In His Own Words Willie Pickens - 2004 Feature Interview
In Chicago Jazz Magazine's 2004 March/April issue we sat down and talk with Willie Pickens about his early beginnings, his musical concepts, gigs, influences and a lot more. This past Tuesday (December 12, 2017) Willie past away suddenly while preparing for a rehearsal at New York's Lincoln Center where he was scheduled to perform that evening with trumpeter Marquis Hill and his group.
Picken's legacy will not only be for the many incredible performances and recordings he created but also his mentor-ship of young jazz musicians and the many musical careers he helped to start. Here is the full interview that Chicago Jazz Magazine did with Willie in 2004. Rest In Peace Willie.
Willie Pickens is one of Chicago’s most in-demand jazz pianists. The long list of artists with whom he has performed, recorded or toured is staggering, and includes luminaries Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, James Moody, Roy Eldridge, Eddie Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Bunky Green and Red Holloway.
A product of Milwaukee, Pickens was grew up during the Depression. But he was raised in a musical family—his mother and older sister were pianists, and his step-father a professional alto sax player—and by the age of five Pickens was in top hat and tails, performing as a song-and-dance man on stage in the local Vaudeville theatres.
After a stint in the Service, Pickens received a Bachelor of Science degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Pickens more or less burst upon the jazz music scene, his inaugural recording effort—on Eddie Harris’ 1961 hit recording of Exodus—coming a short time after his move to Chicago.
Pickens has led innumerable groups, appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival and has taught music, primarily in Chicago’s public school system, for over 30 years. His performance style has been described as “straight-ahead and utterly stable, with dense chords, percussive attack, and flying solos, echoing the artistry of McCoy Tyner.” In the early ‘90s, Pickens toured three continents with percussionist Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine.
Among his many music endeavors, Pickens currently teaches jazz piano at NIU and is involved with teaching young aspiring musicians through a program with Rivinia. He is also a former faculty member of the American Conservatory of Music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine caught up with Willie Pickens in his Hyde Park home where he and his wife Irma have resided for over 30 years. In this exclusive interview, Pickens reveals his deep commitments to jazz, education, his Church, and his family.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you end up in Chicago?
Willie Pickens: Well, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1958 and came over here with a bass player by the name of Connie Milano. Connie said he had a job at the Domino club—a duo—bass and piano. We played there for about six weeks. At that time it was a real good music scene; you had Wilbur Campbell, Ira Sullivan, Nickie Hill, Joe Farrell, Victor Sproles, Jodie Christian, Stu Katz, just a whole slew of musicians. And there was a place that you could play practically every night. There were jam sessions that you could use as little jazz workshops; you could play and work on things and get better. This was 1959. After the job folded—the Domino club was on Rush and Walton, around that area—it was a good scene, and I just decided to stay here. The musicians here were nice, they had a place on Monday nights called the Gator Horn, which was run by Joe Segal. What he would do was have the artists that were appearing at various clubs come in and jam on Monday nights. He would pair them with local musicians, and the traveling musicians would come in and perform; all night they would call various musicians up to play. It made things real interesting. There was a place called the East End Club on Stoney Island, another place, the Archway, on 61st, and these were on different nights. Later on they had the New York room in the basement of the Southerland Hotel. Another place was the French Poodle. It was just a good environment, so I just stayed around. I have been here ever since. It was a good move for me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And once you were in Chicago you began to teach?
Pickens: How I got into teaching was that after that job folded and I got jobs at a place called the Bistro, we were playing shows for singers. Then I got a job at the Playboy Club and I worked there for several months. All of this was on the North Side on Rush Street. Then I got a steady job with a bandleader: it wasn’t rock and roll; it was jazz and almost rhythm and blues type of music. We played about four clubs in the suburbs and we would rotate with three or four other bands. We would play one club for three months then we would play another club.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who were you playing with at this time?
