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Interview with: Wilton Felder
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson
Date: August 25, 1989
Archive Number: OH 462
LM: 00:08 Today’s date: August 25, 1989. This is Louis Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson interviewing Wilton Felder, F-E-L-D-E-R, for the Texas Jazz Archive History Project. We’d like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you. Charles has done a significant amount of research on you, which has only produced more questions to ask you. So I think that would be a good place to begin. Can you tell us where you born and the date that you were born?
WF: I was born in Houston, Texas, August 31, 1940.
LM: All right. Tell me some about your family background, about your mother and father and whether you had siblings.
WF: I’m the last of ten children. I had eight sisters and one brother. My father’s name is AL Felder, my mother’s maiden name was Debbie ____(??) 01:28 I come from sort of a musical family. My sisters played piano. My brother, Owen Felder, played saxophone, and he’s responsible for me actually playing the saxophone today. He gave me my first instrument, which was an alto saxophone, when I was about nine years old. So I’ve been playing since I’ve been 11.
LM: Was that actually the first time that you were introduced to music at all, when you were nine, or did you have some exposure before?
WF: Never any exposure before insofar as wanting to play it. I’d heard it before but was never interested in playing until I received the alto saxophone from my brother. My father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and he had taken me and a couple of my sisters to California where my brother lived. He lives in Richmond. And my brother took me to hear him play. At the time he was working with a man by the name of PeeWee Creighton and his band, so that was the first time that I saw my brother playing the saxophone, and from there I wanted to play saxophone. And I got sick and I contracted pneumonia, and my father sent for my brother, and he came down, and he had this alto sax, and he said, “Well, if you get well, you can have the horn.” And so that was an incentive for me to get over that sickness, and he gave me the instrument.
CS: 02:56 Were you in California at the time of your illness?
WF: No, I was in Texas. I didn’t go to California until 1958 when I left with the whole group. We all left and moved to California.
CS: You went to Wheatley High School.
CS: Were you involved in the music program there?
WF: Yes, I was. I first started getting involved in music at EO Smith High School, which was right down the street from where I lived. I lived at 3503 Raleigh, and EO Smith High School was two blocks away. I started in the band there under a man by the name of Magruder, who was the band instructor. So I started playing there, and then when I went to Phillis Wheatley, I joined both the school band and also the orchestra under Sammy Harris.
LM: Who actually taught you how to play the sax?
WF: I was basically self-taught. Insofar as having technical training and having a private teacher, I didn’t have any. The only teaching that I got I received in the school band and so forth, but the actual basic training and the teaching was mostly self-taught and by experience from my brother.
LM: You received it, you said, when you were nine years old.
LM: 04:11 So between the time you were nine and you went to high school, did you just let that sax sit in the corner?
WF: No. I began to pick up things and to play by ear. When I went to EO Smith High School, there was a canteen right across the street that was called Geneva’s. I don’t think it’s there anymore. But they had a juke box there, and I remember my first interest in jazz was that they had two cuts on the juke box: one was by Stan Getz called “Your Addition,”(??) 04:38 and the other one was by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. I forget the name of that song, but I would play that over and over again, and so my love for jazz began there. And I would play a lot of things that I would hear by ear. I would just pick it up and start playing it. And while in junior high school at EO Smith, a fellow member who is now my brother-in-law, Stix Hooper, he wanted to form a band. And so he called some of the other musicians there to come and join into his group, and that’s when I started playing group wide.
CS: How old was Stix at the time?
WF: Stix must have been, when he formed the band, about 13, and I was probably about 12 then.
CS: Didn’t you play as a group? Weren’t there six of you that played together?
WF: Yes. There were six of us, and we were called The Modern Jazz Sextet. The six included Stix Hooper on drums, whose real name is Nesbit Hooper. There was (microphone interference) played alto and flute and myself. There was Wayne Henderson on trombone. The bass player was Henry Wilson, and the pianist at that time was ___Harvey(??) 06:03, who was later replaced by Joe Sample, who is now the current keyboardist.
CS: You and Stix and Sample have been together for—
WF: It’s been over 30 something years that we’ve been together, and that includes Wayne Henderson as well. When we left Texas together as a group, the ones that left were Henry Wilson, Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson, and Hubert and myself. We all left Houston together in cars, traveling out to California. But Hubert won a scholarship to Juilliard, and so he left us after about two years in California and went to New York.
CS: 06:49 Before we go on any further with your experience in California, didn’t you also play at the high school and do nightclub work?
WF: Okay, yes. At the high school we were sort of like gigging around town, and we actually played here in the city at Jimmy Menutis’s club where we were billed as the Nighthawks. And we played that for a while, and we also won a scholarship. There was a contest that was held among the high school students, of which we won a scholarship. And for that we won a stereo, which was given to the school. We won out of all the other participating bands in the high school scholarship thing, and the Houston Chronicle also gave us a write-up on that. That was one of the things that we accomplished as a group during that particular time in high school, and we also were playing nightclubs around town.
CS: What year did that article appear in the Chronicle?
WF: That must have been around about—let’s see, we left in ’58, so that must have been around about ’56 or ‘57, something like that.
CS: When you went to California, you changed your name from The Modern Jazz Sextet.
WF: Well, when we first came to California, there was a union regulation that you couldn’t work until you had been in the city for six months. So that meant that we couldn’t play at all until we joined the union, and then after the six-month period we started trying to keep playing jazz, and work was scarce insofar as playing just strictly jazz. We played on Sunset at a place called the Jazz Cabaret, and we played on Western at a place called the Intermission. And so jobs were sparse and in between, so in order to keep playing and to make a living, we had to start playing some commercial music. So we changed our name to the Nighthawks, and we worked at a place in North Hollywood called the Tailspin. We had worked there for about a year and a half, and then we went to other places and stayed for long stints playing more or less Top 40 music. But our love was still for jazz, and even we went to Vegas and had the Nighthawks band.
LM: 09:36 What year did you go to California?
WF: We left Houston in ’58 and came to California, and we got our first recording contract in 1960.
LM: Did you ever go to TSU?
LM: Okay. How did you squeeze that in while in California?
WF: We went to TSU. I spent one year and a half at TSU, and we realized that while we were here in Texas the ambitions that we had of actually recording and playing jazz were only going to take us so far, so we decided to leave and go to California. Stix Hooper had some relatives in California, and it seemed possible that we could go and stay with them and get a foothold, so we left in 1958 and headed out to California.
