The second and concluding part of SJF’s in-depth discussion with cosmic funk guru, LONNIE LISTON SMITH, finds the Virginia-born keyboard maestro sharing his memories of his time spent in the bands of jazz legends Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, and Miles Davis…
How did you get to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers?
By going to New York. When I moved to New York I started freelancing and that’s when I started working with (singers) Al Hibbler and Dakota Staton. There were a lot of singers at the beginning. Joe Williams as well but Dakota Staton was the main one. Betty (Carter) always ended up with the young piano players when they just moved to New York so I ended up working with Betty also. But then people start hearing you and then your name starts spreading around and Art was always looking for new young musicians. When I was with Art Blakey, Chuck Mangione was in the band playing trumpet.
What was Art like to work with?
Art didn’t write any songs so all the musicians had to do everything. So you had to write songs and bring them in and you rehearsed but Art wouldn’t show up until everyone had learned everything. But it was amazing because we never could figure it out: how could Art Blakey come into the rehearsal and figure out everything? He’d say “okay, let’s go,” and we’d start playing and he would play the songs as if he knew them backwards. But of course he would add the Art Blakey thing to it and it would really work.
And then you worked with Max Roach. How was that experience?
Max was a professor. That’s why they called him a master drummer. Max would experiment with different times. He was the first one to do that even before (the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s) ‘Take Five.’ 5/4 – I understood that, that was natural for me, but wow, when he started going to 7/4 and 9/4 I said, “oh, Max!” I had to really concentrate when he went to certain time signatures but that was really a great experience. I learned 3/4 and 6/4 and all of that but Max was experimenting. And (singer) Abbey Lincoln – Max had just married Abbey – she was in the band. So I had to go on the road with Abbey as well when she had engagements on our own. So Max kept me busy. I used to go on the road with her when he wasn’t working.
How did you get to join Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s band? You played on his 1965 album ‘Here Comes The Whistle Man.’
Right! That was it. ‘Here Comes The Whistle Man’ and ‘Please Don’t Cry, Beautiful Edith.’ Rahsaan and Betty, Art and Miles, if you notice, they always got the young new musicians when they came to New York. So Rahsaan, he had heard about me and called.
What was he like to work with?
He was a character ‘cos he played on three horns – but he was really playing them; that was no joke. We used to laugh because he had a nose flute. We used to say “okay, alright buddy” (makes noise of nose flute). But it was fun just by him being able to play three horns and he could be a character also. But we had some weeks off and on one of them he went to New Orleans. He spent a week in New Orleans and came back and drove us crazy. He went down there and was hanging out with those New Orleans musicians so he got into the clarinet for the first time. Oh man, for about a week that’s all he wanted to play was clarinet – we said “Oh Rahsaan!” It was still music but we weren’t used to it.
As well being as a showman he was a very serious musician as well, wasn’t he?
Right, that was it. When you’re so busy working with people you don’t think about the historical essence of it, you just take a lot of things for granted. But now, every interview I do, people all over the world, they ask about Rahsaan Roland Kirk and say how impressed they were with him.