Pickens: Lou Washington—they called him Little Wash; he was a tenor player. He’s still playing around, even today. I was making $18 a night, and that was all right because I was only paying $14.50 a week for my rent. I was staying over here on 5225 University. Chicago Jazz Magazine: The bad news is that there are still people playing for $18 a night! [laughs]
Pickens: That was my first steady job. After awhile I needed some steady money, because I had gotten married, and there was a child coming. I started looking for a job at the steel mills, canning factories, but everywhere I went they said I was over-qualified, because I had a college degree. So then I was in a club one night and there was a jobbing musician; and I had mentioned that I needed some steady money. He said, “Well, why don’t you try the Board of Education, because you have a degree. You can teach music.” It was September and I figured they didn’t need any teachers at that point, but sure enough I went down to the Board. I had been out of school for eight years. It was 1966, and the director said that the band director at Lynn Bloom had just retired because he came into some money. The school year had started, and I had been out of school eight years, and I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” He said, “Well, we have people over here at the Board who can give you help if you need some help.” I went and talked with the principal, Mr. Yates. He asked me some for my qualifications and then he mentioned that they had a band director that had just retired and asked, “When can you start?” I said, “When do you want me to start?” He said, “How about tomorrow?” So one day—boom—I was in the system! [laughs] This was one of the better schools in the system; you had to take a test to get in. And so I took this band and my first year I took them to a band contest. The bands would play three tunes and then you would be judged. My first year teaching there we received a superior rating and got a plaque. That was quite important and rewarding to see that. At that time you had to take a test; you couldn’t take it whenever you wanted, only when there was a shortage of teachers. Someone could come along and take a test and say I want that job and you would get bumped. That’s what happened to me, I got bumped from that job. I started the first band at Kenwood, the building was not built yet, so we were in the grade school, Lewis Worth grade school, and I was teaching music in the lunchroom. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did they have a piano? Pickens: No, in fact we didn’t have instruments at the time so I was teaching theory until we got some instruments. The principle went out to various music companies and got them to donate some instruments. I was trying to teach music while pots and pans were rattling. But after about six months, Mayor Daley—old Mayor Daley—was there with a shovel and broke ground for the new school, and my band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” and for only playing for six months that’s quite an accomplishment. After that, again since I was new in the system, someone came along and bumped me again! Then I went to Wendell Phillips High School and that’s where I ended my career. I was there for 23 years. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What prompted you to leave the high school? Pickens: Well, in 1990, I got a call from Elvin Jones, and he asked me if I wanted to join the band. He was in town and he called and said, “You don’t have to make a decision right now; talk it over with your wife and let me know.” So I was going to take a leave of absence, and this was kind of sticky business because the Board of Education wants you do something that will enhance your teaching if you take a leave of absence. My wife said, “Why don’t you just resign and go out with Elvin Jones?” So that’s what I did in 1990: I resigned and went out with Elvin Jones. I was with him for almost five years. I did some recordings with him and played all over the world with him. But I am still teaching. I do a program with Ravinia and we go to about 10 schools, and we do anywhere from five to ten visits to each school. There are nine of us, all on different instruments. And we take the kids and work with them, and in the middle of the year we have auditions and rehearse with them, and then showcase them at Ravinia in June. There is an opportunity for them to play as a group, and then we sit in and they get to play with us. It’s very rewarding. I am also teaching part time at Northern Illinois University. I have been doing both for nine years. And I am still involved at the Jazz Showcase and the Green Mill, and various other places.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your first recording was the Exodus recording? Pickens: Yes, that’s the first professional recording I did. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Wasn’t that Eddie Harris’ first as well? Pickens: Yes, that was his first that I know of; at least the first that brought him to national fame. Chicago Jazz Magazine: That was right around the time of the release of the movie Exodus, but he wasn’t involved with that directly. Pickens: No, he just took that theme and gave it a jazz rendition. Another thing that was kind of interesting about that recording: he was playing way above the range of the tenor saxophone, so people weren’t sure if it was they thought it might be an alto or soprano sax, because it didn’t have that low deep timbre of the tenor. He was compared to Stan Getz because of his particular style. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you stay in touch with Eddie?
Pickens: From time to time. What was interesting was at the end of his life his last engagement was at the Jazz Showcase, and I played with him. It wasn’t to long after that he succumbed to his disease, some form of cancer. He had carpal tunnel very bad as well, and sometimes he couldn’t even play the sax. At the time we played the last engagement, he was very sick but he had that stamina, and determination, and a lot of ego, too, that made him want play.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you meet him?
