As a graduate cum laude of the legendary Jazz Messengers – drummer Art Blakey’s famous long-running group dubbed the ‘Hard Bop Academy’ – KENNY GARRETT can attest to having had one of the best educations that jazz has to offer. But Blakey, whose group ran from 1954 to his death in 1990, wasn’t the only master that the Detroit-born alto saxophonist received valuable experience and pearls of wisdom from. Although he spent two years with the drum meister, he enjoyed an even longer period – five years to be exact – with arguably the greatest band leader of them all in jazz: the mighty Miles Davis, during his late electric period. He joined the trumpeter’s band in 1986, toured the world with him several times, and also played on several albums, including 1988’s late masterpiece, ‘Amandla.’
Garrett remembers those days fondly and is deeply appreciative of what he gleaned from that time. “I learned so much from him,” he says with a tincture of solemnity and reverence in his voice. In his prime, Davis could be a hard, enigmatic taskmaster – he once punched John Coltrane for nodding off on the bandstand – but Garrett found the opposite was true. Perhaps the ‘Dark Magus’ had mellowed with age. “Anyone who gives you 10 or 15 minutes solos must have a lot of respect for you,” opines the 56-year-old Detroit saxophonist recalling his time with Davis…
Recalling how he joined Davis (above left, with KG) in 1986, Garrett explains that he was playing with Art Blakey at the time. A fellow saxophonist, Gary Coleman, had heard that the trumpeter was looking for a new altoist and when Garrett said he was interested, gave him Davis’s phone number. “I called him and his valet picked up the phone and said ‘Miles is not here, he’ll call you back,'” remembers Garrett. “Later, I had a phone call and it sounded like Miles but I didn’t know it was him for sure because the late great pianist, Mulgrew Miller, was always pretending like he was Miles.” Garrett wasn’t convinced that the hoarse, raspy voice on the other end of the phone was really was Miles Davis, though it transpired that it actually was. “He ended up asking me to send him some music. So I sent him some things I was working on and some stuff I’d done with Art Blakey. He called me back and said, ‘Kenny, you sound like you’re wearing some dirty drawers.'” Garret laughs heartily at the recollection. “Then he explained he had been looking for me because he had seen a video I had done with Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw in Berlin, and he was actually in the hotel that night and saw it on television.”
Miles Davis rarely gave direct instructions to his band members, and instead, would often say enigmatic Zen-like things which they had to go away and ponder the meaning of. Kenny Garrett was no exception. “One time Miles said to me, ‘be cool like me,'” he recalls, “and I knew I couldn’t be Miles, I had to be myself. I think that’s the main thing of what he was saying. I think with Miles, he was always trying to get you to do things that were a little different.”
Remembering his time just prior to Miles with Art Blakey, Garrett reveals that though the two masters he served under were different characters and had contrasting styles of leading a band, they were closer than many people imagined. “Art was different,” he says. “He was more grassroots. He was travelling around by bus a lot but with Miles it was on another level, we used to travel by plane. But the lessons were essentially the same. Blakey would always say things that were trying inspire you and he was training you to be the next leader. So he would give everybody a chance in the band to be the MC of the gig that night. We all had the opportunity to speak to the audience so he was teaching us in a different way. He was more hands-on as well. I learned a lot from Miles and I learned a lot from Blakey even though it seemed like they were different.”
Rewinding back to the beginning, music was in Kenny Garrett’s blood. “My stepfather played saxophone and my biological father was a singer,” he reveals. “What inspired me really to play was my stepfather. I just used to sit by his saxophone case because I loved the smell of it, not because I wanted to play the saxophone. Then I got my own saxophone and he taught me the G scale. At some point, probably around high school, I got serious about music and decided I wanted to do it for a living.”
Growing up in the fabled Motor Town, the budding saxophonist was exposed to lots of soul, funk, and R&B flavours but he became deeply smitten by jazz. “In the beginning, I used listen to people like Hank Crawford and Cannonball Adderley (both famous altoists),” he discloses. “Those are my first influences, and then came Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson.”
A defining, epiphanic moment when he came across John Coltrane: “There was a record that was called ‘A Blowing Session’ by Johnny Griffin, featuring Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and John Coltrane. I remember hearing Johnny Griffin, and he was tearing it up, but Trane came in and he played one note and that was it for me. I thought, I would love to play one note and have that much impact.”
As a teenager, Garrett became seriously devoted to working at and developing his craft. Then, at 18 in 1978, his burgeoning music career took a huge leap when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra (then led by Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington). “I was just out of high school and it just happened that their second alto player disappeared when they got to Michigan,” explains Garrett. “So one of my mentors, the trumpet player, Marcus Belgrave and Bill Wiggins who was my high school teacher, recommended me – they had been pretty much training me all along because I was playing in Marcus’s big band and my teacher knew me because I took private lessons with him. The next thing I know, I was on the bus travelling to a gig in New York. But it was a great experience. I got a chance to play with Cootie Williams and l learned to play in the style of Johnny Hodges. It taught me how to blend with 18 musicians. There were so many lessons in there for a kid coming out of high school.”
Around the same time, Garrett also gained further large ensemble experience playing with the Vanguard Orchestra (formerly the Thad-Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra), as well as big bands led by Lionel Hampton and Frank Foster. “That’s how musicians used to come up, through the big bands,” says Garrett, “so I did a lot of that. It gave me a lot of valuable experience.”
Another notable opportunity came Garrett’s way in the late ’70s, which would also enrich his knowledge and career immeasurably. He got to play in a band led by Charles Mingus’ long-time drummer, Danny Richmond (pictured above): “I had moved to New York and Danny Richmond’s saxophonist Ricky Ford couldn’t make the tour so I ended up going out and playing with him. That was a great experience. That music was pretty free but I was coming from more of a bebop tradition and I was really interested in learning the chord changes before I went totally free. I believed that I had to learn the music first and after that, I could play as free as I wanted to. It was a great experience to be able to play that kind of music. When I look at my career and I start thinking about being in a band playing the music of Charles Mingus, I realize those are things that people go to universities to learn.”
Given all the experience and knowledge that he accrued under some of jazz’s greatest bandleaders, it was no surprise that Garrett eventually began to front his own bands. His solo career began in earnest in 1984 on an indie label, Criss Cross, before his exposure with Miles Davis brought major labels knocking on his door. Atlantic was the first, in 1989, followed by Warner Bros in 1992, where he stayed for eleven years, earning a Grammy nomination for ‘Songbook’ in 1997. He was Grammy-nominated again in 2006 for a one-off album for Nonesuch, the brilliant ‘Beyond The Wall,’ featuring the hauntingly beautiful ‘Tsunami Song,’ a cinematic track which showcased Garrett as a piano accompanist.
Since 2008, Kenny Garrett has been with the Mack Avenue label where he’s produced four albums and has garnered three more Grammy nominations in the process. His latest long player is last year’s excellent ‘Do Your Dance!’ and those attending the Ealing Jazz Festival in Walpole Park on Sunday 30th July will hear Kenny and his quintet (alongside the likes of the UK’s Courtney Pine and Robert Mitchell) play some choice selections from it. “We’ll be playing songs from that as well as our previous recent CDs, including ‘Pushing The World Away’ and also ‘Seeds From The Underground.’ And we’ll also be playing some classic tunes that people know,” he reveals.
Garrett says that the experience of playing to a large festival crowd is vastly different from playing smaller indoor places. “Live club gigs are about an intimate kind of feeling while live open festivals are more conducive to having a big party,” he says. “I’m going to be bringing Vernell Brown on piano, Rudy Bird on percussion, Corcoran Halt on bass, and Samuel Laverton on drums. My quintet varies sometimes but that’s the core of the band. Vernel Brown has been playing with me for a while. He was on ‘Standard Language’ (2003). He’s been with me for years and had a break. He was also with Gladys Knight for awhile. Corcoran Halt, the bassist, has been with me for about six or seven years. Rudy Bird, we played together with Miles Davis. He’s also been with Lauryn Hill and Leela James. The drummer is a young and upcoming drummer I’ve been mentoring, his name is Samuel Laverton. It’s his first tour with us.”
Anyone going to the Ealing Jazz Festival who is familiar with Garrett’s music will know that the saxophonist will be serving up a varied set that will mix up the intensity of envelope-pushing post bop jazz with fiery Latin grooves, rump-shaking funk, and mellow mood pieces. Above all, though, Garrett wants to make his audience dance. That’s the theme of his current album, whose concept was inspired after seeing people grooving in the audience at one of his gigs: “We were playing in Philadelphia and I noticed that there were a lot of elderly people dancing to all the different styles of music we played, be it fast, Latin, jazz, funk, or whatever, and they were continuously dancing. I started thinking about that time when people always danced to music no matter what it was.”
Garrett confesses that’s not averse to shaking a tail feather or two himself. “I like to dance,” he laughs. “I definitely recommend people to dance. ‘Do Your Dance!’ is really just about people having their own pocket, whatever it is that you like or you feel. Just do your dance and don’t worry about the other person… because there are people who are professional and then there are just people who love to dance.”
Though Ealing’s on his radar for this coming weekend, it’s just one of myriad places that the alto saxophonist and composer has visited during his long and winding career. Travelling is one of the perks of being a professional musician and despite spending many days of every year on the road, Garrett doesn’t tire of the arduous nomadic life that his gift for playing the saxophone has brought him. “It’s been a blessing,” he says. “I’ve been able to travel the world and meet a lot of different people and learned about a lot of different cultures. And I continue to do that. For me, it’s been a great, great journey, travelling and playing music and meeting people through my music.”
CATCH KENNY GARRETT AND HIS QUINTET AT THE EALING JAZZ FESTIVAL ON SUNDAY 30TH JULY.
For more info about the Ealing Jazz Festival go here: https://www.ealingsummerfestivals.com/
KENNY GARRETT’S LATEST ALBUM ‘DO YOUR DANCE!’ IS OUT NOW VIA MACK AVENUE