I Had been in Florida after my first trip to New York to finish my teaching assignments. I formed my first band toward the end of 1955. Having worked in New York, I
was-na´vely-sure that the best Florida musicians could meet the challenge of the major club circuit. I also had Junior
Mance, an old army buddy with the group. We had a few warm-ups in Florida, and then my manager, John Levy, booked us in Philadelphia. We had rehearsed two and a half weeks. We spent a couple of days in New York before hitting Philadelphia, and during that time my Florida men heard the New York musicians. Then, in Philadelphia, they also had to cope with the fact that Philadelphians like John Coltrane and Red Garland, home for the weekend, were standing around listening.
It was soon clear that being competent in Florida had nothing to do with New York competition.
( In my own case, for example, guys who seemed to me to swing when I was in Florida no longer do.) By the second day in Philadelphia, John Levy decided to fire everyone. (This was January, 1956.) Jack Fields, an ex-musician and then owner of the Blue Note, was also somewhat upset. I had gotten great response in that
room on the way to Florida with Kenny Clarke, bassist Jimmy Mobley and pianist Hen Gates, but on the way back, I found out that you can't fool anybody in Philadelphia. Jack lent me some money, and I hired Specs Wright as drummer, but I had to keep the bass player for a while or give him two weeks' pay. He couldn't keep an even tempo on fast numbers so we had to stop playing fast things for a while.
We went on to Detroit and Cleveland for two weeks each, and when we got to New York, I eventually hired Sam Jones. We kept going for the rest of the year with a book based in large part on what my brother Nat and I wrote and some of the usual jazz standards. We began to record, but there were problems at Mercury. The man then in charge of jazz there pretty largely decided what we recorded, who the arrangers would be, and who would publish any originals we brought in. I tell you frankly that I didn't know at that time that I could protest and I didn't at first go to John Levy with the problem. I had signed a five-year contract with the company and the options were entirely at their discretion. (I later found out the union wouldn't allow more than three-year contracts.) At first, being unknown, I didn't even get any advances for my dates. Then there was a publicity splash of sorts, and they started that business about "the new Bird" which has plagued me ever since.
We were able to keep working fairly steadily through 1956. There was one stretch with two weeks off and various periods with a week layoff. We had come to New York with a little money, and Nat and I both had cars, so that transportation was no problem. The sidemen were paid only when we worked; there was no one on retainer, so to speak.
I learned that year how important it is to keep the books accurately and to keep accounts separate. We were getting about $1,000 a week for five men. Out of that came $150 commission for my manager and booking office, $75 in 'union taxes, a third of which we eventually got back, about $125 in federal withholding taxes, and maybe another $15 in social security taxes. Now we should have deposited the money due the government in a separate account every week. But after a
while, we began spending that money because we also had gasoline bills, hotel bills (for ourselves, etc.). We were paying the sidemen $125 out of which they had to pay their hotel bills.
By September of the next year, 1957, although we had been working steadily, we were about $9,000 in debt. We had had no royalties from our recordings and had only made scale for making them. Besides, a lot of recording costs were charged against us which shouldn't have been. The band had not been particularly successful in that we had done about the same amount of business all the time. Very few clubs lost money on us, but they didn't make a hell of a lot either. That's another thing I've learned. A combo's price should be geared so that everybody can make money. If a leader can't make it except for a bigger figure than is wise for the club, he just shouldn't play that club. Some guys, once they become successful, double their price, but although we draw better now than we've ever done, I prefer to gear my price-in specific cases-to the room. I mean to men like Charlie Graziano at the Cork 'n Bib who took chances on me when I wasn't especially a draw. Some of the other musicians forget too quickly. A leader, by the way, doesn't have to depend on an owner's figures to tell how much business is going on. He can tell by the activity of the waiters and by seeing whether the people are drinking. A place can be packed, but if the waiters aren't busy, nothing's happening. It's very simple.
For example, there was a time when Miles drew a lot of one-beer drinkers. Chico Hamilton would come in, not draw as much, but an owner would make as much money-then, not now-with Chico as with Miles because Chico drew more drinkers, and he cost $1,000 less.
Anyway, we finally broke up that first band. After twenty months, we still couldn't get more than $1,000 a week. At that time, Horace Silver was also scuffling; so were the Jazz Messengers (the group Blakey had with Bill Hardman) and Les Jazz Modes. Nobody was really making it except for Miles, Chico and
Brubeck. I had gotten an offer from Dizzy to go with his small band. I was opposite Miles at the Bohemia,
told him I was going to join Dizzy, and Miles asked me why I didn't join him. I told him he'd never asked me.
Miles had helped me when I first came to New York. He told me whom to avoid among the record companies, but unfortunately I didn't take his advice. Al Lion of Blue Note was one man he recommended, and Miles also told me about John Levy. Miles began telling me something musically about chords, but I sort of ignored him. I was a little arrogant in those days. Then, about three months later, I saw an interview in which Miles had said I could swing but I didn't know much about chords. But by that time I'd begun to listen to Sonny Rollins and others, and I had realized I knew very little about chords. You can play all the right changes and still not necessarily say anything. Finally, I learned how to use substitute chords to get the sound I wanted.
Well, Miles kept talking to me for two or three months to come with him, and when I finally decided to cut loose in October, 1957, I joined Miles. I figured I could learn more than with Dizzy. Not that Dizzy isn't a good teacher, but he played more commercially than Miles. Thank goodness I made the move I did.
I was with Miles from October, 1957, to September, 1959. Musically, I learned a lot while with him. About spacing, for one thing, when playing solos. Also, he's a master of understatement. And he taught me more about the chords, as Coltrane did too. Coltrane knows more about chords than anyone. John knows exactly what he's doing; he's gone into the melodic aspects of chords. He may go
"out of the chord" so- called, but not out of the pattern he's got in his mind. From a leader's viewpoint, I learned, by watching Miles, how to bring new material into a band without changing the style of the band. And when it was necessary at times to change the style somewhat, Miles did it subtly so that no one knew it.
In a way, I suppose, I was a kind of stabilizing influence on the band. Two of the men he
had- fine musicians- weren't always exactly on time or dependable. As in most groups, not all the sidemen made the same amount of money. When he heard I was going to leave, Miles did offer to guarantee me
an annual salary of $20,000, which was more than I was making.
Especially when he started to use Bill Evans, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach. Bill was brilliant in other areas, but he couldn't make the real hard things come off. Then Miles started writing new things and doing some of Ahmad's tunes. When Philly Joe left the band, Miles at first thought Jimmy Cobb wasn't as exciting on fast tempos, and so we did less of those. And although he loves
Bill's work, Miles felt Bill didn't swing enough on things that weren't subdued. When Bill left, Miles hired Red again and got used to swinging so much that he later found Wynton Kelly, who does both the subdued things and the swingers very well. Wynton is also the world's greatest accompanist for a soloist. Bill is a fine pianist, and his imagination is a little more vivid so that he tries more daring things. But Wynton plays with the soloist all the time, with the chords you choose. He even anticipates your direction. Most accompanists try to lead you. Red is an other excellent accompanist. He fits well with the drummer always and doesn't leave you anything to do but go where you want to.
As for rehearsals, we had maybe five in the two years I was there, two of them when I first joined the band. And the rehearsals were quite direct, like,
"Coltrane, show Cannonball how you do this. All right, now let's do it." Occasionally, Miles would tell us something on the stand. "Cannonball, you don't have
to play all those notes. Just stay close to the sound of the melody. Those substitute chords sound funny."
I certainly picked up much advantage as a potential leader from the exposure of being with Miles. We differed somewhat about acknowledging applause, but he let us do what we wanted to do. He really does care what the audience thinks, but he just doesn't believe in bowing, etc. I feel it's O.K., so I smile or something. He would tell us to leave the stand if we had nothing to do up there.
As for polls and critics, from what I gathered while with Miles and as a leader, the polls as such have little effect on a musician, but they do have an effect on potential customers who don't know much about jazz. That's why the Playboy
poll is probably the most important of them all, which is why I get disgusted with some of the results.
Economically, the reviews of critics in The New Yorker, Saturday Review or Hi-Fi/Stereo Review mean more than those in Down Beat or The Jazz Review. The musicians, however, respect the trade paper writers, by and large, more than the others. A review in Playboy means nothing in contrast to a vote for me in the Critics' Poll but it may mean more money eventually.
Getting back to the problems of being a leader, I had planned when I joined him to stay with Miles about a year. But I stayed longer. Miles was getting more successful and there was the business recession. I was functioning meanwhile as a kind of road
manager-paying off the guys, collecting money. Meanwhile I'd been getting inquiries from club owners about when I'd start my own band again because they kept noticing the response when my name was announced. I told John Levy I'd try it again if he could get the group a minimum of $1500 a week. Nat helped me in the recruiting. I gave him the list of the guys I'd contacted. John got about two months for us at $1500 a week. We broke in at Peps in Philadelphia, then went on to the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. To start with, we had about twelve to fourteen things in the book. It just happened to work out that we had several
gospel-type numbers. Nat and I had some originals in the book, and we got more material from Duke Pearson of Atlanta, now in New York, and Randy Weston. The album we made for Riverside at the Jazz Workshop is the biggest seller I've ever had, and one big factor is Bobby Timmons' This Here in it. Bobby wrote the tune in San Francisco although he'd been working on it before. The tune sort of gave us a sendoff, and everything else seemed to fall in. The album went into five figures within five weeks. It has already sold more than all my Mercury albums
combined-except for the string album.
Now we're booked into the summer, plan to go to Europe then and play the Cannes Festival, and come back for several of the
American festivals. We haven't got it made yet though. I'm still looking for real security, but I haven't been able to figure out yet how to get it-not in this business.