Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Robert Barry: Issue 34: Jazz



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The following unabridged interviews originally appeared in Issue 34: Jazz.

Avreeayl Ra and Robert Barry have spent decades holding down the drums in Chicago jazz bands. Each played with the great Sun Ra. Both musicians were kind enough to sit down and share some of their experiences with STOP SMILING.


Stop Smiling: Do you remember your first gigs as a professional musician?

Robert Barry: At 15, I played with Tom Archer and a lot of the guys that were around the community center on King Drive in Chicago: John Gilmore, George Estridge, Clifford Jordan. When I first started I was working on 47th and 43rd Streets.

SS: Were you playing bebop at the time?

RB: Yeah, we were all into Bird. I was into Bird when I was 11 or 12 years old. Bird used to play at the dances.

SS: Did you ever get to play with Bird?

RB: Yeah, in a dope den one time. We were working for a dude. He was a promoter, you dig, but he was the dope man at the same time. Bird came by to cop. We was up there waiting for him to take us where we were going, because he’d get a big station wagon and take a bunch of guys to the gig. He didn’t work the gig, but he would collect the money and then pay us. So we were waiting for him to take us and Bird stepped up in there. He came to cop. Stepped out of the bathroom and drank a glass of whiskey. The man said, “Play us a number, Bird.” Bird said “Sure,” and took out his saxophone, put a reed on, played some blues (“Don’t Blame Me”), and then he started another number.

SS: When did you start playing drums?

RB: I was 15 when I got my first gig. But I had my first set of drums when I was 14. I had a good sense of rhythm — right off the bat, before I even learned how to read music. That’s how I started working with Tom Archer. Those guys were in their 40s when I started working with them.

SS: Was your family into music?

RB: My old man was a violinist, and my two sisters played violin as well. My old man loved the classics, and I guess if he’d kept going, he would have probably been a classical violinist. My sisters and I used to sit down on Sundays and listen to the radio. There was’ no television then. We’d listen to the classics. We had a Zenith and my dad would make us sit right in front of the Zenith. It was boring as shit. Where’s the beat, you ‘know? Ain’t nobody having no fun with this music! We’d wind up going to sleep. But I appreciated it. When I got to high school, I knew what was going on with the classics. It was some long, drawn-out sheet music, and I would be patient. [Laughs] It would have some parts that were nice. I played the classics all in high school. We played Bartók, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

SS: Where did you go to high school?

RB: DuSable High School. We had a marching band, swing band, concert band. Captain Walter Dyett was a phenomenal teacher. He taught all the guys that wound up coming out of Chicago: Nat King Cole, Benny Green, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Campbell, Irma Thompson, Gene Ammons, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester, Richard Evans, myself. He was a positive thinker. You couldn’t mention the word can’t in his presence. He’d go into a rage and would physically throw you. [Laughs] He’d take you by your collar or by the seat of your pants — somebody open the door and boom! He’d say, “Don’t never come back here until you lose that word.” And he’d say, “You are what you eat and you are what you think you are.” He used to keep a .38 on the desk. Everybody would carry knives. He’d say, “You guys think you’re bad with your knives and your switchblades — I got something for you!” [Laughs] Walter Dyett — he was something else.

SS: Who were some of your inspirations on drums?

RB: I know I heard Max Roach early on. And Baby Dodds and Ike Day, because he lived in the neighborhood. He was a child prodigy. At the age of 12 he was working professionally. He had such a sense of timing, he wouldn’t even need no music. He played in pit bands in downtown Chicago. They would say: “And now we bring to you… Ike Day,” and the other drummer would get up and let him sit down. That was something to behold. He made a drum set sound like there were melodies coming out of it. He had all the coordination. Max would look for him, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich. Everybody knew him: Miles and Sonny Rollins. But he was strung out on heroin, and that’s what took his life. The heroin had weakened his body so much he ended up dying of tuberculosis. He started shooting all that dope and hemorrhaged. He was so weak that when they put him on the operating table, he couldn’t make it. He couldn’t survive the operation.

SS: How old was he?

RB: Twenty-eight.

SS: He and Wilbur used to play together?

RB: Wilbur Ware, yeah they were partners. That’s how they got their dope money. They used to go around and play as a duo. Shit, when they come in, the sets would stop. Wilbur used to sing, and would be playing bass, and a lot of time Ike didn’t even have no drums. He’d just play on the bar, and Wilbur would sing standards or sing the blues. Those two were a phenomenal pair. They’d come in and the band would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, in the house we’ve got the great Wilbur Ware, the great Ike Day — they’re gonna do a number for you.” But all they wanted was to get some dope money. Yeah Wilbur would pass the hat while Ike was playing, they get their money and they gone, gone to cop somewhere.

SS: Did you feel that the music during that time in Chicago was very different than the music in New York?

RB: Yeah. Everybody was coming here because Chicago had the most clubs. New York had the famous clubs: Bandbox, Birdland, Onyx, Three Deuces — say, about seven or eight clubs. But Chicago had clubs from downtown all the way down to 63rd Street. On State Street, there were clubs on both sides of the street, all the way down. A lot of guys started walking: They’d walk from 29th, stop at each club in the 30’s, walk down to the 40’s and hit all the clubs, and just keep going.

