Jazz interview with jazz organist Louis “King Louie” Pain. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Louis “King Louie” Pain: – I grew up in San Francisco, CA, USA. My mother played some classical piano, and my two older brothers were musical. The younger of those, Duncan Pain, became a successful songwriter (he co-wrote a #1 pop song, “Cʼest La Vie”). Also, my parents liked jazz, so I heard Miles Davis, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, etc. as a child. I didnʼt LIKE jazz, but the influence snuck in there. In my teens, I was exposed to a lot of blues & soul music on the radio and at concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, which I could walk to. I was fascinated by Hammond organ (there was a good organist in Duncanʼs band), and eventually—at the late age of 16—I started taking keyboard lessons from a local blues/soul musician named Norm Bellas.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
LKLP: – My sound/style evolved as my musical tastes did. I liked Booker T & the MGʼs early on, and I listened to a lot of Memphis soul (along with the Beatles and everything else that was on the radio at the time). I still like Booker T, and I can hear that influence in my playing. But other influences crept in over time. When my brother Duncan first played me a Jimmy Smith record, it was kind of too much for me. But that changed later. I really started to like jazz when I was stuck in my oldest brotherʼs apartment one time with nothing to listen to but his jazz records. I put on Art Farmerʼs “Smokinʼ at the Half Note,” and I found myself really liking it, particularly “Stompinʼ At the Savoy.” I havenʼt consciously attempted to find & develop a sound. Iʼd say that the way I play is a natural mix of all the music Iʼve heard (bebop, classical, pop, Chicago blues, gospel, you name it), but Iʼd say that Memphis soul and Jimmy Smith are probably the two biggest influences.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
LKLP: – As an organist who often plays his own bass lines, I work a fair amount on being able to play with a degree of freedom over different bass lines. Walking bass lines are the easiest— particularly when one has come up listening to Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, et al. There isnʼt too much rhythmic independence involved. Funk, 2nd line, etc. patterns are more challenging. I still have a lot of work to do there. But as an adult professional musician with a lot of daily responsibilities, itʼs hard to find time for regular practice. I encourage young musicians who are still living at home or with other young musicians to take advantage of the opportunity to develop their musical tools.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
LKLP: – My harmonic knowledge and conception is pretty basic, to be honest. Jimmy McGriff was quoted as saying heʼs really a blues musician who plays some jazz. That basically applies to me. Iʼll suspend a chord, or play a substitute chord progression here and there, but only because that fits the emotional need of that moment in the song, or simply to change things up. I donʼt like the music to be monotonous. Would like to learn a lot more about harmony. Having said that, actually believe that a limited musical vocabulary can be a plus. As the saying goes, “it ainʼt what you got; itʼs how you use it.” If one has a million tools at oneʼs disposal, how does one select which one to use? During my first musical lesson ever, Norm Bellas taught me that you can play an exciting, coherent blues solo using just one note. And that was the best lesson I ever had. In my opinion, a lot of highly accomplished musicians would benefit from that same lesson. Of course, if you have a ton of musical tools PLUS a sense of when & how to use them, then the sky is the limit. Iʼll go for that in my next life…
JBN.S: – Your playing is very sensitive, deft, itʼs smooth, and Iʼd 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?
LKLP: – Itʼs not a conscious decision, except to the extent that, as I said above, I donʼt like music to be monotonous. Inserting some dissonance here and there creates tension, which can lead to release. Also, if the soloist Iʼm accompanying plays something dissonant, I might support that with a dissonant voicing. But Iʼm not thinking about any of that consciously in the moment; Iʼm just playing what I feel – what seems to fit the musical “story” that my bandmates and I are telling.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what youʼre doing?
LKLP: – I donʼt really try to prevent disparate influences from emerging in my playing. Chester Thompson, the great organist, told me long ago that musical categories are artificial—that musicians from supposedly separate genres have always listened to and been influenced by each other. Granted, if Iʼm accompanying a Chicago blues artist, say, Iʼm not going to start playing a bunch of McCoy Tyner-type 4ths voicings behind him. My job is to help him tell HIS story. But thatʼs not self-censorship: if Iʼm being sensitive to what the soloist is playing, Iʼll naturally hear something to play that fits what heʼs saying.
Not that I might not stretch things just a little bit. I donʼt believe in “purism”; music has always been a “melting pot.” 1950ʼs Chicago blues musicians, to stick with that example, didnʼt live in a bubble; they were exposed to modern jazz, gospel, country, etc., and all of that music had to influence their playing at least to some extent. So if youʼre a Chicago-style blues musician today, I certainly donʼt think you should pretend you never heard anything recorded after 1960. I think that if you play with a focus on honest storytelling, your “disparate influences” will combine in an organic way to create a musical sound & style.
JBN.S: – Whatʼs the balance in music between intellect and soul?
LKLP: – Well, music is huge, and it can fulfill many purposes. I respect and admire all types of musicians, and many types of music can be valid—useful for different people and for different occasions. But the music I play and that Iʼm most interested in—the music that really “scratches my itch”—tends to be much more “soulful” than “intellectual.” Add “physical”: jazz and blues were originally dance music, after all. Renato, Edwin, and I love playing for dancers, especially good ones. We inspire them and they inspire us!
But speaking about “soul”: Iʼd add that I actually listen to as much gospel music as anything else. Depending on my mood, gospel REALLY scratches my itch. Which isnʼt to say that even traditional gospel music is ALL soul & emotion. I think that, if you were to really analyze it, all good music has a symmetry, a coherence, a mathematical logic. But Iʼm more interested in listening to and playing music than I am in analyzing it.
JBN.S: – Thereʼs a two-way relationship between audience and artist; youʼre okay with giving the people what they want?
LKLP: – Iʼm fortunate in that the music I love to listen to and play happens to be music that many audiences like to hear. If my passion was for dissonant music played in 7/4 time, it would be a drag to have to play blues, soul/jazz, etc. Of course, if Iʼm faced with an audience that wants 70ʼs rock oldies, heavy metal, country, or whatever, then no: Iʼm not going to be OK with giving them that.
But sometimes you can win an audience over. One of my first bandleaders was Jules Broussard—the sax player who replaced Fathead Newman in the Ray Charles band. Jules would sometimes pause in mid-set and ask the audience to call out requests. As each request came in, Jules would say, “Oh, thatʼs a fine song—we know that one!” But after the audience had run out of requests, Jules would say to them, “Now that we know what you want, weʼre going to give you what you NEED!” At which point heʼd count off a wailing slow blues. It worked every time.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which youʼd like to share with us?
LKLP: – Well, this memory is actually from a rehearsal. The late Thara Memory was a prominent Portland, OR trumpet player and jazz educator. Once, during a rehearsal for a live recording led by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, I was trying to nail down what the form of a particular song was to be. E.g., how many verses would there be before the first solo, when would the bridge happen, etc. Thara stopped me and asked, “What—are you afraid something might HAPPEN??” His point was that if the music became too planned out, there would be no room for something extraordinary and spontaneous to occur.
That was a great lesson—and as a matter of fact, a bunch of things did “happen” when we recorded that CD a day or two later. (The CD is called “Purdie Good Cookinʼ” for anyone interested in checking it out.) I took Tharaʼs lesson to heart, and Iʼve tried to maintain a balance between planning and spontaneity in all my musical projects since. My trioʼs debut recording “Itʼs About Time” really found that balance, I think.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
LKLP: – As more of a “soul-jazz” musician than a jazz musician, I donʼt entirely face that challenge. But I can still offer my two cents. “Standards” are primarily songs that were the popular music of the 1930ʼs, 40ʼs & 50ʼs. Jazz musicians of that era modified the chord progressions or even created new melodies as needed to make those songs great vehicles for improvisation. Contemporary jazz musicians try to do the same thing, because contemporary audiences will naturally tend to relate best to material theyʼre familiar with. But unfortunately, the bulk of todayʼs popular music lacks the harmonic or melodic qualities necessary to really make that work. (Even back in the ‘60s, most of the pop covers—e.g., Beatles tunes—recorded by jazz musicians sounded pretty lame & commercial to me.)
Still, if young audiences are to get interested in jazz, I think that contemporary musicians are stuck with playing a reasonable amount of contemporary pop material. I realize itʼs a challenge, but good luck getting a lot of kids to listen to “How High the Moon,” no matter how you dress it up.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
LKLP: – Iʼm not a very spiritual person, and I certainly donʼt know what the meaning of life is. But I do know that Iʼm not smart enough to create the music that I play—at least not the music thatʼs any good. When Iʼm “on,” Iʼm “hearing” musical ideas before Iʼm playing them. I donʼt feel theyʼre entirely coming from me. My job is to be patient and listen for what comes next in the “story” thatʼs being told and then play it to the best of my ability. If I make a mistake, it often doesnʼt matter, because the story can “morph” in a different—often even better—direction.
Itʼs not a perfect process, certainly not for me. I heard that Elvin Jones once described his musical method as, “flail & resolve.” Thatʼs a funny line, and maybe apocryphal, but it pretty well describes what I experience. I have no clear idea where the story is going when the song or solo starts, but if I let it happen, itʼll tend to go someplace interesting and exciting. Because I play in an ensemble, this is a group thing: as a group we are letting the song develop organically. Itʼs hard to describe with words, but itʼs pretty magical. And itʼs healing, both to the audience and to ourselves.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
LKLP: – I would get young people to discover the fun and excitement of playing, listening, and dancing to live, improvised music. Unfortunately, it seems that most young people today donʼt even really grasp that such a thing exists. But things tend to be cyclical, and I believe that live music — particularly bluesy music — is likely to become popular again eventually because it fills a human need.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
LKLP: – I donʼt listen to as much music as I feel I should. A lot of what I do listen to is stuff I listened to in the past, but at this stage, I hear more when I listen to it. E.g., itʼs fun to hear a soul hit from the ‘60s and realize, “THATʼS why that record feels so good; the original bass-line is different than the way everyone plays it.” But Iʼm also enjoying hearing some amazing young musicians of today, such as Cory Henry, or soul/pop artists like Bruno Mars & Alicia Keys, or gospel artists like Tamela Mann. Also all the hip young jazz & soul-jazz organists (I wonʼt start naming those because I donʼt want to leave anyone out). No question, there is great music being created today despite all the obstacles that performing musicians are facing.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
LKLP: – I donʼt know if I have a message to convey. I just hope to make people feel good. The late, great Portland pianist Janice Scroggins, used to say, “weʼre in the healing business.” Occasionally someone will come up to me or one of my bandmates after a gig and say something like, “I had a really bad day today. I walked in here feeling like crap. But you guys made all that go away!” I love to hear that; it tells me Iʼm contributing something useful to the world.
JBN.S: – Letʼs take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
LKLP: – Well, setting aside some kind of mission to the past to alter the course of history in a favorable way … Iʼd love to attend some night club performances from the 40ʼs, 50ʼs, and 60ʼs. See artists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Art Tatum, Billy Preston, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith, the Staples Singers—and so many others!—performing in that environment in their prime. I actually was fortunate enough to see a few of those artists like that, but Iʼd like to go back again with more mature eyes & ears and see those shows again!
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
LKLP: – What are your goals for your website? These artist interviews are great, but what plans/goals do you have going forward?
JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. The propaganda jazz and blues music. I am the organizer of several jazz festivals in Europe, and goals for future collaboration with musicians and more etc .., but do not with you.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
LKLP: – Iʼm in my mid-sixties — an age when many musicians are winding down their careers. But I feel like my music is just starting to develop, particularly now that, with “Itʼs About Time,” Iʼm beginning to write more original material. As with my bandmates Edwin Coleman III and Renato Caranto, my career to date has primarily been as a sideman, but I feel we have a lot of our own to say.
The early reviewers of the CD are reinforcing what Iʼve felt: that the King Louie Organ Trio has a fresh sound and approach. Iʼm excited that weʼve finally recorded our group doing our thing, and Iʼm hoping we can spread our wings a little and record & play more—particularly overseas. Edwin and Renato are exceptionally exciting, spontaneous, soulful, and entertaining musicians, and I want to play with them as much as possible for as long as I can do so.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan