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Laurent Goddet: Free Blues: Don Pullen ("Jazz Hot", october 1976)
This is a translation of a French article which can be found in the original French on http://chrisme.club.fr/DonPullen/pages/don_autobio.htm. Any comments, suggestions or corrections to the translation from those fluent in French and English are welcomed. Send please to the translator, Mike Bond (noelle&glanmor45.freeserve.co.uk).
Notes on the translation into English: { } indicates words inserted for clarity
In July 1976, Don Pullen appeared at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

Considering the quality of your music, I think that you are one of those musicians who we know least well. Can you explain why we have heard so little spoken of you up to now?

I think the main reason is that I have not been recorded much in the United States. Now all you Europeans get to know American musicians principally from the records we make in the United States. Whoever becomes famous in the United States has every chance of becoming equally so in Europe. At the moment, I have not yet made a major recording under my name in America. On the other hand, I have already made four or five in Europe. Two for Black Saint (one with Sam Rivers and a solo which is not out yet), two for Horo and two albums with George Adams for the same label and another under Dannie Richmond's name. So that will be a total of seven in a year. So I think my popularity has more chance of establishing itself when these disks have been distributed. This kind of American lethargy has blocked me at present.

Can you describe it to us a little more precisely? You have, for example, produced two duo albums with Milford Graves.

Yes, we were partners, we produced these disks together; but we did not manage to distribute them correctly. Due to us having to fall back on mail order. Also the largest number of these disks were sold in Europe and Japan.

In New York there were labels like Savoy and ESP which recorded the type of music that you played then. Why is it then that Graves and you pushed on to found this {record} company?

I had recorded for ESP with Guiseppe Logan. But I never wanted to record as leader, because I knew there will be money problems with Bernard Stollman, the director of ESP. It is not lack of trying to make recordings with other labels, simply they did not want me... I have just signed with Atlantic: maybe it will be the beginning...

Critical praises, like those of Leroy Jones, will help you in some fashion, I suppose?

You know, all good criticism helps us, but in a roundabout way of which we are often oblivious. Yourself, for example, told me you have made Gamsohn listen to one of my disks. I knew nothing whatever of that. So most of the time these things happen without us knowing it.

For us European listeners, your debut began with the recordings with Guiseppe Logan. Can you tell us what you did before that.

Before that, I was in college, I played in different local groups.

Where do you come from?

From Virginia, but I studied in North Carolina. Once school ended, I stayed for a time in Chicago, then in Connecticut, and lastly in New York. During all these years I never ceased to play. Jazz, blues, rhythm 'n' blues, with singers....

Can you give some names?

Of singers? I played with Ruth Brown, Arthur Prysock, Irčne Reid. Big Maybelle... There were so many.

Do you like this type of work?

It would be difficult to not like it, because they are all fantastic singers. How can one not like to accompany geniuses; in the same way if one wants to, as in my case, to direct his own orchestra? Meanwhile, to play with these people constituted a wonderful interlude. Also it was necessary to eat.

How long did you take this sort of job?

In fact I still continue today.... But I don't do it other than for the singers who have become personal friends, for example those whom I have named. I play in concerts for them, but I will not agree to go on tour any more. If Prysock calls me and asks me to go with him, I will go wherever he wants, when he wants, because I owe him enormously. For him, I return any favour as soon as he wants.

This period where you accompanied these vocalists was mainly set before you played with Logan?

No, during. You know, there was not so much work for the type of music we played (with Guiseppe).

When did you settle in New York?

Around 1964/1965. In fact, when we recorded those albums with Guiseppe, it was scarcely a few weeks after I first found myself in New York.

How had you made his acquaintance?

Through the intermediary of a bassist who I met in North Carolina and who was moreover the only person I knew in New York. He was named Lewis Worrell. Maybe you have heard him spoken of: he had often played with Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler. After I arrived in New York I called Lewis who was just going to Guiseppi's. He told me to come with him. Guiseppi had an old out of tune piano at his house on which I played, and from this moment our association was very close.

Did you already know about the new jazz which had developed in New York?

Yes, but I was not very open to this type of music. It is Guiseppe who helped to open me to many different aspects of music.

Do you consider him one of the great forces of the music of this period.

Certainly.

How did he exercise his influence then?

Not so much in a direct way: he did not say to me what it was necessary to play or how to play. Rather he taught me to think of the music, how to adopt an adequate approach to the music, how to open my mind to the new ideas. He and Muhal Richard Abrams proceeded in the same manner. Also I passed directly from one to the other. Thus there was practically no break of continuity. I had met Muhal in Chicago, where he devoted much of his time to me; not in showing me how to to play but in teaching me to think.

The Guiseppi group did not last long. Was this a regular band or simply put together for the recording session? Had you given concerts, for example?

Did we work in public?.... Very rarely. It must be said that at that time the establishment was extremely opposed to the new music.

But did the group one hears on disks rehearse often?

Oh, yes, nearly every day. We were completely immersed in the music. All day long.

Regarding your association with Milford Graves, it was said that you soon fell out. Is that true?

No, not at all. We remained friends a very long time after the about two years when we sold our duo albums.

Were you happy with these albums?

I think they are excellent. Milford is a great drummer. When we separated there was not any animosity, or any rancour between us. Simply I wanted to develop in a certain direction, he in another.

Do you know what happened to Guiseppe Logan after you separated?

No, I'm ignorant of where he may be today. But he is still around.

Do you mean to say that he continues to play?!

No, not in public in any case...

One recognises in your playing today the very free and very savage style that you created at that time. But more than that, equally, there is another aspect of your musical personality, more oriented towards the Blues and Gospel, which the recordings of the Guiseppe period did not allow heard. Is that something that was developed by you during this time or did you already play this way in the middle of the nineteen sixties?

That's true, the disks which I have recorded during the past gave importance to only one aspect of my playing. But my background is the Blues and Gospel and the church. Today I incorporate all this in my playing, but in fact I have always played in the same manner, most people are ignorant of this.

When you talk about your background in regard to Blues and Gospel, do you mean to say that you have grown up in this musical environment?

Yes. I was brought up with the church. I commenced to play in church, choir leader, and took part in small local blues ensembles, and R 'n' B equally. This was where I made my debut. Today, I continue to make use of what I learned then. It became integrated into my musical personality.

You are also a composer of great talent. Do you compose much?

I have composed nearly all the pieces I interpret. There is only one piece figuring in my repertoire I haven't composed, it's a composition by Muhal (Richard Abrams) entitled "Richard's Tune". I am not a very prolific composer; themes come to me and I transcribe them onto paper. In this way I have amassed a sufficient number {of pieces}.

Returning to Chicago, if you will. How long did you stay and what kind of experiences did you have?

I stayed there between two weeks and a month, that's all. During these weeks where I stayed with Muhal, I think I aged about five years!

Were you then in contact with the young musicians of Chicago, with the Art Ensemble for example.

Yes, I know them. I remember also Jack De Johnette who was playing piano at that period, Donald Garrett, and many others.... None of them had left Chicago at this time, I'm speaking of ten to twelve years ago.

You have frequently made allusions to a band that you want to form. Have you already an idea of the musicians that you would like to call.

Yes indeed, but I'm not anxious to say whom to you, in case it upsets some who currently form part of other groups who will think I am trying to seduce them away.

Meanwhile, you can tell us if you intend forming a quintet, for example....

A quintet or a trio. I think I must limit my experience of solo piano to particular occasions like this. Frankly I prefer to play with a band. The recordings which are planned for Atlantic on my return to New York will use certain members of this band I have in mind, and who I hope will become permanent.

How long have you signed with Atlantic for?

For three years.

In your biography there is a great void between the Milford Graves period and the moment when Mingus called you. This represents a period of about eight years. What did you do during this time? Simply accompany singers?

That's it. And then I performed equally regularly in a club on the organ. You know organ jazz, a la Jimmy Smith.

What sort of club was this? Places where people dance, restaurants, cabarets?

All imaginable situations: dance, dinner, cocktails, Bar Mitzvahs, all you want... These were things I must do to survive, but there were not many things I hated to do. I needed to do all these things to survive and enable me to work here today. I like all sorts of music, I can join a rock band and truly enjoy myself. It has no importance from the moment when it is good music and when it is well played.

I want to ask you a question close to my heart. At your suggestion, I don't fail to return to Cecil Taylor of whom you are supposedly under the influence. For my part I see enormous differences between the style developed by Cecil Taylor and yours. What do you think.

Obviously: there is not any similarity between him and me. At the time I began to play I knew nothing about Cecil, I never heard talk of him when I arrived in New York.

You mean to say when you played sessions with Guiseppe Logan....

I didn't know he existed! You could not get his disks where I grew up. No, my influences, were Ornette and Eric Dolphy, the saxophonists, I did not know there was anyone named Cecil Taylor. I had never heard anyone play the piano in a way approaching mine. I had been surprised later that anyone had the idea of developing a style like Cecil's so many years before I began to play myself. It was a great shock. Cecil and I had not met and had not spoken together before last year, here, with Juan. When the critics began to speak of Cecil Taylor in relation to me, I asked myself of what they could really be speaking of. So I had not tried to analyse his way of playing, precisely in order not to be influenced, and to pursue my own direction. In the same way I banned myself from attending his concerts so no one could say : "Look, Don Pullen listens to Cecil Taylor; he is still trying to pinch his tricks...." As far as we are concerned, we know very well we do not play at all in the same way. Moreover we have spoken about it together. But in the end, this controversy is out there, why take offence? It may even contribute to help us.... All the same neither one nor the other are fools.

What do you think of the large festivals, like this one for example?

I have always liked to take part. From the time that some people are responsive to what I play, it can be in a bar, it will be the same to me. What is important to me is that the people come for the music and that they listen to it. I like festivals because they present an outlet for the music.

Do you think you will return to Europe soon?

Yes, I would like that very much. In fact they have offered me another festival in autumn in Italy, but we have not yet signed the contract.

I am surprised by your remark that for about fifteen years practically all the pianists were unable to prevent themselves from adopting the style of phrasing of one musician, Bud Powell. Today we find a number of pianists like yourself, Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett, whose phrases in actual fact do not belong to anyone but themselves. Did you listen to bop pianists when you were very young?

You know, I was living in Virginia, at a place where practically there was no contact with jazz, but by the medium of records. I had never heard Bud Powell or Thelonius Monk before the end of my adolescence. The only musicians I had heard up till then were rhythm and blues musicians. From there I set out trying to develop a personal style. So I had not been exposed to many influences. The only important thing from this period, is that I had a cousin who was a great pianist. He was called Clyde Wright, "Fats" Wright. Clyde had been part of the jazz scene; he had played with Dinah Washington and had directed several small groups. When he returned home, I was sixteen years old. As soon as I heard him, I said to myself: "See, that's how I want to play!" So I always stayed stuck to him. I remember I said to him: "Clyde, I want to play very fast, to move over the keyboard at high speed," and he said to me: "Don't worry, it will come." We used to talk together all night. He spoke to me of the jazz life, of Art Tatum - I had never heard Art Tatum spoken of before - he played very much like Art. Even today, I play very much like Clyde. In fact if there was a pianist who ever influenced me, it's him. I must repeat what I have always said to you about the influence of pianists on my playing: Clyde had an enormous importance for me then. At college I heard some records of Ornette of which I understood nothing; all I knew was I liked them. I owned all his disks. He and Eric Dolphy. Dolphy really made me travel.... That is the sort of music I wanted to be part of.

Can you say exactly what you took from them: the melody, the rhythm, phrasing, the harmonic research?

No, it was above all the feeling, which touched me immediately. It was a shock to me from the first note. I knew it was something real, true. It was new and I was young. So I chose that direction. Certainly I could not play the same lines as Ornette or Don.

Is it impossible to transcribe these on a piano?

Yes.... Because if one wants to remain oneself, one can not set out to play exactly like someone else. But the idea that I had in my head, was to attempt to play as supple, as loose, as them, while keeping my own style. That is the freedom; this looseness.

How were you engaged by Mingus?

Roy Brooks was his drummer at that time. John Foster was going to leave the band. Now Roy and I knew each other already. He had heard me play on the organ, that had been enough for him. A little later, he heard me play piano. He called Mingus to advise him to engage me. I went there, I played a single piece for Mingus who said to me "Very good. We are playing tomorrow night; can you be there?" I answered yes. So that was how it began.

To me, that is one of the best units that Mingus ever directed.

That is my opinion as well. There was great strength in that band, principally provided by the saxophonists ["blowers" in the French], Bluiett, George Adams: both are extraordinary musicians. I think that they will soon have the opportunity to make themselves heard in their own context, in the style which suits them, because they are capable of giving a new impulse to the whole musical scene.

How long did you stay with Mingus?

A little more than three years.

After which you decided that was enough....

I had had enough..... from the first month! But yet, I stayed. There were highs and lows. Although I get feeling on stage, I always attempted to bring with me good vibrations for the music and I leave my personal feelings towards some other musicians in the dressing room. So I took great pleasure each time I played in that band.

Outside the musicians that you have put forward for your own organisation, are there any musicians who, for various reasons, can not take part in this group and with whom nevertheless you would like to perform? Some musicians in a word that you consider as important on the actual musical scene....

As I have said to you, I have presently in mind the names of those I consider as important and who, I think, will be free and able to join my band. But outside of that, I would like it very much if Gil Evans would write a small piece for piano and orchestra to my design. He has written a magnificent piece for George Adams. I have only heard this album once, but it is a real marvel.

How do you think the European audience compares with the American?

I like this audience: they travel specially to listen to the music, they are capable of appreciating good jazz. In reality the people here are, I think, very good, more in touch with jazz matters than in the United States. So they are better judges. In Italy, they are really fantastic. As far as those who have come to hear me today, I find them a little more intellectual. They listen with great attention to the least thing that is done on stage. A most analytical audience it appears to me.

Is solo piano a form that you cherish, or else is it something accidental for you?

It's Bill Smith, the journalist of Coda Magazine and the producer of Sackville records, who urged me in the direction of solo piano. Bill worried me a very long time and asked me "Don, why don't you play solo." I always replied that I preferred the group context. Then he asked me to give two or three solo concerts in Canada which he will record. I said to myself: "OK, I'll try." As I practised in this new form, I came to like it. It was on all counts an excellent idea, but I no less prefer the framework of a group. Only now, with my band, I will play part of the concert as solo, or as duo piano-bass, or as piano-bass-drums.... There is no reason why we should all play together all the time.

What do you think of Keith Jarrett on solo piano?

...No comment.

Do you ever request the electric piano, {or} the synthesiser? To play in type of groups of the Herbie Hancock type?

I play electric piano, but this type of music does not enthral me unduly at this moment. Maybe it will interest me one day.... Although it may be necessary that I can play these tricks! I do not doubt that I am able to do it, but I would like to hear the result. This might be a good experience, but I am sure it will not become essential to what I play. I am not truly interested in electronics. Most of the sounds they obtain with the electronics, I can obtain on an acoustic piano.

When you play, how do you effect the liaison between the harmonic and more free passages?

The most natural{way} in the world; it's all the same to me.

For example, do you decide, before attacking a piece that you will interpret it in a very free style, or to the contrary that you will try to give it a gospel character?

Certain compositions automatically lead to a certain style of play. But vice versa they also appeal directly to what you feel at a precise moment. Sometimes I sense myself drawn by a certain ambience, and play so. Other times, it is the piece itself which suggests many directions I can make use of. I let the music unroll alone: I am content to play what it tells me....

Do you adopt any particular religion?

I do not practice any formal religion. I am a religious person but I am not tied to any religious organisation.


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