Pickens: He called me; he was starting a group and wanted to rehearse. We rehearsed a lot. We had Bill Yancy, who just passed recently, on bass, Harold Jones, Joe Diorio on guitar… anyway, we started rehearsing and his first recording was done on Vee Jay label. He was involved with a guy named Abner and a disc jockey from California, Sid McCoy. They were promoting Eddie. We had a funk tune on that recording. We recorded it here in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. They were thinking the funk tune on the album was going to be the hit. They never dreamed that Exodus was going to be the tune that people would catch on to. In fact, they liked it so well that it gave us the opportunity to play at the Newport Jazz Festival. That was 1961, and I remember Duke Ellington’s band was there, along with a lot of other important people. You couldn’t even get a hotel room in Newport, it was so packed.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What is your favorite Eddie Harris story?
Pickens: Eddie Harris was rather serious about his music, because he was experimental. He started playing the saxophone with a trombone mouthpiece and with a trumpet mouthpiece; he played piano and played various instruments.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t he regularly use a bassoon reed with his saxophone?
Pickens: Yeah, he was always experimenting and trying to come up with something different. He would try scatting and singing; he had a lot of confidence in his abilities. He would talk to people and he would say, “I’m Eddie Harris. I can play blah, blah, blah…” There was a book—a thesaurus— with all those intervals. He was experimenting with that, and he called it his intervalistic approach.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was it like to be on the road with Eddie?
Pickens: When we were on the road he would go straight through; he would just drive straight through. He was trying to save money. We would sleep on the roadside rather then get a hotel room. Even when we went to Newport he didn’t get a hotel room. I did, but he didn’t, and he was the leader. He would wash up in the bathroom, or whatever. That’s the way he was at that time. But subsequently he became a millionaire. He was always saying, “I’m too small to be big, and too big to be small.” He was in between. He was straddling the fence, because he was doing funk and jazz, so he didn’t think he was accepted as a bona fide jazz musician.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s been said that you used to be more aggressive in your playing—that you used to play fuller chords—but that you now leave more space between your notes. Do you agree with that assessment?
Pickens: Well, that varies because, according to Joe Segal, I destroy his piano! [laughs] He wants me to lighten up. It all depends; every performance is different. He might be referring to a sense of playing less notes because I don’t have to fill up every hole. There may be a degree of truth to that statement. Maybe it’s maturity or evolving to the point where I don’t have to fill up every space with a note. But other times maybe it feels right. It depends on the situation. I also have to play different when I am playing with different people, than if I were playing alone or with a trio, where I am in command of the situation. If you play with other people, very often you have to listen and use a lot of intuition. Sometimes an artist will tell you how they want you to play behind them, and sometimes they don’t say anything. Some people want you to play more sparsely, or some want you to fill in more. You have to kind of gauge that on your own, which is a big responsibility. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have a favorite genre of jazz? You’ve been called a bebopper.
Pickens: Well, bebop maybe; and straight ahead, and a little blues, but I wouldn’t say I’m a hip-hop player or a funk player. I more or less play standards, but I wouldn’t say I’m a free player either, although certain elements of freedom creep into your playing at various times.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: We interviewed vocalist Frank D’Rone a few issues ago, and he claims that you’re one of the best accompanists he has ever played with.
Pickens: Well that’s very interesting. I had a lot of experience accompanying singers years ago, especially when I first came to Chicago. The thing about accompanying is that it is another art. It’s different than just playing by yourself or with a trio. When you are accompanying someone else you have to listen to the phrasing, and you have to… again, it’s your intuition—how much to play behind them, how to color and make them sound better than they would sound if you weren’t playing for them. You have a responsibility and you have to get away from yourself, and think about the artist. You’re there to make the artist sound as good as they can sound.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What’s your preferred line-up?
Pickens: I like playing trio, but also solo, because it’s a challenge. If you can keep interest with only one instrument—without the bass and the drums—and satisfy an audience, and make them feel fulfilled... Then again, when you have a horn out front you have more help, but there are also more colors to deal with. So in one sense it’s easier. I guess the least fulfilling would be playing with big bands. That’s how bebop came to form, because musicians were frustrated with arranged music. Prior to bebop they had large ensembles, and from that into big bands. They started with small groups, five or six people. Then by the late ‘30s there was a demand for larger groups—more organized, more arranged music, and less the rambunctious music like in New Orleans. Socially, people were getting more sophisticated; the emphasis was on dance music, which was a form of socialization. People wanted more music that was more focused on dancing; they didn’t want musicians blowing a lot of stuff. They wanted something smooth that would enhance their dancing. Musicians wanted to expand their creativity on their instruments; they knew that there was a lot more possible than just playing notes off the music. It was known as the bop rebellion.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: By rebellion do you mean a shift back to focusing on what the musicians chose to play rather than on what the listener wanted to hear?
Pickens: Yeah. And as a result, it affected people who couldn’t understand this music, and they said, What are these people doing, playing all those notes?! I was a teenager at the time, and when I heard bebop that’s what made me want to be a musician—when I heard Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie. I was working with these older guys and I didn’t know a lot of music at that time, but I could read. So we had these stock arrangements. We were talking about Charlie Parker, and this older musician, Jimmy Dudley, an alto saxophone player, said, “Charlie Parker—I never heard no one man play so many wrong notes in my life.” Even when Charlie was with Jay McShann’s band and you would hear “Rootie Tootie Blues,” you could hear the difference between what Charlie Parker was playing and the way he was playing compared to the rest of the band. A lot of the time they would shun him, because he was playing all those funny notes. Nobody had ever heard that; nobody had ever heard the stuff he was playing. That’s how revolutionary he was. Dizzy Gillespie said, “You know, I’m getting a lot of credit for being the inventor of bebop, but when I heard Charlie Parker I had never heard anything like that, and I knew I had to play with this man.” And NOBODY had ever heard anything like what Charlie Parker was playing—it was really revolutionary. So much so, that to this day when I listen to Charlie Parker play it’s still exciting. That’s more than 50 years ago.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever get an opportunity to play with Bird or Diz?
Pickens: [laughing] Well, this is a strange story… Not really, but I was in the service out in California; and they had a jazz concert in Oakland. And they had Charlie Parker’s Group and they had Dave Brubeck’s group. After the concert I came back to San Francisco, and went to this club called, I believe, the Kubla Kahn. Art Farmer’s brother was the bass player, and I asked if I could sit in, and Charlie Parker was there, and he sat in on DRUMS [laughing] and I was playing piano! He wasn’t doing anything fancy; he was just keeping time. So I can say I played with Charlie Parker!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What records did you listen to when you were in school in Milwaukee?
Pickens: I was listening to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, you know. And then, I used to go to all these stage shows; they had the Riverside theatre, and I’d listen to virtually everyone that came in. Even cornball bands like Horace Hite and his Triple-Tonguing Trumpeteers. I’ve heard Blue Barron. But I also heard Frank Sinatra there; Glen Miller’s Band, Duke, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, so I listened a lot. At that time you could go to the theatre and stay all day. Herbie Fields. Then there was a skating rink called Riverview, and they had bands there; Charlie Ventura’s band played there. And there was another place called George Divine’s Million Dollar Ballroom, and there I heard Stan Kenton’s 40-piece band, with a full string and brass ensemble. And then I heard Woody Herman when he hired Gene Ammons. They had kind of a hit out called “More Moon,” which was actually “How High the Moon.” And what was interesting about that was Gene Ammons had just gotten out of jail for drugs, and he was playing with Woody Herman’s band; he sounded great with Woody. Incidentally, Woody Herman’s from Milwaukee. So I listened to everybody, even guys like Dick Contino, shaking that box, playing “Lady of Spain.” But most of my influences were off of records.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: A couple of years ago you did a recording with another jazz pianist Marion McPartland, who plays a very different style than you. How did you mange to meld those styles together?
Pickens: Yeah, it’s called Ain’t Misbehavin’. Again, when you’re playing with others your job is to listen and to stay out of the way of the other pianist, so to speak, so it’s all about empathy, and it’s all about blending—not standing out—but blending. And there are times you can stand out, we leave spaces for each other to stand out. You know none of that stuff was rehearsed—we never rehearsed, we just played. The only rehearsing we ever did was the sound check. Other than that, we’d select the tunes we were going to play, and we might say, Take the intro, or You do this or blah, blah, blah. I call her Marion McPartland, the Elegant Lady of Jazz, because she plays beautiful harmony and very serene and laid back and polite, so to speak. Where I’m more rambunctious and more punchy.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Does that describe your personality?
Pickens: I’m more laid back personally, but when I get on the piano it’s different. I’m expressing myself, but normally I’m not rambunctious.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So the piano’s your outlet.
Pickens: Yeah, so to speak. I’m more laid back, but there’s always that fire seething underneath. [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: A few years ago you released a Christmas album. Christmas music has been done and redone, and yet you found some new twists. Some of the chord intervals you play on “Silent Night,” for example, break new ground. What inspired you to do a Christmas CD?
Pickens: Yeah. Several years before this album came out—I’m very involved with our church, Hyde Park Union Church—and we used to have a Christmas Eve service, and I would play various selections on the piano. And I would give them my own versions of various Christmas selections. And after many years of doing that several people in the church including our minister said, “You know, it would be nice if we could maybe add drums or bass or horn to this and maybe let the public in on what’s going on.” And after several more years of doing this—we added a trumpet, bass and drums. And each year it was my idea to keep it fresh, and have a different instrumentalist and then a vocalist—each year I would change, because primarily we were doing the same selections. So to keep it interesting and fresh, I brought in different performers to bring a different perspective to it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you using Nicholas Payton and Larry Gray and Robert Shy at the church as well as on the recording?
Pickens: Yes. At that time… This is interesting, too. Nicholas Payton was going to be in town—this was in the summer—and he was going to performing for me that December. So it was my wife’s idea, she said, “He’s going to be in town for the Festival; he’s doing some things here now, why don’t you see if you can’t do the recording here in the summer?” And I was kind of hesitant, but she convinced me; and sure enough we got in touch with Nicholas’ manager and set it up for him to do the recording…his manager was kind of difficult to deal with. He was saying, “Yeah, he can do it, but he can’t be used on the cover for any kind of publicity.” So I said, okay, we won’t advertise it. And the day that we had selected for recording we waited for two or three hours because his plane was late, and he had somewhere else to go—this was well into the evening—eight, nine, ten o’clock in the evening. And finally he gets there. So we had never seen the music before. A lot of the selections were first takes and he captured the essence of the music immediately. He was quite a talent, a real natural talent, too. His father was a bass player from what I understand. Nicholas can get on the drums and sounds like Elvin Jones on the drums, he sits down at the piano and sounds like a pianist, he gets on the bass he sounds like a bass player, so he’s just one of those rare talents. I first heard him here…Clark Terry was traveling with a group of young trumpet players that had won some kind of a contest, so he was traveling around the country with them, and he was one of four young instrumentalists. I was playing at the Jazz Showcase. He was about 18 at the time. Each one had a selection, and I asked, “What do you want to play?” And he said, “’Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,’ key of B.” [laughs]. And I said, “All right, we’ve got a smartie pants here.” So he’s the type of instrumentalist… If anybody’s going to make another mark I believe it’s going to be him, as far as moving the music forward. He’s just a phenomenal talent.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Recording your Christmas album in the summer is reminiscent of Mel Torme, who wrote “The Christmas Song” on a summer day looking out his window at the sun and the green grass.
Pickens: Yeah, I told my wife, “I don’t know if I can get in the mood for this.” But she was right. It came off. I was real happy with the recording sound. And the performances of the musicians—Larry Gray, one of the finest in the country, Robert Shy, great, great player, and of course Nicholas Payton, just outstanding. So I was real happy with the recording. It was sponsored by my church and also by Joanie [Pallatto] and Bradley Parker Sparrow—they own the recording company—it was a joint effort, and they put up the money.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You spent quite a while touring with Elvin Jones.
Pickens: I was with Elvin for close to five years. I think we have about three recordings together, and we played Japan, Germany, Italy—all of Europe—South America.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What is the most memorable aspect of playing with Elvin?
Pickens: The greatest aspect to me was in one sense is the fact that I had an opportunity to play with a legend. He was a pioneer of the music. He was one of the first to start all these polyrhythms. And you figure without him there would be no Jack DeJohnette, and who’s the other one that played with Miles…Tony Williams. Then it afforded me the opportunity to see various places that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, because it takes money to travel. I wasn’t making a lot of money. But it was an opportunity to get your name out there, get a little more recognition, and also to see the world.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there any differences in the jazz audiences you’ve seen in various countries?
Pickens: Well one of the most respectful audiences I’ve ever played for was in Japan. For one thing they know the music, they know the pioneers of music… they know the history and they show their appreciation for it. You know, the first time I played with Elvin we were playing these Blue Note clubs. They had three of them: Osaka, Fukuoka and Tokyo. And every time we played there I saw this: these people had these elaborate, expensive meals they had paid for, and as soon as we started playing—we played an hour-and-a-half, two hours—they’d stop eating. Everybody would put down their forks—and they’d just begun eating! And then when we were through—their food was cold—and they would start eating again. I saw this over and over. Another thing they would do: at the end of the set they would have girls wiping down the piano. In America, some of these pianos don’t get touched in a year! And there, after every set they’d be dusting off the pianos. And they had great equipment, Steinway pianos, just the best of everything.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Last issue we talked with Two For Brazil—Greg Fishman and Paulinho Garcia—and they said the same thing about Japanese audiences.
Pickens: Yeah, I remember being in Japan and I’d walk down the street and pass a hosiery shop. And the music coming out of the shop would be Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. We’d have these parties after the show—and they’d be blue collar workers—and they’d come in with their boom boxes and set them up… and nothing but Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Monk; and they even have a little club in a city north of Tokyo called the Elvin Club. The whole club is not as large as these two rooms put together—if you got 20 people in there it’d be crowded. That’s how respectful they are of Elvin over there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you thing of the state of jazz music today?
Pickens: Well I think it’s in bad shape, especially jazz. Jazz has always suffered in terms of having numbers, and I think it will always be that way, by nature of the music, and what it requires of the listener. It requires a lot of attention from the listener. And a lot of people don’t want to give of themselves that much; they want you to give more to them. They don’t want to be sitting up listening and trying to figure out what you’re going to do next, or be involved in what you’re doing. They want something that’s simple. They say, “After I’ve worked all week I’m not interested in any type of intellectual pursuit. I want to be entertained. I want to feel instantly. I want something I can move to. This music is all crazy, what are they doing?” Even at some of the schools… We give these miniature jazz history concerts, where we will talk a little bit about the periods of music, and then we’ll play something that is characteristic of that period. For example, we’ll start with the New Orleans period and play something like “St. James Infirmary,” and then we’ll go to the swing era and play something like “Cottontail,” then we’ll go to the bebop period and play something like “Night in Tunisia,” and then to the modern jazz period and we might play something by Coltrane. One student was getting ready to go into the auditorium and another student said, “You don’t want to go in there. They’re in there playing all that crazy music!” [laughing]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So jazz to them is “crazy music.”
Pickens: Yeah, so that’s kind of the attitude. I’ve found that most of the time the people that gravitate to the jazz are people that had it in their homes, and they’ve grown up with it. Now there are a few exceptions, some people come to jazz late in life, but the majority of the people who love this music are the ones that learn about it before they have a choice. It’s in the home and that’s all they’re hearing most of the time. My wife is one of those who grew up with music. I didn’t teach her anything about music. She not only knew about jazz, she knew about opera, she knew about show tunes, she knew about religious music. She can tell you the song without hearing the melody. I feel VERY fortunate to have her; I don’t know of any musicians’ wives who can do that who are not trained in music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have other hobbies or interests that feed into your music?
Pickens: I try to exercise three days a week in the gym over at the hospital—the treadmill, the bicycles, blah, blah, blah… And then my little granddaughter: she’s just half a block away, and she’s VERY precocious; she was weaned on Coltrane. When my son brought her home she was a little fidgety and crying and we put on Charlie Parker, and she stopped crying. I don’t understand it; this was like the second day she was home from the hospital. And she can sing all these songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and she’s not even two! When she hears music she starts rocking; she’s just a natural. She’s going to be in kindergarten asking, “Where’s Charlie Parker? Where’s Monk?” [laughing]