Jazz interview with jazz trumpeter, bandleader, arranger Rich Willey. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Rich Willey: – I was born in Orlando, FL and grew up in Clearwater, FL. My mother, my uncle, my paternal grandmother, my sisters, and my brother all played instruments. I heard the Clearwater High School band play an outdoor lakeside concert when I was in fourth grade or so, and they did Bugler’s Holiday and I remember liking the sound of the trumpet. Even though I started on drums (because I made 100 on the music aptitude test and you could only play drums if you made 100), after a year and a half I convinced my parents to get me a trumpet, so I’ve been playing trumpet since sixth grade.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
RW: – My first major trumpet influence was Herb Alpert. His Tijuana Brass was hugely popular when I was in sixth and seventh grade and I wanted to sound like him, much to my band director’s chagrin. He tried to steer me away from Herb, but it took awhile before I had further influences and in high school I latched onto Frank Zappa. About four years after I graduated from high school Charlie Parker became my favorite musician. Long after my band director died (in 1983) I found out that his favorite musician in the world was also Charlie Parker but alas, I never got to talk to him about Bird. Some of my favorite jazz trumpeters became Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Blue Mitchell and Tom Harrell in my earlier jazz-oriented years.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
RW: – Well, I nearly always practice with a metronome, and as I’ve gotten older I tend to set it a little slower than I used to in an effort to keep the weeds from growing around my technique. As a long time student of Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt, my embouchure studies are his, many of which I’ve been doing since 1978. Since I wrote many books during my years as a teacher, I often play exercises out of those that challenge me and iron some of the wrinkles out of those ornery trumpet-specific trouble spots.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? Your playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
RW: – Quite an involved question there, but my focus is usually on telling a story, keeping a story line going. I’m not a guy who just showers you with notes from various chordal possibilities. I strive to weave a melody through chord changes to (hopefully) create the illusion that the chords are changing around my melodies. One of my huge influences during my jazz adolescence was Paul Desmond, and I loved the way he “spoke” in a sort of poetry. He’d say one thing and the next thing would sorta rhyme. I love that! The melody was first, the harmonic choices were secondary . . . I may be over-simplifying what I think Desmond was doing, but that’s what I try to do. On a good day I might even pull that off a little bit. Arnold Schoenberg famously said, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.” I think there’s still plenty of creative improvising that can be done inside the chord changes.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
RW: – I don’t. Hopefully, in a playing situation, I’m responding to and participating in what’s going on around me. If something weird happens, I just go with it. If something corny happens, I’m liable to just go with it. If a very sensitive moment comes along, I try to just go with it. Although I’ve listened to thousands of hours of players who are into playing wild, crazy, outside stuff and I’ve even practiced loads of stuff like that, it rarely comes out in my improvising because I’m usually focused on telling a story.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2019: <Down & Dirty>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
RW: – I love the arrangements, what the arrangers heard and did with my tunes, and I love the incredible band that Dan Fornero lined up for the sessions (including my old friend and current principal trumpeter for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thomas Hooten on piccolo trumpet!). I love the fact that it’s not all “cerebral” and doesn’t require you to be some sort of musical genius to understand and appreciate (and enjoy) what’s happening. I love the variety of feels that the arrangers presented and that the rhythm section achieved. Finally, I love the last tune (But For The Grace Of God) and I even love the fact that Dan had me play his flugelhorn (against my better judgment, mind you) on that tune and that it’s an absolutely amazing arrangement (by Mike Abene) played by an absolutely amazing band with 34 strings (the strings were my wife’s idea!) and four French horn parts.
What am I working on today? Interesting you should ask that, because in April I did a Boptism Funk Band recording session with eleven originals arranged by Wally Minko. It features Dan Fornero on lead trumpet, David Mann and Tom Evans on reeds, John Swana on valve trombone and EVI, me on bass trumpet and trumpet, Dave Stryker on guitar, Wally Minko on electric piano and percussion, Bobby Floyd on Hammond B3 and grand piano, Mike Boone on 5-string electric bass, and Byron Landham on drums. We’re releasing it on Wise Cat Records, also, and hopefully it will come out in early September. I am so excited about this session! We’re in the final stages of mixing as of today (June 12th).
