Robert Irving III - In His Own Words
Chicago born and based Robert Irving III leads an active life as a pianist, composer, arranger, producer, youth mentor with the Jazz Institute of Chicago, and music educator at the Chicago Academy of Music Conservatory in Hyde Park. Irving played brass instruments in concert bands, jazz big bands and community orchestras throughout grade school to post high school, and received private tutelage in piano theory as a teenager from George Hunter who directed the Moonlighters Orchestra, from which emerged members of the Earth Wind & Fire horn section, and Ramsey Lewis trio members Eldee Young and Redd Holt.
Irving is best known for his association with Miles Davis, which began in 1979, when his composition “Space” captured the attention of Davis, who was still in the throes of his five-year hiatus. Irving performed on 1981’s “The Man With The Horn,” and is co-writer of the title track. He produced the last two Columbia albums for Davis, “Decoy,” which won the Downbeat Readers Poll for Best Jazz Album, and “You’re Under Arrest,” which garnered Grammy Award nominations for the album and the single, “Human Nature.” He served as music director for the Miles Davis groups from 1983 until leaving the band in 1988.
Irving has produced five Grammy Award-nominated projects and has worked closely with such artists as Ramsey Lewis, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Sting, Billy Joel, Patrice Rushen, Diane Reeves, Regina Carter, Pharaoh Sanders, John Scofield, Kirk Whalum, Grover Washington Jr., Nancy Wilson, Branford Marsalis, Roy Ayers, R. Kelly and also served as a Musical Director for Donald Byrd and the group Sister Sledge. He also scored the music for the motion picture “Street Smart,” the first film for actor Morgan Freeman and the last for Christopher Reeves.
Irving is founder of the Sonic Portraits Orchestra, which performed the debut of “Sketches of Brazil,” his orchestral homage to his mentors Gil Evans and Miles Davis. Performed at Chicago’s Millennium Park in 2009, the highly revered suite also featured Wallace Roney on trumpet and Fareed Haque on classical guitar. His current septet, Robert Irving III Generations, consisting largely of Irving’s own mentees, is his current vehicle as a composer/arranger. “Our Space In Time,” the band’s 2015 debut project, has remained on the JazzWeek Chart for more than 22 weeks and received extensive international radio airplay and critical acclaim.
Irving tours with his fellow alums as MD of the Miles Electric Band and is currently completing his memoir entitled, “Harmonic Possibilities.” Pre-publication excerpts make for fascinating reading and may be found at sonicportraitsjazz.com.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you get involved in jazz music?
Robert Irving: Ironically, it was contemporary gospel that brought me into jazz, because of all the gospel musicians that were on the different radio broadcasts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Louis Ball and Stevie Harrison, who sounded like Jimmy Smith. My grandmother would tune in and I would hear these incredible harmonies and progressions. They were highly influenced by jazz. My dad was a blues lover and didn’t really listen to jazz. My mother took me to Omega Baptist Church because we lived across the street, in the projects. That was where the organist Jessy Dixon was. He went on to become a really big name in gospel music. So that was the first time I saw the organ played, and I decided at that moment, at maybe ten, that’s what I wanted to do. So, they bought me a little toy organ and the first thing I taught myself to play was “The Star-Spangled Banner”––just the melody and the bass. I got the counterpoint, independent baseline/melody—both relationships—and was able to do that. But later I got drafted into the Robert Taylor Drum & Bugle Corps, so I played bugle marching music in the Bud Billiken Parade that year, in 1965 or ‘66.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is it true that the bugle was actually your first instrument?
Irving: It was my first real, trained instrument, yeah. In school they drafted me to play brass instruments, but I really wanted to play reeds—I loved the sound of the saxophone. But everyone else did too, and they needed brass players, so I started off on mellophone—like a French horn with trumpet-like valves—then moved to the cornet, baritone horn and valve trombone. Later, when my family moved to the Chicago-Chatham neighborhood, it was slide trombone in high school and every once in a while, I would have to sub on sousaphone.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you worked with Miles Davis, he commented on your instrument progression, noting that your teachers knew what they were doing, because they started you off on tougher brass instruments so that when you eventually got to the trombone it would be easier to blow.
