1992-93 wildcard against the Saints). Had one of the best 1-2 WR combinations in football with Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. But this version of the Eagles would soon be eclipsed by the fast-rising, new dynasty of the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys. Let’s jump to the Andy Reid era. The soft-spoken, ample, nice-guy coach brought the Eagles back to dominance in the 2000’s, building a team, like Buddy Ryan, that should have been championship heavy. During the Reid era, he brought us McNabb, Westbrook, TO (HOF), Dawkins (HOF), Trotter, Vincent, Vick, Shady, DJax, Akers, four Championship games, one Super Bowl appearance, but most of all, fourteen years of “Wait ‘til next year”. Almost every year after Reid’s first year as head coach, the Eagles were always expected to “go far”, if not “all the way”. In my 38 years of watching the Eagles, we have, for the most part, been a strong organization. Perennial threats to the title. But then, take January 2003, when the Eagles played in their second of four consecutive NFC Championship games. This time, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The stage was set so perfectly. Veterans Stadium, the Eagles home since 1971, was scheduled to be demolished at the conclusion of the Phillies baseball season, making this the final Eagles game ever played at the “Vet”. The Buccaneers were an unbelievable 0-20 in games below 40 degrees. That day, it was 29 degrees. Weather notwithstanding, the Eagles were heavy favorites. The Oakland Raiders would beat the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship game later that night. As dominant as they had been all season, the Eagles could have a chance to not only win their first Super Bowl, but they could have avenged their loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV. But alas, somehow we blew all of our lines in a perfectly written script as the Eagles lost 27-10. (Ironically, they lost by that same score in Super Bowl XV.) And THAT’S what it meant to be an Eagles fan. Heartbreak. There’s that singer running out of breath and coughing again!

With Chip Kelly at the helm from 2013-2015, the Eagles were completely gutted and dismantled. Every great player we had was either cut or traded. Fans watched in horror as DeSean Jackson was released, Jeremy Maclin was released, LeSean “Shady” McCoy was traded (I’m STILL pissed about that one!), Nick Foles was traded, Michael Vick was released. It was like watching a quack doctor do surgery on a body without anesthesia.

By the time Kelly was fired in week 15 of the 2015 season, it was clear that the Eagles were completely in rebuild mode. Our perennial superstars were replaced by players like Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Mathews, Jordan Mathews and Kiko Alonzo.


When Andy Reid’s coaching protegé (and former backup QB to both Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb) Doug Pederson was hired as head coach in 2016, we took comfort in the fact that Chip Kelly was now off to destroy another team. We drafted a young quarterback from North Dakota State (where??) named Carson Wentz. We still had the man Chip Kelly called “The Swiss Army Knife” (because he was such an incredibly versatile tool), the ageless Darren Sproles. As always, the “Wall”, Jason Peters would be on the line protecting Wentz’s back. The defense didn’t change too much, but they seemed at the very least, decent, so maybe a move here, a move there, and we’d be good.

The 2016-17 Eagles finished with a happily surprising 7-9 record. Most fans and writers expected the Eagles to finish 4-12 or 5-11. To win seven games with a rookie coach and a new cast seemed like a small victory.

In the offseason, the new cast got even newer. The Eagles acquired LeGarrette Blount, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots, as their number one RB. We also acquired all-star WRs, Alshon Jeffrey & Torrey Smith. There was also Ronald Darby, CB of the Buffalo Bills, who we acquired in a trade with WR Jordan Matthews. During the regular season in week 8, there was quite the surprise acquisition of Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that as LeGarrette Blount seemed to be doing a fine job by himself. But the more RBs, the merrier, I suppose. How much success could this team possibly have with so many newbies? I had to remind myself that this was rebuilding time. During the season, things got challenging as we lost many of our major players to major injuries. Darren Sproles, our swiss army knife, went down for the season with a devastating broken arm and leg in week three. There was Jordan Hicks, Jason Peters, Ronald Darby, and, of all people, Carson Wentz, making a run for league MVP, who tore his ACL in week 14.

Despite the injuries, the Eagles were still winning game after game. The season was almost feeling surreal. But after the injury to Wentz, us Eagles fans couldn’t help but feel impending doom. This wasn’t surreal, this was FO’ real! 😜 So much for the rebuild. Now what do we do this late into the season?

Nick Foles, who the Eagles had reacquired in the off-season, came off the bench. We figured there was no way the rusty Nick Foles could keep this train running smoothly. As he replaced the injured Wentz in the 3rd quarter of that high scoring shootout against the Rams, it seemed we’d be alright as he, in fact, did keep the train running smoothly as we won, 43-35. In the next game against the lowly Giants, the Eagles started off a shade slow, but Foles put up 2013-like numbers, as he went 24/38, 237, 4TD, 0 INT. We were good to go, it seemed.

Up next was a Monday night home game against the Raiders and their 26th-ranked pass defense. This should have been a redux against the Giants – a gimme. But games like this are why cynicism is at the core of every Eagles fan.

Let’s go back to 2010.

The Eagles pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, beating the Giants 38-31, in the game called “The New Miracle of the Meadowlands”, as DeSean Jackson ran back that famous punt as time ran out. The Eagles had built immeasurable momentum with that win, as we were fighting to win the NFC East and keep the hated Dallas Cowboys at bay. Their next game after that was a Monday night home game (Because of a snowstorm, it was actually a Tuesday night game) against the Vikings. The Vikings finished last in the NFC North that year. In this game, Joe Webb was starting at QB for an injured Brett Favre. Facing a bad team with a backup QB, this should have been a gimme. So much for the momentum of the Meadowlands Miracle as the Eagles not only lost 24-14, but they lost their next and final regular season game to the Cowboys, 14-13. It seemed as if the Giants comeback didn’t mean a damn thing. It didn’t, as the Eagles also lost to the Packers in the first round of the playoffs, 21-16. Three straight losses after the most amazing comeback in our history. That’s what it means to be an Eagles fan: “Cough! Cough!”

Now, back to the 2017 Monday night game against the Raiders.

The game was indeed a nail biter, but for reasons you wouldn’t suspect. Our running game was good and the defense held David Carr and Marshawn Lynch relatively in check. The problem was with Nick Foles. All of a sudden, he looked clueless. He over and underthrew receivers, couldn’t scramble, couldn’t make anything happen on the fly. We won 19-10, but that was mostly because of our defense making plays and our special teams stepping up. There was deep concern over the play of Foles, who finished with a line of 19/38, 163, 1 TD, 1 INT. The cynicism was flaring badly. We had one game left in the regular season. The opponent? The hated Dallas Cowboys. With the Eagles having locked up home field advantage in the playoffs, the plan was to only play the starters in the first quarter of this game. Foles had 15 minutes (or less) to prove to us that the Raiders game was a stumble, not the norm. Unbelievably, Foles looked as bad, if not worse, than he did in the Raiders game. For Eagles fans, there was a collective “We are so screwed” sentiment amiss.

As the #1 seed Eagles stumbled into the playoffs, doubt was stronger than ever. We’d heard this familiar song way too many times. In our divisional playoff game against the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles were underdogs in their own house. That dubious designation seemed justified as the Falcons entered the playoffs winning four of their last five games, including a wildcard win on the road against the favored Rams. They were looking like the defending champs that they were. The game was eerily similar to the Raiders game. Foles looked tentative as we again won…barely. It took a goal line stand by the defense on the last play of the game to secure the 15-10 win. As we awaited the winner of the Saints-Vikings game, we could only wonder when Foles’s luck would run out. The Vikings, who won in their own miracle, came to Philly favored.

Something happened.

My guess is that head coach Doug Pederson smartly realized that Foles was the ONLY bright spot during the Chip Kelly years. Pederson put Foles in a time capsule, let him turn back the clock and seemingly busted out the 2013 playbook. Foles’ play mixed in with Pederson’s aggressive playcalling turned Foles into a madman. He torched the Vikings! All of a sudden, it seemed like that evil football ghost was dead. Foles and the Eagles crushed the Vikings, 38-7. Foles finished with a line of 26/33, 352, 3 TDS, 0 INT. Up next, the SUPER BOWL!

It absolutely had to be against the greatest sports dynasty since the Chicago Bulls of the 90’s – Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. None of this meant anything unless we were going up against the best. Lack of defense by either team notwithstanding, the Eagles looked confident and played like they expected to win. In Super Bowl XV, they looked scattered and unprepared. In Super Bowl XXXIX, they looked overwhelmed and a bit nervous. (Not to mention, Andy Reid’s questionable clock management.) But in this game, they collectively stared down the mighty Patriots and beat them, not without drama, 41-33. The 2017-18 Eagles got the monkey off our back. We were finally World Champions. Years of heartbreak finally turned into victorious bliss. That metaphorical last note was given its full value and sung fortissimo!! If only my grandfather and my uncle Butch were alive to see this. They withstood way more heartbreak than I did.

So why isn’t this win sinking in? Maybe because I still don’t know this team well. I feel like I’m just getting to know these cats. Jake Elliot? Ronald Darby? Jay Ajayi? Tim Jernigan? Chris Long? Rodney McLeod? These guys have been Eagles less than a year. Some less than six months! We just met you and go and win it all? Whuuuuut? Eagles, traditionally you’re supposed to gravely disappoint us many times before you go winning a Suoer Bowl!

I suppose that since the ‘80, ‘81, ‘88, ‘89, ‘90, ‘95, ‘01, ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘06, ‘08, ‘09, ‘10, ‘13 teams – all great Eagle teams that had perennial Pro Bowlers who had grown together and picked to go far in the playoffs – couldn’t win a Lombardi Trophy, how could this ‘17-18 team be the one that does it? Those previous teams gave us unyielding hope every year for many years. We haven’t had a chance to marinate in our customary loyal and loving disappointment with this particular squad. But seriously, I think about how many times the great Brian Dawkins left it all out on the field in Midnight Green and never won a ring. To think about how many games Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and David Akers played in an Eagles uniform – not to mention the late Jim Johnson….I wish they could have gotten a ring. The Buddy Ryan squad – Randall Cunningham, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, Cris Carter, Clyde Simmons, Keith Jackson, Keith Byars, Andre Waters. From the “Body Bag Game” to the “Bounty Hunt Game”, what great memories you gave us. 😄 The Dick Vermeil gang – Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael, Herman Edwards, Bill Bergey, Frank LeMaster….these were the players that were with the Eagles during the lean years of the mid and late 70’s that quickly turned the club around. I think it’s safe to say that this trophy was won for all of them. Eagles, you finally sang that last note like Maria Callas in Carmen! Thank you Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson, and all the great players on our 2017-18 Super Bowl team. And of course, the voice of the Eagles for the last 41 years, Merrill Reese (who worked with my uncle Butch at WHAT-AM in the late 60’s and early 70’s.) 😄

Fly, Eagles, Fly.

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“Sir Thomas”: My Friend, Tommy LiPuma


I’ve had a lot of dreams. Musical ones. I’ve always believed that much of what’s happened in my career are things that began with a dream. Sounds corny, but it’s very true. Dreams gave me something to strive for. I’ll give you an example of one.

As a kid, one thing I always loved about the ritual of playing records was reading the album jacket. There were stories inside the stories. I would stare at the photos on the front and back and wonder, “What are they thinking about in this photo?”, “Wow, it looks like they are JAMMING in this photo. Wonder what song they were playing?” After I would immerse myself into a photo, I’d move from that to the credits. My mom and I always paid close attention to who the musicians were, the studio, executive producer, producer, associate/assistant producer, engineer, assistant engineer, photographer, etc, etc. I often saw the same musicians on so many different albums – Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Don Grolnick, Steve Gadd, Ron Carter, Eric Gale, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, David T. Walker, Richard Tee, Hilda Harris, Maretha Stewart, Paul Jackson, Jr., Phil Upchurch, Bob James, Jon Faddis, Cornell Dupree, David Sanborn, Michael & Randy Brecker, Will Lee, Buddy Williams, Hiram Bullock, Lew Soloff, Marcus Miller, Ralph MacDonald and so many more.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re most likely thinking that I’m talking about all the many jazz albums they played on. I’m not thinking about jazz albums at all! I’m thinking of all the many POP and FUNK albums they played on. From Stevie Wonder to Parliament/Funkadelic to Linda Ronstadt to Aretha Franklin, I didn’t understand how so many of these particular names wound up on so many records. I soon learned they were “session cats” or “studio rats” or “guns for hire.” The idea of being a “session cat” was so fascinating to me. How did that happen? Did you just become so awesome that every recording artist in the world just personally called you? Was there a union you had to join? Was there an audition process to being a “session cat”? I wanted to know badly! In the middle of all of my other dreams of playing with my many musical heroes, I also dreamed of becoming a “session cat.” It wasn’t a goal…..yet. I had to learn the rules first.

On most of the soul, pop & rock records I listened to, the producers ranged from Quincy Jones to Norman Whitfield to George Duke to Arif Mardin to Ted Templeman to Nile Rodgers to my hometown heroes, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But it was ambiguous to me what producers did. I thought if you had Joe Sample, Eric Gale, Will Lee, Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald as your rhythm section, what in the world would you need a producer for? I clearly remember questioning a producer’s role after staring at and studying the credits of Quincy Jones’s album “Body Heat.” I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I asked my mother since it looked like Quincy didn’t sing or play an instrument, how could this be his record? My mom said, “Well, he produced it.” Confused, I asked, “Producers can make their own records? I thought you had to sing or at least play an instrument.” I somehow remember my mother saying something to the effect of, “Really GOOD producers make important contributions. The fact is, there aren’t that many really good producers. Just a bunch of guys sitting around with sunglasses trying to act like they know what they’re doing.” So maybe that meant GOOD producers knew how to make great musicians sound even better? It made more sense to me that a producer made artists who maybe weren’t so good sound better. But then it got even more confusing as I started to get into jazz and became aware of the high level of musicianship that style of music demands. I noticed every jazz label had an in-house producer – Blue Note had Alfred Lion, Riverside had Orrin Keepnews, Capitol had David Axelrod, and Columbia had Teo Macero, who produced the famously obstinate Miles Davis. I thought, “Wait…..jazz musicians need producers?? Jazz musicians don’t need anyone telling them if it sounds good or not!” Or maybe they did! I didn’t know.

One of my earliest experiences in a recording studio set a bad tone for me when it came to producers. In my junior year of high school, my dear friend, alto saxophonist Robert Landham, called me for a recording session. We were to lay down a track for a cabaret singer. The song was More (The Theme from Mondo Cane). The producer struck a humorous resemblance to Mr. T. He was a very large black man with a LOT of gold jewelry and the attitude to match. I remembered my mom’s sentiment concerning producers “….sitting around trying to act like they know what they’re doing.” I couldn’t help but think that this guy looked a bit odd producing a standard that Sinatra and others have recorded. Once we started to play, we didn’t get more than 8 bars in, and he comes shouting over the talkback mic, “No! No, fellas! That’s not it! Y’all not swingin’.” In an absolutely hilarious exchange, Robert would shout back, “You fat son-of-a-b***h, don’t interrupt us while we’re trying to learn the f***ing song!” WOW! Raphael (the producer – don’t remember his last name) said, “Do what I ask you to do, damn it!” I mean these two dudes were at each other’s throat for two hours! I was laughing most of the time. Is THIS the standard artist-producer relationship?

Miles Davis to me had always been sort of the “E.F. Hutton” of jazz: When he talked, people listened.  During my high school years, what musician had more machismo, more resistance to BS, more style, more hipness than Miles Davis? Reading interviews of his, it was obvious that he didn’t suffer fools. He unapologetically called things as he saw them. Because of that, I always wondered how Miles could work with a producer? How would Miles Davis, of all people, react to a producer saying, “That was ok, but let’s do it again. You were a bit out of tune on that take, Miles.” As if Miles Davis wouldn’t know if he was out of tune or not. I read many interviews where Miles had harsh words about Teo Macero, but he somehow still “respected” him. Huh??


The first time I saw Miles perform live was in 1986. He was promoting his new album Tutu. I seem to remember Tutu was big news across the board – in jazz, pop and r&b. I was excited that Miles used Marcus Miller as one of his producers. I loved Marcus not only as a bass player, but I was also a fan of Marcus Miller, the producer – especially his work with Luther Vandross. The other producer of that record was Tommy LiPuma. His name was sort of familiar, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. I realized I didn’t have to look far. He was the producer of one of the biggest albums of my childhood, George Benson’s Breezin’. He was also one of the producers of another album that was constantly in heavy rotation in the McBride household, Al Jarreau’s Look To The Rainbow. Yeah, this cat is the real deal.

There were two people who Miles made mention of in his autobiography that really surprised me – Frank Sinatra and…..Tommy LiPuma. I never knew that Sinatra was one of Miles’s influences. That was fun to discover. He made special mention of Tommy LiPuma as being a producer he liked working with because “he thought like a musician.” There’s no dap like Miles dap. When Miles says you’re cool, you’re forever cool. At that point, Tommy LiPuma became a major star in my book. (As if Al Jarreau and George Benson’s albums weren’t enough)

By 1993, I’d been living in New York City for four years and played on a number of recordings. Most of the recordings I played on were by musicians I was working with  – Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, Benny Green, Wallace Roney and others. My session work was piling up quickly. Nothing compared to what Ray Brown and Ron Carter did over the course of generations, but for what was happening in MY generation, it was a lot. I felt like the dream of being a “session cat” was unfolding before my very eyes. But there was still one more level of session work I knew I still had yet to crack. I cracked it in early 1994.


I believe it was the vocalist/contractor Jill Dell’Abate who called and asked if I was available for a David Sanborn session. Jill worked for Tommy LiPuma. I was beyond excited. I was also excited because David Sanborn was not someone who regularly used “young lions” like me on his records. Sanborn used bona-fide “session cats.” Jill told me it was an orchestral date and to bring both my acoustic and electric basses. I think she also asked if I was a member of Local 802, the musicians union. This sounded like that “next level” I’d been dreaming about. No one had ever asked me if I was in the union. Thankfully, I was. I suppose sessions like this were the reason why the late Bob Cranshaw urged me to join Local 802 AFM right after I moved to town. Jill informed me that the session would be at The Hit Factory on West 54th street and the downbeat would be at high noon. I had no idea what I was in for. None!

When I got to the Hit Factory around 11:30AM, I literally walked into a dream. There was David Sanborn warming up, orchestra players beginning to arrive with the great Johnny Mandel standing at the podium going through the scores, Steve Gadd fine tuning his drums, Don Grolnick taking off his coat and getting comfortable near the piano, Don Alias tuning his percussion instruments, and Bucky Pizzarelli setting up his guitar amp. I walked into the control room, and there was both Al Schmitt and Joe Ferla setting up things on the console, and there was the great Phil Ramone (who was just hanging out!) talking with the man, Tommy LiPuma. I almost cried. In one fell swoop, I was awarded entry into a whole lot of records I grew up on. Can you imagine ALL these industry legends and heavyweights in one room as a part of one session? I suppose that wasn’t so unusual at one point in time. Oh, and also, the special guests were Oleta Adams and Little Jimmy Scott. Overwhelming!

This was by all means a union session. I clearly remember the orchestra being firmly planted in place and ready to play by 11:55. When that clock hit 12:00:00, Johnny Mandel’s baton was up! I said to myself, “Damn!! Jill really meant 12:00, didn’t she?” I was just glad that I showed up on time! Punctuality has never been one of my strong points. When Johnny Mandel started up the orchestra, I noticed Tommy was still in the room with the musicians. He was wearing headphones seated comfortably in a chair next to the conductor’s podium. I thought all producers produced from the control room. Why was Tommy out in the room with the musicians? I’d never seen or heard of that. When we finally had a break, I think I asked Steve Gadd if Tommy always stayed in the room with the musicians. He said, “Yeah, that’s his thing. He likes to feel the true energy of the band.” What an amazing concept. He was so unobtrusive.

After three amazing days in the studio with David Sanborn, Tommy LiPuma, Al Schmitt, Johnny Mandel, Steve Gadd, Joe Ferla and so many other heroes, it hit me: I just did a record with all the “session cats.” Was I officially a “session cat” now? I thanked Mr. LiPuma and David for using me on this record, which was later titled Pearls. It really meant a lot.

Around the same time as this session, I made a new friend. My manager at the time, Mary Ann Topper, told me about this Canadian girl she was DYING for me to meet and play with. She told me that this girl had spent time studying with Ray Brown and Jimmy Rowles. Certainly my eyebrows went up then. Anyone who spent time with “Papa Ray” must be swingin’. Her name was Diana Krall. I don’t exactly remember how and when Diana and I finally met, but I know it was either right before or right after Sanborn’s session. She was suuuuch a sweetheart. Up to that point, Diana had hustled around Boston and New York doing any kind of gig she could find – playing piano and singing in hotel bars, restaurants, clubs, cruise ships, everything. She was in the rat race like everyone else. Diana and I hit it off instantly – especially once we started talking about Ray Brown. It was clear that we came from the same Oscar Peterson/Ray Brown/Herb Ellis/Monty Alexander/John Clayton/Jeff Hamilton House of Worship. Shortly after we met, Diana signed to GRP Records and asked if I would play on her new recording. She told me Lewis Nash would play drums (that’s always enough for me to say yes), Ray Brown and Stanley Turrentine would play on a few tracks and Tommy LiPuma would produce it. There he is again!


I was so excited to work with my new friend Diana, and also to work with Tommy in a much more intimate setting. This time, we got to talk. I learned all about his history in the record business, his Cleveland upbringing, and his deep love for Cannonball Adderley. Hearing this former alto saxophonist-turned-legendary-record-producer talk about Cannonball was so much fun. These exchanges fueled my deep passion of talking to older musicians. I’ve always taken great pride in obtaining as much information as I can from the older cats. Every time Tommy talked, I listened. He was my new E.F. Hutton. Tommy’s personality, his infectious belly laugh, his genuine love of music and people really touched me. He instantly became one of my favorite people in the world. To say we hit it off would be a gross understatement.

