Q&A: Musing on Mentorship

On September 9, Pete Malinverni, jazz pianist and head of Jazz Studies at Purchase College, will moderate Jazz, From One Generation to the Next.” The JazzFest White Plains program will feature performances and discussions with master jazz artists and their mentees, including Alexis Cole & Lucy Wijnands, Bobby Sanabria & Gabrielle Garo and Ulysses Owens Jr. & Aaron Jennings.

JazzFest Artistic Director Aaron Paige sat down for a conversation with Malinverni about the meaning of mentorship in jazz. Read the full interview below.

Aaron Paige: Why are you excited about moderating this program and why is the mentor-mentee relationship an important conversation to have?

Pete Malinverni: Without mentorship, jazz is doomed. If we want to keep our art form going, we need to make sure younger people know about it. So to me, it’s important to really affirm those mentor-mentee relationships. It keeps the elders young while it gives the youngers a North star toward which to tend. First, you are in the boat looking up at the stars and after, you realize now you have to guide somebody else safely and talk about the worlds you’ve seen.

AP: What does mentorship mean to you within the context of jazz?

PM: Jazz is an African American art form, but it’s difficult to really know what is of African and what is of American seed. For me, one thing that is most definitely African is the notion of the elder — their responsibility to teach the youngers, and the youngers’ responsibility to show respect to the elders. I was Minister of Music at an African American Baptist church for 18 years in Brooklyn and the young folks would never refer to an elder by their first name. That’s why at Purchase, we ask our students to call us “Professor.” Not because we think we’re all that, but to keep that mentor-mentee model alive. I tell my students, “I don’t know who’s the most talented in this class, including me — but one thing I do know is that I have more experience, and I’d like to share that with you.” I was lucky to have teachers that were lovingly generous with what they knew. That was invaluable and it’s my sacred duty to carry it on.

When I came to New York, I met people who I learned a lot from just by watching. I would go to these great clubs and I would watch how musicians comported themselves. I would see how they dealt with their audiences, how they dealt with each other.  I was humble enough to…when I could take a moment in an off second, when they were on break or whatever to say I’m just curious about this. Can you tell me about that? And without fail, these musicians were really good in that way. There’s probably nothing I do that I haven’t seen done really well somewhere else. I just found the guidance, musical and personal that I received from the great musicians I’ve worked with and been around invaluable to me. Some see that position of mentor and lord that over people. I’ve seen it, you know, usually in a teacher who’s inexperienced or maybe who had poor mentorship in his or her own life. That happens a lot in parenting. If somebody had a bad parent, they have to really work hard to be a good parent. But, I find that guidance offered in no uncertain terms, with an underpinning of love for the student and for the art form, is really the way to go. And if you just tell the truth and show your love, you can’t really go wrong. If the second part of that equation is really clear, the love part, then the student, the learner, will more likely be charitable in their interpretation of whatever thing it is you may have said in the guidance part of the equation.

AP: Who were some of your greatest mentors in jazz? Would you reflect on some of those relationships…how they developed and the kinds of things you learned?

PM: I played in the great drummer Vernel Fournier’s group and he worked in mine. He was the drummer in Ahmad Jamal’s famous trio and had a real deep understanding of the beat and of how to present music. He also played with Billy Eckstein and many, many, many, many bands. He was famous mostly for having invented the beat on Poinciana, which is Ahmad Jamal’s best known recording. He was a mixed race man from New Orleans who grew up in the twenties and thirties in that town. He had a real deep understanding of the beat and of how to present music.  He used to demonstrate the various parts of the famous new Orleans jazz funeral, the March to and the March from the cemetery, and how the music would be different in those cases. He had that real depth of understanding. I idolized Ahmad Jamal’s Trio and every time I worked with Vernel, I would  always look over and be surprised that he was actually there on the band stand with me, cause he was just that great. I learned a ton from him on the bandstand. He would have these little musical interludes where he wanted us to extend the form of a tune. I adopted that and do it to this day. You’ll hear Miles [Davis], Philly Joe, Paul Chambers and Red Garland do that a lot too, because Miles used to bring his quintet to hear Ahmad Jamal’s Trio.

