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FRIDAYS AT FIVE:
A Q&A with saxophonist Kenny Garrett

January 8, 2021 | by Richard Scheinin

Kenny Garrett

As SFJAZZ’s “Fridays at Five” streaming concert series moves into its second year, staff writer Richard Scheinin speaks to saxophonist Kenny Garrett. They discuss music in the time of COVID-19; Garrett’s 40-plus years on the road with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and his own bands; and the sources of his questing, spiritual sound. Garrett and his quintet, filmed in June 2019 at the SFJAZZ Center, are featured Jan. 15 on “Fridays at Five.”

Ever since saxophonist Kenny Garrett emerged on the national scene — in 1978, when he was 17 — he has had a sound that sets him apart. It’s his fingerprint: You hear a handful of notes — gritty, incantatory, like a preacher — and you know who it is. A solo by Kenny Garrett is a thrilling event. It’s rooted and rhythmic, punctuated like hip-hop or questing like Coltrane — a steady ascension that feels like a pronouncement from above. He’s tapped into something — and his elders understood that from the beginning. After touring with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (under the direction of Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son), Garrett landed in the bands of Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and Art Blakey. In 1987, Miles Davis hired him, and Garrett was the trumpeter’s front-line partner until Davis’s death in 1991.

On Jan. 15, you can watch Garrett perform with his own band on “Fridays at Five,” the weekly archival series of concerts presented by SFJAZZ. Filmed in San Francisco in June 2019, the concert captures Garrett in full flight — playing with an insistent, joyful fury that can leave audiences screaming. (You can sign up for the series here. It costs $5 per month, or $60 annually, and streams every Friday at 5 p.m. Pacific Time.)The broadcast also makes clear that Garrett — like the elders who hired him — has established his own university as a bandleader. Over the past three decades, dozens of accomplished young players have acquired necessary seasoning by passing through Garrett’s groups. In particular, the drummers who’ve worked with the saxophonist form a who’s who of modern percussion: Brian Blade, Chris Dave, Jamire Williams, and Ronald Bruner, to name just a few. Samuel Laviso, the fiery 23-year-old drummer who played with Garrett in San Francisco, is a newcomer. He’s from Guadeloupe; Garrett met him during one of many visits to the Caribbean archipelago, where he has studied the folkloric Guadeloupean music known as Gwo ka over the past decade.

I called Garrett, 60, at his home in New Jersey and we spent an hour in conversation: about the pandemic, of course, but also about his upbringing in Detroit and the influence of his stepfather (an amateur saxophonist and jazz aficionado) and his biological father (a church deacon and singer). Garrett discussed saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, an early influence, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, his close friend who died last year of COVID-19. He described his upcoming, percussion-rich album, Sounds From The Ancestors on the Mack Avenue label. Easygoing and reflective, Garrett also pulled out some stories from the old days — including a great one about trumpeter Cootie Williams of the Ellington band, who took a liking to the 17-year-old saxophonist who sat next to him on the tour bus.

Read on.

Kenny Garrett Quintet at SFJAZZ, June 21, 2019

Q: How do you prepare for a performance? You’re always on, so I’m wondering how you “tune yourself up” in a spiritual sense.

A: The main thing for me is what I learned from Art Blakey — that the music comes from the Creator and we try to be the conduit and let it pass through us to the audience. I just try to come with that kind of mindset and take people on a journey.

Q: Where to?

A: Sometimes we’re trying to remind people of a higher sense — like Art used to say, to “wipe away the dust of everyday life.” What I try to do is really just touch people and make them think about something that’s higher than us, a presence that’s higher. And after the concert, I’m hoping that we’ve played something that’s touched people — because that’s what music does for me. It touches me.

Q: When did you first sense that connection to music?

A: When I was a kid, I would have all my favorite music and when Christmas would show up, I’d take it all out — all my 45s — and I would listen to it and it would fill me up. And I felt like I could go for that whole year until the next time around, when Christmas would show up again. So that’s kind of what I feel with the music; I’m trying to share with the audience this feeling that I have. And I’m hoping that I can play a note or a chord or something that will stay with them. I’m hoping that people hear something, and say, “Wow.”

Q: Your dad played saxophone. He bought you your first instrument and talked to you about having your own sound on the horn. Can you remember when you first realized that you did have a sound?

A: When I was playing with the Ellington band, the lead alto player — his name was Harold Minerve — called me on the phone. I was like 18 years old. And I remember that he called me and he played a tape for me — a tape of me playing a song. I think it was called “On Broadway.” (Garrett sings the melody, made famous by the Drifters and, later, George Benson.) “On Broadway,” that was my solo, my feature with the band. And I remember hearing it and thinking, “That’s my sound.”