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
RW: – For me, the less intellect and the more soul the better. I think my tunes are usually sorta clever but are also accessible on many levels. If you analyzed my tunes you’d probably find some interesting features both melodically and chordally, but I wrote them the way I did because of the way they sound, not how slick someone might think they are when you analyze them on a chalkboard in a classroom.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
RW: – I really have no idea what people want. I do know what I want, and that’s musical enjoyment and musical satisfaction. Often what I enjoy is what others enjoy, but often it isn’t. If I had to figure out what to play to make the most people happy I’d be confined to a rubber room right now. I love what Ellis Marsalis said about music and what people like. He said something to this effect: “People don’t know what they like. They like what they know. If they knew what they liked they’d have to know everything.” One thing I do know is that my tunes tend to grow on you. You may not be all that impressed after one listening, but when you listen a second and third and fourth time, they creep into your whole being and you just understand what they’re saying to you and you like them more and more.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
RW: – Once, in about 1975, I got humiliated off a bandstand at a jam session in Tampa and I vowed that would never happen again. While it hasn’t exactly happened that way again, those times where everything didn’t go as I hoped can be by far the most important educational experiences. I have gotten to sit in with some pretty famous players, and while that is exciting in itself, sometimes playing with not-so-famous guys can be even more invigorating. I was leading a gig in 1993 and Ernie Watts appeared on stage next to me and blew the house down. Everybody on that bandstand suddenly played ten times better. I got to fill in for Ira Sullivan when he was late for a gig in 2009 and when he arrived he was cordial at first and let me continue playing. Then he called Lush Life which I didn’t really know so I got the message loud and clear. I enjoyed the rest of his gig from the audience. I played on Mel Tormé’s Big Band at Michael’s Pub in NYC in 1992 and while I had never really cared for Mel before that, I learned what an amazing musician he was. He had written almost all the arrangements, he conducted the rehearsals and was his own musical director on the bandstand, and he wanted absolutely no reverb on his singing mic … bone dry! He also played drums on one tune and was a consummate showman. They made a record of that band on TelArc called The Great American Songbook.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
RW: – Jack Peterson told me what it will take to make jazz *the* popular music again. He held up his index finger and said, “One song.” I thought that was a great answer and have always hoped that one day one of my tunes will be that one song. But I think putting music in front of people is the way to go. Talking about it or longing for the good old days won’t do it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to somebody in an audience who has told me something to the effect of “I never thought I liked jazz but I really like what you guys are doing.” To me, that’s what we have to do. Just keep playing what we do best. Now, Rich Matteson told me over 40 years ago that the hardest way to go in jazz is by playing original music, and you would think I would have learned that lesson. Art Farmer was in the audience at the New York Brass Conference when I played in 1992 with an early incarnation of my band Boptism, and all we played was my original tunes. I talked to Art the next day and he told me that he thought people appreciated originals more when you do all standards *except* one original. He said people would listen to it more intently in that context. My problem is that I’ve written hundreds of tunes that nobody has ever heard and nobody is playing, so the hell with it. I’m going to play them! When I think about Horace Silver and all of his originals that he played successfully over the years, I know that it can be done in jazz. We’ll see if I can make that happen, too.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
RW: – I’ve had periods in my life when, as an “injured musician,” it was necessary for me to make a living outside of playing music. I spent many years as a typesetter (or more properly, a typographer . . . that’s why I can type so fast and maybe more than you wanted to read) and I was actually really good at it. However, that’s just not what I was put here to do and there was a huge ache in my soul to compose and perform. When I went in the U.S. Army in 1974, it was at the U.S. Navy School of Music where I learned that there’s a difference between a musician and an instrumentalist. I had thought everybody who played an instrument was a musician, but that’s not the case. As somebody who composes and arranges and improvises music, it’s such a part of me and I can’t imagine being any other way. As far as how that relates to one’s spirit, I have attended many funerals over the years and have seen many lifeless bodies in caskets. What did that body do when there was life in there? That, to me, is what the spirit is, the force that makes the difference between a lifeless body and a vibrant being with some sort of purpose. I’m convinced that the purpose of my spirit is to drive my body to make music and to be a positive force in the life of others. This is way too deep for me, so . . . next question please.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
