CHICAGO JAZZ MAGAZINE
JAN | FEB 2016
JAN | FEB 2016
George Fludas, In His Own Words...
In His Own Words...
Chicago drummer George Fludas was born in Chicago on October 10, 1966. He was inspired to play drums by his father, who was also a drummer, and who exposed him to great jazz drummers such as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and “Philly” Joe Jones. He attended Lane Tech High School where he majored in music and played percussion in their concert band and orchestra. After briefly attending Roosevelt University’s music school in 1985-86, he began freelancing with Chicago greats Von Freeman, Jodie Christian and Lin Halliday, as well as playing in groups with guitarist Bobby Broom, and saxophonists Ron Blake and Eric Alexander. He has subsequently played with many stellar musicians such as Ira Sullivan, Buddy Montgomery, Lou Donaldson, Frank Wess, Kenny Burrell, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Roy Hargrove, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Diana Krall, Benny Carter, Phil Woods, Junior Cook, Slide Hampton, Jesse Davis and Benny Green.
Fludas has performed at numerous jazz venues in the U.S. such as the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, Yoshi’s in Oakland, the Blue Note, Village Vanguard, Smoke and the Jazz Standard in New York and Catalina’s in Hollywood, as well as many international jazz festivals, including Montreal Festival du Jazz, Bern Jazz Fest in Switzerland, Glasgow and Edinburgh Jazz Fests, Vitoria Jazz Fest, San Sebastian Fest in Spain and the USS Norway Jazz Cruise. He toured Europe and Japan extensively as a member of Ray Brown’s Trio, and with groups led by Hank Jones, Diana Krall, Monty Alexander, Cedar Walton and Joey DeFrancesco. Fludas lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons and performs regularly with local artists and visiting headliners at the Jazz Showcase, Andy’s Jazz Club and The Green Mill. He can be heard on numerous CDs as a sideman with Ray Brown, Eric Alexander, Monty Alexander, Kyle Asche, Geof Bradfield, Scott Burns, Bobby Broom, Lin Halliday and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are a born and bred Chicagoan. Wasn’t your father a drummer?
George Fludas: Yes, but for him it wasn’t a profession. He got into jazz when he was a teenager. He was self-taught, although he did take some lessons from Walter Perkins, a great drummer from the South Side, who had the group MJT Plus Three and also played with Ahmad Jamal’s trio. My dad had a great passion for jazz and a natural ear, not just with rhythms and drumming, but melody too. He didn’t play piano or any melodic instrument, but I remember him scatting or whistling melodies and solos and stuff. He just had that natural affinity for it. He started to go to the clubs and sitting in when he was a teenager. In those days, they were more lenient—you could be eighteen and finagle your way in, and of course Joe Segal held the Roosevelt jazz sessions, which he told me about. He saw a lot of great people that I later had the great fortune of playing with, like Lin Halliday, John Young, Ira Sullivan, Jodie Christian. He also told me very detailed stories about seeing Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Max Roach and Blakey. Unfortunately, there was a lot of drug use on the jazz scene at that time and he struggled with it. He stopped hanging out and sitting in by the time he was twenty-two.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did that fear extend to you and your career?
Fludas: A bit, though I wouldn’t call it fear. I would say it made me aware and I never inclined towards using drugs, for sure because of his experience. He talked very openly about it with me when I was very young.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: He exposed you to a wide variety of music. Was he still listening to jazz at the time?
Fludas: Oh yeah, mostly jazz but lots of good music was always playing at my house, as long as I can remember. From the time I was born, I heard great jazz, classical, Flamenco, rock and salsa. My mom is from Puerto Rico and he took a liking to salsa as well. They met in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1964. In addition to Jazz , I heard a lot of classical, Latin music, good funk, good R&B, good soul music, and classic rock. He was into all of that too. So, by the time I was four or five, I became interested in the drums. We went to Drums Unlimited, which was the famous drum shop downtown on Wabash. My dad ordered a new Gretsch kit, and got it delivered. I was so excited. We were a bit low on cash back then and my aunt Jackie, who also loved good music, lent him the money to buy the kit. Thank you Jackie! My dad talked about drumming all the time with me. I have memories of him putting a record jacket on a chair and playing with brushes, before we got the drums. He would show me with the brushes how to play a basic beat. I took to it right away and he saw that and encouraged it. All through my single-digit years I would play along to records and he would put on albums that would be easier to hear what was happening, like Ahmad Jamal, or Bud Powell––not that it was simple music, but you can hear the beat clearly. Errol Garner as well—I learned how to play brushes mainly by listening to Chico Hamilton LPs, Errol Garner’s Concert by the Sea, and Ahmad Jamal’s But Not For Me. And I got into Art Blakey because of the dramatic sound. I loved that! The two main things that I was into as a ten-year-old were baseball and jazz drums! I had pictures from DownBeat of Blakey and Max Roach on my wall, and then I had Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal there, too. I remember going shopping with him for records when I was around seven. He picked out a whole bunch of rock records, and I was fascinated by the covers—Jethro Tull, Zeppelin and Genesis. He was curious and had a great ear, and I think he always appreciated when music had a good feel.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s interesting how all of those music elements came together at an early age and informed your musical tastes and playing.
Fludas: Well, the main thing was, it was always very organic—it wasn’t, you are going to go take these lessons, which I suppose is more typical way to get a kid started on an instrument. For me, the drums were like another toy in the house and I played with them, then I would play with my other toys, then I would go back and play with the drums. Music was on all day long. There was Chico Hamilton or Miles or Basie’s band or Duke. Whatever it was, something good was playing so I tried to emulate what I heard, and it was fun. It was second nature; it wasn’t something I had to figure out or study, like an assignment.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That exposure to multiple styles seems to have benefited you. You are able to adapt instantly to the players around you.
Fludas: That’s a very nice compliment. That’s something I’m still trying to do, to be versatile and complementary to the bandleader. I work almost exclusively as a sideman, but at the same time hope that I am offering something distinctive or that has some mark of my own personality. I think that’s what a good jazz drummer should aspire to: being supportive, but contributing something unique. For a long time I didn’t feel like I had anything original to contribute. I wanted to do a really good job, but I knew, I’m no Billy Higgins or Philly Joe Jones. I remember the very first time that I played with Cedar Walton, I thought to myself: What am I doing here? This is where Billy Higgins was! But I calmed down and eventually let my personality flow.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: One of the least appreciated awards is Best Supporting Actor. It’s not as glamorous as the Best Actor Oscar, yet the supporting role is perhaps more crucial as it can elevate the performances of the other actors. You are chameleon-like in that you can step into a music situation and elevate it, even if there is no “George Fludas Style.”
Fludas: I hope I have some recognizable style! That’s interesting: a very good point, and very astute. I’ve never really talked to anyone about this, but I think that is part of the insecurity that I have. If you are a fairly sentient person you are going question yourself. As a performer I often think, Do people really like this? Do they like what I’m doing? I’m trying to be versatile, but some guys are just so distinctive, what you see is what you get; it’s one color and it’s coming right down the pipe, take it or leave it. One of my heroes, Elvin Jones, was like this monstrous mountain––this force of nature that builds up. His playing was a really distinctive and solid thing, completely recognizable in the shape and form––the way he played, his sound, everything. He was really versatile in that he could play with so many different types of musicians, but it was Elvin all the way. I wish I had some of that!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Some of the old movie actors––John Wayne, Cary Grant, Paul Newman––no matter the role, they were always the same. The later actors, like Brando and early DeNiro, changed their personalities completely to fit the role they were playing.
Fludas: Like the Method School––Gene Hackman, Pacino, Robert Duvall, Brando—those guys, they are chameleons. They can change accents and do whatever it takes to become that role. I guess I am that “method” style of drummer. That’s interesting, I’m actually learning––this is good! I’m forty-eight. I’m not all of a sudden going to be that one person, take it or leave it. I’m not superstitious at all, but I am a Libra. The stereotype is that they are balanced––they like harmony and they like to please both sides in an argument. I do have that in my personality and I think it shows in my musical approach. I aim to please, but I also want to be exciting, I want to fire it up. I love playing the drums and I love the sound of them so much that I love to get a full sound, so I hit them hard. All my favorite drummers hit them hard. First and foremost for me is a drummer’s sound. It’s their voice. You can’t mistake Max’s sound, Jimmy Cobb’s sound. Art Taylor had one of my favorite drum sounds. Art’s on so many records, he is the most recorded guy on Prestige Records. Philly Joe!? End of story! The dynamics the greats used were always so important. I’ve tried to be conscious of that. I’ve gotten compliments from other musicians: Man, you play so quiet, but you keep it so interesting. But I’ve also heard, Wow, you were playing loud! I’ve played with great musicians, like Tommy Flanagan, Johnny Griffin, and they never told me I was playing too loud. I dunno, some people just don’t like the heat. Still, I aim to please.
Art Blakey and Fludas
Chicago Jazz Magazine:Blakey’s another one that can explode.
Fludas: Indeed! He’s one of my favorite and biggest influences. I loved Blakey, and I loved that Latin rhythm he did, so I tried to learn it back then. I got to meet Blakey when I was eight, and I was petrified. My dad took me to see him at the Jazz Showcase on Rush Street. I remember feeling his bass drum and it was like a kick in the chest. It almost made me scared—incredible! And that snare drum roll was a like a lion’s roar. On the break my dad went up to Blakey and says, “My son plays drums and loves you. He listens to your records.” So Blakey says, “Oh really? You want to go up and play?” I was way too nervous and said, “No, no!” So he laughed, pulled out a used pair of sticks from his stick bag and was about to hand then to me, but then he said, “Hold on––let me give you a new pair.” And I remember thinking, I want the used ones with the notches! But I had those sticks for a long time until I was playing and broke one, stupidly. My dad took me to hear many great players, like Buddy Rich, Blakey and Max Roach and I loved listening to the records. By the time I was twelve years old I knew way more about jazz than rock or pop music. Confession: I liked Kiss in seventh grade and was in the Kiss Army. [laughs] But, by eighth grade I got into the music my friends were into, which was basically hard rock––Led Zeppelin, Rush, AC/DC, Deep Purple. Actually, my dad took me to see the Led Zeppelin live movie, The Song Remains the Same when I was twelve. We saw the movie at the Carnegie Theatre and I will never forget the impression it had on me. John Bonham’s sound and feel mesmerized me. The song that really got me was “No Quarter.” It’s got the Fender Rhodes, it has sort of a jazz feel, because the chords are more complex, and then it has this extended guitar solo. I was so taken by that when we got home I needed to find the record with the song “No Quarter” on it! Houses of The Holy. That’s when I got into rock music. I was still into jazz––I was still playing along with “Night in Tunisia” and learning jazz tunes, but I really wanted to play rock.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s interesting that your dad saw your musical shift and did what he could to facilitate your exposure to live rock music, just as he had done with jazz.
Fludas: Yes, it was 1980, and I was just entering Lane Tech as an engineering drafting major, if you can believe that, and I found out that Led Zeppelin was going to come to the Chicago Stadium in November. I asked him if I could go and he said sure. So I filled out the form to get tickets––I sent it in at six in the morning, so the tickets would be in the first round. And then I get to school and this kid next to me says, “Hey, did you hear that the drummer from Led Zeppelin died?” I said, “You don’t know what you are talking about, man.” And he said, “No, man, it was on the radio this morning––he died of alcohol or an overdose.” So that was a big blow. He was my favorite. I ended up going to many rock concerts in high school, and my dad never discouraged me or acted like a jazz snob. My first was Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Oz tour with Randy Rhoads at the Aragon Ballroom! I saw Rush, Genesis, Bowie, The Police. I used to obsessively learn and practice Zeppelin and Rush tunes. I think it was actually great practice for my ears. It’s funny now, but I learned every Zeppelin song more meticulously than I ever learned any jazz music. I read Dana Hall’s interview [Chicago Jazz Magazine, May/June 2015], which I really enjoyed. There was a part in there where he said he learned Rush songs note for note. I was talking with him one day and said, “We were both probably working on the same riffs at the same time!” So we had a laugh over that. Anyway, my dad was cool, and supportive. He tolerated all that loud noise from the basement! My whole family did. They were great.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s a different mindset, musically. In most rock bands, the object is to play the music as close to the original as possible; in jazz, the object is to put your own stamp on the music.
Fludas: I suppose so, but my favorite rock drummers had that looseness too, and definitely put their own stamp on the music. Later on, I discovered great soul and R&B drummers like Bernard Purdie, Al Jackson Jr., Roger Hawkins, James Gadson. All these cats have that distinctive touch, sound and feel that I love. The genre doesn’t matter to me. If it sounds good, it is good!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you make the change from engineering drafting to music at Lane?
Fludas: I went up to talk to the band director, whose name was Maurice Golden. He was an old school, authoritative band director type, but a great teacher and person. I told him I had chosen the wrong major and I wanted to be in the music department. He asked me if I was a percussionist or was a “dumber”? [laughs] He said a dumber only plays the drums, but a percussionist plays percussion. I said percussionist! So, I was able to change, and I was so glad, because it was a completely different vibe. Basically the second half of the day was all music. I loved playing in the concert band and especially in Lane’s orchestra. Mr. Cina was the director and we played great repertoire. I got to play tympani too, which I loved!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is that when you started thinking that music was going to be your career?
Fludas: Right after my freshman year is when I seriously thought I wanted to be a musician someday. I thought I was going to be a rock musician, because that’s what I was into at that time, and I was in a really good high school rock band. It was power trio called Nuclear Waste. [laughs] But after I graduated from Lane in 1984, I lost interest in playing rock and gravitated towards jazz. I enrolled at Roosevelt University as a music major.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Obviously it didn’t inspire you––you left after only a couple of years.
Fludas: Yes, I went there for a year and a half––fall of ‘85 to spring of ‘86. But I met some great people in that time—like John Webber, a great bass player who lives in New York. We clicked. He was into the same stuff: Miles, Paul Chambers and the stuff that swung. A lot of guys were interested in fusion, or not swinging. The funny thing is, I liked rock, but I didn’t like fusion. Now I can appreciate it a little more, but then, I didn’t care about Mahavishnu or Return to Forever or Billy Cobham. I wanted to swing! Roosevelt to me was just frustrating. I felt like I wasn’t going to go anywhere––I wanted to go to New York. But my dad had kidney failure at that time and needed help. My parents were going through personal differences and they got a divorce. I met my wife Cheryl in 1987 and we were married in 1990. There was a lot happening at that time, and I was really enjoying getting my feet wet in New York, but my dad was getting worse. My buddy Webber was like, “You gotta come out. The cats are out here.” And it was true––he started working with Lou Donaldson when he moved to New York, so I started salivating. I went to New York for some short visits, but after my dad started to decline, I knew I needed to be in Chicago. He passed away in 1991.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t you end up working with Lou Donaldson?
Fludas: Yeah, my first real gig of note was playing with Lou Donaldson at George’s on Kinzie. John Webber and Kenny Washington recommended me for that. I was twenty-one, and my dad was so happy––I’m playing with one of the jazz greats. I was nervous as hell on that gig. Lou Donaldson is notorious for being very outspoken. He knows what he likes, and he knows what he doesn’t like. So we started playing his hit tune “The Masquerade is Over,” and I didn’t really know the arrangement from the album. The song is basically a conga beat on the drum set, and I’m just swinging behind him, and after about eight bars he stops in the middle of his phrase and yells, “Conga beat, man! Conga!” [laughs] He just screamed at me. So I hit that conga beat! I played with Lou several times after that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Any regrets?
Fludas: I have some. I don’t regret sticking around and taking care of my father, and making a family in Chicago. But I do regret that I didn’t have that “growth opportunity” by sticking it out in New York and developing. I think that it was important because I was able to establish some connections with New York musicians. I was meeting all these great musicians who went to Paterson College. Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein. Jesse Davis, whom I already knew from Chicago. We had a little band together here with Rob Mazurek and John Webber, and a pianist named Kenny Prince. Kenny and Jodie Christian are two pianists I learned a lot from about how to play jazz in real time, and not just playing along with records. “Real time” is when you are on the bandstand and you have to know what to do, and when to do it. I endured the look from Jodie many times, whether it was, You should (or shouldn’t) be playing brushes now or You should (or should not) be playing more actively now. Those kinds of things, you really refine on the job. I also learned a lot working with Bobby Broom. His sense of time is unlike any other––it is so unique and monumental. His phrasing––the way he phrases over the bar line for a drummer––is incredible. It’s really a good healthy challenge, because you have to be listening constantly to where he is venturing. He pushes you. Working with Tommy Flanagan also made me really focus on finesse, dynamics and control. So even though I didn’t live in New York, I started to get calls. When Eric Alexander moved to New York I would go often, and we would hang out and play at sessions. A lot of cats would ask me if I was moving to New York soon. So that was a good feeling. It felt like: Oh, I could do this if I moved to New York. I might actually be able to get some good work and be successful. But it seemed like every time that I went to New York something came up––first my dad; then some issues with my aunt Jackie, who was going through a hard personal time.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Whether in or out of college, what would you consider to be one of your first big breaks?
Fludas: I don’t know if I would call it a break, but one of the changing moments was when I went to Andy’s in 1985, to hear Von Freeman. Webber was playing with him at the time and he introduced me. Von said, “Oh baby, come on up and play one.” He brought me up to sit in, and I was really nervous. He put me on the spot––to play “Caravan.” I guess Von liked me because after that he was always very gracious and welcoming. I loved to go down to the New Apartment Lounge and sit in. There was another place he played at, called the New Pumpkin. I guess there must have been an Old Pumpkin Lounge? I think it was on 78th or 79th. That was one break, I guess, being able to meet Von and feel like, yeah, I think I can do this. Also, meeting and playing with Lin Halliday in 1987, and playing at George’s in 1988 with Lou Donaldson. Playing with pianist Michael Weiss at Bradley’s in New York City in June 1989, with Junior Cook. That felt like a big break because Art Blakey, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton and many other heavies were in the club that night.
Lin Haliday and George Fludas
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did Von give you any advice that resonated with you?
Fludas: I don’t recall anything specific. It’s more of a vibe––the way he would lock the beat in, or center things with his phrasing. It’s more of a feel thing, and I’ve found that with so many other musicians too. Musicians like Jodie Christian, because I started to work with Jodie after that. It was more unspoken, and it was more profound than words. I learned so much playing with people like Von Freeman, Jodie Christian, Lin Halliday, Earma Thompson, Eddie Johnson. They all had that real jazz feeling, and played with taste and swing. They all had that poetry––just beautiful players and people. That’s one thing I think is harder for younger student-level players now. That link to the legends is fading, nearly gone. There are a few left, but it was different then. You learned more as an apprentice, on the gig, from masters.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you meet Ray Brown?
Fludas: I was offered the gig in the summer of 1998 when Greg Hutchinson was leaving the band. My first son George was about to be born, so I said no, respectfully. Then, two years later, my wife was pregnant with our second son, Ted. Karriem Riggins called me. Same deal: “Hey man, I’m leaving the band, and Ray says the gig is yours if you want it.” I couldn’t turn it down the second time, so I went down to the Showcase after the matinee and played two or three tunes. So Ray says, “If you want it, first gig is in Irvine, California.” With Ray, every song was arranged––each tune had an intro, a specifically arranged melody, and a shout chorus—typically for the drums to fill in—and specific endings. So he sent me about seventy songs to learn: live recordings with Greg Hutchinson, and then there was a multitude of CDs with Gene Harris and later Benny Green and Jeff Hamilton. There was a lot of music to learn for that gig. When I joined, Larry Fuller was the pianist. I went to L.A. to rehearse with him for five days, Monday through Friday, and we rehearsed at this famous piano store for five days––without pay, I found out later. But Ray Brown said, “I don’t pay for rehearsals; I pay for the gig. When you’re learning the music, that’s on you.” [laughs] That was summer of 2000.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: From a personality standpoint, when you are first starting out with a bassist, do your personalities have to click?
Fludas: Yeah, to an extent. If you are speaking specifically about Ray, it’s a different dynamic, because I was much younger, and basically in awe of him. He’s a jazz legend, so the dynamic was different that way. We were kind of like the master and the pupil. I knew I could learn a lot from playing with him. Ray Brown’s beat is unlike anyone else’s. I always felt like his beat was so strong he didn’t need a drummer. The strength in his quarter note is like a freight train. Ray also played on top of the beat and pushed the beat, so I had to adjust to that too and try not to rush. I quickly found out playing with him he liked to get to a point of excitement and urgency right away. He didn’t want a gradual buildup; he wanted shit to be popping right from he start. When he played with Oscar and Ed, he learned to get the music “popping right from the jump,” and there was “no need to take your time.” I can’t say our personalities clicked. It’s a bonus when they do though, for sure.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You seem to be a build-up type of player.
Fludas: Yeah, I think I lean more toward that, so for me it was a bit of an adjustment. You had to kick it into a higher gear with Ray sooner––otherwise you would get steamrolled. He would say something with that big grin––that grin that wasn’t always a grin of joy! It was like, Get on this now. He would say, “Let’s go! All right! C’mon—now!” It was like a coach saying things to prod or encourage you. Ray was constantly seeking gigs, loved working, and hated days off. I learned so much about how to work arrangements and build intensity. I worked with Ray for about a year and a half.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t you work with Diana Krall shortly after that?
Fludas: Yeah, I did. I met Diana in 2001, while I was on tour with Ray at the Blue Note in New York. She had heard about me before that and had called me, inquiring about some dates in the mid-nineties, because I worked with Benny Green for a while, around ’93 and ’94, and they had the same manager. I played a couple tours with Benny. He was the first person I went out of the country with––we did some tours for a Spanish promoter named Jordi Sunol. For a while there, Jordi called me to play with many great jazz players, and I got a lot of good exposure thanks to him. I played with Diana in 2002. Basically I subbed for Jeff Hamilton for a short while. It was an interesting experience. It was great to see the world. I got to see ten countries in Asia. We flew in on a private jet to Beijing to play the MTV Asian Music awards. I had a roadie on the tour. Not the usual scene for me!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you meet Benny through Ray?
Fludas: No, I met him while he was working with Ray in Chicago. Kenny Washington told Benny about me and recommended me for some gigs he couldn’t make. That’s also how I got to play with Johnny Griffin and Tommy Flanagan. Kenny was very supportive and encouraging to me, he helped me lot when I was starting out. Pianist Michael Weiss was too. They both played with Griff.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Talk about your time with Monty Alexander.
Fludas: Lotta fun! He swings so hard and is a very funny cat. I met Monty while working with Ray. We played a few gigs together with Ray and had good chemistry. I started working with him on a semi-regular basis in 2003. Monty had a couple different drummers he would use––in Europe he would use this guy Frits Landesbergen, and then he started calling me frequently to do gigs. I also worked with him on his Jazz & Roots Jamaican project that he was doing. He has a Jamaican rhythm section onstage and his trio, and he alternates between grooves. People loved that in Europe; it was always a successful show and a lot of fun. I played all over Europe with him from 2004 to about 2010. It was great learning to play a bunch of Jamaican music, reggae and ska. I spent a lot of time with Cedar Walton too. I played the last gig Cedar did in the United States––a weeklong gig at the Village Vanguard. He died the following month, that August 2013. That was a big loss for me, I loved playing with Cedar and he was just a great cat, all around.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you with Ray in Indianapolis when he died?
Fludas: No. I left Ray in fall of 2001. I gave him notice after his seventy-fifth birthday concert. He didn’t like that at all; he was irate. But my wife’s mother was ill and my aunt had just been diagnosed with cancer. It became a strain to be away from home so much with two small kids at home.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Right after Monty you toured with Joey DeFrancesco.
Fludas: Yes, I played with him for a little over a year. We both would say we needed to play together at some point and it finally happened in 2014. He’s a phenomenal natural musician. He has the whole jazz organ history at his command and he plays the trumpet like Miles. One night, we were playing “Budo,” and he is walking the bass line in his left hand, and the solo on trumpet. Amazing! It’s hard to walk a bass line fast and then noodle with the right hand on the trumpet. Jeff Parker, the guitar player, and I looked at each other like, What on earth? How is he doing this?! It’s one thing to play a ballad on trumpet and the bass pedals, but he was walking the bass and playing the trumpet solo, on an up-tempo! He is a monster.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Speaking of versatility, are you a closet singer? That is, did you ever have any aspirations to be a singer?
Fludas: Yes, maybe! Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Grady Tate… it seems like a lot of drummers want to sing, but I don’t think I would ever. I don’t have the confidence to get up on a stage behind a mic, at least not anytime soon. But I do like to scat or whistle and I have a pretty decent ear and vocabulary. Often times when we are running something down in a rehearsal, I will joke and say to the cats, I will leave that up to you “musicians,” because of the old joke that a drummer is not a musician. But a lot of musicians know that they can rely on me for accuracy when it comes to a melody or something like that: George, is that right? Yeah, I would like to sing at some point, so in that regard you can say I am a closeted singer.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What does George Fludas still want to do with his career?
Fludas: Mostly, I want to continue playing with great musicians, and travel the world doing it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to lead my own group because I see other people who are bandleaders and they go through so many headaches organizing rehearsals, getting musicians to commit to a schedule, looking for funding. There are so many things that I enjoy about being a sideman. I like to try fit into different situations and to see what I can bring to them, and I enjoy the variety. Honestly, I should make a recording of my own. I have thought about this for a while now, and I want to have something under my own name; it’s just a question of finding the right combination of people. There are so many musicians that I really enjoy playing with, especially Ron Perrillo and Dennis Carroll.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is that the most likely scenario?
Fludas: I would say so. I would like to do something to document the sound that we have as a trio. In my opinion, it’s one of the finest trios anywhere. Ron is a world-class pianist who deserves wider recognition. Every good musician acknowledges that he is on a high level artistically––he is an uncompromising artist. But there are other possibilities, maybe with a group of my favorite New York musicians. Not sure yet. One of the great things about this music is that there are so many possibilities. It’s related to the people that you meet, so I really don’t know what’s next. The only thing I can say is that I look forward to whatever it is, because I know there’s always going to be some new inspiration or new horizon, and that those opportunities are going to change my playing. I want to be constantly evolving. So that’s what’s next, is being open to the new opportunities and experiences that the music provides.
Boogie Woogie - Erwin Helfer Turns 80
Erwin Helfer, a Chicago boogie-woogie innovator and master, has been creating his own sound for over seven decades. On February 6, Helfer will be celebrating his 80th birthday at the Old Town School of folk music along with many of his friends who will pay homage to this Chicago musical treasure.
Helfer grew up on the South Side of Chicago and wasn’t necessarily in a musical family. His parents sang in a barbershop-kind of harmony around the house but they weren’t exactly musicians.
“I remember when I was about 5 years old, I decided I wanted a piano. When my mother and I went out grocery shopping one day we arrived back at the house and there was a Wurlitzer sitting in the living room,” says Helfer. “That’s the way my dad did things and I think because I wanted it, I got it.”
Although he wasn’t sure exactly why he wanted a piano at such a young age, he just felt he had to have one.
“I must have wanted it because I heard someone playing it.”
He began taking private lessons at 6, and took them off and on throughout his younger years. Although he had a passion for playing the piano, he found it very difficult to learn to read music. He would sit in his lessons with his teachers and watch and listen to his teacher play the songs and try to figure out the tunes and memorize them on the spot. Later on, he was able to learn how to read music enough to get into the American Conservatory of Music as a piano major, but ended up switching his major to music theory because he was still having to memorize all of the required pieces.
“In order for me to complete the major I would need to take an ensemble class and play with other instruments, and I knew I could never read fast enough to succeed, so I switched my major to music theory,” he says.
During his early years, Helfer’s family moved to Glencoe and he attended New Trier High School—this is when he first started to develop his passion for boogie-woogie blues and New Orleans-style jazz. During that time he met Bobby Wright, who was a musician and had an interesting collection of New Orleans jazz and boogie-woogie recordings. After hearing the recordings, Helfer made it a point to just get out and meet as many of these musicians still around in Chicago.
He became friends with Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Mama Yancey and many others. He also became very good friends with the legendary New Orleans drummer who played with Louis Armstong and revolutionized jazz drumming—Warren “Baby” Dodds.
“Baby Dodds was a very good friend of mine. He had a stroke at the time so he didn’t play drums anymore, so I used to go down and see him when he lived on South Parkway Drive, which is now Martin Luther King Drive.”
Because of all of these experiences, boogie-woogie piano playing became his passion, and as he listened to the recordings and heard the legends perform, he began to develop his own distinct style even though he didn’t initially intend to do that.
“I think you go in with the idea of not developing your own style, and if you’re lucky enough, you will have your own style,” Helfer says.
During that same time period, Helfer met another person who would become a major influence—Bill Russell, whom he met at Bobby Wrights’ house. Russell wrote the first chapters of the book Jazzmen, which focused on boogie blues and Louis Armstong.
“Russell was probably the biggest influence on my life because he took me down to the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s apartment around 36th and Prairie. At that time, she was a beautician and she recorded for Apollo Records.”
Helfer began going to some church services where she was performing. He was able to hangout there and meet a lot of the older New Orleans musicians still in the city after they moved here from the South during the early twentieth century.
Following his formal schooling, Helfer never planned to be a professional musician; he was content to teach at two different schools, Park Forest Conservatory, which was a neighborhood school and also at the Lake County Music Center in Waukegan. That all changed when he visited a studio with Joe Williams, a nine-string guitar player Helfer was hanging around with, and they recorded his first album.
“Joe and I went to this studio to do some recording. It was a real honor for Joe to believe in me that much. When we got the studio the owner, Eli, who was also the engineer, he was surprised to see this young white kid (who) could play this stuff. Eli said if he released it he would be glad to pay us for it. It did come out years later on the Jewel Label, but I can’t remember the name of it.”
Although he played a few gigs during high school in the Highwood area, his first real steady gig was in the 1970s when vocalist Barbara Dane needed a piano player—and he got the call. She was playing a place called Orphans on Lincoln Avenue. After the performance, the owner, Danny Johnston, liked it so much that he gave Helfer a Monday night blues session at the club.
Because he had been hanging out for years, Helfer knew all of these famous Chicago blues players and started inviting them up to the North Side to jam, including artists such as Eddie Taylor, One Arm John Lyncher, Blind John Davis, S.P. Leary and many others.
“Paul Butterfield brought ‘white blues’ to Old Town, but I brought all of the ‘black blues’ players with me to the North Side,” Helfer says.
His regular drummer at the time was S.P. Leary, who played in the band with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Before he knew it he had an underground following and ended up on Channel 11 for a PBS special.
During that same time, Helfer approached another club owner, Jay Jamms, who had a club farther up Lincoln Avenue, about having live music. There was a piano at the club, which was sort of a motorcycle bar and he and S.P Leary started playing regularly there.
He also noticed another bar with a piano in the window. One of the owners was Bob Heckel who eventually opened up B.L.U.E.S Bar on Halsted Street.
“Bob Heckel always says I started him in (the) business.”
While Helfer was performing and bringing the Chicago blues to the North Side of Chicago, he met a photographer/musician, Clark Dean. Dean was a soprano sax player who saw Helfer on the Channel 11 TV special. He and a friend came to Helfer’s house with some jazz charts for Helfer to read through and play. At that time, Helfer wasn’t a fan of jazz standards.
“I thought it was hotel music, but then they put the charts in front of songs like, “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Georgia On My Mind” and others, and I thought they were really good.”
After that meeting, Helfer began to seriously listen to all of the great jazz players. He and Clark started playing jazz gigs around town and his name grew on both the jazz and blues scenes.
Since then, Helfer has performed throughout the world with his very distinct “soul” piano style. He has recorded several albums on Sirens Records that is owned by Steven Dollins, a longtime Helfer fan.
“He first heard me at the University of Chicago Folk Festival when I accompanied Mama Yancey and asked me if I taught lessons,” Helfer recalls. “He took some lessons from me, and from that a great friendship developed. Years later he mentioned that he wanted to help me the way I helped a lot of other people, so he set up a recording session and the Sirens Record Label was born.”
Helfer was the first artist on the label. “I always joke with him about how I am glad to help him to go broke.” Sirens Records now has over 27 recordings in its catalog, and on six of them Helfer is included on under his own name or as a member of a group.
To celebrate another milestone in Helfer’s life, Sirens Records and the Old Town School of Folk will be presenting an 80th birthday party on February 6 with a concert featuring Helfer and many of his lifelong musical friends.
When asked what the audience can expect to hear, Helfer says, “I think we are going to do the whole works. I thought I would feature myself as a soloist, a composer, accompanist and an ensemble player.”
Joining him that evening will be vocalist Katherine Davis, saxophonist John Brumbach and pianist Barrelhouse Chuck among many others.
It is safe to say Helfer has made a very deep impression on the music scene in Chicago, and though turning 80 is a milestone, he isn’t about to slow down. He is determined to keep playing and teaching music for many years to come and always in his own unique style
Nina Simone an artist whose time has finally come
Nina Simone was a talented American vocalist, pianist, songwriter, and arranger, who despite achieving a high level of success with her musical career, is equally well remembered for her many important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. Classically trained as a child, Simone was a versatile musical artist who was seemingly comfortable working in a variety of forms. In addition to jazz, she made frequent forays into pop, blues and folk with the precision one might expect given her classical origins.
In the summer of 2015, the release of director Liz Garbus’ documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? inspired renewed interest in a thoughtful reexamination of the singer’s origins. The film follows Simone’s troubled path along a tumultuous professional career, and offers glimpses of the tortured genius beneath it all. But as many film critics and musical historians have pointed out in the subsequent months after its release, it was Simone’s youthful struggles as a most unwilling victim of institutionalized racism in higher musical education that truly marked both a starting point for her story and the beginning of difficult trials that would cause her to develop the remarkable courage she became known for.
For a young African American girl, Eunice Waymon, growing up in Tryon, N.C. in the 1930s and dreaming of becoming a concert pianist, the future did not seem bright. This was the rural south—talented black children with high ambition and the perseverance to learn classical music were not given encouragement. Classical music was considered to be the domain of privileged white people with connections.
There had been exceptions.
There was a woman named Florence Price, from Little Rock, Ark., a composer who had her piece premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and there was the great contralto Marian Anderson, whose father sold ice in the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, who became an internationally famous concert singer. But largely, there seemed little future in classical music for most black children, regardless of talent.
The 1930s in general was not a bad period for African American musical talent. The year 1933—when Eunice Waymon was born—was the year John Hammond first saw Billie Holiday perform at Covan’s on West 132nd Street, and the same year Duke Ellington released “Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington/Parish). Black blues and jazz musicians were retelling the story of American music on a
nightly basis. However, the ones who brushed against the world of classical music tended not to be taken seriously. For the most part they were jazz composers and arrangers who prepared spirituals for symphony orchestras.
And then came Eunice. The child of a jack-of-all-trades father and a revivalist-preacher mother who wanted to play Bach at Carnegie Hall.
It says something about both the intensity and the talent of this child that people actually believed she could do it.
“We knew she was a genius by the time she was three,” her brother remembered later.
As a baby, she’d clap along in rhythm to the hymns at church; as a toddler, she could play tunes on the organ by ear. By the time she was 6 years old she was playing piano at her mother’s revival meetings, her feet barely reaching the pedals.
Mrs. Waymon cleaned house for a white woman in Tryon, and this woman, hearing Eunice play one day with what you can only imagine was sheer disbelief, offered to do what Eunice’s family couldn’t—pay 75 cents a week so that Eunice could take lessons. Her teacher was another white woman, Mrs. Mazzanovich. Eunice walked two miles to her place for lessons every Saturday morning alone, crossing the railroad tracks.
Mrs. Mazzanovich was a sophisticated lady. She was an English immigrant and the wife of a painter. But most importantly, Mrs. Mazzanovich realized exactly what she had found in Eunice and set out to make her a great classical musician. The girl practiced six to eight hours a day, every day, learning Bach, Chopin, Beethoven; she practiced etudes, arpeggios and scales. She’d later describe the loneliness of these years—the feeling that she was special, but remote and separate. Still, Eunice learned. Tryon came together as a community, both white and black, to support her. Miss “Mazzy,” as Eunice called her teacher, got together a fund to help launch her star pupil’s career. And with the help of that fund she made it into Juilliard in New York where she studied in the summer of 1950. Her teacher was an elderly German pianist named Carl Friedberg, who as a youth had studied with Clara Schumann. That’s how far Eunice had come: from the Jim Crow South to almost the living memory of Brahms.
She must have felt as though her dream were opening up to receive her.
Friedberg helped her prepare for what they believed would be the pivotal moment of her career—an audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Eunice had chosen Curtis carefully. It offered scholarships to all of its students, a necessity, as Eunice’s fund from Tryon wouldn’t cover long-term study. Curtis would remove the constant worry and exhausting grind of money. It would make her an insider; it was where she would become what she felt she was meant to be.
Eunice auditioned for Curtis in the spring of 1951, and she was rejected. How do you even start to categorize the pain she must have felt? She’d given her childhood to this ambition, come so close, and failed. She was split open.
Eunice heard a rumor that she’d been rejected because she was black and she seized on that, although people close to the situation at Curtis later denied it. She tried to work out a plan for another audition, but by now she needed to work, too. There was pressure for her to help her family. After knocking around in various accompanist- and teaching-type jobs for a couple of years—studying when she could—she wound up in Atlantic City. Playing piano at the working-class, sawdust-covered floors of a bar called the Midtown paid the bills. But it seemed a far cry from Juilliard and Clara Schumann.
The man who hired her told her she’d have to sing, too. Eunice had no vocal training, but she agreed because she needed the money. He asked for her name, and that was scary because Eunice didn’t want her conservative Methodist mother to find out she’d even set foot in a place like the Midtown, much less work there. Still, Eunice had to give the man who would employ her an answer.
She thought for a second then said, “You can call me Nina Simone.”
The feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared, “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.”
2015 would seem to be the year that Nina Simone is discovered and rediscovered by many jazz fans from different generations.
Simone’s bearing and stage presence inspired the UK’s daily newspaper, The Guardian, to label her the “High Priestess of Soul,” and that she was a piano player, singer and performer, “separately and simultaneously.”
As a composer and arranger, Simone moved from gospel to blues, from jazz to folk and back effortlessly. Besides incorporating Bach-style counterpoint, she called upon the particular virtuosity of the 19th century Romantic piano repertoire: Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and others. Onstage, she worked monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element, comparing it to “ ... mass hypnosis. I use it all the time.” Percussionist Leopoldo Fleming and guitarist and musical director Al Schackman accompanied her throughout most of her life and recording career.
Among Simone’s career highlights were the songs “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin/Gershwin), “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” (Cox), “Trouble In Mind” (Jones), “I Put a Spell On You” (Hawkins/Slatkin), “Mississippi Goddamn” (Simone), and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (Simone and Irving).” My personal favorite was her compelling rendition of singer/songwriter Janis Ian’s “Stars,” which was highlighted in What Happened, Miss Simone?
Musicians who have cited Simone as an important influence on their own musical development include: Elton John (who named one of his pianos after her), Van Morrison, Christina Aguilera, Mos Def, Kanye West, Lena Horne, Bono, John Legend, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and Jeff Buckley. John Lennon cited Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” as a particular source of inspiration for the Beatles hit, “Michelle” (Lennon/McCartney).
But the question may be asked—since Nina Simone had the most prolific portion of her career nearly half a century ago—why is there a veritable flood of interest in her now?
“Nina has never stopped being relevant, because her activism was so right, so unique, and strong, said with such passion and directness,” Liz Garbus said inan interview for The New York Times conducted at a Brooklyn bakery. “But why ... now?”
Garbus asked and answered her own question by pointing out how little much has changed, and citing the protests over the shootings of unarmed African-Americans Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray in conflicts with the police. While Simone’s lyrical indictment of racial segregation and her work on behalf of civil rights organizations connects her to our contemporary angst over racism, those closest to her would have felt more comfortable telling Simone’s story immediately after her death in 2003. Much of that storytelling was delayed until now due to very practical and legal considerations.
“From a filmmaking point of view, the answer for (the timing of) her return is ... because of the estate, and (of) people being (finally) ready to relinquish some control of her story,” Garbus says.
In this case, it was Simone’s daughter, the singer and actress Lisa Simone Kelly, who shared personal diaries, letters and audio and video footage with Ms. Garbus, and also has an executive producer credit on the film.
From her mother’s former home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, Kelly told The New York Times, “It has been on my watch that this film was made. And I believe that my mother would have been forgotten if the family, my husband and I had not taken the right steps to find the right team for her to be remembered in American culture on her own terms.”
Kelly is only partly right.
Over the last decade, a steady stream of reissued albums and previously unheard interviews, songs and unseen concert footage have flooded the market. But the estate has simultaneously enabled and impaired Simone’s revival. There has been a dizzying array of lawsuits over the rights to her master recordings in the last 25 years, a tangled situation that includes a recent move by Sony Music to rescind a deal with the estate altogether.
The most high-profile controversy over Simone’s legacy, however, involves another motion picture. Cynthia Mort’s film biography, Nina, was due for release early in 2015, but was stalled by these legal entanglements. Eventually, the film’s release was set back even more by Mort’s own 2014 lawsuit against the production company, which she accused of “hijacking the film,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The successful purchase of the North American film rights to Mort’s Nina by well-known black entrepreneur Robert Johnson in September has given confidence to many industry insiders that the film biography will finally escape the many complex legal issues that have delayed its long-awaited theatrical release.
Starring popular actress Zoe Saldana in the title role, the film was initially beleaguered by public criticism over the casting. The antagonism was further fueled by leaked photos of the naturally light- complexioned face of Saldana featuring darkened skin with makeup and a nose prosthetic.
“I didn’t think I was right for the part,” Saldana told InStyle magazine.
An online petition calling for a boycott of the film revealed how deep the cultural divide really was, even just a few years ago. However, today there is a current philosophical agreement with Simone’s politics and admiration of the reality of her physical attributes by a new generation of admirers, who do not wish to see either film edited for the benefit of a supposed, wider public acceptance.
Nina Simone is an artist whose time has finally come.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine
10 Questions with Bob Christianson from Too Hot Too Handel
Too Hot Too Handel, the Jazz-Gospel Messiah, is coming back to the Auditorium Theatre in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday on January 16-17. We talked with Bob Christianson, the co-arranger and composer, along with Gary Anderson who first put this show together over 20 years ago. Christianson is a composer, arranger, keyboard player and conductor. He has performed with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Jan Hammer, Judy Collins and Dianna Ross just to name a few. He has written and arranged music for such cable television shows as Sex And The City, was nominated for an Emmy for his music for ABC Sports and has scored many series for the Discovery family of networks.
His television credits also include recent Mysteries Of The Museum (Travel Channel) and the iconic “NCAA Basketball Theme” for CBS. He has also scored for Life Is Wild (for the CW) The Equalizer (CBS), Gimme A Break (NBC) and for The Winter Olympics (when it appeared on CBS). Bob has written over 25 award-winning sports themes for CBS, ESPN and ABC.
How did you end up being the co–writer and arranger of Too Hot Too Handel?
Myself, and Gary Anderson, the other arranger and composer, we were approached by Marin Alsop, the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony, back in 1991. This was a pet project of hers. She isn’t a writer, but she knew I was a writer and arranger, and that Gary is probably the best big band jazz arranger in the world. She asked if the two of us would like to do it. That’s the good thing about being young and dumb, you agree to do something and then once you get into it you say to yourself, Oh my God what did I agree to do.
How long did it take for you to decide on the different pieces to write and arrange?
It took me about a half a year and it took Gary about a week because he is like a generous level arranger. We met one December in Marin’s apartment and decided on how we wanted to make it happen—basically deciding on what movements we were going to use from the Messiah and which one of us would arrange each movement. We literally spent two to three hours in Marin’s apartment deciding what we wanted to do and then we didn’t get back together again until we both showed up with the charts the following December.
Listening to Too Hot Too Handel, can our readers tell which movements you arranged and which ones Gary arranged?
When people ask which parts I wrote and which parts Gary wrote I always say, “With only part of my tongue planted in my cheek,” and that “I wrote the shameless pop pieces and R&B pieces and all of the really inside great jazz arrangements are Gary’s.” I joke about that, but basically that is true.
How familiar were you with traditional Messiah before you undertook this task?
We were all very familiar with the Messiah from playing and performing it over the years, so we had a good idea about the music. The thought process was to take basic melodies and lyrics and then for each piece decide if we wanted to stick very close to the harmonic structure and have absolutely no reference to the harmonic structure of the traditional piece. But we tried to write and arrange the different movements so that it kept within the spirit of what the lyrics were saying and what made sense. For example, in terms of the vocal parts, because I am a singer I wrote a lot of the lines completely out with the thought process that then whoever sings the parts can basically use that as a starting point. When singers have performed it they have always basically come up with great stuff.
Did you think this show was going to continue and be performed throughout the country at different venues for over 20 years?
The funny thing is that we both thought this was going to be a one-off performance, basically a one time deal. I mean Marin was able to raise like $5,000 bucks that Gary and I split. It really was a labor of love and believe me I am glad we did it. I am so glad I was able to do it because the piece is like having a kid. You do the best you can and then you push it out the door and hope it continues to grow.
Too Hot Too Handel is coming up January 16 and 17 at the Auditorium Theatre featuring soloists Rodrick Dixon, Alfreda Burke, Karen Marie Richardson and conducted by Suzanne Mallare Acton. How different is the version of Too Hot Too Handel that is performed in Chicago as apposed to the original way you performed it?
First off, Rod is one of my favorite tenors ever! They do it very differently than Marin, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It is a strong piece because you can take drastically different directions on it and the sucker still works. I am proud that people make it their own because that is the whole point. It is very different than the way we first did it. Some pieces that we originally had we took out. We never added anything after the original piece, but we did cut down. We cut whole sections out of things because it worked better. A couple of things we took out because it was running too long.
Where was Too Hot Too Handel first performed?
The first performance was in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. We actually did it there for the first three or four years and then the rest of the years we did it at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
How did you rehearse the show before the first performance and what did you think about it once you heard it?
Well,Gary and I both played in the orchestra when we first did it so we didn’t really have a chance to sit and listen to it. I was playing B3 organ and he was playing bari sax I believe, and we were both too worried about getting our parts right than to think about what it sounded like. He was looking at his charts and asking then saying, Wow I wrote that? I better practice that! The funny thing was that the second rehearsal we had for the piece was in the rehearsal studio in Manhattan, and for the first 10 years we did it we performed it in New York, and Morgan State choir came up and they were the choir. I don’t know if you know anything about the Morgan State Choir, but they are like the best college choir ever. Anyway, they came up to a rehearsal before the first performance and had their parts memorized within an inch of their lives and made zero mistakes. Meanwhile, we are in the rehearsal room with the top studio musicians in New York and we are making mistakes left and right and here is this bunch of college kids standing behind us just showing us up big time. It was pretty funny.
How was the piece received when it was first performed?
One of the funniest things Marin said was after our first review from The New York Times. It was not kind; they didn’t like it at all. At one point she turned to me and told me “Watch, every year The New York Times will come to listen to it and they will hate it a little bit less.” Sure enough about 3 years ago we did it with the Baltimore Orchestra and 300 New York School kids at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience, mostly for the kids, and we got and absolute total rave review from the Times. I turned to her and said, “See it only took 20 years for them to come around.”
Why do you think Too Hot Too Handel is still going strong after all of these years?
It has a lot to do with the energy onstage, and who the soloists are and who’s in the rhythm section—if the people on the stage are showing commitment to the piece, and joy, it is going to be infectious. You cannot watch Rod Dixon perform and not get into it. It is a success because of what everyone brings to the party.
Hugos Frog Bar Cancels Live Music
The name “Rush Street,” which denotes more a state of mind than an actual place, used to mean all of the nightlife north of Chicago Avenue up to Division Street, and from La Salle all the way east to the lake. But it’s no longer a place where you can find much live music, and it’s going to get even quieter in 2016. Hugo’s Frog Bar, which shares a kitchen with Gibsons, has decided that squeezing in a few more tables is a better idea than keeping alive a 25-year tradition of having a singing pianist that you could see in the window as you walk down the street.
“Shocking,” says Donny Nichilo, the former sideman for Buddy Guy and founding member of The Mighty Blue Kings. “I just played there the Sunday and Monday before Christmas to a full bar of very warm, appreciative patrons, singing along, applauding, requesting tunes and leaving generous tips. And that don’t lie, because people don’t part with their money easily! If people are tipping, it’s because they are enjoying the music and the experience.”
It was back in 1990 that Hugo’s opened, and following “The Big Easy” trend at that time for New Orleans cuisine and music, snagged blues pianist/singer Peter Dames away from his late night gig at Dick’s Last Resort, downstairs from the Baja Beach Club at North Pier. I remember this well because the dueling pianists loved to go downstairs after work and hear Peter blast out the kind of authentic honkey-tonk music that we loved. Peter played out the rest of his career there into the late ‘90s, and was eventually replaced by the excellent “Professor” John Gussaroff. A hard-core roots player from Brooklyn, he became a blues nut while studying at the University of Chicago, and found a musical home for himself at Hugo’s.
As the times changed, so did the music. While resisting the temptation go completely pop, or to mimic the more plush, traditional sounds coming from Gibsons’ excellent, classy piano bar, Gussaroff started hiring players who could handle requests for Elton John and Billy Joel. Eventually, it was no longer a question of if you could sprinkle a couple of those tunes over a set of blues, but if you could you manage to play that stuff all night and still keep a honkey-tonk feeling.
John “JT” Talmadge did this brilliantly for 10 years (column on him is in a 2013 Chicago Jazz issue), the last five of which he spent as the entertainment director.
“I started working for the Gibsons Restaurant Group in 2005,” Talmadge recalls. “I played my first Hugo’s shift at the Naperville location, then became supervisor for the Rush Street (location) in 2010. Since then, the work has been steady for me—five nights a week, often doing double shifts or on my day off to cover a shift. I was in charge of scheduling and payroll, hiring and firing. As a performer, I was popular; I made pretty good tips. Customers would often return and make a point of letting me know that I’m the reason they’re back. It was a very good run. Five years as supervisor, 10 years total. I enjoyed myself tremendously. I’m thankful to the Gibsons Restaurant Group and Hugo’s Frog Bar for the opportunity to sharpen my craft, and to develop as a performer. But still I’m sad.
Though some haven’t been a very good fit (temperamentally) for such a tiny room—the servers routinely use the top of the piano as a bussing station and an out-of-tune console piano has been stuck right underneath a TV that has always been on—Gussaroff and Talmadge have always been generous with putting individuals on the schedule when they have been in town or between gigs. And, despite the lack of space for the performer, it was known to musicians as a “fun room” where they were “allowed to play bluesy-type roots material.”
So yet again, Chicago’s once preeminent live entertainment district has shriveled to a point that you could probably take all the acts in the entire area and stick them with a tip bucket in miniscule Mariano Park, 1031 North State St., which sits just across Bellvue Street from Hugo’s. How ironic that this beggar’s hang-out shares a name with the current, biggest employer of live music in Chicago—Mariano’s Fresh Markets, which runs live piano music and some trios at all of their 35 locations every weekend. Nichilo and myself (Archer) are fortunate to work there, and I imagine I’ll be making a call to the agent who books the store on JT’s behalf soon.
Donny—also in a Chicago Jazz Magazine online archive—gets the last word.
“I just came back from living and playing for 12 years in Brazil, and was immediately welcomed back to Hugo’s,” Nichilo adds. “Often, I spoke of this cool place to people in South America, explaining that this joint is pure ‘Chicago,’ the piano town, the heart of the blues and much more great American music.
“Once Paris Hilton came in. I wanted to give her party a taste of authentic, homegrown Chicago music. And she was dancing in her seat, smiling and seeming to really be enjoying the blues—Chicago style! She left me a very generous tip. Michael Sneed called me and there was an account of this in the Sun-Times the next day. So I’m just sad and in shock … and confused. Hugo’s was doing great. Everyone I’ve talked to, employees and public alike, can’t imagine why this great Chicago tradition has to come to an end.”