And you’re right — the only reason I thought of that is because my father, when we were at the Dairy Queen one time, he was playing the radio and this sax player was on — I think it was Stanley Turrentine or someone like that. And my father said, “Well, who is that?” And I didn’t know who it was. And he said, “Well, everybody has a sound.” And at that point, I was really conscious — really trying to focus more on that idea that there was a sound you could have.

Q: What do you think lies inside your sound? Is it somehow just you? Or is it related to something specific — the music you heard in church as a kid?

A: Well, we definitely went to church. I wouldn’t say that that’s directly related. But my father was a deacon. So that’s prevalent; that’s pretty prevalent in the Black family, generally. But it wasn’t something like I had to go to church to find a sound; it was just basically there. I mean, when I think about it, it was a gift from my father. I hear him, and it’s like, “Wow, OK, that’s where it comes from.” But it took me years to really understand that.”

Q: Was your father a talented saxophonist?

A: Well, my stepfather’s the one who played the saxophone, and he was a carpenter by trade. But my biological father, he was the deacon. And so that’s the part I’m talking about. He was a singer; he did a lot of the doo-wop kind of groups. He just recently passed away. And so I think the gift came from him. When I hear him speak, and when I hear him talk, and when I hear him sing, that’s where I hear it. I didn’t recognize where it was from until recently, but that’s where I hear it coming from.

Q: It sounds like you got a lot from both dads.

A: That’s for sure. Because my father who played the saxophone was the one who instilled the music in me. A lot of his heroes — or his mentors, or his favorites, or his men, as I like to call them — they became my men. He used to listen to Joe Henderson. He used to listen to Maceo Parker, used to listen to David “Fathead” Newman, and those were my guys. There was a song that David “Fathead” Newman used to play, it was called “Baby Rae.” And any time my father would play that song, I don’t care what time of night, I would wake up. I would wake up and I would hear the blues he was playing, and it was like, man — I still to this day, when I listen to that song, it brings back memories. It was called “Baby Rae,” and my dad would play it, and I don’t care if I was sleeping, I would hear that and I would wake up.

Miles Davis and Kenny Garrett

Q: You recently turned 60. Was that a big deal for you?

A: I’m glad to be here and I know it’s a milestone in life, but I never quite think of it like that. On my 60th birthday, I was thinking about a very dear friend of mine, Wallace Roney (the trumpeter, who died of COVID-19 in March, at age 59). We were very tight, and we had a history together. When I first met him, we were both 17 years old. And the reason that I met him was because (pianist) Geri Allen, who was from Detroit, told him, “There’s a young guy in Detroit — you should come and meet this young saxophone player who’s 17, and you’re 17.”

Like I said, I thought about it on my birthday: “Well, Wallace didn’t make it.” I think at that point I realized I’ve been blessed, for sure. I’m just happy I made it to 60.

Q: What has the pandemic been like for you?

A: I think of it as being a bigger issue than just “the pandemic.” It’s the whole world.

Of course, I’ve been spending time at home, doing work around the house — things I hadn’t done in a while! And I’ve been practicing and writing, and finishing up a new CD. It was recorded before the pandemic, and then we just didn’t get a chance to finish it — and then I didn’t even think anything about it. Like everybody else, I was just trying to find my footing. I think everybody was trying to understand what we were going through. I just really tried to be in the moment; just like everybody else, I was trying to figure it out. Even the front line was trying to figure it out — like the nurses and doctors.

We’re all in a transitional period, and you really have to reflect on what it is before you move forward.

Q: What have you been reflecting on?

A: I think it allows me to stop. I mean, I’ve been playing music full-time since I was like 17 years old. I think this is the first time I’ve actually stopped traveling. And so I got a chance to sit back and to look at things and to enjoy life. I think, really, that’s what it is. You count the blessings, so, okay, when it starts again — when things, so to speak, return to normal — I’d like to look at it from another perspective.

Right now I want to try and enjoy life. And I’m thinking, “What can I do that would make me a better person, make me a better musician? And how can I help other people?” So it’s a whole bunch of things that I’m reflecting on. This is real; it’s part of history. We’re learning about history. It’s something a little deeper than just a pandemic. Because we all are here, and I’ve never experienced anything where it really stopped — where everybody in the world at the same point gets a chance to stop and see life from a different perspective.

The things we thought were important, they weren’t important.

Q: Were you touring when the pandemic began?

A: Yes. The band went to Europe at the end of January; we were actually in Italy when it was happening. And I thought it was a little peculiar when we came through Milan — we were going to play there at the Blue Note and they were checking people for fevers.