In 1998, Tommy became the chairman of Verve Records. By then, we were close enough that I trusted him as a true friend and mentor. For much of the 90’s, I was Verve’s house bass player, as well as being a solo artist on the label. By the time Tommy took over Verve, the label was slowly but surely moving away from the straight-ahead sound, to a more adult contemporary sound. The Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Mark Whitfield era was clearly coming to an end. The Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, George Benson, David Sanborn era was about to begin. I could see the writing on the wall. My days as a solo artist on Verve were numbered.

I made what was to be my final album for Verve in early 2000. “Sci-Fi” was released to a moderate reception that September. Even though I had Dianne Reeves, Toots Thielemans and Herbie Hancock as guests, I knew that stylistically it didn’t fit the new Verve. My new manager, David Sholemson, told me that I would most likely soon be dropped from the label. I was cool with that as, like I said, the overall feel of the label had changed. He said that I would probably receive a letter from the label alerting me that they would not renew my contract. Instead of a letter, I got a phone call from Tommy.

In his career as a producer and label executive, I know this wasn’t the first time he had to tell someone they weren’t being re-signed, but I’d like to think that this call broke him up a bit. He so sweetly and kindly expressed to me that my contributions to Verve for the last decade were more than appreciated and I was one of the pillars of the label as a solo artist and a sideman, but the label was headed in a different direction. Here I was getting dropped from the label and I was the one feeling bad because it was my friend Tommy who had to make the call. He actually asked if I would be interested in making a recording more in the “Wes Montgomery A&M” style (aka Smooth Jazz). He knew I wasn’t really interested in that not only because that’s not where I was musically, but I knew that it would only prolong the inevitability of being dropped from the label. After we hung up the phone, go figure, I loved Tommy more than I already did. In fact, about a week later, he called and asked if I could play on a new Verve record he was producing for Natalie Cole. Of course I said yes. I told Tommy our relationship was iron-clad, and it was. Tommy was such a straight up, but empathetic (those two don’t usually go together) person, I couldn’t get upset in the least. I continued to be Tommy’s “go to” guy for his productions. I was always honored when he called.


There were so many good times with Tommy and his alter ego, the legendary engineer, Al Schmitt. Just being around them was a thrill. I had a big 30th birthday party at the now-defunct Lower East Side hallmark, Tonic. Tommy and Al showed up with two cases of wine EACH! I already had about three cases of wine at the party! As I told Tommy, it took me about seven years to get through all that wine! That man was ALWAYS fun to be around.

When I became the co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in 2004, I asked Tommy if he’d be interested in joining the board. He said yes. It felt great to have a new business relationship with him. One of the programs that I helped to institute at the museum, along with Greg Thomas and Loren Schoenberg, was a monthly series called HarlemSpeaks, a one-on-one interview series. I asked Tommy if he would be one of my guests. I couldn’t wait to officially interview him. One of the things that comes with being a successful producer, is the unenviable daily task of receiving hundreds of demo CDs in the mail. Everyone hopes they can catch that magic from a famous producer and become a star. I asked Tommy during the interview how he dealt with this. He said that he almost never listened to demos, because certainly in the modern era, anybody could sound good on a studio demo. He said he’d much rather hear an artist perform live so he could see and hear the real deal. You can’t fake on a gig. Makes perfect sense, right? Well, after the interview, Tommy got straight bum rushed by about 30 singers with CDs, anyway. One even sang for him acappella right there in the room. Tommy graciously listened, gave a kind compliment (“Sounds great, babe!”), took some of the CDs and I walked him to his awaiting car. He was always such a sport.

Tommy was also a frequent supporter of the organization my wife Melissa and I started, Jazz House Kids. Graciousness was Tommy’s hallmark.

My friend Harry Weinger, another great producer and instructor at NYU, told me when Tommy gave a masterclass at NYU in 2015, the question was asked, “Where do you start when you’re making a record?” Tommy replied, “All my sessions start with a call to Christian McBride. I build my bands around him.” I must have cried for days when I heard that.

I’ve worked with a lot of great producers, but Tommy had so much heart, empathy, information and passion to touch people emotionally. Tommy is also the only man other than my own father to always kiss me on the lips.


Last year, the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland threw a star-studded 80th birthday celebration for Tommy at the Palace Theater. I was asked to be the host. I can’t begin to tell you how badly I wanted to do the best job I’ve ever done as a host. Everybody showed up – Dr. John, Leon Russell, Diana, Al Jarreau, The Clayton-Hamilton Big Band…. it was a major event. I even wore my “Tommy LiPuma glasses” in his honor.

Version 2

From 1994 until his final session in December – Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet – I got to play on many recordings with some great artists with that unmistakable LiPuma touch: Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Joe Sample, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Al Jarreau, George Benson, David Sanborn, Queen Latifah, Michael Buble’, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Crawford and so many more. Through these sessions, I made a lot of friends which led to even bigger opportunities in many cases. But more importantly, one of my dreams came true…..I was officially a “session cat”. And….I can say I knew and loved Tommy LiPuma.

Sir Thomas, I love you forever. Rest well, my main man.


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How I Got My Wings


I’ve been fortunate.

When I think of all of the great musicians who really took me under their wing and raised me and embraced me, I think of a lot of people. People like Ray Brown, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Billy Higgins, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Green, Wallace Roney and James Brown. Needless to say, there are many, many more, but I’m saving that for the autobiography. 🙂

It shatters my heart having had to say goodbye to so many loved ones over the last couple of years – Tony Reedus, James Williams, Freddie Hubbard, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle Butch, John Day (my childhood running buddy), Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton, and now my “pops”, George Duke.

There’s so much I want to say about George Duke. George was first a hero from afar, then my producer, then my frequent employer, then one of my closest friends and mentors, then my adopted “dad”, then coming full circle being an even bigger hero than ever. This man never stopped being a musical giant to me, but after a certain period, he always made me feel like he was my friend first.

So many of my greatest memories of George were related to music – him producing my third CD, “A Family Affair”, making my first appearance on one of his CDs (After Hours), getting my first call to play with the George Duke Band playing electric bass, auxiliary keyboards and background singing (I so wish social media existed then!), playing with him on the first domestic performance of his “Muir Woods Suite”, playing with him on many Montreux Jazz Festival “Jams”, playing with him once in LA when the original George Duke Band – Sheila E., Byron Miller and Leon Ndugu Chancler – came and bum rushed the stage, having him sit in with my band on numerous occasions, sharing the stage with him on keyboards, Stevie Wonder on Rhodes and Herbie Hancock on piano, and playing on George’s final two productions – Jeffrey Osborne’s “A Time For Love” and his own final CD release, “Dreamweaver”.

But there’s one particular gift George gave me of which my appreciation and disbelief cannot possibly be expressed: In 2011, George wrote a bass concerto for me entitled, “Concerto For McB” which was performed at UCLA with the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. George explained that he wanted my “full arsenal” on display in this piece – acoustic bass (pizzicato and arco), fretless electric bass, and fretted electric bass. Until this very day, it doesn’t feel right saying “George Duke wrote a bass concerto for me.” I don’t know that it ever will sound right. Just sounds too heavy, you know?

There were times when George would ask me to come and lay down electric bass tracks for him and I would feel so terribly inadequate, as he’d played with the best electric bassists in the world. He could just totally read my face which said, “Pop, are you sure you want me for this? You flew me all the way from New York to give you this?” I hadn’t said one word, and he would say, “Come on now, you one of the funkiest bass players on the planet. Hell, you played with James Brown!!!!” My confidence was boosted. That was George.

Even with all of that, my absolute greatest memories of George had nothing to do with music. I remember when I went to LA to record with him on his “After Hours” CD. I told him about a small, dingy hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall at the intersection of Franklin and Highland that served some mean Philly Chessesteaks. He never had one. He said, “All these years, I never had a Philly Cheesesteak. Would you hook me up?” It was my honor to serve George Duke his first ever Philly Cheesesteak. He was hooked! I even took a picture of him taking his first bite! For the next 14 years, I always got him a Chessesteak when I went to his house.

My other favorite George story of all time also involves his beloved, late wife Corine. (Don’t worry, my wife Melissa knows this story, so it’s no secret.)

When we were in the studio recording my “A Family Affair” CD, we started talking about boyhood crushes. I mentioned to George that I had a big crush on Freda Payne. He laughed and said, “No kidding? Corine is tight with Freda and her sister, Scherrie.” I said, “Stop playing! For real?” “Yep, I’ll see if Corine can bring her by the studio.” So, my “A Family Affair” CD  was recorded in anticipation of meeting Freda Payne. Corine couldn’t get her to come by the session, but she put the word in.

Three years later….

We’re playing at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Hollywood with George’s band. By this time, I’d completely forgotten about our conversation on boyhood crushes. As we’re backstage getting ready for the first set, Corine comes in and says, “Christian, I have a surprise for you.” Clueless, I say, “Really, Corine? That’s so sweet of you.” I thought she was bringing me a sweet potato pie or something. She says, “You can’t have it until after the set, though.” George apparently knew the whole time. So we get through the set, Corine comes back to the dressing room and says, “You ready for your surprise?” She grabs me by the hand and leads me over to…..

Freda Payne! 🙂

For a few short moments, I forgot how to speak English. George is laughing like a hyena! Freda was so kind and sweet. I sat at the table with Freda, her sister, Scherrie, Corine and George. I was silent as a mouse. What do I say to my longtime crush? I don’t remember what I said. All I know is, about a week later as we were recording George’s CD “Face The Music”, I went on my first lunch date with Freda Payne. Twelve years later, Freda and I are still friends. (Yes, Melissa knows!!)

Another thing George and I shared a passion for was sports. George was all about the purple and gold. In NBA speak, the “purple and gold” means the Los Angeles Lakers. George was the biggest Lakers fan IN THE WORLD! The 2001 NBA Finals pitted his Lakers against my beloved Philadelphia 76ers. If you remember, my underdog Sixers actually won the first game in LA. Since George was always busting my chops about the 76ers, I called him immediately after the game. Corine told me he wasn’t in town, but she gave me his hotel number in Nashville. I called George at his hotel and he was so humored that I’d go all the way to track him down on the road just to say, “Uh huh! NOW WHAT??” We laughed for what seemed like an hour. Unfortunately, all that win did was make Shaq and Kobe mad as they easily manhandled my 76ers for the next four games to win the championship. I knew George would return the favor. The day after they won, he left me a voicemail. “Pick up! Pick up! Oh, you ain’t talking all that mess now, are you? Pick up! I’m going to keep calling ‘til you pick up!”

Other than the Lakers, George’s favorite sport was football and the Oakland Raiders. He bled silver and black. At end of the 2001-02 NFL regular season, my Philadelphia Eagles and his Oakland Raiders were primed for a head-on collision in the Super Bowl. Except my damn Eagles yet again blew it in the NFC Championship game. This time, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As it turned out, I was going to be in LA with a night off during the Super Bowl. George and I had made plans two weeks before the game to have an Eagles-Raiders Super Bowl hang at his house. Except, now it was a Buccaneers-Raiders Super Bowl hang. He tried not to laugh at my pain, but he couldn’t help but say, “Come on in and sit down, Eagles….I mean, um, Christian.” LOL! George invited me upstairs into his lounge. It was my first time actually in his house. All the other times, we worked endless hours on music downstairs in his studio. For the next four hours, we sat there – just the two of us – hanging, talking, bonding and watching the Super Bowl. Corine made some pasta for us. George would tease Corine, “Corine! Come on in and watch the game!” Corine would say in all her sassiness, “You know I don’t wanna watch no doggone football game. You guys have fun. I’m going out!” I really felt like I was part of their family. After she left us with the pasta, the wine and the game, George and I sat there and talked about everything – except music. When I left, I felt like I’d just been adopted. I now had a new “second” dad. Not to mention, just six months before, I’d lost the man who was my first “second” dad, Ray Brown. Other than George, he was the only person I’d ever had that kind of hang time with. George picked up Ray’s torch.

(By the way, the Raiders lost….badly! :-))

It really seemed like the family circle was complete when I got to hang out with their son, Rashid, who’s a year or two younger than me. Turns out, he’s a big Madden player. Many subsequent visits saw Rashid and I in George’s lounge playing Madden on PlayStation. This was truly a family affair. Rashid and I have vowed to continue this tradition.

Billy Cobham once described George as someone who could turn any strange energy into positive energy. This is so tremendously accurate. However, as a human being, of course he had to get upset, sad, confused, and experience every other emotion all humans have, but most people rarely saw his down side. I saw it only once. It was memorable.

There was one session I played on where George produced and played piano for a particular vocalist. To all of us, the session was going pretty smoothly. Apparently, the vocalist didn’t think so. During one of the rehearsal takes, said vocalist stops the band and says in a real nasty sort of way, “What’s the problem, huh? How come y’all can’t find the groove? What, y’all need some food or something? I mean, we can take a break if that’s what it’s going to take to make this sound good.” We were dumfounded. We hadn’t experienced any problems all day, then this? I immediately looked at George to follow his lead. His jaws were tight. He was not happy. Do you know how HARD it is to make George Duke upset? George calmly, but clearly agitated, says, “Let’s run it one more time.” We ran through the song one more time, then George says, “Fellas, take a ten minute break.” He then turns to said vocalist and says, “Can I see you a minute?”

Uh oh.

They went into a corner, and all I could see was George with his arms folded gently, giving this person the “quiet read”. The message seems to come across much more powerfully when someone expresses their agitation softly and calmly. All that classic hollering and screaming usually escalates the situation to unhealthy levels. Said vocalist looked like a burnt potato after George quietly, but succinctly put said vocalist’s ego in check. George went past the control room and went upstairs to the house for a breather. I followed him. I said, “Pop, you ok?” He said, “I told (said vocalist) not to EVER speak to me and my guys like that again. We are professional musicians who’ve played with the best in the business, and I don’t appreciate that tone of voice directed at me or my guys.” To see George upset bothered me so much, I wanted to go down and go “Philly” on said vocalist. No one hurts my family. George was my family. Needless to say, after that quick five-minute breather, George immediately went back to being fuzzy again and it was as if the incident never happened.

When I played with and produced one of James Brown’s final shows at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006, George and Corine were there in support. After the gig, they were pretty much the first ones backstage in my dressing room. They gave me a huge hug and said, ‘Congratulations. You did an amazing job.” Anytime, and I mean anytime I played with my band in LA, they were always there. George was the most supportive “dad” I could have had.

At the beginning of 2012, Corine started to have some health issues. I didn’t know how serious they were. George, of course, being the supremely positive soul he always was, didn’t tip his hand once. When it finally got to the point where it was getting severe, he still remained positive. She was in and out of the hospital during the making of Jeffrey Osborne’s recording “A Time For Love”. I had no idea how he could concentrate while he was dealing with Corine’s illness. I was trying so hard to penetrate his eyes during the session, but the gate was up. I couldn’t read him.

His beloved Corine passed away from stomach cancer just one month after we completed Jeffrey’s recording on July 18th. We were all devastated by Corine’s death. Many of us in George’s musical family never got a chance to say goodbye. All of us who loved George and Rashid were worried about the two of them, but we ultimately knew they would totally lean on each other for love and support. George, as expected, did an amazing job masking his hurt and went right back to business with a smile.

However, it seemed that George’s hidden pain was beginning to manifest itself in another way before our very eyes.

George started to lose weight. In fact, George’s shoulders had gotten a little smaller by the time we started working on Jeffrey’s session. I wasn’t alarmed, though. I just thought he was stressed and not eating much. But his weight loss continued slowly, but surely. We played together for the last time in October in Newark for Jazz House Kids’ 10th anniversary gala. He was the same old pops –  happy and fuzzy. When the seating charts were being put together for the post-concert reception, I had one order – put me next to my pops. So many of my heroes and friends were so kind in joining us that night – Wayne Shorter, Angelique Kidjo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Pat Metheny, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and more, but I had to be next to George. In fact, Melissa almost asked George and I to leave the reception while all the speeches and testimonials were going on because, as she says, we were “cuttin’ up too much” at the table! She said, “You two were worse than two girls sitting there laughing, giggling and gossiping!” Yes, that was my pops.

As 2013 came around, I called him and he told me something that didn’t sit well with me. He told me that doctors had diagnosed him with some low-level version of “something like leukemia.” Before I could react, he shouted, “But don’t worry!! It’s like leukemia, but it’s not leukemia. I just have to get this procedure done once a week.” I was scared. I kept saying, “Pops, don’t lie to me. Are you sure you’re cool?” He assured me firmly that it was “nothing to worry about.” I spent most of the first half of this year on the road with the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. Throughout the tour, I would check in with pop via e-mail and calls. Even in his e-mails, he was personable. You could always hear his voice through his e-mails. When I finally called him towards the end of the tour, he said something to me that really didn’t sit well. I said, “How you doing, pop?” He said, “Aw, man, I’m cool. Everything’s mellow.” As we talked for several minutes, he said, “Oh, by the way, you won’t recognize me when you see me.” What????  He said, “I shaved my head.” I said, “Alright pop, enough. What are you talking about? Why’d you do that?” He gave me some cockamamie story of “Well, you know I was gong bald anyway, so I just decided to shave it off.” I so didn’t believe him, but he just wouldn’t fess up at all.

During my summer tour with Chick Corea, I e-mailed him often. He responded with short one-liners. That was very unlike pops. As I said, even his e-mails were personable. I called him, but he never answered. I called Rashid, but he never answered. Worried, I just came out and asked him in an e-mail, “Pops, what’s up with your health?” He finally wrote me back, “I’m a little messed up right now. I’m in the hospital, but I’ll be out in a little bit. I’ll tell you about it.” I wrote him back, “Pops, I know you too well to let that slide. Please tell me what’s wrong.” I never heard from him again.

Extremely worried, I called my other dear friend, and George’s cousin, Dianne Reeves. If anyone would know the real deal, it would be Dianne. I told her about my e-mail exchange with George, and she sent me a text that said, “Call me back. We need to talk.”

I braced for the worse.

Dianne told me that George made her swear to secrecy that he’d been in the hospital for almost a month. His “something like leukemia” had gotten aggressive and was taking a devastating toll on his body. She said she wasn’t sure how much time George had left, but “if he said to you what he said in the e-mail, he must want you to know.”

I was silent.

Just over a week later on August 5th, 2013, we lost yet another hero, my “pops”, George Duke.

When I first worked with George in 1998, he said to me, “You know those jazz writers and a lot of your ‘straight-ahead’ contemporaries aren’t going to like you working with me. You already know what they’re going to say – I watered you down. I made you go smooth. I tried to make you go commercial…”

Did he, folks?

In 1998, I was known all across jazzland as the heir apparent to Ray Brown. I was cast as a “neo-classicist, young lion, Ray Brown protégé’.” “Keeper of the straight-ahead jazz tradition”. Yes, I was that. But only part of me was that. I realized even then that on a larger scale, roles needed to be filled – regardless of who you are as an artist. It seemed like the jazz press collectively agreed that I was the perfect fit in the drawer of “straight-ahead, up-and-coming young bassist”. The 90’s version of Paul Chambers, so to speak. The 90’s version of the Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside session bassist. I didn’t have that much of a problem with it. What jazz musician in their 20’s would ever mind getting calls from jazz legends? That’s what I wanted. That’s what I worked hard to get. The only problem was anytime I talked about funk, fusion, classical or country, I was never taken seriously. It was always, “Well, that’s nice that you like that stuff…too, but let’s get back to talking about bebop – the music that you really know about.”

George was the first person to look straight through me and challenged me to be who I really was. George told me many, many times how proud he was of my keeping the straight-ahead tradition going, and to always do that, but as a 25-year old from Philly who was not a funk fan, but a funk player who was thrust into this role of “keeper of the flame”, he said, “You got some funk in you that needs to come out.” He knew that as a musician, I wasn’t consciously avoiding the electric bass, but I was doing what I needed to do at that time. He sensed that something needed to be released. “Don’t worry about what anyone will say. If you listen to them, you’ll never be happy with yourself or your music. If you’re ready to get funky, let’s get funky.” I got funky.

Because of George, I was awarded entry into another world. I got to meet and play with people like Jeffrey Osborne, Regina Belle, Vesta, Will Downing, Jonathan Butler, Rachelle Ferrell, Sheila E., Ndugu Chancler, Robert Wilson, Siedah Garrett, Take 6 and others. These artists are a big part of the foundation of the music of my community. And for that, I will always thank George for giving me wings to fly in a musical world of which he helped to expand.

In closing, in 2001, I played my second gig with George’s band at Catalina’s in LA. On the final night, it was a straight-up PARTAY!! Sheila E. came, Ndugu came, Byron Miller came, even comedy legend Paul Mooney came. They all jumped onstage (except Paul Mooney) and we did “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick”. Those two songs alone took about 40 minutes. The audience was going nuts! They kicked the chairs over and started dancing in the aisles. It turned into an arena show. After all the jumping around onstage and sweating and dancing and shouting and loud amps blaring, we ended the jam. People were hollering and screaming and slapping each other “fives” and everything. When the lights came up in the audience, who did I see sitting dead-center?

Ray Brown.

My first reaction was “(Gulp)….awwww, s**t. Ray’s not going to dig this AT ALL. He is not going to like seeing his young protégé up on stage dancing around with an electric bass talking about ‘dropping you off into some FUNK!’” I walked over to Ray and his wife, Cecilia, and he stood up and said after a long pause, “Damn, that was FUNKY!!! I always knew you could do that stuff.”

George Duke had, literally, connected my worlds together. It came full circle. He became a bigger hero than before.

Take a look at the video below. When George says what he says at 11:05 in the video, it makes me glad to know that we were on the same page. 🙂

Thank you, Pop. I love you.

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