Irving: Exactly. It was the size of the mouthpiece that he mentioned––the bigger mouthpieces produce a tone more easily and don’t require as much pressure. Miles said that if you started on tuba and tried to get to a smaller mouthpiece, then it would have been going uphill. So yeah, that was a good observation. I didn’t realize that at the time.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So high school was formative for you, musically speaking.
Irving: Absolutely. George Hunter was my band teacher at Hirsch, and he had the Moonlighters Big Band. That was a really big unit. So big that they would split up and play two proms in one night. Eldee Young, Redd Holt, soon to be Earth Wind & Fire saxophonist, Don Myrick and Louis Satterfield—who became the trombone player for Earth, Wind & Fire—played upright bass in the big band. So I was exposed to a high caliber of musicians at an early age. Mr. Hunter stressed that all horn players learn piano if you were serious about improvisation on your horn. I was one of the students who was really interested in that, so he would keep me after class and show me basic piano theory. I got the big picture of it quickly; I was like a sponge. I’d skip Social Studies class because the band room was empty, go in there and practice piano. I didn’t have a piano at home. So, I flunked Social Studies but [laughs], as a result, I excelled so fast on piano that George Hunter started taking me out on Moonlighter gigs and I would set up the stands and put out the music and would sit in for a couple numbers with the band, on the Hammond organ mostly.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you begin writing?
Irving: George Hunter suggested I get a hymnal as a sight-reading tool because there are simple melodies and accompaniment with block chords. I retrained my eyes to look at both clefs and developed a sense of Well, if I can read this then why can’t I write it? So I taught myself to reverse that whole process and write the music. I started arranging and composing. Nobody told me I couldn’t. [laughs] I subscribed to Songwriter Magazine and they had the annual Song Festival. My first song with lyrics was called “Every Day Living,” and I entered it into the festival and won an honorable mention and a really nice embossed certificate. That made me realize that maybe there was something to this. That magazine made me aware that music is a business, in terms of publishing rights and such. That’s why I chose to study business administration instead of music when I went to college. I had a sense that those who studied music went on to teach. I was already playing, so a performance degree didn’t occur to me. That’s why I didn’t choose music as a major. Funny, because now I’m teaching anyway.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where did you go to college?
Irving: My maternal grandmother, Marie Finney-Cohen, took us to North Carolina every summer. The year after losing my mom to a brain tumor, my great grandmother Annie Finney, who was part Cherokee and 103 years old, wasn’t doing well. It would have been an inconvenience for grandma Marie to bring us back to Chicago, so she asked my dad if the four of my six siblings and I could just stay for one semester and register for school. Anyway, that turned into eight years. All of a sudden, I was in the Bible Belt with no jazz radio. So I finished high school down there and went to a community college, “Rock Tech,” Rockingham Community College. I studied business administration and got a two-year degree. I took some piano lessons there, just for fun, to be able to play some nice pianos. After that I studied arranging privately at UNC-G with a graduate student/teacher, Wesley Bulla. That didn’t last long because he said that I had mastered everything he had to teach me. I later studied orchestration privately with Dr. Robert Lombardo at Roosevelt. He focused more of the use of intricate rhythm patterns. During the nineties I attended DeVry University to study Computer Information Systems because more and more music production was being done on computers.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was the attraction to arranging?
Irving: Wayne Shorter said a composition is never complete; that it’s always evolving. For me, that’s an arranger’s domain—to hear the possibilities and approaches for harmony and rhythm. My band members don’t always like that things are always evolving as they have to relearn the music again and again. [laughs] I’m always pushing the envelope in terms of esthetics and just hearing things in a different, more progressive way.
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