Was Sonny Rollins the first to play saxophone accompanied by only bass and drums? If not, then what were the precursors? I first looked into Sidney Bechet, but only found trios where he still used chordal instruments (1940 with Earl Hines & Baby Dodds; 1941 with Willie the Lion & Everett Barksdale). The thing with Sonny was how coiled and stretched out and barren it sounded. Oceanic, masculine, phosphorescent, towering and rangy like a searchlight in the night, inverted and fearless. Inverted because he has turned everything upside down. Barren because one can feel the starkness of the lonely artist in his garret searching his soul, searching the night for eloquence in the grand scheme of things. For those of us out in the provinces it sounded like everything we dreamed Greenwich Village was about. Romantic notions I still have no desire to let go of. I didn’t hear these trio records when they first came out (Sonny made four between 1957-1962: WAY OUT WEST (March 1957), LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD (November 1957 — was this released at the time?), FREEDOM SUITE (February 1958), OUR MAN IN JAZZ (July 1962)) it was Stanley Crouch who impressed on me the monumental importance of FREEDOM SUITE in his classes at Claremont (Stanley was on fire those years, quite grandiloquent, as you may know, we wouldn’t want him any other way) circa 1972-1973 as I was turning 20. But, it wasn’t until all these years later, while listening to Sonny in trio on my own radio show, that it occurred to me that he might be the progenitor of this format that became such a powerful outlet for so many other horn players. I called Bobby Bradford to ask.
Mark Weber: Bobby I have this idea that when Sonny Rollins started playing with only bass and drums in trio that it was sort of a new thing, if not necessarily an innovation, but that it had opened the floodgates for everybody else to do it. So, here’s my question: When Sonny Rollins released his 1958 album FREEDOM SUITE did it come across as something new?
Bobby Bradford: The music: Yes. The idea that he was going to do it in that format: No . . . . In fact there wasn’t a lot of ruckus about his thing WAY OUT WEST.
MW: Was WAY OUT WEST released at that time?
BB: Yeh, didn’t it come out in the Fifties, 1957 or something like that?
MW: Yes, March 1957. So, they did release it immediately?
BB: Right. And then what was the date on FREEDOM SUITE?
MW: February 58.
BB: Everybody thought, I think, by then, people were looking at it as an option, rather than the situation causing it. In my mind, just in response to the talking we’ve been doing so far, I think nobody came up and said I think I’ll start working in the format of just saxophone, bass, and drums. Even though, situations have created that. But, Sonny Rollins made it high-profile option, so to speak. That’s like George Shearing with that thing of his with the vibraphone, and sometimes the guitar, with him playing the melody in octaves, you know. That was something that George Shearing decided he wanted to do. It wasn’t like he was in a situation where he couldn’t get any horns, or something like that, you know?
MW: So, 1958 you were just about to get out of the Air Force, when all these Sonny Rollins Trio records were coming out, and so you’re saying that it didn’t come across like a big wave?
BB: No. As I remember it now, it didn’t come across as a big wave. All it said to us, then, was: See, some horn players rely heavily on the piano and they need those chords being played because there’s a lot of guys who don’t know the chords in their head where they can name them off. They go with the flow of the sound. And when you take the piano out, that creates a different kind of problem, you lose something when you take the piano out, that kind of rhythmic thing, that comping. But, what you gain from it, of course, is something that somebody who played like Sonny Rollins, I think he wanted, was to expand things so that he could do some of the things where the piano wouldn’t sort of hem him up. That’s not the right word but . . . . He could play things without the piano where he’s still following the chord pattern. For example, if you were a careful listener and you walked into the room and Sonny Rollins was playing “Confirmation,” any musician would know it . . . . and there’s no piano but you could hear Sonny Rollins very clearly, like after about thirty seconds you’d say that’s “Confirmation.” But, a lot of players, you see, rely heavily upon where the piano went, and they played in there in the space with the piano player and they relied upon those rich chords and real strong comp from the piano player. So, it wasn’t like this was the new thing now and we’re not going to do that old thing anymore. I don’t think you could have gotten James Moody during that period (I’m just picking him now) to play without the piano . . . .
MW: . . . . or Dexter Gordon, or Jackie McLean, or Benny Golson, or somebody like JJ Johnson, who, in my research always used a piano.
BB: Yeh, well now, Benny Golson is a guy who might not have, but you see, James Moody, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, were always going to use a piano, because they liked that strong comp, the guy who could lay those chords down with that rhythmic support. Sonny (Rollins) did too, you see, but he had reached a point where I think he wanted to do something a little bit more adventurous there, and I remember reading somewhere, I don’t remember where, I think I was talking to James Clay about this, man, while I was in New York with Ornette, James Clay and I ran into each other a couple times and we were talking about that subject and he said Oh man the piano players they just get in the way. Of course this is quite a bit later, you know, but not that much later, that would have been in the 60s you know . . . .
MW: Early 60s. But, James Clay always seemed to work with a piano.
BB: Yeh, but now, Clay . . . . I’ve got something you sent me with Clay with this big time bass player, what’s his name? . . . . .Christian McBride. Yeh! [James Clay cd COOKIN’ AT THE CONTINENTAL — June 1991 — on one track has bass & tenor duet “Crazeology” (Benny Harris)]
MW: You know, Bobby, that Eric Dolphy, him of all people, never freed himself from the piano. At least, on recordings. There’s a couple of European concerts late in his career that are sans piano.
BB: Yeh, you’d think he’d jump at that, wouldn’t you?
MW: And Don Cherry actually recorded three tracks in 1961 for Atlantic that have not been released, with Henry Grimes and Blackwell, but most likely have been lost in that disastrous Atlantic storage fire. But, Don Cherry was also with Sonny Rollins after Sonny re-emerged from the 1959-1961 three-year hiatus. In July of 62 they worked an engagement at Village Gate w/ Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins (album OUR MAN IN JAZZ) which is same format more or less, and then a January 1963 European tour with Cherry, Henry Grimes, and Higgins. But, first thing Sonny did after the hiatus was the album THE BRIDGE with Jim Hall, before his return to the bass & drums format. So, the quartet with Don, there is still a lot of horn with just bass and drums.
BB: Well, yeh, and with Ornette’s music, too. Except for that one record with Walter Norris, but mostly it’s just bass and drums, when it comes to Cherry’s solo. Same with Ornette, it’s just bass and drum.
MW: In a previous conversation you were saying that it was not uncommon for musicians to wind up not having a piano around where they’re playing at home or in a jam session someplace . . . .
BB: Sometimes it was a situation that caused it. It could be something as simple as the pianist not showing up, and nobody was going to say, Well, we can’t play tonight because the piano player’s not here.
MW: Wasn’t that the situation with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker at The Haig there on Wilshire,
wasn’t it a situation where there was no piano and Gerry decided to try that format? It just wasn’t a big
enough room to have a piano . . . . .
BB: Oh, they had a piano at The Haig.
MW: Oh yeh! that’s right. There’s recordings of Hampton Hawes playing there (1951) and Harry Sweets Edison (1953), during the same period.
BB: Well yeh, and in fact, unless my memory is failing I heard Bud Powell at The Haig.
MW: Holy cow!
MW: oh No, really?!
BB: He had this guy with him, like his caregiver, like a guy from a funny farm standing there in case he freaked out. At one point this guy was sort of massaging his shoulders. So, The Haig, I think Mulligan wanted that dry piano-less sound. All that material that he was writing for him and Baker that was sort of like fugue sort of stuff. Bird had done that on one tune, with him and Miles [vocalizes the line] I forget what Bird called that, I think it was “Ah-leu-cha.” But, Mulligan wrote lots of pieces that were designed to make you forget about the piano.
MW: So, that was 1952 and 1953 with them at The Haig. And then when Chet left the group, Gerry continued the piano-less concept up through 1955 when he used Jon Eardley (trumpet) for awhile and then Bob Brookmeyer (trombone). But, after that he went back to piano.
BB: Oh yeh, I don’t think he did it to say that this is the way jazz is going to change. He just wanted that dry …..uhm . . . .
MW: Austere. Stark. That’s the way it sounds with Sonny.
BB: I think austere is a better word. But you can see, you give up a lot when you let the piano go. And then you got to do something, you see, to take up the slack. It’s like saying I’m going to play without chords now. You’re going to have to be really innovative now and let go of all that tradition of all those chords back there and you’re going to build your improvisation out of thin air [laughs] maybe not thin air, but, based on the tune. And the rhythm of the tune and your own resources, like an Ornette Coleman. And let go of the piano and the chord progressions. Then you got to put something in there to fill up that space, You know? Which forces the improviser to be much much more resourceful. You had to do some of the stuff that Ornette was doing, to stand there and try to play a cohesive improvisation, not following any chords? Do you remember the saxophone player around L.A., Wilbur Brown (c.1932-2000), he wore really thick glasses, do you remember him?
MW: Never heard of him.
BB: Good tenor player around town. Once we were talking about it, you know —- this is way the hell back there when the Ornette thing was still in the argument stage, he said Well listen man, I hate to disagree about all this, but if you’re not playing the chords, he said, verbatim, What the hell are you playing? (laughs) You see, it hadn’t gotten to the point where people had refined an answer to that question, like well I’m following the curvature of the melody or the theme, I’m following everything that the theme suggests.
MW: But, that’s what Lester Young did, right?
BB: Yeh, in a way, but Lester was still following the chord. When, beat one of the bridge came up, Lester was right on it. Lester played the chords because he played these standards. Listen to Lester playing “The Man I Love” with Nat King Cole, man, he’s obedient to the chord. Except that he could take a little idea that was nothing and just expand it into something, just some little rhythmic motif, and just horn away on it, but he was aware of the chord every time and all the changes.
MW: Coming back to my thesis, it really does seem like it was Sonny Rollins who was the first to play in that trio configuration.
BB: Yes, to make it an actual choice of just playing with bass and drums. And not a situation where you were forced into it, I don’t remember anybody else doing anything like that before.
MW: And it opened up the door for Archie Shepp and all those guys on ESP, Marion Brown, Steve Lacy, Charles Tyler, they all played in a trio like that. Archie only momentarily when he had that quartet with Bill Dixon in 1962.
BB: But, you know, I think now, that they found themselves in that situation based on Ornette. The records that I’m thinking of right now, Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, and all those people you just named, in addition to just being drums and bass it’s also free. They weren’t playing standards were they? You see, that adds another thorn in there, in a way. You see, Ornette’s thing, clearly, if you were going to play like him, the piano would be in the way. Because he hadn’t figured out a way for any piano player to play with him, that wouldn’t sit down at the piano and start playing a bunch of chords. You had to have somebody, I guess like Cecil, who was willing and able to play with you where he didn’t depend on diatonic chords or chromatic alterations of chords, or any of that, he just treated the piano like a melody-rhythm instrument, even though his hands were playing obviously a bunch of notes together and you get what constitutes a chord, you know, several different notes at the same time, but they were not out of any sort of harmony or European harmonic tradition.
MW: What about Albert Ayler? To me he seems to be a direct beneficiary of what Sonny Rollins was doing.
BB: That’s a hard question. It’s easier to say Oh yeh, but, you see, Albert’s stuff I see him connected to Ornette much closer than to Sonny. Even though he did some stuff that was different than the both of them.
MW: Well, that’s one of the fun things about a thesis is you get to find the holes in it.
BB: Yes, that’s the idea. You look back on it, as soon as we got to thinking here, then I went back to . . . .
BB: No, no, even before that. When I thought of that, I emailed you on that because it came to me then, Hey, Miles said Monk kept getting in the way, and I thought it was on “The Man I Love” but apparently it’s on some other tune.
MW: “Bag’s Groove” [December 24, 1954 session Miles Davis All Stars for Prestige] Miles takes long solos on both takes of that with only bass and drums.
BB: Well, you see, and that’s the first time I ever heard somebody use the word “stroll” like that. You know, “Monk decided to stroll on that.” See, stroll meant to me like Smokey Robinson strollin’ on a Sunday afternoon in Detroit (laughs).
MW: Kind of like walkin’?
BB: No, it meant: lay out, like “Take a stroll, bub, I don’t want you to play on this.” You know? Now, what I was getting ready to say, was Don Byas and that bass player Slam Stewart on “I Got Rhythm.”
MW: Oh, yeh. Town Hall. [June 9, 1945] Duet of tenor and bass.
BB: You see, there it is, I don’t think they thought of that as a big deal like here’s the new way to do it. What they might have thought was: Let’s do something very striking right here, you know.
MW: When I first started thinking about this a couple months ago, I researched Sidney Bechet as he seemed likely, but his trios always had a chordal instrument. But, the Miles track “Bags Groove” his solo on both versions is long and he is out there sailing with only a bass and drums. This could be the earliest recorded example of that approach.
BB: Yeh. I remember reading something about why that happened and he and Monk at one point, I don’t know if it was this record date, but he asked Monk to stroll once on “Round Midnight,” not on this date, but someplace else, because Monk was playing the wrong chords (much laughter). That takes a lot of nerve to tell Thelonious Monk that you’re playing the wrong chords on “Round Midnight.” But, Monk you see . . . . Miles liked that very set, romantic version of “Round Midnight.” And Monk doesn’t always stick to that. You know the Miles version with Trane, at Newport, or wherever that is. [BB might be referring to the Columbia album that has Monk & Miles w/Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, live at Newport Jazz Festival, July 17, 1955] There’s lots of places where Monk plays different chords than Miles plays on that, though that is sort of the gold standard, the chords that they’re playing on there. Monk sometimes changed several places where he wouldn’t play, and Miles liked, for want of a better term, he liked piano players playing pretty chords. That’s what he liked about Red Garland.
