Don Pullen: an Interview by Vernon Frazer     HOME

The following interview was published first in the jazz magazine "coda", October 1976, Toronto, Canada. Photographs by Bill Smith.

Don Pullen 1976 Vernon Frazer: In 1966 I heard you play on a Giuseppi Logan album and read several reviews of your performances and recordings with Milford Graves. After that, I didn't see your name mentioned until about 1972, when you joined Charles Mingus' band. What did you do during those years? Apparently you received very little publicity.
Don Pullen: During that time the music critics were especially adverse to what they called the New Music, Avant Garde or whatever. After the period with Milford Graves, I worked with a trio around New York, had an organ group and played for a lot of singers. I just made it any way I could and still stay in music.
V.F.: How did you join Mingus?
D.P.: Roy Brooks recommended me. Mingus just called me and I made the gig.
V.F.: And you stayed with him for three years?
D.P.: Approximately.
V.F.: Why did you decide to leave Mingus?
D.P.: Personal reasons. It was just time to go, time to leave.
V.F.: Do you want to be more specific ?
D.P.: I would rather not, right now.
V.F.: During the time you played with him, did Mingus influence you in any way?
D.P.: No. Before I met Mingus, I was playing virtually the same way I play now. My way of playing had to be a little more contained with him because of the form of the tunes, the changes and so forth. I had to stay within a certain framework to do justice to his tunes, you see. lf I had ventured to play them the way I think they should be played, there might have been a little conflict.
V.F.: What have you been doing since you left his band?
D.P.: I've been doing a few things. I've recorded for an Italian label, a European label, done solo concerts up in Canada. I've worked with a trio here in New York, using Bobby Battle on drums and Alex Blake, whenever he's available, on bass.
V.F.: In the mid-sixties you and Milford Graves recorded, produced and distributed an album by yourselves. Why did you choose this over the more conventional avenues of recording?
D.P.: For awhile, the critics and second producers were turning thumbs down on the New Music and the New Musicians. Milford and I were having difficulty getting recorded, as I am even today. We weren't getting any play from the White Establishment. They were only recording those they felt were more Establishment-inclined, so we just decided to do it ourselves. During that time, you see, the lack Revolution was happening. The social and political aspects made it just about the right time for us to go into this venture. Musicians were thinking about controlling their own music. We weren't going to sit back and wait on the Man to say, "Well, here. Take this crumb." We said, "We'll do it ourselves." That was the impetus. We did a concert at Yale, decided to record it and try to do it ourselves, to expose ourselves. And we were successful to a very big degree, you know. We sold a lot of records, we got our name out there. We achieved what we set out to do.
V.F.: Were any other opportunities for recording available at that time, possibly through ESP Records or through Bill Dixon, when he was at Savoy?
D.P.: I came to New York, I think, a little bit after Bill Dixon and the Savoy thing. I did record two albums for ESP with Giuseppi Logan but I never did an album for him under my own name. Bernard Stollman, by that time, had - has even now- a lot of good music. He recorded everybody, all the cats. Some of it he released, some of it he didn't.
V.F.: When you put out your own record, did you hope to attract the attention of a major Jazz label?
D.P.: Not really. We were mainly concerned with trying to build our own company and eventually control our own music. When I traveled with Mingus and even now, wherever I go, people always ask about the record. Milford and I get letters now, every day, from people asking where they can get the record. We only did two. I think eventually we're going to have to reissue both albums. One avenue might be to lease the masters to a larger company. There's a lot of headaches, a lot of trouble, in trying to take care of the business and play also. lt would be easier for another company to put it on the market.
V.F.: How did you handle the distribution of the record?
D.P.: We went into mail order. We got some play from the music magazines Downbeat, Jazz, all the major Jazz magazines. Different music critics would write about, you know, and people would write in and ask for it. Some distributors in Europe and Japan asked for five hundred or a thousand copies. But in the U.S. we never had any distribution to speak of. We sold more records in Europe and Japan than we did in the States.
V.F.: lt seems you've recorded more outside the States than you have inside.
D.P.: Yeah. I've got three in Europe and one in Canada in 1975, you know, and can't get a record date in America.
V.F.: Why can't you get a record date here?
D.P.: I have no idea. I don't think they like me here. I think they're trying to run me out of the country. (Laughs) I don't know, man. I really don't know. I have certain opinions I might venture, but I really can't say.
V.F.: Would you put out your own record now, if you felt it was necessary?
D.P.: If I felt it was necessary, I would do it. Like I said, I really don't want the headache of doing it. I enjoy the work that's involved, but I would prefer to let somebody else do it while I concentrate on the music. The machinery that's necessary, the distribution, is a major problem with any venture such as producing. You have to have world-wide distribution. It means collecting your money - all this takes a big operation to be really big, you know? If necessary, I do it on a small level - you know, myself. And I'm almost to that point now. I've done it before, so I can do it again.
V.F.: Although independent recording has received less publicity than it did during the sixties, it seems that, in recent years, the number of musicians who release their own work on their own labels has increased. Do you think these musicians are acting on the same motivation as you and Graves?
D.P.: Yeah. The same things. In fact, a lot of the cats that are trying to produce their own records today come to us from time to time for advice, to see how we did it. They're doing it their own way, but I think Milford and I, during the sixties, were pioneers in that aspect of doing it yourself. Of course, other musicians have done it before: Sun Ra, Mingus. But during that time, we were the youngest cats out there and it was like phenomenal for two young dudes to be doing it, you see. So it inspired other cats to say, "Yeah, we'll try it too."
V.F.: Over the past decade, what changes do you think have taken place in the New Music?
D.P.: Looking back and comparing then with now, I don't see that real drive. Like, cats were I hate to just say "into it", but that's the best I can explain - they were into it. It was like a community, you know, even though they might be separated for miles. Nowadays, I think they're going more towards the Jazz-Rock - that bullshit, you know - trying to sound like Miles. There's no real influence, no leadership, out there. Which is one reason why I think they won't record me. If they ever give me a chance, I'm gonna lay something heavy on 'em and they really don't want anything like that - too heavy - out. The people in power always say, "Well, people don't want to hear this" or "People don't understand it." They're always looking down on people. I think one of the prime purposes of music is enlightenment, to elevate people. Music is supposed to elevate the person. If you always play down to people, they don't move anywhere. For instance, different things I was doing in the sixties I hear cats in Rock doing now. But in the sixties, they said it was nonsense.
V.F.: They didn't understand it at the time.
D.P.: Exactly. And they said, "People can't understand it, they'll never understand it. " But they're doing it. I'm playing basically the same way I've been playing all my life and more and more people are digging it. But what if I had stopped back then? If nobody ever does anything new, if nobody tries to advance the music, then everything is going to become dead. Everything is going to become stagnant. Everybody was talking about "Jazz is Dead " because there was no innovation, there were no new things out. But there were. It was happening, but it wasn't being given to the people. It wasn't being exposed at all. So they said, "Well, it's dead." Damn right it's dead, if you keep playing something over and over for twenty years.
V.F.: The media made it appear dead, although a lot was really going on.
D.P.: Yeah. That's what was happening when the so-called Revolution in Music was happening. They called it the "October Revolution". They used the term "revolution" because there was a call for something new. When I first came to New York in 1964, Bill Dixon had a club - on 96th Street, I think. He was doing that thing and I was there every night. I heard them cats and I said, "Goddamn! What is this shit? What is this here?" That was what I had been looking for, searching for. People used to say I played strange. I really didn't know anybody else who was playing, you know? So when I went there I had heard Eric Dolphy and Ornette - they were the two main influences on me - but aside from them, I didn't know there were many other musicians playing. I said, "Well, this is it. I'm not alone"
V.F.: During that period, the New Musicians were attempting to develop an aesthetic which didn't necessarily require or follow a preconceived structure -
D.P.: That's not true. The critics used to say that because they didn't know what the structure was, what the form was. The form was different, something they never heard, so they said there was no form. They didn't know what it was. On a higher level there is a communication among musicians that gives its own form to what you're doing, you see. This is why I don't like to play with a lot of people. If I do, I like for everybody's head to be in the same direction. That way you can create on that higher level. Like I said, the form, the structure, everything was there. People weren't used to hearing it and so they said there was none. Now, one critic wrote about me and said I didn't have one touch of rhythm at all. He said I didn't have no melody, no rhythm, no nothing. It was dumbass! (Laughs.) He didn't know.
V.F.: Would it be more accurate to say that the New Musicians used a wide variety of structures, sometimes within the same piece, to enhance their expression?
D.P.: Yeah. They used to call it freedom because you were free to do whatever you wanted to do. But that wasn't really now in the sense that, for instance, Mingus' compositions, though from a different era, have always been free. Duke's were like that. Duke used whatever he felt that he should use to express whatever ideas he had, so that was really nothing new. It was just a different way of expressing the same thing. You see, there are no limits to music, to anything. The only limitation is your own mind. If you say, "Well, this is what I want to do," then stop there, that's as far as it's gonna go. But somebody else is gonna say, "No, I can take it a little bit farther than that." Everything builds, one on top of the other, you know. It's like a stack, one up. You just stop whenever you go as high as you want to go. That's the end of it. There's one area of music that if you do get into is very dangerous for your life, but I don't want to get into that. I really don't know much about it.
Don Pullen 1976 V.F.: In what ways do you feel your own music has evolved over the years?
D.P.: It's difficult for me to discuss my own music because I've never really satisfied myself. I know that I have done some good things. I think the solo album I did for Sackville is good. I like that more than anything else I've done. But now I don't even like that. I can't say because I'm continually growing. What I played five minutes ago, I won't like the next five.
V.F.: Do you prefer to play solo or with a group?
D.P.: At this point, I enjoy both. When I come out with a group, I do parts of a performance solo and parts of it with the group. I play differently with a group than I do solo. Solo gives me a different kind of freedom of expression than with a group. For example, Song Played Backwards. I started at the end and played it backwards.
V.F.: What was the song?
D.P.: I didn't have a title for it. I played it by myself, you know, so I just...played it backwards. (Laughs.) There are different ways of doing things. I just felt like doing it, so I did it. When I solo, it's only my mind. You can do anything you want to do with a group, you know. Like I said, you set your own limitations. When I play with a group, I have another kind of freedom of expression because I have the other minds, the other vibrations of the musicians working, you see. There's interplay. You have to consider them and they have to consider you. So a group adds another aspect to the music. I enjoy both, you know, and it doesn't matter to me if I play solo or with somebody else.
V.F.: Have you performed any of your solo pieces in a group setting?
D.P.: No, I haven't. Some of them are not adaptable to groups. At least, I haven't figured out a way to do it. I imagine I can. Some I just like to play solo. Richard's Tune is one of my favorites. It's adaptable to group or trio or whatever, but I prefer to play it solo. The Malcolm piece is part of a suite which has seven or eight, I guess you'd call them. The only one that I can play solo is the one I recorded, Malcolm, Memories and Gunshots. That's the only one that's adaptable to piano. The rest of it is integrated into the full wide spectrum - small group, strings, full orchestra.
V.F.: Then you've written for large ensembles, also?
D.P.: Yeah, I used to be Arranger and Conductor for King Records a few years back. That was also in the sixties. Not jazz things, but for singers: Arthur Prysock, Irene Reid.
V.F.: In recent years, jazz musicians have recorded solo piano albums more frequently than they have in the past. Why do you think this is happening?
D.P.: I really don't know, but it's nothing new. Tatum did it. Monk has done it. Duke. On one cut I remember, Eric Dolphy played solo saxophone - God Bless The Child, I believe. Solo isn't really new, you know. My cousin, who was a big influence on my playing - Clyde "Fats" Wright used to tell me that unless you could play solo, you couldn't play at all. I think every piano player has to. If you sit home and practise, you develop a way of playing solo, anyway. I think more people are becoming aware of the beauty of just piano alone. Classical music, you know, has solo concerts, so it's not strange for jazz to do the same thing. It's always been there.
V.F.: Do you think the increase in solo piano recordings could be, in part, a reaction to the increased use of electronic keyboard instruments?
D.P.: I don't know. I don't deal with electronics too much. I don't know anything about them, really. I've played electric piano, but I think all those things will pass, you know. It's not real, it's not the real thing. I break up electric pianos, so I can't play them. I have to be very careful with them or else they won't last ten minutes. My own piano is in such bad shape, man, that I've been trying to tune it myself. I'm ashamed to call a tuner over here to try to fix it. So I need something sturdy.
V.F.: An electric piano wouldn't lend itself to your percussive style of playing.
D.P.: It doesn't lend itself at all. It doesn't have the sound, the overtones - I make use of overtones. The electric piano. Well, there can't be. There might be electronic ones. But I don't think I want to get into that.
V.F.: In your solo pieces, you sometimes play the strings inside the piano. Did you learn this formally or pick it up on your own?
D.P.: I did it on my own. My technique is my own. I don't know if anybody can teach you to play strings. You have to do it yourself, find out where they are and play them.
V.F.: When you improvise, do you consciously move "inside" or "outside", as the terms are customarily used?
D.P.: No, I wouldn't say so. It depends on the particular composition that I'm playing. If I'm playing a tune with a set structure, say the structure is "in" and I want to move "out", then I don't consciously say that I want to move "out". I try to let the flow of the music direct me. If you feel it's going in a particular direction, don't force it. Other times it might be necessary to force it in some direction, whatever it is. If you don't feel like you're getting what you want out of the music, then you have to force it. We have to get out of the concept of "in " and "out ". I might say, "This cat is out, " but I don't mean it in the sense of "as a way of playing". There's no such thing as playing "in " or "out ". It's a way of playing. Period. It's just what you feel, how you're playing. You have to let it move you, instead of moving yourself. There's no feeling of what to do next, or whatever. You don't really know what you're going to do next.
V.F.: A number of your compositions appear simple in their melodic content, in that a listener can easily sing the melodies. How does this relate to the complexity of your improvisation? Some musicians use relatively simple compositions because the simplicity allows them more freedom to improvise.
D.P.: Well, the majority of my compositions are about people that I know. Dee Arr is Danny Richmond. Richard is Richard Abrams. And Traceys of Daniel that's my daughter, Tracey Danielle. Melodies are moods, rhythms and feelings that remind me of certain people. I find that within people there's just one thing and that's very simple. Their ways of acting, the things they do, the way they go through certain changes, gets complex. But, basically everything is the same. We come from one source, you know. So that's the way my little melodies come out. And I find that I'm not that complex anyway, so far as music is concerned. Simplicity is very difficult to achieve - to play simple, I mean. Mal Waldron is a good friend of mine. I remember I was at school when I first heard him. It was amazing to me how he could take about four or five notes and play nothing but those four or five, or just play within a scale, and just weave those notes in and out, in and out and still keep building. He's a master of simplicity and there's so much beauty in simplicity. But I can think of a person and play something that would remind me of him. I do things like that.
V.F.: In the sixties, your playing was frequently compared to Cecil Taylor's - D.P.: That's only dumb critic's talk! When I came to New York, I didn't even know who Cecil Taylor was. In fact, I met Cecil three times over the last ten years and I have never yet heard him play.
V.F.: Not even on records?
D.P.: I've heard one or two records by him. One of them, I think, was at Bill Smith's house in Canada. The last time I saw Cecil was in Switzerland, at Montreux. We talked just about all day, hung out all day together. I got to know him a little better then, but this was about ten years later, you see. He's aware that I don't play like him and I'm aware that he doesn't play like me, either. We appreciate each other, we dig each other as people. I used to purposely avoid him because when I came to New York the first review was, "Don Pullen sounds like Cecil Taylor." If the critics said anything about me, Cecil's name had to be mentioned. Now, I didn't know who this motherfucker was, never even seen him. If he was playing somewhere, I wouldn't go there because I didn't want to sound like anybody. I was insecure in my position because he's been established for twenty or thirty years and I supposedly sounded like him. So I said, 'Whoever he is, I'm gonna stay away from him so that I can be free to develop my own way and go my own way." If I sounded that much like him, as young as I was, then I might have been influenced by him.
V.F.: Which would have been dangerous for your future growth.
D.P.: Yes, of course. So l stayed away from him. As I became secure in my position, that I could play my own way, it didn't matter. So now I consider him a friend and I still don't know what he sounds like. From what I've heard of him, we might have the same way of doing things. But if you play C-D-E-F-G and I play the same thing, it's going to sound different. People haven't tuned their ears to hear the difference between your C and my C. Or maybe they're not taking the time to hear the difference. Cecil's background and my background are so different that we could never possibly sound alike.
V.F.: What is your background? l know Cecil graduated from the New England Conservatory. Their catalogue lists him as one of their Distinguished Alumni although, from what I've read about him, he hated the place.
D.P.: (Laughs.) I imagine he would. He's a free spirit and a very beautiful person. So I imagine that they probably did give him hell. But my background was the Rhythm and Blues, chitterlings circuit and the church.
V.F.: Did you have any conservatory training?
D.P.: No.
V.F.: Any lessons?
D.P.: Oh yeah. The lady across the street was a piano teacher. But that was it. I went to school to become a doctor, but split after awhile. The pull of music, the influence of music, was too great. School was just a diversionary tactic. I knew all along I was going into music. So here I am: got my shingle hanging out and an eviction notice on my door.
Don Pullen 1976 V.F.: Some musicians who play Fusion music -
D.P.: Fusion music?
V.F.: Yeah. The Jazz-Rock that Miles is doing, for example.
D.P.: Oh, that's what they call it?
V.F.: That's the most common label for it.
D.P.: Oh yeah?... Fusion music.
V.F.: The fusion of Jazz and Rock.
D.P.: Oh, I see. Okay...Con-fusion.
V.F.: (Laughs.) Anyway, some of the musicians playing Fusion music have openly stated that they're playing to make money so they can survive, as well as invest in the equipment and facilities required to make their music. Do you think you could alter your style to achieve greater commercial success?
D.P.: I could do it easily. It's hard, man, when you see cats out there making a whole bunch of money playin' shit while you're trying to elevate the music and by elevating the music elevate yourself. It's a feather in your cap when you be true to the music. So it's sort of difficult. I imagine anybody might be tempted to do something. But with me it's only lasted for a minute because I wouldn't be able to live unless I got some sort of satisfaction from the music that I was playing. I would probably die right quick, so there's only one way for me to go. I have to be true to myself and play the music that I feel I'm supposed to play. Otherwise, there's no purpose to it. What have I been doing all these years if I'm gonna sit down and play some shit, some garbage, you know? Then I've wasted half my life because I don't need training, I don't need thought, I don't need mental abilities, I don't need insight, I don't need creative power - I don't need any of that, you dig? I could just sit down and bullshit! If the cats that are doing it feel that's where they belong, then I've got no criticism of them. But a lot of it's more business and greed than anything else.
V.F.: It's difficult for you to get your music heard. What do you do to survive?
D.P.: What do I do? I do the same thing I'm doing now, just make it from day to day and keep my music on a high level. If I take care of the music, it'll take care of me. Then I go out, try to help myself. I don't just lay on my ass. I do whatever is necessary. If I believe in the music like I say I do, then I've got to do something to make the music heard. There's different ways of doing it. But I've managed these years. I might take a gig at the corner bar, playing some funk or fatback, whatever you want to call it, to survive, all for the music. There are bad periods in everyone's life, you know, periods when nothing is happening or happening the way you would like it to. But if you endure those periods, your playing becomes that much stronger. You learn from those periods, gain strength from them and the strength you gain comes out in your music. If you play truthful music, it's going to prevail, no matter what. My music is too good to be ignored, so I'll do whatever I have to do to keep it on a high level and get it out to the people. Like I said, if I take care of the music, the music will take care of me.