How did you get started as a musician?
My parents had a piano at home. One time, when my father was fooling around on the piano when I was about 4 years old, I was able to copy and play back what he did. My parents saw that I had musical ability and they got me a piano teacher. I studied classical piano for about 10 years. I then got interested in jazz. The first live jazz music I heard was big bands performing at the Hollywood Palladium. My family had moved to Southern California by then. The first recorded jazz I heard was a Dave Brubeck Octet record, before he got together with Paul Desmond.
Tell us about your fateful Buddy DeFranco tour in 1956.
I auditioned for Buddy DeFranco in Los Angeles at the Musicians Union and got the gig on the spot. The first gig was in New York City. We were a 5-piece band: piano, bass, drums, guitar and Buddy (on clarinet). Four of us had to drive from California to New York. We met up with the guitar player in New York since he lived there. We played at the original Basin Street in New York City as well as at Birdland, Café Bohemia, and Smalls in Harlem. We toured the Eastern States and Canada. We toured for 9-months, playing in each city for a week. That was how it was done back then. It was my first on-the-road experience and I met many musicians along the way.
How did you end up moving to New York?
After seeing Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins perform at a club called Jazz City in California, I knew then that I wanted to go to New York because that was where everything was happening. This was even before the (Buddy DeFranco) tour. While I was on the tour, I established connections with many musicians. After the tour, I played with Chet Baker. When I moved to New York, I had a friend on York Avenue that I stayed with. I got gigs right off the bat. I worked with Teddy Kotick around the New York area. I played at The Five Spot with Donny Byrd and the Pepper Adams Group. I also played solo piano at clubs.
Tell us about your first record. How did that come about?
My first recording was on Riverside Records released in 1961. I was friends with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt and they suggested to producer Orrin Keepnews to hear me play. At the time, he was looking for original music to record. Lucky for me, I happened to be studying composition then and I had written a piano suite. I quickly rearranged the piece for a jazz trio and we ended up recording it. The title of the album was A Day in the City.
You have played with many musicians throughout your career including Herbie Mann and Elvin Jones. Their passing away were great losses. Do you have some fond memories of them you would like to share with us?
Yes, I played with both of them. I worked with Herbie Mann for quite a while. I auditioned for him and was hired on the spot. The story goes like this: I was playing at a club called Junior’s. Herbie was playing at Birdland, which was right down the street from Junior’s. Attila Zoller, a good friend of mine, was playing with Herbie. Atilla came over to Junior’s to hear me play and let me know that Herbie needed a piano player. I walked over and sat in with Herbie and was hired! We ended up touring together in Japan. This was around 1964. After that, I worked with him at The Village Gate and toured with him all over the U.S.
I played with Elvin a few times. We were in a gig together with singer Dick Haymes. Dick was a singer not unlike Frank Sinatra. He hired Elvin, bassist Scott LaFaro and me as the rhythm section. Elvin was fantastic. People think of him as a bombastic drummer, but he was very versatile and great in any situation. He could play quietly with a beautiful sound. We played together again with trumpet player Harry “Sweets” Edison. Harry played everything with a mute so everyone had to play soft. Elvin played quietly and beautifully. Elvin and I played together also with Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams.