Interview with Pianist John Beasley on playing with Freddie Hubbard (8 years) and Miles Davis (1989)


Interview with Pianist John Beasley on playing with
Freddie Hubbard (8 years) and Miles Davis (1989)

Jazz Inside: What kinds of conversations did you have with Freddie Hubbard?

John Beasley: There were conversations about comping. He would yell, “Don’t lead me. Don’t lead me.” And, you’d have to figure out what he meant by that. He wanted me to play more 13ths and 6ths and he wanted me to chug the rhythm along instead of reacting to what he was doing. I think that’s what he meant by leading—reacting too much. He loved to duke it out with drummers. We talked about harmony. When we played ballads, he always said, “Listen to Bill Evans.” I thought that was cool. It would have been great to hear those two guys together. I was more into Cedar Walton—and funkier players at that point. It was a little bit later that I got into Bill Evans. I think we were going to play “Skylark” and he said, “You need to go and listen to Bill play ‘Skylark.’” So I did.

JI: How did your association with Miles Davis develop?

JB: In the late 1980s there was this club called Les Café where everyone used to play at. I had a band with Garry Willis, Vinnie Coliauta, Steve Tavaglione. We had a once a week hit there for a couple years. It got pretty popular and it was pretty wild. It was electric. But, we would just improvise sets—which was different for LA for that time. The people who were more hard core in LA would come out and hear this band. And, Miles Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn had just stopped playing with the band, and began working with Miles as a right hand man. Vince came in and would hang out, and all these Chicago guys would come in and hang out – so I got to know him. He said, “Why don’t you make me a tape for Miles?” He didn’t say Miles was looking for anyone. So I went back to my home studio and put up the Alesis HR-16 on a loop, and just improvised with my rig … and played over beats. I made a cassette and gave it to Vince and totally forgot about it. I put it out of my mind, thinking, “I don’t even want to think that anything could possibly happen with this.” A couple months later, he called me and asked me to join the band.

JI: What discussion ensued?

JB: Miles told me over and over, “If you can’t comp like Ahmad Jamal, then don’t play.” It was my first window into understanding how dedicated to art he was every day. Every night after the show, he would listen to the show. He’d have a cassette there, and he would listen — and he would have a comment for you before the next show. He would either call you into the dressing room and have something very specific to say—either about a section of the tune, or what he wanted from you. He was kind of cryptic the way he would say things to you. The comment about Ahmad Jamal … my first reaction was that I never heard Ahmad comp for anybody except a bass player. What I think he meant — and it’s come to me through the years — is, make a statement and get out of the way, and orchestrate. At that point we were playing music from Tutu, and Amandla. He wanted more of an orchestrated thing, rather than having someone underneath him, like Chick was in the 1970s. He was listening to all kinds of music throughout the day, Soca bands from the Caribbean … and he’d have his horns out and he’d be painting all day—even on the road. Or, he’d be talking on the phone to some designer about some new outfit. It was constant.

JI: What were some of the things that Miles pointed out to you when he would call you in?

JB: It was maybe that I wasn’t playing a rhythm right to set up Kenny[Garrett]’s solo. Or sometimes he would say, “Okay, tonight I’m going to feed you.” He would play these funny little riffs on the OBX and he would look at me through the top of his glasses. I’d be on the lookout for that. Sometimes he would grab my left hand. He didn’t want me soloing with any kind of self-accompaniment. If you go back [to the 1950s and 1960s) and listen to Red Garland and Wynton Kelly before they got that gig [with Miles Davis] and listen during and after—they really left room for the bass players and the drummer to react. As a piano player, if you play a riff and then another rhythm or comp after that riff with your left hand, you’re really filling up a lot of space. When Miles said, “Play block chords,” he didn’t necessarily mean for you to play block chords. He meant, keep your hands together—and play your hands as one idea instead of reacting to yourself. It really creates a lot of space for the rhythm section to play in, and for other guys to react to you. It puts the piano in a specific place in the rhythm section so it’s not dominating as much—so it’s like a mono instrument.

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