NYC, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sept 9, 10, 11, 2008, 7:30 & 9:30pm only, at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. 4th Annual Coca Cola Women In Jazz Festival. The Jessica Williams Trio with Ray Drummond & Victor Lewis: The Music of John Coltrane. Reservations on-line or call 212 258 9595. Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, 5th Floor, New York City
Life is like a circle sometimes. You think that what’s done is done, and you file it away as a memory. But in some cases those memories come around and become real again, and remind you that life is never predictable or certain.
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was in the process of learning more in a few years than most folks learn in a long lifetime. I was privileged, too, to have the very best tutors and teachers on the whole planet! I didn’t know at the time that I was learning so much, and I had no idea that the lessons I was getting would be so valuable and durable and important to my whole life.Life is like that. You’re in the middle of one of the most important periods of your existence, and you’re clueless.
But it’s been almost 30 years, and I know now what was going on.
I’m talking about my years playing piano at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. I got to play with Stan Getz for two whole weeks, in a duo situation. I got to play a whole week with Airto and Flora. I got to play ballads late at night with Dexter Gordon. I got to play melodica in the horn line next to Freddie Hubbard. I got to play opposite Randy Weston and George Cables.
The list of the things I got to do and the people I got to play with is long and quite amazing.
The people I met and the people I learned from in those three years at the Keystone were the people that helped form my music, gave it fire, direction, momentum, and gave me the courage (thank you, Mary Lou Williams) to continue on with my music, against all kinds of adversity.
And, as anyone who ever set foot into the hallowed hall of fame known as the Keystone Korner knows, the whole machine was made to run, and was somehow made to keep running, by a man by the name of Todd Barkan.
Now, thirty years later, I’ll see Todd again soon, as he’s now the musical master of ceremonies of The Lounge at JAZZ AT THE LINCOLN CENTER (Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club), an unwieldy name if ever there was one, and I’ll be playing there very soon with my trio (my mates are two absolute masters: Ray “The Bulldog” Drummond on bass and Victor Lewis on drums.)
While I was at the Keystone, still relatively young and green, Todd would pass by the piano as I was playing (sometimes opposite monster bands like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers!) and whisper “you’re gettin’ it. Sounds good.” Or "that's the way it's supposed to sound... you're cookin'".) And I’d forgotten all about those whispers and mutterings.
Todd heard something in me that he didn’t hear in any of the other “local” pianists, who would have given their right foot to do what I was doing, and he gave me three full years to work my demons and multiple weaknesses out on the bandstand. He’d walk by on his way to the back room and smile or show some sign of approval. And, to be honest, there were plenty of times when I received no signal or no approval at all.
This was school. This was the real deal. This is what made people buy my CDs while other pianists were playing twice as fast and working ten times as much.
Todd was always a little mysterious to me, but he let me stay there, in the middle of this musical maelstrom - with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Kirk Lightsey and the Chicago Arts Ensemble and Pharoah Sanders and Max Roach and Elvin Jones - and sometimes he'd put me up there with the giants. Even when I got out of hand, he was forgiving and patient. He’d introduce me to people I thought I’d never meet (the initial meeting with Freddie Hubbard was particularly warped and incendiary) and he'd invite me into the back room to attend the sacred and secret meetings of the “luminaries and their esteemed colleagues.”
It’s funny to me that it would take me over a quarter of a century to realize that Todd Barkan had practically arranged and paid for my schooling.
He believed in me a long time before I believed in myself.
I’m going to see him again soon, and I’m going to tell him about my revelation. I’m sure he’ll take it in traditional Todd Barkan manner: “yeah. I knew that. Where were you?”
Thanks, Todd, for my education, for paying my student loan, for my inspiration. See you soon.