LM: What did you study at TSU?
WF: I studied music. We majored in music.
LM: Did they have a suitable department at that time for you?
WF: Well, in learning the theory of music, yes. But insofar as actually being able to play the type of music that we wanted to play, that was a long way off. But while we were here in Houston, we were actually working the major places here to play such as the El Dorado. We were playing with the big bands around here. And so anything that was actually taking place in Houston we were having a part in it. But the opportunity to extend it further was not available at that time, so we had to leave and go to California because we actually wanted to get into recording and to make jazz a major career. So we had two choices: either the West Coast or the East Coast. And from our background here in the West and our lifestyle, we decided down here in Houston that it would be better to go West, where we had some relatives, than to be going East and maybe hitting a rough time.
CS: 11:37 Did you use an agent to get your first performance there?
WF: No, not really. What happened was we had joined the union, and we knew a few other musicians in LA, and we were really instrumental in getting started from another tenor saxophonist by the name of Curtis Amy. He introduced us to some other musicians around town, and we were able to get a job just by going and sitting in whenever we could. And then the club owners began to recognize that we could play, so we got our first gig on our own. And then after that we did start using an agency.
CS: Is that what got you started doing backup work? Or did that come later?
WF: The backup work comes later because after getting to know musicians around town, we got to get in contact with contractors. And so once we got in touch with recording contractors, word went out, and they would get us one thing and then that would lead to something else.
LM: You mentioned earlier that you played around Houston with some big bands in town. Which bands are you thinking of?
WF: We played with IH Smalley’s big band, and Sammy Harris had a big band that was mainly at the El Dorado, and Conrad Johnson had a big band at the time as well. So those were the major influences big band wise that we played here. But on the small level, the musicians around town at that time that were playing and gigging were RP Wallace or Joe Calloway. I’m trying to think of some of the others. Jimmy Forth (??) 13:23 was around here and then the regular local musicians that we sat in and played. So we played virtually the major clubhouses here, The Latin A, the El Dorado, the Albany, the Tropicana. Anything that was available for playing we actually played.
LM: 13:43 How did you get treated financially in comparison to the older musicians here?
WF: We were treated financially very well. I think the least paying job I can remember is we made 25 cents for the whole band, and that was while we were real young. We played at a club out in Stewart Heights and we were working for the door. But we’ve never hit really what you would call hard times. I can say in our whole career we’ve never been where we’ve been stranded on the road or anything like that. We were getting paid a nice salary along with the regular other older musicians. They would have a $25 gig or a $50 gig, and they paid us the same amount of money.
LM: That’s all right.
CS: You changed your name to The Jazz Crusaders, and then you dropped the word Jazz. Why did you drop the word Jazz from your title?
WF: At one period of time, there was a period of time when the jazz musicians were actually going abroad and especially in Japan where they had made a very bad reputation. They had been caught with drugs and everything, and Japan was very hard on jazz musicians and drugs, where they went to jail. So the stigma of jazz musicians had gotten so bad with drugs and narcotics, and also the title never really pictured what we played because when you say jazz, there are so many categories of it. And so rather than being associated with that stigma, we wanted to just let people decide for themselves if they liked the music or not, so we dropped the name Jazz and then we began to be marketed in the record stores not only in the jazz category but also next to David Bowie and all the rest of them so that persons had a chance to decide for themselves if they liked the music.
CS: Apparently you have been quite successful on all of your recordings.
WF: So far.
CS: On one of your recordings you were assisted by a group called The Average White Band. Who was The Average White Band?
WF: That was a group of guys I think either from Australia or it was England—one or the other. But anyway, they were a group of white guys that played very funky, like black people, and Hamish and some of the others formed this group, and they were playing rhythm and blues, and so they called themselves The Average White Band. They had listened very much closely to Southern black gospel music and rhythm and blues, and they played a lot like us, so it was just a normal thing for us to join together and to actually play together.
CS: 16:45 It sounded like you had fun.
WF: Oh, we did. We’ve been good friends.
LM: How long did y’all play?
WF: That was in the late ‘60s. They were recording for Atlantic, and at the time we went to New York and cut a couple of tracks, and they were there. Ahmet Ertegun was in the studio, and so a couple of guys played with us on that particular cut.
CS: When did you make your first recording?
WF: That was in 1960. The title of the album was the Freedom Sound.
CS: And that was a successful recording.
WF: Yes, it was. Actually, what happened with that recording, the saxophonist that I had mentioned, Curtis Amy, had introduced us to Dick Bock of Liberty Records, and he came to Joe Sample’s house to hear us. We auditioned for him right there in Joe’s house. And we played that particular song, “Freedom Sound,” and some other things, some other original material. And right then and there he signed us up to do a recording, so that was our first recording which was the “Freedom Sound,” and that particular song was the title track.
CS: You said original.
WF: All the material that we played was original.
CS: 18:01 You mean you wrote it yourself.
CS: Composed it yourself.
WF: Yes. It wasn’t until later years—about maybe 15 or maybe 20 albums later—that we ever played something that was written by someone else. Most of the things in our own recordings are written by individual members of the band. So that whole Freedom Sound album, everything was original music.
LM: What inspired the title for that album?
WF: Joe had written this song, “Freedom Sound,” and he was going to throw it away in the trash can, and when Dick Bock heard it, he fell in love with that particular song. We were trying to think of a title for us that would depict what we were trying to do, and that’s when we came up with the name The Jazz Crusaders because at that time you had The Jazz Messengers, you had Miles’s band, you had Blakey’s band and so forth, and what we were trying to do was trying to crusade for our type of music. You had what was known as the East Coast jazz, you had the West Coast jazz, and our music was neither one because it was a combination of Southern feelings as well as some association of the Eastern and some of the West, and all of that was a conglomeration of all, so we felt that the name Jazz Crusaders would be more in keeping with the kind of music that we wanted to play. And so out of the instrumental set and the original music that we had then, the “Freedom Sound,” seemed to be the song that was going to be pushed more and seemed like it should have been the title of the album. And that album cover actually had the state of Texas on it with the four of us in black suits—the Freedom Sound.
CS: What is the difference between Eastern sound and Western sound?
WF: At the time, in the early ‘60s, you had what was called the West Coast jazz, which was the cool jazz. You had Shorty Rogers, you had Bud Shank, you had Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, and the music was more on the mellow side, sound wise and also energy wise, where on the East Coast you had the avant-garde, you had Miles, and you had Blakey and the ones that were really bashing hard and fiery. You had all this fast playing and all of the other, and so that was considered the East or the bebop sound, and the mainstream was a different type of playing. It was more rhythm changes and more melodic things and so forth wherein the West Coast jazz was more of a sound or a flow. But between both of them, none was really playing a more funky feeling and harder drive like we were playing. The only one close to it was Horace Silver’s band when he started doing “Filthy McNasty” and something like that, and then later on Cannonball came with Bobby Timmons and started doing “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and all of that where the more blues influence began to be in the jazz music. But that natural influence was in our music from the very beginning because we grew up on that as well as learning to play jazz and religious and gospel music as well as country. That was a part of our life style.
CS: 21:32 Weren’t blues and jazz intermixed on the East Coast as well as on the West Coast?
WF: Yes, but you had a different type of feeling of the blues. If you listen to East Coast blues and you listen to West Coast blues, it’s different from Gulf Coast blues. It’s just like Kansas City blues is different from Chicago blues and so forth. The feeling that’s manifested in the music is slightly different. Maybe changes are the same—you’ve got 12 bars—but you can hear the way the musicians interpret it is a lot different.
CS: The East Coast, like Miles Davis, is a driving hard jazz.
CS: Whereas the West Coast is laid back.
WF: It was more laid back. You didn’t hear the West Coast musicians—even though they may play the same tempo or whatever, the musical interpretation and the lifestyle was different. Like for example, if you just look at the lifestyle of people on the West Coast, they are more of a reserved, out on the beach, whatever, where in New York they have the struggle of stepping over the guy who’s sleeping on the porch and all of that. And all of that frustration and all of that comes out in the music in their playing. So when they’re playing a 12-bar blues, they’re playing another type of style than the guy who just got off his $100,000 yacht. He’s laid back and he’s playing the blues but with a different feeling. So the actual background and the experiences of the musicians were actually being noticed in the style of music and the interpretation of the music.
CS: 23:17 One of your recordings attracted a different kind of attention. I’d like to hear your point of view on it. It’s “Way Back Home,” which was from the album Old Socks, New Shoes. It became the national anthem for the Symbionese Liberation Army.
WF: How that came about, I have no idea. I remember the incident, and it was a very unique thing that happened. When the Symbionese Liberation Army had kidnapped Patty Hearst, we were in Hawaii playing at the time, and the FBI came to our hotel where we were and they questioned us. And that was the first time that I had heard that the reason that they questioned us was because they had heard “Way Back Home.” Evidently, the Symbionese Liberation Army had used it as their theme song, so whenever they recorded a message or something, that was playing in the background. So evidently, they liked the way that it sounded and how it felt and they used it. We also had a thing in the earlier days when we were playing in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. Some person—I forgot the writer—but he wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that Crusader music was good music to smoke dope and get high by, so evidently, certain people just looked at our music—jazz—and it made them feel like doing certain things. So the Symbionese Liberation Army liked “Way Back Home.”
CS: When they got into that sporting goods store, Mel’s Sporting Goods, and there was gunfire, I understand Stix Hooper lived very close to that.
WF: Yes. He wasn’t too far from that. Actually, Mel’s Sporting Goods store was around about somewhere near Vermont Avenue, I think, and he was very close to that. It was really a trying time, and I can remember vividly when they rushed the house and burned them out because we were actually watching it on TV as it was going on.
LM: Did the events of the time have any impact on your music at all or how you felt about it?
WF: I think it did. Whether it was conscious or unconscious, I’m not sure, but I firmly believe that the music is an extension of whatever time period you’re living in. And the influences that we had or I had as a young person have a great influence on me now. I think that living here in Texas, hearing a lot of R&B, gospel, classical, and country has formulated a certain style of my playing and a certain religious conviction as well. I’ve noticed that most Texas saxophone players have a certain sound, and you can usually hear and tell from the sound or the way that he plays whether or not he’s from Texas or not. And there’s a similarity that’s uncanny but it’s there.
CS: 26:46 To what do you attribute that?
WF: The only thing I can think of is the fact that it’s the environment and the heritage that we all came up with. I know that for myself my tone was developed from playing with guitarists in clubs where there weren’t any microphones. And we had to use a metal mouthpiece, and you had to project over the band, so you learned to develop a big tone. There was a certain amount of ideas that you had to play in order to really play rhythm and blues or whatever it was, so you played in a certain style, and you learned to phrase in a certain way, and that’s indicative of a lot of Texas players.
CS: Did the hard or soft reed have any impact on the sound?
WF: I think what you had to do was you had to find a reed that would allow you to project over the individual, and you also found the mouthpiece that would make you do the same. Most of them used more of an open mouthpiece. Some of them like Ronnie Laws, he went for a reed being harder with the mouthpiece being not quite as open. But in my case I had a more open mouthpiece and usually played a #4 reed.
CS: By open, do you mean the reed not pulled as tightly close?
WF: What I meant was my metal mouthpiece—I played on a 130/0 in the earlier days, and I would use a #4 reed. And what Ronnie had been doing recently is using a #5 reed with the mouthpiece not being so open. So it’s whatever setup that feels better for the musician. But they’re all reaching for that certain sound or tone, which is basically a certain sound that we’ve heard here. I’ve always felt that the rhythm section has more fun, the reason being that they play all the time. I like the fact of the saxophone being a lead voice, and you get a chance to speak out over what the other guys are playing, but I also realize that when I’m through playing, they’re still having fun, and they get to jam with some of the other guys. And sometimes when other players are playing, it feels so good that I want to. If I was in the rhythm section, I could have the best of both worlds.
CS: 29:36 Did your group do studio work together?
WF: No, not together. We individually did studio work. Whenever we worked together it became The Crusaders, and so we made it an intentional thing not to work together with everybody playing. You could have certain ones of us playing, and with other musicians around it wouldn’t necessarily be us. So I played bass, and Joe did a lot of studio work. Stix occasionally did. I don’t think Wayne ever did, not from the playing end, but on the production end he did.
CS: Have you been identified on those recordings?
WF: Our names were used, and people knew the fact that I played bass. It got to the point that it was very seldom that they knew that I was a saxophone player. Even a lot of young musicians today are surprised that I play saxophone because they’ve known me from playing bass.
CS: And you did backup work for a number of people. Can you name some of the people?
WF: For the Jackson Five. I did a lot of work for Barry White, for Joni Mitchell, I did some for Steely Dan, and a lot of other different artists. I would be called for record dates for quite a few other people, but those were the major ones.
CS: I understand that you played with Percy Faith.
WF: No, that was Joe.
CS: That was Joe.
WF: Joe played with Percy Faith and went over and toured with him over in Japan.
CS: I was just going to say, wasn’t that a little bit on the sweet side?
WF: One thing about studio playing and playing with other musicians, it gives you a broader knowledge.
[end of 462_01] 31:45
WF: [beginning of 462_02] 00:07 In playing with Percy Faith, even though it was a different type of music, it calls for a different type of discipline and a different way of thinking and being able to blend in with other musicians, and that has been a great asset. Today I would say not every musician can play with another person. Some persons are so stylized that they can only do what they do. But when you find a musician that can do what he does and yet turn around and fit into any other situation regardless of what type of music it is, it shows how vast a depth of musicianship and being able to play is, and that’s what the studios really cause: to be able to adapt to any situation and to play.
CS: They don’t have time to pay for rehearsal.
WF: Oh, no. You just walk in, and the music is put in front of you and that’s what it is. And so you learn that this is what you do, and if they ask for something special—they want you for this particular thing that you do—then you give it. If they want you to be just the bottom end, that’s what you do.
CS: And it’s reading at sight.
WF: Yes. When that red light goes on, you’re starting to produce. And if you can’t do it, you’re not there.
CS: You only get one chance?
WF: Well, in the earlier days what it was was a three-hour session. And with Motown and some of the earlier things that we did, we did four songs in three hours. That’s quite different from today. I mean, musicians go in today and they take weeks and months to do whatever, and if you make a mistake, you just come back and do it later. But when you were doing regular studio gigs, they would have to pull the band in, and you would have to pay all these people. Sometimes we did gigs when they had the full orchestra. In the earlier days you had the strings and the whole rhythm section and the horns all at one time. Now they have it where it’s the rhythm section, and then you bring in the others or whatever. But they had a budget, and they had to produce it, and in three hours’ time they had four songs to do. So they called the persons that would walk in and read the music. You’d run it down a couple of times and that’s it. They’d check it for wrong notes in case there was something scored wrong, and then they’d turn the tape on and you’d do it.
CS: 02:34 This is studio work.
WF: Studio work.
CS: Did you work in any of the movie studios?
WF: I did a couple, but I didn’t do an extensive amount of that, but I did a couple of them.
CS: What about TV studios?
WF: Not really.
CS: Or radio?
WF: Never radio, just mostly regular recordings.
LM: Was this lucrative, doing studio work?
WF: Yes, it was very lucrative, especially when you would do so many a year. The American Federation has a system that you get paid a certain percentage of all the recordings you do throughout the year. So in August if you did a lot of work, you were going to receive that large check. You have studio musicians that are averaging from $200,000 to $300,000 a year just doing studio work. That’s not counting the check that comes back. But I mean, it’s a lot of work. Some of them are doing three and four record dates a day. That to me is really crazy because then you’re just burning out.
CS: 03:53 How many hours would three record dates be?
WF: At three hours apiece, that would be working like nine hours a day, and you were running from studio to studio and you’re playing. For me I always felt that I wanted to give my best, so the most work I would accept would be two record dates a day.
CS: And that’s probably why you are still performing.
WF: I would think so. You can get to the point to where you’re just cranking it out. You just play lick number nine because you know lick number nine works, regardless of whether the song could stand a little bit something different. But you’d be safe, and you’d just play according to what’s there. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me I had other things to do than just to be in a studio from morning until night every day.
CS: We’ve talked a little bit about the Texas sound. And one critic that I read said that you are primarily the saxophonist with the most identifiable Texas sound.
WF: Well, I don’t know about that, but I accept that as a compliment. I think that my sound is truly rooted in Texas. It’s a way of playing. I feel that whatever I’m playing that I try to give a lot of thought to it, and I look at myself as playing as an extension of what everybody else is doing rather than as just to be playing.
CS: As an individual.
WF: Yes. Certain musicians I hear play, and they have extraordinary ability, and the sincerity of their playing comes through as they are playing what they honestly feel. But I think that in my case what I’ve always tried to do was to play what seems to fit the overall picture of what collectively we’re doing. And I think that has been the premise of the group The Crusaders over all the years is that I felt that if it’s a unit or a band, there’s a difference between going to a jam session and you’re just getting up and you’re playing. That’s a different situation. But if you’re a band and you’re creating a composition, even though you’re improvising, you’re still contributing to that overall picture. And so if Joe just played one particular thing, then when it comes my time to play, I feel that I must go somewhere else, and I must also react to what they’re playing behind me and try also at the same time to lead them in the direction that I’m thinking.
CS: 07:06 You have performed together for so long. Do you read each other’s minds?
WF: I think so. I think that after so many years we’ve developed a sense of boredom. What I mean about that is that music has to constantly move, no matter how slight or how drastic, but it has to constantly move. It can’t stay. The last eight bars and the next eight bars have to be different. A lot of today’s music now is the same thing over and over and over and over again without any variation. And for me and for us, as we played we always could feel that it’s time to go somewhere; we’ve been here long enough. And it would always be that someone in the band would automatically start moving it somewhere, and we would move at the same time. So I know that if I’m playing, if it’s a song that we’ve never played before, I know that when I get ready to go to another place, Joe is going to be there, that he’s going to be moving to that other area at the same time I am. The only thing I don’t know is how he’s going to do it, but I know he’s going. And so that’s the fun of it, that when he goes, whether he’s going to go harmonically, if he’s going to go rhythmically, that’s the fun. But I know we’re going there because he knows when it’s time to leave.
CS: Okay. If he moves harmonically, then you move with him.
WF: Yes. When he does something harmonically, the thing is to initially react. As soon as I hear that first chord that goes somewhere else, I know this is where we’re going, so now musically I have to go that way.
CS: And rhythmically, one rhythmic idea could actually start a new musical idea.
WF: Yes, because as he starts playing rhythmically, it makes me change what I’m playing. See, I’ve always believed in— What we’ve always tried to do is to have a push-pull sort of feeling in the music, and that I think is what has made The Crusaders music what it is. It’s no one playing the same thing going the same way at the same time. Music feels good when it’s not completely metric. If the drum is playing sort of like a little bit on top of the meter, and the bass player is sort of balancing it by being a little bit behind, and the keyboard player is somewhere in the middle, it triggers that kind of effect. And so rhythmically, if Joe is doing one thing, then rather than me jumping on the bandwagon and doing the same thing that he’s doing and everybody going that way, then it’s no longer new again; everybody is doing the same thing. Basically, I might be playing something and it feels so good that Joe will start doing something else. And then the bass player realized that what Joe is playing sounds so good he’ll start joining it, and it no longer feels good because now he’s playing what he played. So the whole key is that I’m playing what I’m playing because you’re playing that, and if you change from playing that to playing what I’m playing, then I have to change to something else. Otherwise we’re all playing the same thing.
CS: 10:42 This person goes on to say that The Crusaders collectively and individually had a lot to do with the Los Angeles sound.
WF: I think that’s true. I think, and I’ve heard this over the years, that we’ve influenced quite a few musicians. And I think that as a group of musicians our sound is unique. Just as Miles and his groups and Blakey and their groups had unique sounds, I think that ours also stands apart. I know that we have influenced a lot of other musicians along the way.
CS: Have you made road trips?
WF: You mean out of the country?
CS: Well, across the country and out of the country.
WF: Yes, across the country and also out of the country. We’ve gone to Europe, we’ve gone to Japan, and of course we’ve played here in the United States. The European experience is a lot different than here in the States and so is Japan a lot different than in the States.
CS: 12:05 Would you explain?
WF: The acceptance of jazz is readily more appreciated over in foreign countries than here, even though it’s America’s art form. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and even into the early part of the ‘70s when you had the club environment sponsoring jazz, it was there. Jazz is an art form that needs an audience to really be appreciated. You can’t have jazz in baseball stadiums and really communicate. How can you play to an individual that’s two miles away from you and you’re watching on a video screen? I mean, you’re playing, but the interaction of what happens in a club is not as good as when you play in a smaller arena for people and you’re actually seeing their faces and they’re actually sharing in the musical experience with you. That’s why you have so many great performances of musicians when they were playing in club environments because that was like living and sharing that moment together, and you would react to the people as well as to the other musicians.
CS: Tell me about your experience in Cleveland. As I understand, there was a bad piano, and this was about the time that jazz clubs were starting to fold.
WF: That’s when we stopped going on the road for a while and we stopped playing what was called jazz, so to speak. We went to Cleveland, and this club owner brought us in, and Joe was asked to play on a piano that was ridiculous. It was totally ridiculous. It was out of tune, it had missing keys, and it was just a beat-up piano. And the club owner said, “Well, we just had it painted.” So it’s like, “You expect us to play and this is the type of instrument that you would provide for us.” So at that point Joe said, “I’m not going back out anymore because I’m tired of playing on inferior instruments.” And so we stopped for a while, and then that’s when we started doing basically specialized concerts to where we had in the contract that they had to provide a certain type of piano or else we weren’t going to play.
CS: And you made a recording with BB King and the London Philharmonic.
WF: Uh-hunh (affirmative). The Royal Philharmonic.
CS: Royal Philharmonic?
CS: 14:56 That’s even better. That was in London.
WF: That was in London. That was five days at Festival Hall, and it was sold out for five days.
CS: Royal Albert Hall?
WF: At Royal Festival Hall. We also played at Albert Hall, but we just did one concert there with the symphony orchestra. We only played one day there. But we played in the Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Festival Orchestra and we recorded there, and that was for five days with BB King, and it was sold out for five days.
CS: Tell me about BB King.
WF: Phenomenal man, a very nice person. He reminds me of a father. He’s a man that seems to have no ego. He loves the blues. He enjoys performing. He gives it 100%. He’s very cordial to the people that are there. He appreciates the fact that people will come and listen to him playing, and he gives 100% night after night. He will meet anyone. That’s why I say he reminds me of a father. There have been about three people in my life that have really had a profound influence on me, and BB King is one from the standpoint of how he treats everybody and how he has respect for everyone. Cannonball was another one that taught me that you can have fun in playing. And then of course Ben Webster, who has taught me what it means to listen to the count off. Listen to the count off. If you notice, a lot of musicians— I’ll put it this way: Some of the younger musicians today are thinking about other things when the song is being counted off, so that when they start playing, it takes a little while for everything to gel. Even if they all start off metrically in time, the thing among themselves is not quite there yet. But Ben Webster, we were at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and we had Monk Montgomery on bass, and he was there in the club, and he was ripped, but he had his horn with him, and everyone asked him to come up and play. And he got up on the bandstand, and the way he counted off his song I have never in my life felt the intensity and the feeling from beat one that I did that night. And I realized that it was because musically and the way that he counted off his song, he conveyed to all of us, including the club, where he was feeling it. And when we played from the very first note, the band was locked like this, and you could not do anything wrong. Anything you played was right. I realized that that’s what the musicians in the earlier days had because I would look back on film clips of Louie Armstrong, and he would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to play a song for you, and it’s called ‘Dinah.’ It goes like this. Ha, didi, ha, didi, ha.” And they’re gone. Right there they’re all right in sync. The feeling is there; everybody is together. But it was because everyone knew exactly the intensity in which they should be playing from the first beat. It wasn’t like, “You start playing and then I’ll get into the song.” You know how a guy will be playing but, “I don’t feel it right now. By chorus number five I’ll be into the music.” But from beat one until the end, everybody was poised and ready to play.
CS: 18:49 And everybody stayed.
WF: They stayed there. And you had to stay there because it felt so good you couldn’t pull out of it.
CS: Tell me about Cannonball.
WF: Cannonball is one of my favorite players. I especially love the way that he phrases and his tone. Not only do I respect Cannonball as a technician, but he also had a sense of caring about people in his music. He would play any kind of music—it didn’t matter. But it was still him. Nothing was beneath his standard. One time it was a thing that if you didn’t play a certain style of music, if you weren’t East Coast and if you weren’t mainstream, you were put down on the other kind of music. Well, Cannonball proved himself. He had to come in and show that he could play. After he proved himself and showed that he could play, he also realized that there was other music that had feeling to it. That’s when he did, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Sack O’Woe,” and all those kinds of things. But he was enjoying himself with the audience. They became a part of it. So he had them joining in and the band played. And so that’s what I learned from Cannonball. The way that he phrases on alto is still my favorite.
CS: 20:15 Did he produce your first record?
CS: I wonder where I got that. Didn’t you also play with Mahalia Jackson?
WF: I did one thing with Mahalia at one concert out in—I think it was in the Long Beach area or something. I played bass with her. She was a phenomenal woman. The way that she sang and the way that she had a feeling was just unique. Certain people sing and have a special quality about them. She was one of them.
CS: Who was the conductor with the Royal Philharmonic?
WF: That particular night when we recorded, our manager, Sid Garris, was conducting the orchestra. He wasn’t the regular conductor, but he was conducting the orchestra those five nights.
CS: When the jazz clubs started to fold, do you think it was because of the advent of rock and roll?
WF: I wouldn’t say it was exactly because of that, but jazz is better suited for smaller clubs. And when you have an overhead that you can’t keep without going up, you’re actually going to be losing some things. Rock and roll was coming in, and it was taking a big market. It would be presented in bigger stadiums and so forth, and you had a mass audience that was gravitating that way. It did start cutting into the business of just strictly mainstream jazz.
CS: Wouldn’t you agree, though, that was part of the cause of the big bands folding?
WF: Oh, sure. When you have a big band, you have a large overhead, and it would have to be supported. And that era just passed by. You still have some musicians now that are still carrying around big bands, but it’s not available as rock is. If you go into these great baseball stadiums where they have 100,000 people and they’re set up for that kind of visual thing with all the crowds of people, you’re not going to have 100,000 people for a big band where you have to listen. It’s a different type of music.
CS: 23:02 But now you perform primarily as a trio?
WF: No. We still use five to six people when we perform. It’s mainly down to the two of us now, Joe and I. But we surround ourselves with other musicians to play.
CS: Local musicians wherever you happen to be?
WF: No. We usually handpick the ones that we go out and play with because we can’t play with everybody. It’s a shame, but not everyone can feel the way we play. That’s what I was speaking about earlier, that it’s a difference between you playing with somebody else and someone else playing with you. As when we were talking about Percy Faith, Joe could go and play Percy Faith’s music without changing Percy Faith. In the olden days when someone joined Duke’s band or they joined Count Basie’s band, they came in and they joined the band. So if a tenor player came in, he had his own style, but he didn’t take away from Count Basie’s band. When he stood up, he played his style, but he played in that section. It was Count Basie’s band and it was Count Basie’s sound. But nowadays when you get someone that comes in and they start playing with you, it’s like most of the time they can’t play with you because they have a certain way that they play or they have a certain sound that they have that doesn’t blend it with what you do. So The Crusaders have a certain way and a certain style that we play that’s very difficult for a lot of people to play. It may sound strange, but what you hear is not always what you think it is. What I’m basically saying is something might sound like it’s simple, and it is simple, but how was it accomplished? And it was accomplished by that same thing that I said before about that push-pull. The Crusaders have always been a band that no one played the same thing at any particular time, and that’s what’s unique about us is that no one plays the same thing, including the drummer. Right now it has become a thing of wherein the bass player and the drummer always like to lock. When you see a bass player and a drummer, they want to get together and they want to lock wherever the pocket is. That is a no-no in The Crusaders because there’s no such thing as locking—you playing the same thing. And today it has become wherein that the bass player becomes your rhythm and the drummer just becomes the timekeeper. And that’s reversed from where we came from. The drummer was like the rhythm, the bass player supplied the melodic bottom pulse, and the keyboard player provided the harmonics and all of that. And as a rhythm section, they worked together to make the whole feeling. But of the younger players that haven’t experienced some of the other things that we’ve experienced in playing with different people, even though they are playing the music, we can’t be completely ourselves because they don’t understand where we’re going. Like when I said we know when a change is coming, okay, I’ve heard you play something for eight bars. I don’t want to hear that no more. So it’s vitally important to realize that even though we may be playing something commercial like “Way Back Home,” “Way Back Home” is not the same thing over and over again. It’s the same 12 bars or whatever it is, 8 or 12 bars—I forget how many bars are in the song. But even though it’s the same rhythm changes over and over again, each time that they’re played has to be varied, whether it’s in the intensity with which you’re playing or if it’s adding just a couple of notes to it or adding something different that keeps it exciting and keeps it moving. That’s what makes it grow. And the emotion of all of us coming together and playing it makes it an enjoyable piece to play. But when you come in and you say, “My drum part is this,” and you play that over and over again for eight choruses, it’s not going anywhere.
CS: 27:45 It would be like the drum machines that you hear today.
WF: Exactly. A drum machine is one thought that is programmed and it sounds good. But now if you want that drum machine to do something else, you have to program it to do something else. Some persons have been able in a song to program it to do this, program it to do that, and program it to do the other. That’s fine. But now every time you do that performance, that’s what it is. If you change your mind in the middle of it, it’s not going to change.
CS: You’ve just made a solo album. What’s the name?
WF: The last solo album was Love is a Rush, and it featured a girl from Houston named Rikki Gillery(??) 23:34 and she sang the title song. It was just a chance to try to play some things that I felt and here again was an attempt to try to play close to what The Crusaders play like. But in all honesty, I must say that I’m more comfortable in the environment of The Crusaders—speaking of the original members—in expressing myself than I am in other different environments because having musicians that understand what the music is about and how to be themselves and yet play the music is a difficult thing to find. Very few musicians that I know can actually be themselves and yet play together. You have certain ones that are stylists, and they can play, but their influence is so strong on the music that it takes over, where there are others that are stylists, and they can play and fit right in and yet when it’s time for them to shine, they shine.
LM: 30:02 Let me ask a follow-up question. You were talking about not using local bands when you go on the road. Does this also apply to your European trips?
WF: Yes. We always take handpicked musicians when we go. We can’t pick up local bands. The reason is no one knows how difficult Crusader music is until they come. See, there’s a lot of musicians that think that, “Yes, I can play that.” And then when they get up on the bandstand and start playing with us, it’s a disaster. The only way that you can honestly believe this is to see it. We had the problem for a long while with managers that we had. We no longer have them now. But for a long time the managers that we had felt that you could just pick up anybody to play. But you can’t.
[end of 462_02] 31:02
LM: [beginning of 462_03] 00:03 Side three.
WF: What you see happening is I can go and sit in with somebody else and play with them, and I’m playing their music, wherein the same individual can come and sit in with me and play Crusader music and it doesn’t work. The problem is that Crusader music has a certain feel about it. If you change that feel, it becomes something else. You first have to understand what makes it Crusader music. And a lot of times individuals don’t want to play a prescribed line or prescribed ticker if there is one. For example, a lot of Crusader music has definite baselines. These baselines are important for the melody of the song. When you get into the solo section, you can venture out, but for the melody of the song the baseline is mandatory, and that’s because the baseline is an integral part of the melody and the keyboard rhythm, the drum rhythm, and everything else. So if a drummer comes in that can’t play the drum rhythm that fits with the baseline or the bass player can’t play the baseline that fits in with the other, the music kind of turns into something else. You can’t just arbitrarily play what you feel because it doesn’t fit in with the melody, it doesn’t fit in with what the piano is playing, and that’s what makes it difficult. Someone hears it: “Okay, I hear the song. I heard the record, and what Stix was playing on the drums didn’t sound hard. It wasn’t hard.” But they don’t realize that he played what he did because of what else was going on. And if he had played something different, it would have not been that song. So if you have a local musician that has heard the song but really doesn’t know what’s there, it turns out to be something else.
LM: 02:14 You’re a very technical musician then, in a sense.
WF: Not really. See, what seems funny here is in The Crusaders there’s a lot of freedom, but there’s also boundaries. An individual can be free to be himself, but he has to know how to be free to be himself within the confines of The Crusaders. For example, if I go and play with someone tonight, I have to play myself but in his context. I can’t play the way that I play with The Crusaders because that’s not The Crusaders. I have to recognize instantly what they are doing and play with them and help them to enhance their music. If I go to another situation, I have to do that. If I go play with a Dixieland band, I’ve got to play their style. I can’t be talking about playing these kinds of changes and going out here and doing all that. I’ve got to play over here within that, but I still have the freedom to adjust to that. So an individual that comes in with The Crusaders, they have all the freedom in the world, but they have to be mindful that the music sets a boundary. In other words, if you’re playing “Way Back Home,” you just can’t start out be-bopping and bashing because the music doesn’t do that. But yet at the same time you just can’t play what they call a funk pattern that The Gap Band plays because that don’t fit in. So what does fit? It’s not funk. It’s not the pattern number 19 that drummers play. It’s not that. It’s not the jazz number 20 that they play. What is it? It’s feeling the song and reacting to it. Now if someone does not know how to do that and then to adjust, that’s the problem. But here again The Crusaders don’t play the same thing eight bars at a time. By the time that he realizes, “Oh, that’s what you’re playing,” we left that. We’re over here now. You’re just not catching up with that. That’s what I’m saying. We have played together as a unit so long we know what the basic feeling of the song is, and we know that when we get into the soloing it’s going to change constantly. And that’s the difference. But local musicians, very seldom do you find any that can come in and not disrupt the music, Crusader music.
LM: 04:51 How would your music differ from, say, Arnett Cobb’s style?
WF: I would think that it would differ in the fact of the uniqueness of each member of The Crusaders when we play together as opposed to Arnett being more or less like musicians that played songs that had a certain structure. Like for example, recently I was in Oklahoma doing one of these things that I’m doing Saturday, playing with Arnett’s band. But we went to a club in the hotel, and there was a jazz band playing. Well, the jazz band playing, I could walk in and sit in and not disrupt them because they were playing standards, and we all knew basically what these things do. You know how that goes. And I think that Arnett’s band also had that same type of thing. He had certain arrangements that he knew were specially Arnett, and you had to have musicians who knew what Arnett’s arrangement was. So if you had some people that came in that didn’t know Arnett’s arrangement, it wouldn’t come out right then. And so that’s the difference that I’m speaking about. You can have musicians that sit in and say, “Hey, man. Come sit in. We’re going to play ‘Stella by Starlight.’” Okay, well, we basically know what the drummer is going to play. You know “Stella by Starlight,” so any drummer can go. You just get up, the next one comes in and sits down, and he keeps playing, and the only difference is going to be just difference in the feel, but he’s still playing in the attitude of the song. He’s not coming up and changing to something completely drastic, and that particular song with everybody playing is not so specialized that you have to have a certain feel. But when you came down to Count Basie’s band or Duke’s band, now you had a difference. These musicians that came in had to interpret the music Duke’s way, Count’s way, but yet they could be themselves when they stood up and soloed. But the attitude of when they played “The Kid From Red Bank,” that was it.
CS: So your group got your freedom from having a discipline.
WF: Yes. We always looked at it as a band—five musicians painting one picture. And the freedom in that picture was each one had the ability to do whatever he wanted to do, but you recognize what the other individual is doing. And we had a certain way of playing that we automatically knew what the other person was going to do, and that was freedom to do whatever you wanted to do, but it had its limits as to what the song called for.
LM: 07:56 On a practical side of having to use your unit as the playing unit when you go on the road, one of the things I heard—I think it was from Arnett when we interviewed him—he said he didn’t bring his own band over because the overhead was so great that expenses ate him up. Do you find that a problem for you and your band?
WF: Of course. What’s happening is over the years we’ve not had Wayne and we’ve not had Stix. We did have the complete unit, the music was played, and we didn’t have that much of an overhead because we all were partners. But when you start picking up musicians and you want to travel, each musician has his price, and so the overhead goes up. And then if you get a name musician, the price even gets higher. And then if you have a name musician that also has an attitude and he plays a certain way and you’ve got to work this job with him—you’ve got to accept the music whichever way it turns out—most musicians, unless they have a piece of something, they’re not usually giving their all to it. And so you have that problem of the overhead going up. So Arnett would go and pick up a local band. And if you played certain standards or certain things that are not too difficult, you can get the local guys to play it or you can settle for something a little bit less and change yourself and yet not have the whole expense. But if you really wanted to have your music played the way you wanted to have it, you needed to have your band. And when you could get a promoter or someone who could afford that price, you would take them. If you couldn’t, then you’d have to do something else.
CS: Suppose you decided to go on a tour, say, of three cities—any three cities—and you needed three musicians. How would you choose them ahead of time? Or would you wait until you got to the city and—
WF: No. What you would do is you would realize that you’re going out, and you would see who was available. We played with enough musicians to know who would be the best for whatever this is and who would be the less headache and who would do the best job. So you have a list of musicians that you’ve worked with in the past that you know you can get through something with and who will do a very good job and those who won’t. So you try to find out if that individual is available. If your number one is not available, you try your number two. If your number two is not available, you try number three, and if he’s not available, then you say, “Well, hey, we don’t go out right now.”
CS: 11:09 A good answer. Good answer.
LM: How have your records done?
WF: Over the years they have done pretty well. Recently not as well as we would like, and that’s because of the fact that Crusader music has not really been played like we know that it can be played because of not having that band playing. But overall, the first 30 years I’ve done very well, and we are looking to continue on with doing well.
LM: Have The Crusaders won any awards or acknowledgements for the records?
WF: We’ve received some gold for certain albums and so forth but nothing that you would call outstanding, like platinum or anything like that.
LM: I’ll settle for gold.
WF: We have a few golds.
LM: That’s nice.
CS: I don’t know whether you know what we are trying to do here or not. One of the things that I think that the Texas Jazz Archive needs to have is not only information that people can come and find out about Texas musicians—and at the present time we’re confining it to jazz musicians, not rock and so on, because other people are doing those things—but one of the things that—now, this is my personal opinion and I haven’t asked him whether I could say this or not—we need to have is something that the people can come and listen to. Would there be any possibility of getting some of your records?
WF: Oh, sure. That’s not a problem.
LM: We’d like to include them in the Archive collection.
WF: 13:37 Okay. Some of the earlier albums may be a problem in getting some, but if you could settle for some tape copies of some of the earlier ones.
LM: Yes, sure.
CS: That would be fine.
LM: That would be excellent.
WF: I think I’m the only one that has every album that we’ve ever done, so I could make sure that you get a tape copy of all the things that we have done.
CS: If we had a tape copy of everything that you’ve done, we could make a backup and fix your copy so that it can’t be recorded over.
WF: Okay. I could do that.
LM: That would be wonderful.
CS: This is one of the weak places right now. Every time I hear something I try to record it, but you can’t be running to the radio all the time and turning on your tape recorder and so on. But since we do have some tremendous musicians coming out of Texas, I don’t think the state of Texas is getting enough credit. When you go through the books and you look for the state of Texas, in one book I found it once. It was mentioned on one page. I personally have—what did I tell you?—about 90 musicians that I have found that emanated from Texas, like Teddy Wilson and—well, you know all the names: Arnett, Milton Larkin, and so on. And if we could get the music recordings to back them up, it would be something for future generations to listen to.
WF: Okay, sure. I’ll do that.
LM: To sum up this interview or to close it, I should say, let me just ask you a couple more questions.
LM: 15:47 You don’t reside in Texas at the moment.
WF: No. I reside in Long Beach, California.
LM: Are you still traveling a great deal around, and are you emphasizing Texas more now, or is this just an unusual trip down for a particular purpose?
WF: This trip down really is for a particular purpose. It is to commemorate Arnett, which he is one of my favorite players, and to be able for me— This has been a unique experience for me. This is the first time that I’ve played with musicians other than The Crusaders because I had reserved myself. I didn’t want to play with anybody else because it was difficult for me to feel right in doing so. But I’ve done this. This is my second time doing this, and that’s the reason that I’m down here. But The Crusaders are still traveling, and we’re still playing as a unit, and we intend to keep on playing as a unit. But insofar as Texas is concerned, I have great feeling about musicians that come from Texas. There’s a certain feeling that we have that is unique, and it’s something that should be acknowledged. Most saxophone players recognize the difference of a saxophonist that comes from Texas, and you can hear it immediately. You can hear the ones who come from the East Coast or the ones that come from the West Coast. It’s just evident in the style of playing. And so it’s an area that I think should be given recognition. And we in our career, most persons know that we’re from Texas, and we’ve been proud of that. That’s another reason why we dropped the word jazz and just said Crusader music because everybody was trying to put us into one category or the other, and it was just that this is the music we play.
LM: But you still feel it has its own Texas distinction.
WF: It has the Gulf Coast distinction. I’ll put it that way. It’s the tri-state area that has that sort of feel. Just like you have the West Coast and the East Coast, our music is Gulf Coast, and it takes in a lot of different things.
LM: 18:30 What plans do you have in the foreseeable future for your band? Are you going off in any new directions?
WF: We’re getting ready to record a new album in September. The possibility is that we will have the original members playing, so we’re looking forward to that, doing a reunion album with the other two guys in the immediate future. And from that we also plan to do a tour with that band and then go on to other projects. As of right now, individually, each one of us are into different things that we’re doing, and so we plan to just come together, do an album, do a tour, and then go back to the original things and then hopefully do that again.
CS: Are you producing records now?
WF: We’re not producing anyone in particular right now. We were in the past, but we’re not doing that right now.
CS: Wayne Henderson would be one of the persons—
WF: Yes, and also Stix Hooper on the drums.
LM: On that note—no pun intended (chuckles)—we’ll come to an end on this interview. I would like to thank you very much for giving of your time. I know you’ve got a pretty busy schedule here, so you could have used this time resting or sleeping. So I appreciate that you came down. We do look forward to working with you on building up a collection here. This doesn’t have to be transcribed, but in addition to the music, if you had any photographs of you or your band, even publicity shots—
WF: Sarah talked about it.
LM: She did. Okay.
WF: I told her on the way over here I have a photo of the band when we first came to California. I will get it to her so she can make a copy of it.
WF: I think I might have some earlier photographs of the band at different times. In fact, I have a videotape copy of an interview that was done here when Joe and Stix came down here to visit, and they did a little capsule thing of us coming from Houston, where they had a photo of us in the early days with Freedom Sound and a couple of cuts that we were playing from the different albums. So I might send that down too and you can make a copy of it.
LM: That would be fine, really fine.
CS: That would be fantastic.
LM: It really would. Thank you very much.
[end of 462_03] 21:32