And one thing I think was interesting — because I’m influenced by the Asian culture, I always bring masks when we travel. Because I’m shaking hands with a lot of people and my resistance can go down a lot when we’re playing. So I think that was one of the fortunate things — I had all these masks! For years, I just put them in my bag, every time I traveled.

Q: Wearing masks to protect against infections has been common for years in Japan and China — like during the SARS outbreak (in 2003). Is that what you’re saying?

A: Right. I’m influenced by the Japanese culture, the Chinese culture, and a lot of times when I go there, I’ll buy masks. And so if I feel like I’m catching a cold or something, I’ll just put a mask on.

Vernell Brown Jr. and Kenny Garrett at SFJAZZ

Q: Tell me about your new album. Is it with the same band that played at SFJAZZ — the one people will see during the Fridays at Five broadcast?

A: Almost. It’s with (pianist) Vernell Brown, (bassist) Corcoran Holt, and (percussionist) Rudy Bird, who were with me in San Francisco. But the drummer is different; it’s Ronald Bruner. (Drummer) Lenny White is on some of it, too. I also have Pedrito Martinez, a Yoruban master, a great percussionist. And I have another Yoruban master, a drummer and singer; his name is Dreiser Durruthy Bambelé. And I have some singers on there, too. The record is called Sounds From The Ancestors.

Q: You’ve got a lot of drummers on this new record! Over the years, you’ve had one amazing drummer after another in your bands: Jeff “Tain” Watts, Brian Blade, Chris Dave, Jamire Williams, Eric Harland. I mean, you’ve also had great piano players and bassists — but, what’s with you and drummers?

A: Well, I started on drums — for about a week! (Laughing). I love drummers. I think they get a chance to play with me. I think there’s a conversation that’s happening; me and drummers, we just seem to connect. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Jeff and Brian; in fact, I played with Brian when he was still in school. And Jamire — it’s like one drummer hears the other drummer who’s with me, and then they want to get into the band.

Like, maybe Chris Dave hears Jeff with my group, and then he wants to play. And then Chris is from Houston, and he has his own circle of drummers that he knows; he suggested that I get Jamire Williams, who’s from Houston. Then there’s Eric Harland, who’s from Houston. There’s Mark Simmons, another Houston drummer. And then you have Marcus Baylor; he’s from St. Louis. But all those guys, they all kind of come around me. Usually what happens is they come by the house and we play — we play some music, and when I need a drummer, I just call them. Because I already know they understand where we’re trying to go musically.

Q: I’ve watched the footage of your show in San Francisco. You and your drummer (Samuel Laviso) and the whole band — you move so easily from, say, a Coltrane vibe to a straight bebop feel and then to a hip-hop groove. You’ve always done this; the music keeps changing shape, very easily and naturally.

A: I’ve always loved all kinds of music, all the genres. I find that some people like to do it under different umbrellas. But I like to put it all together, because that’s how I hear music. And I think that’s what brings the younger musicians into the band, because they understand they can play all the different genres. Like I told the guys, I said, “Well, you know, if we’re going to play some straight ahead music, then we have to play it authentically. If we’re going to play some hip-hop, let’s play it authentically. Whatever it is, let’s study the music and let’s play it authentically.”

I’ve been blessed; like I’ve been playing with (Cuban piano master) Chucho Valdés. And through Chucho, I’ve had the chance to play with a lot of the Cuban musicians and it’s been a great experience for me. I’m just learning the language. And I do throw my part in there, but I’m really just trying to learn the language. For me, I just love different styles, and I like the challenge of trying to learn how to play them.

For instance, I’ve been playing Gwo ka, which is music from Guadeloupe. I’ve studied that; I’ve been studying it for 10 years and I’m still trying to learn it. I feel like there’s so many different pockets in music that we can learn from.

Q: You speak Japanese pretty well, right? And I’ve read that you’re attracted to learning languages, generally. Do you think your openness to so many different kinds of music is related to your openness and curiosity about spoken languages?

A: Yeah, definitely. I mean, to me music is sound. And language is sound. So I’m open to that.

                             Kenny Garrett Quintet at SFJAZZ

Q: Tell me a little about the four guys in your group — the band that played at SFJAZZ last year. Let’s start with Vernell Brown, your pianist.

A: Vernell’s been playing with me for a while. In fact, Vernell recorded with me on Happy People (in 2002). We go back. He’s played with people like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Laws — and Prince. And he had his own record on A&M records (in 1990); he was going to Berklee for a little while, and he came right out and was signed by Herb Alpert and those guys. He’s a special voice. Vernell has another way — I call him the Alpha Man. He has another way of playing and I don’t think people really have caught onto that. He’s a special musician.

Q: What about Corcoran Holt, your bassist?

A: Corcoran is another who’s been playing with me for a while. He’s learning a lot. He’s learning how to approach the bass from another perspective. I like to say that I have a school that people can come in, and I try to share all the different experiences that I’ve gotten from people like Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis and the Ellington band. I try to share those experiences with them.

Q: Tell me about your drummer, Samuel Laviso.

A: Samuel’s a young drummer from Guadeloupe. And he wanted to go to Berklee College of Music (in Boston), but it’s too expensive for him. So his father said to me, “Well, why don’t you teach him?” So I said to Samuel, “Come on. Come on and play and get some experience.” And so I brought him in and I’ve tried to take him under my wing, like Harold Minerve did for me, and Art Blakey — you know, taking the young guys under your wing and share music with them.

Q: How did you meet Samuel?

A: I knew his father. His father’s Christian Laviso, who is a great guitarist from Guadeloupe. And he’s the one who wanted me to learn Gwo ka. Because when I played in Guadeloupe with Miles, I loved the place and they heard me play. Then one of the promoters (from the island) came to New York, and they invited me back to Guadeloupe.

And when I got there, they said, “Have you ever heard of the Gwo ka?” I said, “I never heard of Gwo ka.” They said, “Well, we’re going in the street on Saturday and they’re going to be playing.” So we go on the street and they’re playing. (Garrett sings some of the rhythms of Gwo ka drumming). And the music was so powerful; I mean, the drums were so powerful; the tears were rolling in my eyes. I was like, “What is this?” So I said, “Well, can you improvise over it?” And they said, “Well, let’s go to a club.”

And that’s what we did. We went to this club, and they were improvising — some of the elders were playing. So Christian saw me; he says, “You want to play?” I said, “Yeah, I like to play.” So I sat in and I knew I wasn’t playing what they were playing; I was playing what I knew. But every year he would invite me back: “Come on and play some Gwo ka.” So that’s how I met Christian. And that’s when he asked me if I should teach his son. And so I brought Samuel out to play.

Q: Now tell me about Rudy Bird, your percussionist.

A: He’s played with people like Lauryn Hill and Leela James. He recorded with Michael Jackson. And we used to do the Broadway show “Sophisticated Ladies” together. And so Rudy and I, we have a long history. So I wanted to get a percussionist in my band, and I called Rudy. He understands the Yoruban tradition and Afro-Cuban playing, along with classical stuff, because he’s done a lot of things with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He’s done a lot of classical music and dance music. He’s a well-rounded musician. We played with Miles together. And we both even played with the Ellington band, when it was directed by Mercer Ellington.

Cootie Williams

Q: Let’s finish with an Ellington-related question. You were mentored by Cootie Williams, Duke’s famous trumpeter. Do you have any stories about him?

A: Oh! Cootie Williams, that was a great experience. He came out of retirement to play with the band, and I was the young guy. And I didn’t know that I was supposed to sit in the back of the bus — I’m a rookie; I’m supposed to sit in the back. So when I got on the bus, I think I was like the fourth seat. But I didn’t know! (Laughing). So I used to go to the grocery store and get these cookies. And Cootie’s blood sugar would go down, and when I would get these cookies, he would turn to me and say, “Cookie baby, gimme some of those cookies!” So I would give him these cookies, and that’s how we became friends. And that’s probably why they didn’t have me change my seat — because I had all the cookies!

Yeah. Cootie was really inspirational in getting me to write my own compositions. He used to tell me, he’d say, “Cookie baby, write your own songs.” Cootie Williams used to tell me that, and also Miles Davis used to tell me that. Because I used to sit at the piano, and I was playing a lot of standards; Cootie would say, “Well, write your own songs.” Because of course, he had co-written “Round Midnight” with Monk. So he was trying to inspire me.

For me, getting to hear Cootie was a thrill — hearing how he played that plunger mute. I’m always thankful that I had that experience with the Ellington band and had a chance to sit in with Harold Minerve and Norris Turney — they were protégés of (alto saxophonist) Johnny Hodges, and Johnny Hodges had a beautiful sound. And not only that, but a lot of the guys who were playing there had played with Duke. Like there was Chuck Connors, the trombonist, who had been in the band forever. There was a whole lot of musicians who had played with Duke. So I was fortunate. I had a chance to play with those great musicians and to learn that music. There’s a lot of lessons there.

Kenny Garrett and his quartet appear on Fridays at Five on January 15th (5 p.m. Pacific Time).  Details here. To become an SFJAZZ Member, click here.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.