Tuesday, April 3, 2018


A slightly edited version of this article served as the April 2018 cover feature of
“the NYC Jazz Record” under the title ‘Reggie Workman, Working Man’

By John Pietaro

Reflecting on a legendary career spanning six decades, Reggie Workman speaks with subdued restraint. Not one to dwell on past accomplishments, he tends to angle conversations toward the future—both the immediate and distant. Adding to an unparalleled resume, Workman’s history of mentoring young jazz musicians led to a long-standing Associate Professorship of the New School, yet, staring down 80, he’s as busy as ever. “Yes, there’s a lot going on. There always is”, he mused. And considering the discography cast, there always was. The bassist’s quietly prideful career remains nothing short of profound.

Born in 1937, just outside of Philadelphia, Reggie Workman’s early years were ingrained in musical activity. “Many musicians lived in that community”, he explained. “Lee Morgan and I grew up together. Archie Shepp lived around the corner”. Others in his immediate purview were Benny Golson, C-Sharp, Kenny Barron, Mickey Roker, Donald Bailey and Bobby Green. Workman’s father, a chef, owned a restaurant frequented by musicians who often visited the family home. The addition of a piano in their living room brought about an array of jam sessions. Jackie McLean was a regular when he played the area and after John Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, he too was drawn to the scene. “And Philly Joe Jones was a conductor on the trolley that passed the house”, Workman said. “He sometimes stopped his car, faking mechanical problems, just to come in and say ‘hello’ to the fellows”.

Through the visceral drive of the music, Workman’s role became increasingly active. “Archie (Shepp) went to college at Goddard to study drama and I continued playing the streets. We didn’t have universities to teach this; we sneaked into clubs. The Showboat and the Aqua Lounge hosted Charlie Parker, Billie, they all came through. The bouncer at one of the clubs would let us in; he’d give us fruit punch and sit us in a dark corner”. But by 1956, upon high school graduation, he began organizing performances. Once Workman took over the hearse his father used for restaurant deliveries, he could get to gigs out of town and transport the players with him. A first taste of success occurred when Workman joined the quartet of popular pianist-vocalist Freddie Cole, brother of Nat. “The music took me out of the brickyard and around the country. For me, this was also an education on the art of the ballad. Some years later, I worked with Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone too”.

Performances with Cole centered on New York, so Workman moved his base to Harlem. “My evolution happened in New York. Many of the greats lived there. Gigi Gryce started hiring me regularly. He was a really well known studio man who ran his own publishing company”. Calls too began coming in from Sun Ra, James Moody and Roswell Rudd. “I also played Minton’s with Chick Corea and George Coleman, and Babs Gonzales started hanging out uptown”, which led to gigs with the be-bop vocalist. “Then in 1958 Frank Gant and I went to San Francisco to work with Red Garland. It was a two-week gig we couldn’t turn down due to his Miles association. Red wouldn’t pay for plane tickets so we traveled by train”. Quickly, Workman became established as a first-call bassist within the music’s highest order. “Thelonious Monk was very particular about what happened on the bandstand, and he expected the bass to be in a certain place, at a certain time, regardless. It was like school. That was difficult for me because I was used to a more open setting. The band’s saxophonist Paul Jeffries was a great help to me, and Ed Blackwell too”. George Benson and Dinah Washington were also among the leaders reaching out to the bassist.

Increasingly busy--and aware of the rigors--Workman became a founder of a musicians’ support and referral organization which met at Warren Smith’s studio, however, the shadow of Jim Crow invaded the solidarity. “The group had conflicts because the Black musicians had different problems than the white ones”, Workman recalled. “The classical musicians were getting the Broadway pit work, not us. We needed to do our own thing”. Collective Black Artists grew from this reality. Though concurrent to the AACM, unlike its Chicago counterpart, CBA remains woefully overlooked. Artists including Amiri Baraka, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Owens, George Benson and Don Moore became central members. “We renovated a store front to make an office and organized classes taught by Leonard Goines and Owens. Our newspaper, ‘Expansions’, was filled with articles and poetry”. CBA also recorded an E.P. dedicated to Muhammed Ali featuring Babs Gonzales’ vocals, and ran a concert series at Town Hall with Ornette Coleman, Max Roach and Herbie Hancock among their features. Workman was elected to pitch the artists beyond the others’ reach, with Miles Davis as a primary target. “I was nervous, but went to his place and knocked. No answer. I knocked again and the door opened a crack. I hear (imitating Davis’ paint-scraping voice): ‘Who is it?!’ I told him who I was and he cuts me off, says he’s heard of me. Then: ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘Miles, we have this series and…’, and he cuts back in: ‘Look man, I know your work, but you motherfucker, you’re comin’ here to ask me to play for NO money?!’”. Workman next approached Thelonious Monk: “Since I was playing with Monk at the Vanguard, I planned to ask him when I arrived, but he was dancing in the kitchen with a glass of wine in each hand. After the set he was in back again, dancing around, drinking brandy. I tried to talk to him but he kept dancing, so I start dancing with him—there’s no music but we were dancing to something. I finally bring it up. He’s not really listening, just keeps dancing and so I’m dancing and talking and he’s dancing and nodding. Then I say the series is at Town Hall. Monk stops suddenly and shouts, ‘Town Hall? I’ve done that!’”. The stars were hard to come by.

Within Workman’s tapestry, John Coltrane stands out as a luminary. “It was 1961 and the band included McCoy, Elvin and Dolphy. I was working with Jaki Byard and Roy Haynes, down the street from Coltrane’s band, and invited Eric to check us out. He brought John, but they left soon after, so I thought nothing of it. However they were going on the road and John called to ask if I wanted in. I said: ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’”. After stateside shows, Norman Granz paired the band with Dizzy Gillespie’s for a European tour. “We boarded the plane together but John, Dizzy and Norman sat in first class. The rest of us rode coach. Lalo Shifrin was in Dizzy’s band, Bob Cunningham, Mel Lewis and James Moody too. Bob and I were tight. Elvin and Mel were tight, so this was like a family trip. But the salary was miniscule and we had to pay for our own hotel rooms. Meanwhile, Granz got a suite”. However, the gig cemented a powerful relationship with Coltrane, then on the cusp of ascendency. “We recorded ‘Africa Brass’. So many great musicians were in Van Gelder’s studio. Dolphy wrote voicings for the horns. Cal Massey did orchestration too. He was sleeping on the bench waiting for us to get to his tunes”. ‘Ole Coltrane’ was out next, and within a year, ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and ‘Impressions’ hit record bins. But for the bassist, it wouldn’t last. “This was a wonderful experience until my father got sick and I started going back and forth to Philadelphia. I couldn’t commit, yet leaving John is one of my saddest memories”, he said in pensive lament.
But by New Year’s Eve 1962, Workman was on a Japanese bandstand with Art Blakey. “That version of the Jazz Messengers was historic: Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Freddie Hubbard. Everyone worked hard and Blakey made sure of that. ‘Sgt. Blakey’, we called him”. The master drummer was dogmatic, but not as disciplined in his own life. “Buhaina (Blakey’s African name) would direct us to be at Blue Note’s rehearsal room on 84th and Broadway at 6pm. Then 8pm came; no Bu. He’d sometimes keep us waiting four, five hours. He was having problems and as his marriage fell apart, so did the band”. So moved were the Messengers by their combined instrumental strength that they made several fruitless attempts to remain together.

Workman joined Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon’s politically revolutionary ensemble for their eponymous album. Commenting on the natural connection between the music and the rising Black Liberation Movement, Workman states: “music means politics. Archie later wrote “Poem for Malcolm”, “Scag”, “Rufus” and “Attica Blues”. But we all spoke up. We had to. You can’t put your head in the sand; that leaves your ass sticking up in the air”. True that.  In 1964 the bassist toured with Yusef Lateef’s combo, hitting California during the Watts Riots. “We were being shot at as we drove from the highway so had to stay in the hotel. It was the Vine Lodge Hotel—where Sam Cooke was staying.” Herbie Mann, then holding noted commercial success, next hired Workman. “The Middle East conflict was going on and Herbie became increasingly involved in this. He tuned his music to his own roots, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict touched me differently as a Black person. I became very vocal. It may have hurt my career, but artists shed light”. Workman then joined the New York Art Quartet, an ensemble which sonically and politically realized radical culture in an urgent time. Baraka was a common addition to the line-up, threading spoken word through streams of improvisation. “I don’t like the term ‘avant garde’”, Workman clarified. “It’s about the music, not about boxes people put it in. We are Sound Scientists. With this band, every gig was beautiful”. Workman relocated to the East Village with Lee Morgan, whom he was regularly recording with. “Due to low rents, the area became a haven. Cecil Taylor lived nearby. 6th street was filled with music. Tootie Health and Don Cherry lived there. Elvin lived on 11th Street. There was a gay bar where Jaki Byard was playing standards. I had a gig opposite Rodney Dangerfield. There was the 5-Spot, Slugg’s, St Mark’s Place…”

In 1970 Workman became musical director of the New Muse Community Museum, an organization of African American arts. And with the fall of the Collective Black Artists, he founded Artists Alliance, a network wielding a Village Gate concert series. However, in the harsh economic decline to follow, Workman experienced recession fallout of his own. He took a day job with a Black-owned oil company and also with Crown Heights Community Service, guiding at-risk teens to college and Muse Arts Studio. In the 1980s, he hosted a jazz radio program on WBAI-FM and led record dates with the likes of Julian Priester, Sam Rivers and Andrew Hill, before forming Top Shelf, a band sporting David Murray, Arthur Raines, Steve McCall and others. “I’d been doing so many other people’s music and decided to finally perform my own. Top Shelf played the Tin Palace, the Cooler and the 5-Spot for months at a time”.

A natural teacher, the bassist mentored young artists through the African American Legacy Project and various colleges for years, focusing finally on the New School’s Jazz and New Music Program, which he’s currently immersed in. Trio 3, with Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille, a long-term project, will be performing later this year, and Workman also anticipates the release of a ‘70s recording by WARM with Rivers, Priester and Pheeron ak Laff. He’s also working on his biography and playing a variety of local concerts. “There aren’t enough hours for me to stop”, he offered. ‘Besides, who’s counting?”

Epilogue: Reggie requested the following information about the New School’s Jazz program be added to the article. It wasn’t possible to fit this into the NYC Jazz Record, but it’s all here in this unedited version:

This list of names I consider to be quite important since they represent students who have graduated from our program, and are now doing significant work in the Music community
 RoyHargrove - Trumpet
BradMeldau -Piano
JazzmiaHorn - Voice
RoseBartu Violin/Voice
LyndonAchee –Vibes/Steel Drums
MelanaeCharles = Voice
BeccaStevens – Voice/Guitar
Bilal– Voice
JoseJames – Voice
MollySkuse – Voice
CaseyBenjaman – Alto Sax/ Voice Keyboards
LukeciaBenjaman – Alto Sax
JamesFrancise – Piano
ChrisPotter – Tenor Sax
TomAbbot –Alto Sax
SteveBlum –Guitar
KevinRay – Bass Viol
JoelRoss – Vibes
GeremyDutton – Drums
MikeMareno –Guitar
YayoiIkawa – Piano
JohnBeaty – Alto Sax/Rap
JoeBeaty – Trombone
JonnathanFunlason – Trumpet
RobReddy – Alto Sax
AndyBemky – Piano
ChrisWalker – Electric Bass
BrianSettles – Tenor Sax
JessicaBoykin – Voice
ThomasFujowara – Drums
SatoshiInoe – Guitar
GregKurstan – Piano (3 Grammys/Producing
WalterBlanding – Tenor Sax
LemarGillary – Voice
LarryGolding –Piano/Organ
JohnMedeski – Piano/Organ
TakyuaKurtado – Bass
BriannaThompson – Voice
BenFlocks – Tenor Sax
AlexanderClaffey – Bass
WalterBlanding – Tenor Sax == Moved to Isreal and started effective “Jazz Workshops”
JessieDavis – Alto Sax
***********ADDEDNAMES   addendum to previous listing***
JurmaaneSmith – Trumpet
CoreyCox – Drums
JackGlotman – Piano
BarryCooper – Trombone
SamuelMortellaro - Piano
MiriBen- Ari
ManuelVelera – Piano
AlanHampton – Bass
OtisBrown – Drums
TommyCrane – Drums
DameonReid – Drums
JamareWilliams – Drums
KeyonHarrel – Trumpet
EmanuelHarrel – Drums
StephamMutal – Tenor Sax
KennyBrohoowski – Drums
AdamCruz – Drums
EriYamamoto – Piano
AuthurTravers – Drums
AndrewHadro – Baritone Sax
YotamSilberstien – Guitar
NicoleGillian – Voice
AmitGolan – Piano == Returned to Israel and developed a Jazz School  `
LyndonAchee – Vibes / Steel Pan ********3/26/18
AlexeyIvannikov - Piano
 GregoireMarrete - Harmonica
JamalHanes – Trombone
ChrisTordinni – Bass
StaffordHunter – Trombone
PeterBurnstien – Guitar
VirginiaMayhew – Saxophones
AliJackson – Drums
CarlosHenriqez – Piano
**John I’d like to restate that students mentioned in this list are out in the “Jazz” community doing significant things, and the list of mentors who have been teaching them is really important to be mentioned as well.**
 MaryHalverson – Guitar
ChadTaylor – Drums
Thana Pavelic”  - Voice
AlexSkolnick – Guitar
Alexi                   - Piano
RioSakairi  - Voice
Catherine Henry - Voice
MathewJorgenson – Drums


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