MW: Odd that “Bag’s Groove” was recorded earlier in the session rather than later, considering the contretemps between Miles and Monk, but Ira Gitler says yes there was tension at the session but the stories have been over-blown. And you know Miles never used Monk again. Of the four tunes recorded that day it’s telling that on “Swing Spring” (a scale-line he got from Bud Powell) Miles solos with only bass and drums but when Milt Jackson’s solo follows Miles, then Monk comps behind Milt. But on the other two tunes Monk is comping behind Miles all along.
BB: Well, you know, it’s hard for somebody the level of Miles Davis to have a Monk in the room as a sideman, you know what I mean? That’d be like somebody like Gene Ammons at the peak of his career to get Miles to be a sideman on one of his records. That’s just not going to work. They’re both too big. The thing is that there are things that you might want to do that Monk would say to someone like Gene Ammons, Monk’d say “Oh man, that’s not . . . . that doesn’t work,” but see, you just can’t say that to a Gene Ammons on a record date. So, you just don’t call him. Now, getting back to Miles, as the years went by Miles got so more and more he liked these more complex piano accompaniment, see, when Red Garland left the band and Miles made his next group and he got Wynton Kelly, now there’s a guy who’s different than Red Garland but still played really pretty chords, you know. Now, during all that time Miles was never going to hire Cecil Taylor, even before Cecil became big, let’s just say 1960, everybody in New York knew who Cecil was at that point, but Miles wasn’t going to call him, but at that point Miles still liked (horrible word I’m using) “pretty” chords, but he liked romantic kind of piano playing, like that stuff that Red Garland played in back of him in all those ballads and he’s playing that Harmon. But, Miles just outgrew that.
MW: In my research I looked up trombonist Albert Manglesdorff and he hardly ever used a piano again after 1960 (before that it was Attila Zolar on guitar playing the chords). So, he played thirty years without a piano.
BB: I knew him. I met him, we were on the same festival up there in Oakland once. But, yeh, I had met him in Europe before that.
MW: And David Murray worked with only bass and drums early on.
BB: That’s true. As an actual way of pursuing things for awhile that’s going to be the format that he’d work in, you see. You might see David Murray playing like that but that wasn’t his plan to keep doing that. David would go with whatever idea he had at the time. But, Sonny stuck with that piano-less thing for a long time. In fact, I remember reading someplace where he didn’t like playing with a piano anymore after awhile. But that didn’t last, either.
MW: Well, with Sonny the bass & drums trio went from 1957 to 1959 then he took that 3-year break from performance, after which he returned in January 1962 with his album THE BRIDGE where he used Jim Hall. And then for a minute he used the trio format for a few things in 1963. But, after that even he returned to the piano. And you know another outfit that played without a piano in the 60s was your own bands with John Carter.
BB: Yeh. Now, I still like to use the piano, but I don’t want to get a piano player that keeps us back, where we can’t get out of it. You know? Sometimes when we’re playing, and we might have played the first three tunes, free tunes, you know —- 70% of my book is free lines, but I got several tunes based on blues chords, I got two or three tunes based on rhythm changes, then I got a couple of original tunes on chords like “Have You Seen Sideman” that’s a 32-bar tune with a specific chord pattern. And I like to play that but I don’t want a piano player that just . . . . after we play that we’re going back to Planet X again (laughter). I always want somebody who wouldn’t feel . . . . . I don’t want to get locked in by a post-bop piano player.
MW: So, when you and John Carter were going on jobs and playing gigs in the late 60s, there was many times where you were just out there soloing in front of the two bass players and drummer, right?
BB: Yeh. Sure. Now you see John got more and more where he didn’t want to play any tunes of any kind, no Tin Pan Alley tunes, or tunes from like Monk or Bird or Dizzy, he said No man I don’t want to do that anymore. And so sometimes when I would get jobs and he didn’t want to do it, well, I’d get another horn
player. But, after a certain point with him we didn’t play anything but so-called free-form music, in terms of we didn’t follow any chords. In fact, I don’t know of one tune of John’s that is chord-based, that I can think of now.
MW: Well, I think we covered it Bobby. Other horn players that can be found in this bass & drums trio setting are: Joe Lovano, Marty Krystal, Michael Vlatkovich, Warne Marsh in the 80s, Charley Krachy, Lee Konitz on his monumental 1961 album MOTION (Verve), Vinny Golia, Lenny Popkin Trio, Nick Lyons, Max Roach had trios like this, Trio X w/ Oliver Lake+Reggie Workman+Andrew Cyrille, Lorenzo Sanguedolce, Greg Osby, Richard Tabnik, Frank Lowe . . . . . . . .
* The research for this essay was made vastly easier with the help of the on-line Tom Lord Jazz Discography
** The recorded telephone conversation with Bobby Bradford was April 1, 2o18 — there were a few that preceded that and one afterwards. The discussion is on-going. Please add names to the Comments.