Interview with Lonnie Plaxico

Lonnie Plaxico talks to 441 about his influences and the recording of Live at Jazz Standard.

Where were you born? I was born in Chicago.

What were some of your favorite music growing up?
The first music I heard as a kid was soul music and R&B and the Blues and gospel music and rock. My favorite Groups were Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, The O’Jays, Mandrel, Rare Earth, and Donny Hathaway. When I started working in nightclubs at 14 a friend of mine in the band Larry Henderson who was a sax player turned me on to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Those were the first jazz musicians I heard. I also liked Herbie Hancock & the Head Hunters, and Return to Forever. I thought this was jazz but I soon realized I had to go backwards to hear the music that came before Fusion. The band I played with played all kind of music but mostly popular jazz songs like “Killer Joe” (Benny Golson) or “Memphis Underground” (Herbie Mann) and “Bumping on Sunset” (Wes Montgomery). I just played bass guitar at that time. My friend Larry took me to hear live jazz when I was 16. That's when I went to the pawnshop the next day to buy me a bass violin. That same night at the jazz club I heard a guy name Bill Yancey playing the bass and I asked him to teach me. He was my first teacher on the bass violin.

How did you get started as a musician?
I got started in music because I wanted to be like my older brother so I watched what ever he did. He got a drum set for Christmas and when we went over my grandparent's house my cousin had a duo organ and drums and my brother would sit in and I would tell my cousins, who were much older then me, and my brother that I was going to play bass. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old at that time. We lived in the projects in Chicago so every one knew each other in the building. My brother got in a band and they played music in the recreation room. They always had people listening to their band. I was fascinated by what I saw and heard. I really loved the bass the most. They would leave their equipment in my parent's apartment. When no one was around I would sneak and play the bass player's bass guitar. If they saw me I would get in trouble. My parents noticed that I was messing with that bass a lot, so when I was 12 they got me my first bass guitar for Christmas. I was lucky because I could see the bass player in that band all the time. He moved into our home. His name was Derrick Holmes. I wanted to be like him so I watched him play all the time.

You have played with many wonderful musicians. Do you have fond memories of playing with someone that you would like to share with us?
Everyone I played with was good for me. It’s strange because in NYC a musician doesn't get much time to reflect on the last gig you had because you are off working with others soon after. I haven't really sat down and thought about all the musicians I’ve worked for but I remember a lot about what they taught me and said to me. I learned a lot from the other musicians in the band like Mulgrew Miller and Terrence Blanchard when I worked with Art Blakey and Greg Osby when I worked with Jack DeJohnnete.

Your new release, Live at Jazz Standard from 441 Records, is an energetic showcase for your band. What do you like most about the album?
I’m not one to talk about what I like about my music. I do like playing my music and am trying to write better music all the time. I think most musicians aren't satisfied with their CDs because we always want to do better, and most of the time unless you have a working band you can’t get the music to the level you know it could be on. I am happy with my CD but whenever I listen to my recording I always feel I wanted it to be much better, although I like the style of music on my CD and the openness to play with the other musicians on this CD.

Was there anything unique about the specific performances of each song selected for the album? Is there a favorite track of yours on the album?
I just try to write the music that I hear inside my mind and soul and things I’m working on in my playing. I never think of any thing I do as unique. That's up to you the listener to decide if a musician is unique or not. I like performing all the songs on this CD.

Can you tell us more about each of your band members; how you met them, what do you like about them, … etc.?
Marcus Strickland and I met when he was 21 while he was still in college. He's a very good musician who's working on his own music and band. I know from the way he thinks he will be someone who will find his own voice on the saxophone in a matter of time. I can hear his sound now when I hear his CDs. Alex Norris is a solid trumpet player and a hard worker. He plays good solos. I can depend on him to do a good job. All the guys in my band are open to playing all kind of music. Lionel Cordew is also a solid musician. He has a good pocket and is always looking to learn more about music. I can pretty much say the same about all the guys in the band. Martin Bejerano was a replacement on this CD. He had my music for 9 days and played like he was a part of my band for some time. I’m happy what he brought to the music. Kahlil Kwame Bell is a great percussionist. I trust what he is playing and just let him come up with the parts he hears in the music. He’s studied a lot of music.

Who’s influences do you find in your original compositions?
I guess I would have to say everyone from my childhood up until the jazz musicians I listen to now. I would have to put Wayne Shorter name at the top but the grooves I hear when I write music come from my R&B influences. I’m really listening to gospel music now as I did long ago because I like the passion the musicians have and the dedication the bands have in gospel music and the arrangements they write. Many people might find that strange but gospel music was played before what was named jazz music.

To be meaningful to you, what do you need a song to express?

What do you find challenging in your role as musical director (Lonnie was musical director for Cassandra Wilson) or as bandleader?
As a musical director you are responsible for someone else’s music so you have to understand what that person wants and try to get along with all the musicians in the band to get the best out of them and try to add something to the sound of the band through arrangements. If you pick the right musicians, there's not that much to do or say. Being a bandleader can be a nightmare because now you are asking someone to give you and the other guys in your band a gig. As a sideman, it’s just you. If you are performing outside NYC now you are asking a club to pay for your flights and hotels and your fee. I know a lot of musicians tell me they want to do their own thing or play the music they like. I know right away this is a person who doesn't have a band. If a musician wants to have a working band they have to sell CD's and fill the seats in a venue. Being a bandleader is the hardest thing I've ever done in the music business. You can practice all day and be a good musician but I think when a person becomes a bandleader it's called business music not music business anymore.

What direction do you want to take your band in from this point? Are there any new “territories” you would like to explore?
I want just want to find a way to play the music I like and reach more people and keep challenging myself and my band members, but really find a way to write music that everyone can enjoy.

How do you see jazz evolving?
I think it has to evolve because the people who are now coming out to clubs to hear the music are a lot younger and most like all kinds of music. A musician who was playing in the 1940’s or 1950’s was playing to an audience that heard music from that time. Today if someone is 23 to 40 and they come to a jazz club most don't know much from the ‘50s. I was born in 1960 and I never heard jazz music. Some musicians have parents that play jazz music so they have been around it all their life but when you look at teenagers and their high school life, it's all about what music is happening at the time of their life. When I was in high school I heard Billy Paul and the Spinners on the radio and the music from the ‘70s. I think if a musician wanted to reach more people they should play music that not only reflects on many generations but play them the way they hear them. I love playing Stevie Wonder’s music as much as I love playing Cole Porter.

Which musicians or what albums by other musicians have you been listening to lately?
Coltrane & Miles. I have so much music already. I do buy a lot of the younger artist’s music but I keep going back to the older stuff. I really like gospel musicians a lot, how their CDs are made and the energy. I’m trying to find out how to put that in to my writing and band sound.

What do you do to unwind or relax besides music?
I love cooking.

Finally, do you have any advice to jazz musicians who are starting their careers?
If you are in high school and plan on going to college for music, my advice is to go to college in a major city. NYC is my # 1 choice for any musician who really wants to have a career in music. Learn from whoever and whatever and have fun.