When I was on tour with [Vernel’s] group in Europe and also on my trio gigs, it got to the point where I would try to beat him to the gig, but I never could. Sometimes I’d get to the gig a half-hour early and he’d be sitting there having a cup of coffee, drums all set up. To me that was absolute professionalism. Another thing he taught me: he’d say “one should have a dark suit and then other stuff. You wear your dark suit the first and last night, ‘cause that’s what [the audience] will remember, and you wear your other stuff in between.”  One time we were playing at a wedding. On a break, I was going up to get something to eat. And I said, Vern, how come you didn’t get something to eat? He said, I was waiting for you. I said, Oh, that’s nice. He goes, “follow the leader and fear no evil.” He was Muslim and he had all these sayings that he said . A lot them came from the Koran or he had learned them elsewhere. My favorite was when he would say “trust in God, but tie your camel.”

After he had a stroke, I would go visit him at his house and later in the hospital, and the relationship never changed. He would know that I loved him and I would know that he loved me. It’s like how you are with your parents. When they start to get older, you tend to be more concerned for them and that’s beautiful. That’s a life lesson right there.

AP: You mentioned learning with Barry Harris for a number of years. Would you talk a bit about that relationship?

PM: When I first moved to NYC, every Tuesday night, I’d go to the Jazz Forum on Astor Place where Barry was running a class. I was 24 at the time. The class would run from 6:00pm until midnight. It would be just pianists to start and then later in the evening other instrumentalists and singers would join in. It was this kind of nonstop mulling over concepts that Barry had developed over the years.

It was a very specific vocabulary. I mean, I heard the sounds, but I didn’t understand the terminology that he was using. That’s the thing about jazz, right? Our terminology is still not codified worldwide but it’s getting there, little by little. I could refer to something in my classroom at Purchase and there could be another professor down the hall talking about the same thing using different terminology. It’s a good thing because it shows kids that there are other ways of talking about stuff. It can be difficult because you have to spend time finding ways to say what you mean. You could be in Timbuktu and talk to a classical musician about a Neapolitan sixth and they’ll know just what you’re talking about. I like to try to come up with different ways of saying stuff. To me that’s fun. So with Barry, after a while, you know, I start to get to know the people in the class and started to get the courage to actually go up to the piano…try the stuff he was talking about. I’d work all week trying to figure out what he was teaching us and then come back the next week and get my situation handed to me on a platter! Today, there’s no longer a discernible line between what I learned at Barry’s feet and what I’ve added or subtracted. I can’t parse it and tell you what is me and what I learned from him because it was so deep.

Barry is of that great Detroit piano tradition that included Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. To me, he’s still the greatest living jazz musician. There’s a vocabulary in his playing that you can trace back to Bud Powell and before him, but there’s also a great joy and poetry in his playing that is so unmistakably and heavily Barry. I’m so blessed, to be in this particular stream…to occupy a place in this stream with the understanding that there are those in front of me and those behind me.

AP: Do you see yourself as belonging to a lineage of jazz?

When one first starts to dig jazz music, at least those of my generation…this is before you were able to see a YouTube video at the drop of a hat of Bud Powell playing back in the 1950s… Before you could do that, everything you heard was either live or by record. For me, it was mostly by record, since I didn’t grow up in New York. The first jazz that I heard…it was an excavatory process. I grew up playing classical piano and the first stuff I heard that I really liked was Sly and The Family Stone. That to me was the pinnacle of music and I still think it’s wonderful. But then Herbie Hancock came out with a record called Thrust, which is super funky and electronic. Weather Report came out with their recordings. From Sly, I started to hear that stuff and dig it. I found out that Herbie Hancock plays acoustic piano…heard a recording of his at blue note that includes Wayne shorter, who was in Weather Report. And little by little, I started clawing at the dirt and went deeper and deeper in. And you find these fissures, these through veins of style and of approach and musical philosophy. At first the excavation was quite wide and then it grew more and more specific. If I end up going all the way back to Scott Joplin, and then coming forward…I listened to Jelly Roll Morton and to “Bix” Beiderbecke who wrote some famous piano pieces. And this is all in reverse order from how I found it. Then Art Tatum, the great pianist. And off of Tatum comes Teddy Wilson and Hank Jones. From that, there are some pianists who have that certain lightness of touch. There’s a guy named Herbie Nichols, who I love. There’s a guy named Sonny Clark, who I love. And that sort of contributes say with Barry Harris and Bud Powell to a vocabulary, but also an approach. There are offshoots for different kinds of moods that I might want to affect at any given time, like that of say, Thelonious Monk…where he’s coming from.

Monk, I would put him as a pianist alongside Duke Ellington. And he learned a lot from the Harlem school of stride, which was James P. Johnson and all that, who likewise came from that earlier, New Orleans stuff. There are a lot of different streams, but if I had to place myself in a stream, I would say through say Herbie Nichols, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Teddy Wilson, down to Tatum and further back. But again, you know, you pick and choose. I always say, I steal from the best. It’s like you learn any language. I don’t know from whom I’ve learned every word I use today. Most of them did come from listening to people talk though, and not from books. I mean, that’s for sure. And it’s stealing more than borrowing, cause borrowing, you always have to remember where you got it from and have to give it back. But stealing, it just becomes yours. And you use it as you will. I use the words that I’ve stolen to express, hopefully my own thoughts, that are some of some interest. Over the years, who you are is revealed, as you see it reflected from other source that make sense to you. If you hear somebody say something that’s well-put, a cool turn of phrase, whatever it might be…usually, you’ll pick that up, especially if your reaction is “gee, I wish I had said that.” Next thing you know, you’re saying it, but in your own context.

Sometimes you’ll play something that everyone knows. Like we’ll be playing a tune and everybody knows that on Miles’ recording of that tune, he played that certain thing in that spot. Well, everyone will do it, you know, and just kind of look at each other and smile. It’s just sort of like a recognition that, yeah, we’ve all been in the same woodshed on this tune.

AP: Have you ever experienced a time when one of your mentors learned something from you, the mentee?

PM: Dick Katz came to one of my recording dates, just to hang out. After the session, he was telling me about some of the stuff he had learned that day. I was almost embarrassed, you know. I’m like, “Come on, you?!” But it’s beautiful. It’s well known that Dexter Gordon was an early influence on John Coltrane. And then Coltrane turned around and influenced Dexter. This happens all the time. Coleman Hawkins is another one. He was the guy all the young cats liked because he accepted what they were doing. He didn’t feel threatened by them. He saw it as another beautiful avenue, and that’s why his music always sounds like it was recorded tomorrow. That kind of openness…that’s what makes a good teacher great.

A version of this article first appeared in the August issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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For more than 50 years, ArtsWestchester has been the community’s connection to the arts. Founded in 1965, it is the largest private not-for-profit arts council in New York State. Its mission is to create an equitable, inclusive, vibrant and sustainable Westchester County in which the arts are integral to and integrated into every facet of life. ArtsWestchester provides programs and services that enrich the lives of everyone in Westchester County. ArtsWestchester helps fund concerts, exhibitions and plays through grants; brings artists into schools and community centers; advocates for the arts; and builds audiences through diverse marketing initiatives. In 1998, ArtsWestchester purchased the nine-story neo-classical bank building at 31 Mamaroneck Avenue which has since been transformed into a multi-use resource for artists, cultural organizations and the community. A two-story gallery is located on the first floor of ArtsWestchester’s historic building on Mamaroneck Avenue. artsw.org