RW: – I would change nothing because it’s always changing already. I took a film scoring course at Manhattan School of Music and what I learned is that when marrying music to a moving image on a screen, there is no kind of music that is not valid. I may not care for one variety or another of music, but every form of music is valid and serves a purpose. Sorta like Duke Ellington said (and I paraphrase), you can’t have good music without bad music, and the bad music helps us appreciate the good music. I would encourage people to listen to music without lyrics, though. Many people only hear the lyrics. I have never “heard” lyrics; it takes me forever to memorize the words to a tune I might need to sing on a gig. I hear the music, the melody, the chords, the bass line. I don’t need words. Sometimes when I walk through the grocery store I’ll hear a muzak version of some popular song from not too long ago, and the melody is actually kinda lame because the person who wrote the song was more interested in the lyrics, but if you play those same notes on an instrument (in other words, don’t sing it but play it) you find out that the “melody” ain’t so great. I would also encourage people to listen to music while closing their eyes. Relying on a video to present music has taken away some of the freedom of the listener to participate in the creative process, in my opinion. Once you have a music video and you have to watch it to hear it, that somehow diminishes the “magic” of the music to a certain degree. Allowing the music to paint my own pictures in my mind or letting my mind create a story as I hear the music is very important to me. And don’t get me started on people who “listen” with their eyes. If they tried listening to music with their eyes closed they might actually get a whole lot more out of it. They might also discover that acts they thought were good don’t have as much substance to their music as they might have thought. I’m not into histrionics. I’m into paying attention to what the music sounds like.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
RW: – I get on kicks. I was listening to a lot of Rich Matteson on tuba when I got interested in picking up tuba a couple years ago. I listened to a lot of Gordon Goodwin during the months leading up to playing his arrangements of my tunes. I’ve been mostly a small group jazz guy all my life. Out of the thousand CDs I have maybe 5% of them are big band, so I listened to lots of Gordon Goodwin last year and then picked up a couple of Wayne Bergeron’s albums . . . mostly to hear how I’ll never be able to sound but also just to listen to some L.A. studio excellence. I was listening to some Hank Mobley a few moons ago, some Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer before that, and listened to a ton of Horace Silver a couple years ago. Every time I come back to Charlie Parker it’s a wake up call, though. Bird said so much in his short lifetime and I have always loved listening to him.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
RW: – Don’t take yourself too damn seriously, I would say. Life is short, let’s relax and enjoy ourselves when it’s time to relax and enjoy ourselves. I don’t need any deep messages in the music. I just need to take a break from this fast-moving world and get away from negativity and elitism and just lay back and groove. Bada bing!
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
RW: – That’s a wild question for a jazz interview, so I’ll give you a wild answer. I’d like to do a biblical tour. I’d like to meet Methuselah, Noah, Moses, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, King David, King Solomon, Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the twelve disciples and Paul. I’d also like to meet the three wise men and see what they saw. That would be really cool. I’d also like to see Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph and the light bulb, and I’d like to see the Wright Brothers’ first flight. I’d love to see the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I’d like to meet Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Abe Lincoln. I’d like to hang out and trade fours with Buddy Bolden. I’d like to see Charlie Parker perform in person (he died nine months before I was born). But the reality is that I’m already on a trip with a time machine. The things that have happened in my lifetime: Sputnik, Mercury, Apollo, Cassius Clay, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, The Harlem Globetrotters, The Beatles, JFK, MLK, Count Basie, Dick Tracy, Bugs Bunny, Vietnam, Woodstock, Kent State, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Nixon, Carter, Reagan et al, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and now the teens. Come on, man, we’re living on a trip on a time machine right this very second!
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
RW: – Okay, if I wanted an interviewer to ask me a question, what I would want to be asked? Here’s one possibility:
Q: So I’ve read that playing the trumpet is the most physically demanding to play of all the instruments. It can take a long time to even get close to having a mature, polished tone on trumpet. When you hit a wrong note, everybody hears you because there’s no place to hide. You can be pushing down the right valve and the wrong note comes out and it’s so easy to crack a note. Developing range and endurance on trumpet is time-consuming and eludes the vast majority of those who ever even attempt to pursue them on trumpet. So, given all that, why on earth would you ever want to play trumpet?
A: Because no other instrument sounds as great as a trumpet when it’s played well. No other instrument can cut through an ensemble the way a trumpet can (with the possible exception of the piccolo), and no other instrument and command and lead an ensemble the way a trumpet can. Every day when you play your first notes and think to yourself, “I must be crazy to play this thing,” you keep at it because it’s such a huge challenge and on those occasional “good days” when you don’t totally suck you feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. (Note: bass trumpet is much easier to play than trumpet. In fact, pretty much any instrument is easier to play than trumpet.)
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers and for cooperation with us …
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
RW: – I’m not exactly sure what you just asked, so I’ll write myself a little summary. To me, music needs to feel good. When it feels good, it usually sounds good. When it sounds good it makes me smile. When it sounds great it makes me laugh out loud. When it sounds really great it moves me to tears, usually what my wife calls “happy tears.” I can’t think of any other force on this earth that has the power to unlock memories and emotions the way music can. Twelve notes per octave combined with rhythms, rests, dynamics, chords, articulations, inflections and countless other ingredients adds up to infinite possibilities forever. God made every man’s fingerprints different. Man can create an infinite number of musical works until the end of time. Composers have been cooking up melodies and harmonies for centuries and the surface of the possibilities has barely been scratched. I’m fortunate to get the chance to write music and have people actually listen to it because they want to, not because I’m imposing it on them. How hip is that? I live in a free country where I can do what I love and if other people like what I do, it’s okay. And if people hate what I do, that’s okay, too! Uh oh, I think they’re coming after me with a harness. Thanks, Simon!!!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan