The founder of the Mamas and the Papas, John Phillips. He died of heart failure on Sunday. He was 65. Phillips was the principal songwriter for the pop group which had a string of hits from 1966 to 1968 when the group broke up. Their hits included Monday, Monday, California Dreamin, I Saw Her Again Last Night and others.
Other segments from the episode on March 19, 2001
DATE March 19, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Remembering John Phillips, who died of heart failure at
the age of 65
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
John Phillips, the co-founder of the '60s folk-pop group The Mamas and The
Papas, died of heart failure yesterday at the age of 65. He write or co-wrote
several of the group's hits including "California Dreamin'," "Monday Monday,"
"Words of Love," "I saw her Again Last Night," "Go Where You Want to Go" and
"Straight Shooter." He also wrote the Scott McKenzie hit "San Francisco." He
not only wrote songs about the '60s counterculture, he was a producer of one
of the decade's landmark events, the Monterey Pop Festival. In The New York
Times obituary today, rock critic Neil Strauss writes, `Phillips was a man of
many contradictions, idealist, hedonist, businessman, musician.' Before we
hear an interview with Phillips, let's play a song he co-wrote that tells the
story of The Mamas and The Papas.
(Soundbite of The Mama and The Papas song)
THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) Joan and Mitchie were getting kind of
itchy just to leave the folk music behind. Zaul and Denny, working for a
penny, trying to get a fish on the line. In a coffee house Sebastian sat, and
after every number they passed a hat. McGwinn and McGuire just getting higher
in LA. You know where that's at. And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass.
Zaul he said, `Denny, you know there aren't many who can sing a song the way
that you do. Let's go south.' Denny said, `Zaul'...
GROSS: The members of The Mamas and The Papas were John Phillips, Michelle
Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott, who was known as Mama Cass. In
1986, John Phillips told me how Cass joined the group.
Mr. JOHN PHILLIPS (The Mamas and The Papas): We were in the Virgin Islands
and Michelle and Denny and I were singing on stage, still, as The
Journeymen--the new Journeymen. And Cass was waiting tables in this
restaurant in this restaurant and trying to convince us she could sing with
us, you know. A wonderful singer like Cass, you know, waiting the tables and
we're up there singing and she's trying to convince us to let her join the
group and we're saying, `No, your range is too low.' And they were doing some
construction work there and a workman happened to drop a six-inch lead pipe
and it landed on Cass' head from 30 feet up. And it gave her a concussion and
she went to the hospital for a couple of days, and she came back and for some
reason she was able to sing a tone and a half, two tones higher than she had
when she went to the hospital. And from then on, her voice fitted in
perfectly to the harmonies.
GROSS: You write in your book about how surprised you were the first time you
saw her because she was so big. Did you ever go through this thing of
thinking how would she look on stage and would it be bad for the group's image
to have someone who is really fat in the group?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Now that never occurred to me but it sure occurred to Cass. I
mean, Cass said she would never go on the same stage as Michelle because
Michelle was so slim and so pretty and Cass felt that she looked awful next
Michelle, but she looked all right with a couple of guys around her, but not
anywhere near Michelle. And it took us a long time to convince Cass to go on
stage and to perform live with, you know, Michelle as her singing partner.
But the first time she did it, she realized that Michelle had beauty and all
this but that Cass really had the warmth and the personality and could just
grab the audience with her vocal ability, things that Michelle couldn't do.
From then on Cass would say, `Hey, what's the big problem here?' You know.
`Get this little thing out of here. I'll take care of everything.'
GROSS: Michelle, who you referred to, was your second wife and you met
her--just to fill everybody in--when you were about 26 or something.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, I was about 26 and she was about 16.
GROSS: And you married her, you left your first wife for her.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah.
GROSS: And ended up performing together, even though she didn't initially
plan on going into music. Why did you decide to include her in the group?
Because she hadn't been a performer.
Mr. PHILLIPS: No, as a matter of fact, you know, she had grown up in Mexico
and she had never sung professionally at all. But we would go on these long
road trips with the Journeymen and she would always travel with us and we
would sing in the car. And this went on for like three years, you know, being
on the road. And she just got better and better and better. And she had a
real street sense of rock 'n' roll. She had a better street sense of rock 'n'
roll than Cass had. Cass had the incredible technique and tone and all these
things. Michelle really had this sort of Phil Spector kind of--you know, the
Ronettes kind of, you know--the Shangri-Las, or something like that. And she
would have fit right into that group perfectly. So that was a nice balance of
technique and raw talent between the two of them.
GROSS: What was your concept for the group in terms of the production of the
record and the vocal harmonies that you were working?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, my influences were these other groups who had
been so extremely musical. And I'd always liked the sound of men and women
singing together. So I wanted to, you know, have a group that was two guys
and two girls that would have featured soloists and a lot of answer-back
harmonies and things like that, you know. And Lou Adler was very responsible
for taking what I did with just one guitar and vocal arrangements. I mean, we
could sing anything live, you know, because everyone knew how to sing and all
that. But he found like the best musicians on the West Coast and put them
behind us. Like really good rock musicians like, Hal Blaine and Larry
Knechtel and Joe Osborne and people like that. And the mixture of those
things, once again, was like, you know--that's what where Lou's genius as a
producer really lies, in finding somebody who can really write good songs,
someone who can really sing well and get a great band and put it all together
and that's what a producer should do, you know.
GROSS: Some producers who see the potential in a band, then dress them up in
all kinds of arrangements that they don't fit into...
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah.
GROSS: Did you have to fight for that at all or did he have a good sense of
what would be good for you?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, he just left us alone, you know. As a matter of fact,
like "California Dreamin'" was originally done as a track for Barry McGuire.
And when Lou heard the song, he thought that would be a great follow-up for
Barry for "Eve of Destruction."
GROSS: I can't see that actually.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, it didn't work out. But that original track and the
original background vocals were cut for a Barry McGuire album and then it's on
Barry's album, as a matter of fact, with The Mamas and The Papas singing all
the backgrounds on that album. But it just didn't sound right. And then Lou
thought to himself, `Well, we'll have Denny sing it also, you know.' And
Denny sings an octave higher than Barry. And he put Denny on it and all of a
sudden--into this beautiful sound. And that's how "California Dreamin'" was
actually made. It made for Barry McGuire.
GROSS: But then it was remade for...
Mr. PHILLIPS: It wasn't remade. I mean, we put the lead on top of the track
we did for Barry.
GROSS: Oh, it was just right on top of that.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah.
GROSS: That's really amazing.
Mr. PHILLIPS: They took Barry's voice off and put Denny's on and that was
(Soundbite of "California Dreamin'")
THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) All the leaves are brown (all the leaves
are brown) and the sky is grey (and the sky is gray). I've been for a walk on
a winter's day. I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA. California dreamin' on
such a winter's day.
Stopped into a church I passed along the way. Well, I got down on my knees
(got down on my knees) and I'd pretend to pray (I'd pretend to pray). You
know the preacher likes the cold (preacher likes the cold). He knows I'm
gonna stay (knows I'm gonna stay). California dreamin' on such a winter's
GROSS: Well, as soon as The Mama and Papas signed a five-year contract which
wedded them together for five years, things started to break apart in the
group a little. It was right after you signed the contract--Right?--that you
found out your lover Michelle was actually sleeping with Denny from the group.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah.
GROSS: That must have been really devastating.
Mr. PHILLIPS: It was, yeah. It was very hard. It wasn't just my lover
Michelle, it was my wife Michelle by that point.
GROSS: Oh, excuse me. Yeah. Even worse.
Mr. PHILLIPS: We'd gone past that point, yeah. Denny's lover, my wife, what
it really was. It was sort of devastating, you know, and Cass was deeply in
love with Denny and Denny loved Cass as a brother and sister sort of thing,
you know. And, gosh, I don't know. It just seems like we had to leave
everything outside the studio, you know. And when we got into the studio, we
just make the music. And that was the only thing that eased the tension, was
GROSS: You know what's funny to me? You're listening to these records, you
say, `Wow, I bet this group had such a good time together.'
Mr. PHILLIPS: We did.
GROSS: Did you?
Mr. PHILLIPS: In sort of an unconventional way.
GROSS: Uh-huh. Because I'm thinking, like, gosh, you just never know if
people are at each others' throats or carrying on behind each other's backs
and stuff. And you always think it just must be great to tour together and so
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, we all lived in the same house for years and,
you know, it was like a communal lifestyle and was sort of one of the first
LSD communes, you know, that sprang up all over the country, you know. We had
our own little commune of four people and I think that we did everything that
30 people could have done had they been there, you know. And every
combination came forth.
GROSS: You threw Michelle out of the group for a while.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you explain the circumstances behind that?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I prefer to think of it as...
Mr. PHILLIPS: You know when Michelle, you know--of course, there was a group
called The Byrds and a very good songwriter and guitar player, singer, was a
very good friend of mine now also, named Gene Clark in the group. And
Michelle and I had broken up for the umpteenth time and she was dating Gene
and we were playing at a place called Melody Land out in California and Simon
and Garfunkel was the opening act for us. And it was just a big show that
night and Gene was sitting in the front row and Michelle was playing to Gene
and I really got angry and I felt very hurt. And I could not overcome my
jealousy through, you know, mental training.
So I just went to Cass and Denny and I said, `I just can't do this anymore. I
can't really work under these circumstances.' I said, `You know, either
Michelle has to go or I have to go.' I said, `I'm very willing to go out and
form a new group or do anything but one of us has got to get out of here
because it's driving me nuts and I just can't do it.' And so they said,
`Throw her out. Let's get rid of her.' And so we went to the record company
and Lou said, `Well, whatever you guys want to do, you know.' And so, in
Michelle's book, which is out right now, called "California Dreamin'," she has
a picture of the letter, you know, which is signed by everyone, not just by
me, Terry. But I couldn't keep her out of the group for long any because I
was so in love with her. It didn't make much difference. You know, she was
out for, oh, I guess, three or four months tops, I suppose.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1986 interview with John Phillips, co-founder and
primary songwriter of the '60s folk-pop group The Mamas and The Papas. He
died yesterday at the age of 65. We'll hear more after a break. This is
(Soundbite from "Go Where You Want To Go")
THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: (Singing) You got to go where you want to go, do
what you want to do with whoever you want to do with it. You got to go where
you want to go and do what you want to do. Go where you want, do what you
want. You got to go where you want and do what you want to do. Do what you
GROSS: Let's get back to our 1986 interview with John Phillips, co-founder of
The Mamas and The Papas. He died yesterday.
What were some of the reasons why you broke up?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, there were a couple of reasons. One was the underlying
effect of all the different affairs the group members had had with each other
and things like that and the difficulty of men and women living in close
quarters, caged animals, you know. Sex rearing its ugly head and things like
that. And another reason was that we just could not keep up the creativity.
We were burned out emotionally from all the tension that we had created for
ourselves and we were burned out on LSD and we were burned out artistically.
We had just worked so hard in that three-year period in the studio, just day
after day after day, 18-hour days under the influence of drugs. And just on
and on and on and on, laying on layer after layer of music and voices and new
songs and new harmonies and new arrangements. And we decided to do a fifth
album and we just couldn't match what we had already done at all. Couldn't
come close to it. And we realized that if we kept The Mamas and Papas going,
from then on it was just going to be a downhill thing.
GROSS: And you didn't want that to happen, so you split.
Mr. PHILLIPS: And we started calling is Downhill Records instead of Dunhill
Records. And the writing was on the wall, you know. We said, `Let's just
leave this alone. This was very good, these four albums. Let's not play with
it, all right? We'll just go home now.'
GROSS: It seems like you all were starting to go a little berserk at around
that time too.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, well, you know, when you take that much acid in that
short amount of time. You know, we didn't really--we thought everyone was
taking it. We went to a fellow by the name of Dr. Cone(ph) in Los Angeles,
at UCLA, Dennis and I. Because we were like--our nervous systems were like,
you know--our hands were shaking and we couldn't eat and things. We were
dropping forks and things like that. And he was, like, you know, in charge in
nervous disorders at UCLA.
And he said, `Well, why are you guys this way? I mean, tell me what an
average day for you is.' We said, `Well, we get up, we take our acid.' He
said, `You do what?' `Yeah, we take our acid.' And he says, `What do you
mean? You take acid every day?' We said, `Well, not every day. But you
know, four or five times a week, at least, you know.' And he said, `How long
have you been doing this?' We says, `For two and a half, three years.' He
said, `Oh, my God. You're lucky you're alive.' And then he took us on a tour
of his psychiatric ward and he showed us some of the real burnouts, people who
did have bad trips and bad experiences and never came back.
GROSS: Did you stop?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Not immediately, no. We did cut down to once a week, though.
GROSS: After The Mamas and Papas disbanded, you went through a period of
trying to do a Broadway show, doing, I think, one or two independent records
by yourself, but none of that stuff was very commercially successful.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Not at all.
GROSS: But also around that period, in the 1970s, that's when you started
shooting up and really getting into hard drugs. What led to that? And I ask
that knowing that you'd already seen friends of yours OD on drugs, so you
weren't naive about your fix.
Mr. PHILLIPS: No, I wasn't at all naive about it.
GROSS: And you had seen what had happened to you from taking all the acid.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah. I don't think that's ever a deterrent: a friend of
yours. I mean, a lot of friends of mine had seen a lot of their friends die
from drugs and then they died from drugs. And why I didn't die from drugs,
I'll never know. Just luck of the draw, I guess. But I have like a string of
things that really didn't satisfy me, starting from the "Wolf King" album.
Which I never really--I loved those songs I'd written for it, but I didn't
like the way that I sang on it. I thought it was very depressing. I broke up
with Michelle again, of course. And I had just started living with Genevieve,
Genevieve Blake(ph), who I eventually married.
And then I got a chance to go to London to do the film score and to sing the
score for "The Man Who Fell to Earth," a David Bowie film. And I went to
London and I ran into Keith Richards again and we started living together and
he helped me work on the score, as did Mick Taylor. And Jagger and Richards
and I had been friends for years and years and years by that time, 10 years
anyway. And Keith was very heavily into heroin at that time and when we
started living together, there was always heroin around the house. And I had
become just callous toward drug use because I had been doing it for so many
years. And it just--watch Keith--you know, Keith, somehow, was able to
maintain all that knowledge now and just sort of still do his work and play
his music and so forth. And so I started experimenting with it and so did
Genevieve and next thing I knew, I was addicted to it.
GROSS: How did you know when you where actually addicted?
Mr. PHILLIPS: My nose started running and my eyes started getting red and I
started feeling clammy in the morning and things like that. And I thought I
was getting the flu. And Keith said, `No,' but you need some Vicks. And that
moment, I had a decision to make. You know, there was some heroin on the
table, and there was a whole world outside and I took the heroin and it took
me a long time to get over it.
GROSS: Did you ever get to the point where like your sources--you had enough
money, at least at the beginning, to buy from people who wouldn't necessarily
give you a lot of trouble. You didn't have to go out on the streets to buy.
But did it ever get to the point were you had to go to like shooting galleries
and, you know, like really awful street places to get drugs?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, not really until, I guess, 1980. I mean, I had a drug
store in New York City. I had an arraignment with the pharmacist there, and
so I would just go in there with a shopping bag once a week and take all the
drugs off the shelves and pay them twice the retail value and then walk off
with them. And then when the DEA closed that drug store down, that's when I
did hit the streets and tried to clean up and had that incredible Fourth of
July weekend when Mick and Jerry Hall came out to visit us in the Hamptons for
the weekend. And I tried to burn the house down and I was going through
violent withdrawal and wrecked my car and Mick took my kids away from me,
wouldn't give them back because I was so crazed at the time. And he was
absolutely right, as it turned out. And I was cooking up some heroin in the
kitchen and about to inject it and Mick said, `Don't you think you're doing a
bit much of that, you know?' And I said, `No, I can handle it no problem.'
He's like, `Oh, OK.' That's all he ever really said about it. But I could
feel him sort of withdraw a bit from me, bit by bit, at that time.
GROSS: If you weren't busted and if you didn't enter a therapy program
because of that, do you think you would have stopped on your own?
Mr. PHILLIPS: No. I tried a lot. I tried many times and I wasn't able to
do it. And I never tried it, you know, in a therapeutic situation, in an
actual hospital, a rehab with intensive, you know, psychiatry and group
therapy and things like that. And I don't think it's a possible thing to do,
you know, to kick a hard-core heroin habit by yourself. I definitely wanted
to do it, and anybody who's interested in a bit of advice: If you have a drug
problem, first thing you have to do is identify it, you know, and say, `I have
a drug problem.' Then, you have to check in somewhere and get some help. And
then comes the real long withdrawal. And it's not just the physical
withdrawal, it's the psychological withdrawal that's so difficult.
GROSS: John Phillips, co-founder of the Mamas and the Papas, recorded in
1986. He died of heart failure yesterday at the age of 65.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joe Lovano discusses his childhood and music career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In a 1996 New Yorker article, jazz critic Whitney Balliett lamented that jazz
was running in place, but, he said, a savior has been slowly materializing in
the '90s, the astonishing tenor saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano. Last
year Lovano was voted tenor saxophonist of the year in both the Downbeat
readers and critics poll. In 1999 he won album of the year in the Jazz Times
readers poll for his CD "Trio Fascination, Edition One." Now he has a
follow-up called "Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Edition Two." It
features him in four different trio settings with such musicians as drummer
Joey Baron, trumpeter Dave Douglas, harmonica player Toots Thielemans, and
pianist Kenny Werner. Before we hear from Lovano, let's listen to the title
track, which was composed by Lovano and features Cameron Brown on bass and
Idris Muhammad on drums.
(Soundbite of "Flights of Fancy")
GROSS: Music from Joe Lovano's new CD "Flights of Fancy."
Joe Lovano, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JOE LOVANO (Musician): Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: I think you were introduced to jazz by your father, who was known as
Tony "Big T" Lovano.
Mr. LOVANO: Yeah, right. Right.
GROSS: And people called him Big T.
Mr. LOVANO: Big T was his name, especially, you know, when he was
GROSS: How big was he?
Mr. LOVANO: He was kind of a big guy. I would say he was a big guy, but he
had a big beautiful sound and a big heart. And his name was Tony, and they
just distinguished him by calling him Big T because he had this very vibrant
personality, you know. It wasn't just the size of him as a man, it was the
size of him as a person and...
GROSS: What did he play?
Mr. LOVANO: He played tenor saxophone. And he also played, though, alto and
the woodwinds. You know, he was--my dad was born in 1925 and grew up in the
swing era and the big bands and the bebop school was really his love and
passion. He was in the Army band during World War II, and then when he came
out of the service, really was one of the major contributors around the
Cleveland, Ohio area.
GROSS: Did he have a day job?
Mr. LOVANO: He was also a barber. Yeah. And had a family. And was one
GROSS: Did he have his own barber shop?
Mr. LOVANO: Yeah, he had a number of barber shops through the years, you
know, and businesses. And you know, he didn't really want to travel and do
the things that I've done, but he had a deep passion for the music, and was a
major player around Cleveland and played in jam sessions with John Coltrane in
the early '50s and played in nightclubs--Lindsey Skybar was one of the places
that he played a lot, where he would play in the house band and play opposite
great players, like Flip Phillips or Stan Getz or others that would be coming
GROSS: A lot of people grow up really disliking and then rejecting their
parents' music because it seems very old-fashioned to them. What did you like
about your father's music?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, I have to say, when I was really young, like five and six
years old, he gave me horns, you know, altos and then I got a tenor later when
I was more like 11 or 12. But when I was five and six and hearing him
practice around the house, that was what captured me--his sound. It wasn't
just the music that he played so much then. It was this powerful, beautiful
sound that he created that I used to just listen to and practice all the time.
I tried reeds before he would go to a gig, you know. And that's what really
got me into it; trying to develop and play, get a sound on my horn at the
beginning, you know. And then I got into the whole conception about jazz and
improvising through the years after that, you know. But at the beginning it
was mainly just that sound and being able to create that beautiful tone.
GROSS: What was it like for you as a boy to try to capture that kind of big
sound that your father got?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, it was pretty frustrating, but the more I went and started
to play, you know--and once I started to actually learn some songs--and he
would bring me to rehearsals and jam sessions. And once I was a teen-ager,
you know, 12 and 13 years old, I was starting to learn some of the tunes I was
hearing him play. And once I was able to actually sit in and play with
musicians in his generation and start to be accepted by them, by the way I
played, then things started to move fast. You know, I started to really get
deep into trying to learn some songs and some tunes, and learn from the
records that I was listening to of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and Sonny
Rollins and John Coltrane, Miles Davis.
GROSS: Now I think Tad Dameron was one of the musicians who your father knew
because Dameron was from Cleveland.
Mr. LOVANO: Yeah. Tad was from Cleveland, and his brother, Caesar Dameron
was an alto player who never really left the Cleveland area, and my dad knew
real well. My dad played with Tad in the mid-50s when he would come home to
visit or stay with his family during that time. Tad was somebody that I just
grew up knowing his name and knowing that Bird and Dizz played his music, you
know; that he wrote for the Dizzy Gillespie big band. And just knowing that
and trying to learn some of those songs, those complex melodies and harmonies,
gave me a lot of confidence about who I was and where I was from, and that the
music--it wasn't just--you know, it wasn't just a lot of imaginary characters
from history books or something. You know, they were real people, and that
gave me a lot of confidence to try to get myself together as a teen-ager, you
GROSS: Well, you recorded several Tad Dameron tunes on a recent CD called
"52nd Street Themes," so I thought we could listen to one of those now. And
this is, I don't know, I think Tad Dameron's perhaps most beautiful
composition, "If You Could See Me Now." And this is...
Mr. LOVANO: Yeah, I love this song.
GROSS: Yeah. So this is the Joe Lovano Nonet playing "If You Could See Me
(Soundbite of "If You Could See Me Now")
GROSS: That's the Joe Lovano Nonet from the CD "52nd Street Themes." Joe
Lovano has a new CD that's called "Flights of Fancy."
Now your father was deep into music, and he was probably really pleased and
even flattered that you were playing his instrument and listening to the same
music that he loved. What about your mother? How did she feel about you
going into music? Was she concerned about if you'd ever make a living, if
you'd ever be good enough to, you know, succeed as a professional?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, those questions always come up, sure. But my mom and my
Aunt Rose, especially, they were both like really big music lovers. And they
knew all the songs that I was trying to learn. So they heard me practicing a
lot more than my dad. They would open the basement door and tell me if I was
playing something right or wrong all the time, you know. My aunt was a
singer, too, when she was younger so she knew all these tunes and all the
lyrics, you know. So she would be singing along with me a lot of times, you
know, when I was first learning some standard tunes, you know.
Mr. LOVANO: So they were real encouraging, you know. And I would like
to--you know, I tried to be practicing when my dad came home from the barber
shop, you know, so he could hear me, you know. So my lessons weren't real
formal lessons like every Wednesday or every Tuesday. He would hear me
practicing and he'd come down and tell me what I was doing wrong or if I
sounded like I was moving in the right directions. You know, it was a real
loose, very loose thing. And it was a lot of fun, you know. There was never
anything about, you know, was I going to be able to make a living. I was
playing gigs and working before I even thought about any of that. And
subsequently after high school, I went to Berklee School of Music in 1971, the
year I graduated high school, and I had made all the money to go for my
enrollment at the college from playing gigs in high school.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is saxophonist Joe Lovano. He has
a new CD called "Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Edition Two." Let's
take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of saxophone music)
GROSS: Back with saxophonist Joe Lovano. He has a new CD called "Flights of
Now after learning in a very informal way from your father, what was it like
to go to the Berklee School of Music where the learning was going to be a lot
Mr. LOVANO: Well, at that time, in 1971, I had--when I went to the school, I
had already had a repertoire together of tunes that I knew, standard songs
from the Broadway songbook, as well as Charlie Parker's music and John
Coltrane's music. I was just starting to really learn and deal with that, you
know. As a teen-ager, I mean, Charlie Parker's music really got me into the
sound and the flow of syncopation and rhythm and playing through some
deceptive harmonies; you know, that prepared me to go Berklee.
So when I went to Berklee, I moved to Boston, I moved there with a few friends
of mine--Ron Smith, who was a vibes player--we grew up together--and Carmen
Custaldi(ph), a great drummer, and another drummer, Cleve Huff. The four of
us moved to Boston together and went to school. And we were all playing
together in bands before we went. So it was--there was a family vibe
happening within us already when we went up to Boston. So it was a very
And I had a chance to study with Gary Burton and a really fantastic ensemble
that he had. He was just starting to teach at Berklee at that point. So it
was his first semester teaching, and I was placed in his number-one ensemble
with all the other players that were in their final semesters. So that was a
big vote of confidence. And it was fantastic to work with someone like Gary
at that period. You know, we played music that he was recording and
experiencing and exploring.
GROSS: Well, now there's a new endowed chair at the Berklee School of Music
named in honor of Gary Burton, who you studied with. And you're the first
person to be named to that chair, so you'll be teaching now at Berklee.
Mr. LOVANO: I know, it's such a deep honor, and a very surprising thing that
happened just recently. And I'm really thrilled about this position and
appointment. And I'm looking forward to contributing at the school and also
going back up there and studying more myself.
GROSS: I think your first professional gig was with the organ player Lonnie
Mr. LOVANO: That was my first really professional jazz experience, yeah,
traveling in the States a little bit and recording--coming to New York and
recording for the first time.
GROSS: Yes. Now you recorded an album with him called "Aphrodisia." And I
want play a little bit of the title track.
Mr. LOVANO: Oh, wow. Look at that.
GROSS: This is from 1977.
(Soundbite of "Aphrodisiac")
Unidentified Man: Aphrodisia.
GROSS: Joe Lovano, that sounds so '70s.
Mr. LOVANO: Well, it was. It was around 1974.
GROSS: That's right. Well, how'd you feel about it at the time?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, you know, that particular tune I hadn't heard or played
until we got in the studio, you know. We were playing much more blues and
straight ahead jazz in the quartet. But Lonnie had a record contract with
Grove Merchant Records who wanted him to play more in that direction. And we
kind of put that together in the studio, and there was a lot of overdubs and
things that happened with those voices and percussion afterwards. I
didn't--we didn't record like that. That all kind of was produced by the
producer of the recording. So it was...
GROSS: It must have been surprising when you heard the mix.
Mr. LOVANO: Yeah, it was different. Yeah, it was different 'cause we played
just as a quartet more or less, you know. And then all that was added later
by the producers. They were trying to fill in, I think, a certain radio
agenda, you know, to get some air play. But it was strange because a lot of
times we would go out after that and play gigs, and we weren't playing any of
the music from the record. Lonnie didn't hardly know any of those tunes. We
just played--we put them together at the date for the session, you know. And
I think a lot of sessions were done like that at certain points. And some
musicians' careers, record companies try to shape the date for you, you know.
That's a big trap and it happens today as well.
GROSS: From 1976 to '79 you played with Woody Herman's big band. What did
you like about being in a big band and being part of a horn section, not just
being like the saxophonist in the quartet?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, you know, growing up with my dad, I always played two
saxophones with him. You know, a lot of my lessons we'd play together, you
know. And part of the whole thing about blending with others was part of our
lessons, you know. It wasn't just technical things about what notes to play.
It was how to play together with other people, whether it's with a saxophone
section or with a trumpet player or whatever kind of ensemble you're in, with
voices, with strings, percussion. And also it was a thing about playing with
musicians in my dad's generation, too, that was something that really taught
me a lot when I was a kid. So growing up and wanting to play with incredible
leaders like Woody Herman was something I always dreamt about and strived for,
and wanted someone like Woody to hear me and dig me; you know, dig my sound
and where I was coming from. So to get that gig and to stay with him during
his 40th anniversary period during that time in the late '70s was a real
thrill and an honor.
And I learned a lot about how to present myself as a leader and to deal with
the road, because we were on the road the whole time. We had like a week off
at Christmas and a week off in the summer, and over a two and a half year
period. I mean, it was all one-nighters the whole time all over the world.
GROSS: What did you learn about being a leader?
Mr. LOVANO: Oh, well, how to present a band. Woody was an amazing leader who
let the members of the band shape the ensemble. You didn't just fill a chair
and play your part. You had to do that, for sure, but then if you could play
a ballad, Woody would feature you in a certain direction. He would listen to
everyone in the band and find their strong points and feature them in those
areas, you know. And that's one thing that I learned about; when I put bands
together now is to try to have everybody in the ensemble contribute with their
personality and their abilities, you know. So as the personnel changes around
you, the music changes, too. You could play the same tune and have it be like
a total new experience with different players.
GROSS: My guest is saxophonist Joe Lovano. He has a new CD called "Flights
of Fancy." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of saxophone music)
GROSS: My guest is saxophonist Joe Lovano. He has a new CD called "Flights
Now you also played with Mel Lewis' big band Monday nights at the Village
Vanguard in New York from 1980, I think, to '92. What was it like to...
Mr. LOVANO: That was amazing. That was really amazing. The way Mel would
play and lead the band from the drum chair was amazing. Every soloist within
the band played with authority like it was their band, and Mel gave you that
kind of feeling. He let you play and give you the feeling like, `Hey, man,
this is your band when you're playing,' you know. And that was amazing to be
around. And I learned a lot about being a band leader, again, and the
confidence about sitting in a saxophone section and exploring these amazing
arrangements. But he was such a generous, beautiful, amazing spirit, you
He played on my first recording as a leader that was called "Tones, Shapes &
Colors" on the Soul Note record label. It feature Dennis Irwin on bass and
Kenny Werner on piano, and Mel and I. And we recorded live in New York City
here at the Jazz Coalition Center in 1985. And that was my first recording
that I put together and produced as leader, and Mel was just amazing. All a
sudden he was playing in my band, and we were traveling around a lot. We
played a lot in Boston and around the New York area. And we went out to
Cleveland and played in Pittsburgh. So we--you know, over a period of about
two years we were working a lot that led up to this recording. And Mel was
just incredible, man. He mean he would make some gigs that didn't pay that
much money, and then didn't even ask how much it paid. He just loved to play
and was proud to be a part of our scene.
GROSS: One of the trios on your new CD, which includes four different groups,
is with Toots Thielemans on harmonica and Kenny Werner at the piano. How did
you start playing with Toots Thielemans?
Mr. LOVANO: Well, I've known Toots for quite some time, and heard him play so
many different occasions. And I did some nights with Kenny and Toots at the
Iridium Club in New York last year. And when we played together there was so
much magic and so many things that were happening melodically through these
standard songs that we played. It was just really a thrill. And this is what
gave me the idea of putting a trios record together with some different trios,
maybe exploring some of the same tune with different trios.
Like on this recording, we play on "Giant Steps," for example. And I start
with the trio with Toots and Kenny and we play on the tune "Giant Steps" but
we play it as more of a romantic beautiful song that it is, and that segues
into a trio version featuring Cameron Brown and Idris Muhammad, and we treat
it more straight ahead and more swinging in a different kind of way. So that
was the first conception about putting a trios record together with different
groups was to explore this music, and the different feelings that you can have
playing through some of the same tunes, you know.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you good
luck with your teaching position in the fall at Berklee. Thank you.
Mr. LOVANO: Well, thank you so much, Terry. Thanks for having me on the
show. It was a real pleasure.
GROSS: Joe Lovano's new CD is called "Flights of Fancy."
(Soundbite of "Giant Steps")
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Giant Steps")
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