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The Coda interview with Ray Crawford | 1980


H. Ray Crawford | February 2, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

H. RAY CRAWFORD: I remember the first impact Charlie Parker made on music. He was playing tenor saxophone with Earl Hines, and all of the guys in the band were so amazed at what was going on when he was playing that they’d just sit there and look at him. They didn’t know what he was playing but they knew it was good. They knew where it was going but they couldn’t figure out what it was. At the time I was playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band. I was playing saxophone myself and had hopes of making some kind of name for myself as a saxophonist, until I heard Charlie Parker. Then I said to myself, “Well I’ll never be an innovator, because this certainly will displace anything that is happening,” and it did.

MARK WEBER: Did you ever see Charlie Christian?

RAY: No, that was before my time. See I didn’t pay too much attention to the guitar in those days. I was playing saxophone with Fletcher. Clarinet and tenor. Would you believe I was playing alto clarinet, man?

MW: How did you come to get involved with Fletcher Henderson?

RAY: In 1941 or so he was looking for a band. We had a nine piece band in Pittsburgh — I was born and raised in Pittsburgh — and he happened to hear us and he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We did a tour with him. And he added pieces to the band to make it big enough for his purposes. We traveled with him for a while.

MW: Was Sun Ra in the band at this time?

RAY: Sun Ra was just beginning his band in Chicago at the time. I don’t know anything about his relationship with Fletcher at all. I know Sun Ra and I know some of the guys in the band, but I don’t know about his activities musically until after he formed that band. I can remember very clearly the band because they had a very different kind of projection, musically, which I liked very much. I would always go and hear the band rehearse if I could or go hear them play because they had a very different approach to music. I would like to hear him the way he sounds now. While I was with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra I had tuberculosis, and I had to go to a sanatorium for two years. That ended my scene with the saxophone, and Fletcher Henderson and began my scene with the guitar because that’s where I learned to play guitar. When I came out of the hospital I was able to play enough to where I could play jobs. No chords just solos.


Harold Howard, trumpet; Jimmy Smith, organ; H. Ray Crawford, guitar | Bells Bar-Be-Q | February 8, 1980
| Pomona, CA | Photo by Mark Weber

Harold Howard, trumpet; Jimmy Smith, organ; H. Ray Crawford, guitar | Bells Bar-Be-Q | February 8, 1980
| Pomona, CA | Photo by Mark Weber

MW (reading album cover): Ahmad Jamal says that he put together his first trio in May 1951. Was that in Chicago?

RAY: We put the trio together in Pittsburgh and then went to Chicago about the same year, or a year later. I was with him six years, then I left the group around 1956 and decided I would do some things on my own. That’s when I came to New York City. I stayed in New York from 1956 to 1960, then I came to California and I’ve been here ever since. After leaving Jamal I played with Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, different groups around New York. I had a group of my own that played for a while at Minton’s Playhouse and places like that. As a matter of fact when I was playing there Teddy Hill had Charlie Christian’s amplifier. He was a personal friend of Charlie’s. I enjoyed those years very much, then through my playing around New York, Gil Evans decided he wanted me to play with his group. So we rehearsed and talked about what he wanted to do musically. This seemed like a good way to get involved with big bands, especially his band which was the greatest on the jazz scene as far as I was concerned, which was the opinion of many others too. Right then he was doing all of these great things for Miles, My Ship and those big-band things that Miles was doing and had already established himself as an arranger of note. I did some things with Jimmy Smith for Blue Note in the late 50s, at least one album that I know of for sure. It was done in New Jersey, at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio out on the highway at Englewood Cliffs. That’s where Gil and I did our stuff.

MW: Was the band that made “Out of the Cool” a working group?

RAY: Yes, we did sixteen weeks straight at the Jazz Gallery in New York before we did the album. We played all of the tunes every night, and we played a lot of the original arrangements that he wrote for Miles. Then he wrote those things for “Out of the Cool.” Before we made the album he had me sit down at his house and just play. He’d give me eight bars and I’d say “Where’s the music?” and he’d say, “You don’t need any music, just play.” The one that I like is the La Nevada theme, it was my best effort with a big band. I like playing with big bands; it is more or less my orientation because I always played saxophone in sections and always felt at home. This particular album almost won me the Downbeat poll, man.

MW: How about that Lydian chromatic piece, Stratusphunk?

RAY: Yeah, I did a lot of playing on that. It was a 12 tone thing. You could establish any kind of a tone center in it, so I established an F tone center and Ron Carter picked it up behind me and then we started playing the blues behind it. It had about fifteen different roots, different tonics and the one that stuck in my mind was the F. Gil told me that when I started to play my solo to just establish a tone center and go ahead and blow. I said, “What do you want me to play?” and he said, “Play anything.” That was written by George Russell, a nice tune, I like it. Jimmy Knepper did that thing where he sounds like he’s playing under water on Sunken Treasure, beautiful, mournful kind of interpretation.

MW: I always thought using two drummers was a good idea.

RAY: Great idea, because he had two different things that he wanted done. He wanted those big stretches on those chords and interpretive sounds behind that which for that you couldn’t beat Elvin Jones, and for just strict jazz funk time, keeping the tempo together, you couldn’t beat Charlie Persip man no matter what happens, he is always right there whew! That cat is like a metronome! I can .dig using two drummers, because I like hearing a drummer play fills all of the time without interrupting the flow, without messing with the meter, there are drummers who can do that. So if you have two guys, one always keeping the meter strong for you, I don’t mean loud but strong, then the other cat can do the fills, which takes an imagination.

MW: Gil had a different session for each one of these compositions?

RAY: Right, he took his time doing it. What happened was Van Gelder would just set the tape and go home. He had five hour tapes. He set it at that real slow speed. He had quite a studio, it had a real high vaulted ceiling, specially designed for jazz. And the sound that he gets out of his studio you don’t get out of any other studio. When you hear it on albums you can tell it was made in Rudy’s studio because of that high ceiling probably. He would set the tapes, you know make sure the balance was cool and put the mikes where they belonged, set the band up, make sure everybody was tuned up and then he would split, and from all of that they would put together the album.

MW: You were with the Gil Evans Orchestra for a couple of years then, participating on two albums, one from early 1959 and the other from late 1960.

RAY: Right. But in the meantime things were kind of disenchanting for me in New York except for this one particular point. I had been to California in 1953 for a visit and I liked it well enough and I always wanted to move back to live. So I chose this particular time to move to California (February 1960). About 1961 I went back to New York to play the job at the Jazz Gallery and then do the date with Gil.


H. Ray Crawford Quintet plays Pomona Library | November 18, 1980 | Charlie Dumas, drums; Keith
Hanratty
, organ; H. Ray, guitar; Dr Benson, tenor saxophone; Harold Howard, trumpet | Photo by Mark Weber

MW: You had a record date for Candid as a leader around that time?

RAY: Yes, immediately after the “Out of the Cool” album came out they called me to do the date wham! just like that. I said, “Well when do you want me to do this?” and they said, “Soon as you’re ready.” So I immediately went to work and furiously wrote arrangements and this that and the other. And soon as I had the arrangements written I picked the guys that I knew that could read and could play right away and we had one rehearsal and it came out fabulous man! So we went right to the studio and did the album. And the cat paid us off before I left New York a couple of days later. And I came back home, and I sat around in California for months waiting for it to be released. It never did come out, except in bootleg. I’ve seen it in Chicago! A guy came up to me wanting an autograph, but it was the wrong title, that’s how I knew it was a bootleg album. It was called something like “I Know Ray,” one of the cuts on the album was / Knew Prez. The name of the album was “Smooth Groove,” a play on words. I’d like to have a copy of that, I’ve tried to get copies of tapes because I just want to hear the music. It was with Junior Mance, piano; Cecil Payne, baritone; Frankie Dunlop, drums; Ben Tucker, bass; and Johnny Coles, trumpet, and myself. I do a lot of things from a musical standpoint because I know what blends. I know the trombone will blend with the baritone, and the baritone will blend with the trumpet and guitar. And I know Cecil could play solos so I didn’t need a tenor, you know, and everybody is playing tenor, and besides that Cecil is underrated. He didn’t get his chance to play like he should, and he can play, man! Fantastic! And Frankie Dunlop!

During the sixties Ray showed up on many sessions, listed in the Jepsen discographies with Sonny Stitt; Lou Donaldson; Lorez Alexandria albums that include Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb; a Curtis Amy Orchestra album that includes Jack Wilson and Dupree Bo/ton; Lou ftawls; Perry Lee; a Ben Tucker Quintet with Vie Feldman, Larry Bunker and Tommy Tedesco; a reunion album of the Ahmad Jamal Trio with Joe Kennedy; etc.; and in a July 19, 1962 Downbeat profile by John Tynan, Ray spoke of his group of that time, “The group is different from anything else that’s been done. Its projection is in playing softly but swinging, always swinging.”

MW: I saw Stanley Cowell a couple of months ago with the Heath Brothers.

RAY: Stanley used to live in L.A. (1962-63 at USC), he was in that group playing piano and John Carter was playing alto and reeds, Henry Franklin on bass. My group, my book.

MW: John has dedicated all of his time to the clarinet now.

RAY: That figures because John is a dedicated musician. We opened and played for several months at the Tiki Island Cafe. It was the same year that President Kennedy was assassinated. I’ve been back and forth from there many times, it’s on Western Avenue just north of Jefferson at 43rd Place. It was called the Kon-Tiki Lounge, back in the 50s when I visited. Oscar Moore and Carl Perkins and Joe Comfort worked there as a trio.


Charles Dumas @ Bell’s BBQ, 1255 W. Mission Blvd, Pomona | February 8, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

Harold Howard, trumpet; Jimmy Smith, organ; H. Ray Crawford, guitar | Bells Bar-Be-Q | February 8, 1980 | Pomona, CA | Photo by Mark Weber

Jimmy Smith comes to Pomona, California | February 8, 1980 | Harold Howard, trumpet; Charlie Dumas, drums; H. Ray Crawford, guitar | Photo by Mark Weber

MW: Carl Perkins used to play with his left forearm parallel with the keyboard walking his fingers.

RAY: I don’t know if he had to do that or what, anyway that’s how he played. He was a bad man! Just out of sight. This club had a Hawaiian motif, like that, and when you sat at the bar, it had a big bell back there. It looked like a ship bell. Whenever this cat would ring the bell on you, you had to buy a drink, it had something to do with some gimmick they had going. Right behind the bar in the corner was a bandstand and that’s where they would play. Oscar Moore would be playing these big pretty chords on his guitar, Joe Comfort hmmm. And Carl would be playing all of this piano.

MW: How about Wes Montgomery?

RAY: Wes was a friend of mine. He used to come and see me play. And he’d bring all of the guys with him that were guitar players. He would just sit and listen for about an hour, and then they’d go to some other place.

MW: The way he plays, with the octaves…..

RAY: Well, his thing was, actually all guitar players use octaves but not to the extent that Wes used them. He used them constantly. Most guitarists use octaves for effect. Wes Montgomery had a way of feeling the instrument. The higher you go on the guitar the thinner the note gets and he knew just exactly where to double the note and make it pick up and be just as fat as the one just before it. So it made all of his solos fat and round and pretty and thick all the way up and all of the way back down. And if he was playing ballads where it was only one note every bar or something like that then he’d start doubling the note. He used all kinds of intervals, but he employed mainly the octave. Especially if you’re playing with a big band and you’re playing one note on an E string up around C or C sharp or D you can’t even hear it. When there’s five brass behind you it’s hard to hear it so if you double the string and they are perfectly in tune, it’s going to set up overtones and then you can hear it.

MW: What type of strings do you use?

RAY: I use D’Angelico gold wound if I can get them, actually D’Aquisto, Jimmy D’Aquisto used to work with D’Angelico before he died. Now he has his own shop in Farmingdale, New Jersey, and he makes custom made fabulous guitars. He also makes the strings to go with them, and the strings are very good on other instruments so I use his strings when I can get them. My guitar is the Tal Farlow Gibson. Right now I’m using Fender amplifiers but I’d like to switch to Polytone. I should change my strings every week when I’m playing every night, but I don’t, because I tune the instrument electronically. If the harmonics are true then I leave the strings on the box. Gold wound strings are expensive and they don’t last long.


MW: What did guitarists do fifty years ago? Like Robert Johnson, did he change his strings? Could he afford to?

RAY: He’d just play out of tune. Old strings just won’t come into tune, man. You’ve got to accept the fact that modern day electronics are so exact and so precise that you can’t help but see the deficiencies in things the way they were. I used to play out of tune all of the time. Why? Because I didn’t have a decent enough instrument to play on, and I tuned it the best that I could, tuned the strings to one another. Before I played the second tune they’d be out of tune again. I have a chord tuner now. With this I could tune up and by the second tune it’s down again, it’s underneath but not enough for your ear to tell. But like tonight when I get to the intermission it’s down a quarter tone almost. So it makes a difference now. Those guys played out of tune, Django Reinhardt played out of tune all of the time. Charlie Christian played out of tune, man. They didn’t have any choice. If you’re pulling on the string like this on the string, ding, ding, every time you do that, unless you have $50 pegs on your instrument you move the peg a little bit more. Now you can buy German pegs or Grover pegs that don’t move an inch, they’ll break before they move. They didn’t make pegs like that 20 years ago.


H. Ray Crawford on flute | rehearsal | 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

H. Ray Crawford on the Hammond B3 | rehearsal | 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

H. Ray at the Hammond B3 while Harold Howard looks on | rehearsal | 1980 | Pomona, California | Photo by Mark Weber

MW: Did you ever hear Eddie Durham?

RAY: I not only heard him but I knew Eddie very well when he was musical director for the Sweethearts of Rhythm. As a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra we did a tour with the Sweethearts of Rhythm. He was musical director for the band, he rehearsed the band and kept them in shape musically and all that sort of thing.

MW: He is attributed with being the first jazzman to record electrically amplified guitar, on the Kansas City Five and Six sides from 1938. And before that with the Lunceford Orchestra the first to record amplified guitar in 1935 on Hittin’ the Bottle. He used some sort of aluminum resonator that fitted under the strings in the sound hole which was about the size of a 45-rpm record, with the microphone real close.

RAY: Really? I didn’t know that, I understand he was a great rhythm guitar player. But like I said my focus back then was on the saxophone. Now if I had been playing guitar, or had thought about electrifying the guitar when I was a youngster I would have thought about putting something under the strings. Because I always figured that the strings made the sound, which isn’t altogether true you know. After I became a guitarist I found out that a lot of the tone is attributable to the types of wood in the instrument. And that to electrify an instrument means to lessen its quality. It means to do something to the sound which is less than good. A good electric box does not have to be made out of good wood, it has to be made out of good electronics. With a tried and true kind of uniformity between each and every quarter and each and every note, so that things are perfectly in tune at all times. I don’t think you get much sound out of wood through a string electronically, I just don’t think you can.

MW: Do you play much acoustic guitar?

RAY: Well, up to a little while ago I had a Barnabe made by a student of Ramirez, it was about a $2500 box. It was a great experience with a good instrument. Right now I’m using a Gibson, which is a good guitar, very straight neck on it, and the wood is very good in it and it sounds great. And the strings are not steel strings. They are either gut or they’re plastic strings, to give the wood a chance to vibrate.

MW: It has a lot to do with the sides of the instrument?

RAY: The face, the very top of the box, and the type of wood that it’s made out of. So on one side of the instrument you will either get the extremely sharp high or the extremely mellow high depending on what you like. Now if and when you cut holes in an instrument to put pickups in it you take away some of the quality. And it just doesn’t seem very plausible to me to expect to pick up the quality of the wood through a steel string. What you hear is two different things. When you’re playing a good instrument with pickups on it and steel strings first you are hearing steel strings and then you are hearing some of the sonoral sounds of the wood. But you’re hearing two different things together. So when you put the amplification on, all you’re going to pick up is strings. Now if you don’t have good strings on it you’re in trouble. If you have gold plated strings on it, it’s going to sound like bells. Can’t sound anything but good. It could be a cigar box with gold strings on it and it would sound good, because all it’s picking up is the strings. What we’re supposed to look at is the box, but you and I know better, we’re not looking at it, we’re listening to it. So the instrument is limited. That’s why I play so many other things. John Phillips recently loaned me a sax and I went nuts. Nuts! Nuts! Nuts! That instrument feels like home to me. That’s the way I play guitar, like a saxophone. What I want to hear and play, that’s the way it comes out. On the guitar I’m not always that sure. I can’t always get what I want. The saxophone is more intimate, warmer, because you blow your breath in it. I don’t think I like guitar as much as I like saxophone, to tell you the truth.


H. Ray Crawford | February 2, 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

MW: That’s very revealing. So you alternate the flute and the organ on gigs. Do you do much studio work?

RAY: I do some. The last studio date I did was a month or so ago with Tom Waits. We did the “Blue Valentine” album together.

MW: Does he life that life that he portrays in his songs?

RAY: I don’t know if he lives that life as much as he dreams it. He’s a real talented guy. Wears real slim tight pants and long pointed shoes. Man when he comes into a room he’s a sight to behold! Plays guitar like this (displaying a one finger technique), and he can play! When he comes to the session he comes in and says in that voice of his, “Hey, H. Ray,” and has me tune his guitar for him. But I have turned down studio dates. I’m not one of these people who are looking forward to staying in studios from morning until night. Because I do not chase money and that is what you do that for. I’m just not that kind of musician. I prefer the creative end of music. It doesn’t pay a Cot of money but it does pay a great deal of satisfaction. Which makes me just as wealthy. So when I tell people on the bandstand that I’m rich I guess they think I’m talking about a lot of money.

MW: So how do you like California by and large? or jazz-wise?

RAY: I think California’s great, man! I just wish they’d hang up these earthquakes! Spiritually speaking I’ve been more satisfied creatively here in California than I’ve been anywhere. My jazz experiences have been greater both monetarily and otherwise. Because in California I found out that if you could play, you could use your talent to become something here. Whereas on the East Coast, and I’m speaking mainly of New York City, the Big Apple so to speak where everything is happening it was who you knew first and what you knew afterwards. I found in California that if you could do what was expected of you, you could get what you were looking for. I know ultimately you aren’t going to achieve what you’re looking for here, but if you’re an artist, they respect you to a certain extent. I especially like the Bay Area. But you see I’m a rural type person, I prefer the open areas. The further out I get the better I like it, but I like to be able to come back when I want to. You can’t get any satisfaction playing to the rocks and the stones and the lizards you know. But I have great times in areas like that too. I like guns and I do a lot of shooting. I use 44 magnum, these are both hand guns, and a .357 magnum, and out in the open it’s fantastic shooting, man! Flat shooting for at least 300 yards.

MW: So you’ve been with Jimmy Smith three times, in the middle 50s, the middle 60s and now in the 70s.

RAY: This last time since 1971 till now, nine years. Five albums worth.

MW: You were in the house band at Jimmy Smith’s Supper Club the whole time?

RAY: Right. Except for about three months.

MW: Who was the drummer there?

RAY: Couple of drummers, Joe Brancota or Kenny Dixon, three drummers and the guy who used to run the jam sessions.


H. Ray Crawford Quartet | Dumas, Harold, & Keith | 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber


H. Ray Crawford in full flight | 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

MW: What would be some of the classical music that you listen to?

RAY: Well I have some things that I’m very partial to. And they don’t point toward any particular thing. The Fountains and The Pines of Rome I like by Respighi. Also some Sibelius things. Soma Bartok things naturally because they point toward jazz music. ‘And of course I’m very partial toward Bach because he played a lot of jazz music. He improvised a great deal. If anybody is studying to be an improviser they should listen to a lot of Bach and play a lot of Bach. He knew what to do with chords. And Hindemith and those types of composers if you want to be an arranger, because they know what to do with chords, especially modern chords. I have some things by Mehegan who is a modernist who takes us into modern concepts of playing left hand things for piano, but this is pointed more toward jazz and improvisation. What I’m trying to say is this: they are all intermingled together, it’s hard to see the demarcation lines between classics and jazz, for me at least. As a matter of fact, I can go from one to the other without any hesitation; I can improvise on both. Because actually classics are not built on complex chords. And if you can understand what the chordal structure is, all you have to listen to next is what’s going on above it. Whereas jazz is very hard to understand because the chord line and the rhythmic conception are the hardest points to listen to, because you have two things to listen to at once — as far as I’m concerned, and I’m opinionated about this. The improvisational viewpoint in jazz is involved with all kinds of complex chords, and to analyse some of the things that you hear would amaze you that you could play some of it. If you compared this with a classical selection on the same level — you would find that the classical selection’s chordal level is quite simple. I’m not saying that one is simpler than the other I’m just saying that understanding one is like understanding the other. They’re both the same, all of it’s music. For the purpose of classification if nothing else I can use the word “jazz” because people will know what I am. Actually I would prefer using the term “creative musician,” but then they wouldn.’t know if I was creating classical or what, jazz? There we are again, we’re back to it. You know I have a clearer understanding of what’s happening with classical music now. Whereas before I guess I was so caught up with jazz, trying to be a part of that, and trying to make a success out of it, that I just didn’t really have the time to look into any other kind of music. But I think that whoever appreciates jazz should go and hear it more often, and support it, and make sure that it doesn’t get displaced by something less. Because it is a pure American art form that has always been here, doesn’t belong anywhere else in the world but here. We should all try to understand it more and support it. — Mark Weber | Pomona, California, February 26, 1980

H. Ray Crawford, guitar; Charlie Dumas, drums; Harold Howard, trumpet | @ Widow Brumms, Pomona,
California | 1980 | Photo by Mark Weber

This interview with Ray Crawford was taken from CODA Issue Number 184 (1982)