SS: And how many clubs do you think there were?

RB: Oh man, there was a lot of money to be made. It attracted a lot of people, a lot of nightlife. The clubs would be open from six in the afternoon until six in the morning. So anybody who was anything in New York would come play Chicago. They would have stage shows in the theaters, even in the neighborhood theaters. This was before and during the war — everything was wide open, man. There was a lot of money to be made; there was a lot of partying to be done. They had a place called the Breakfast Dance. The club opened at six o’clock in the morning and people wouldn’t even go to work. Why go to work when you can party? [Laughs] That was a good time. And if you went to St. Louis, they had the same thing down there. I started going there when I was 14, because I had a little lady there. I used to take the train down. It took about five hours. A round-trip ticket cost $7. I used to go there on Friday evening, get there before 12 or 1 am, go to the hotel, scout out and see who was where and what was going on. Ain’t nobody asleep. Those were really good times in this country, as far as music goes.
When I was six or seven years old, we’d go up to Belmont and shine shoes, but you could get into clubs. You could walk into bars, shining shoes and dancing, just listening and learning.

SS: Did you ever tap?

RB: I didn’t tap. I did sand. We’d take sand and put it down on a smooth surface. We’d be sanding like mad. We’d mess up people’s hallways, because they had the tile floors, and we’d come up there with a pocketful of sand. People would come out and yell, “Hey, get out of my hallway!”

SS: This is all before the war? Did you get called for the draft?

RB: Yeah, when I was in high school. But I didn’t go into the service. I had heard about how “Pres” [Lester Young] got out of the service. Every morning you would fall out with your rifle; he’d fall out with his saxophone! So they finally put him out. That’s where “D.B. Blues” comes from: Detention barracks blues. His early songs come out of his stint in the Army. Him and Jo Jones were in there together, and Jo Jones would fall out with his sticks. Why have some dudes like Pres and Jo Jones get killed over some nonsense. That’s all war is about. I just told them I couldn’t go. It was a bad scene anyway for me because I’m living as a second-class citizen in my own country. I told the military psychiatrist as much.

Why should I go into the service? This was when Emmett Till was killed. They were still lynching people. The psychiatrist rejected me. He said I had an abnormal personality; I was maladjusted and would be a bad influence on African-American soldiers. I told him, “Do you think I should lick the boot that kick me?” I was getting pissed off. I took my fist and hit on the desk — bam! The man got up and went to the door and wrote in big letters: “REJECTED.” He told me to go to another room. In the other room was the FBI. They told me that I could be put in jail for the duration of the war, and the war might last 20 years. I said, “I don’t know what I can do about that. You guys have the guns and the tanks.” So the dude said, “All right, well, sign this paper,” and I said, “I ain’t signing nothing. I don’t have no lawyer. I don’t know what I’m signing.” So then they finally say, “Get out and don’t come back!” And I said, “Well, I didn’t ask to come down here in the first place.”

For about a week or so afterward they followed me. They went into my neighborhood and asked the kids who were my friends, “Is he in a gang?” They even asked me, “Do you belong to a gang or an organization? Do you believe in killing?” “Yeah,” I said. “I believe in killing. If someone comes on my doorstop and shoots at me, I would fight, but I’m not going to go 3,000 miles away to fight for something when all this racist shit is still going on here.” So they didn’t bother me after that. They told me I’d never get a government job. I wasn’t planning on getting one anyway.

SS: Can you talk about recording with Sun Ra?

RB: I met Sun Ra when I was about 15 years old. We started talking because he lived right down the street from Bugs, a drummer I knew, and we started talking about life. He was well read. He had studied all of these different bibles. He was another prodigy. You’d go to his house, and he had a little bitty room, but it would be filled with books — wall to wall and floor to ceiling. He’d be like, “Hey, come down to the library with me.” He was working as Fletcher Henderson’s piano player at the time, and he was his arranger too. He was writing for the shows. He used to sit on his porch, and we’d all start talking. So we went up to his house and he played piano. He said, “You play drums?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, bring your drums and come on up to the house and we’ll play some.” Pat Patrick, Sun Ra and I would be up there playing all day and night. Then he went and got some singers they started playing with us — it was like four or five singers and this three-piece band. A guy sent me some of the discs. I had forgotten all about it. That had come off of a wire recorder. Sun Ra he had a wire recorder.

SS: And you were playing all of his music?

RB: We were playing all originals. He just let you develop. He wouldn’t give you no guidance. He’d just say, “Play what you hear.” Then when he started writing down at the Pershing, he would write heads but your solos were always your own.

SS: How long did you play with him?

RB: For a good while — from age 15 up to 22. Richard Evans was involved in the band, because Sun Ra was asking about new guys. We started getting dudes from the band at DuSable. I told him about Richard. At first, Richard and I were the rhythm section for Sun Ra. Richard left first. Then it was Ron Boykins and I. Occasionally Richard Davis would come and play, too. Everybody, it seems, did a stint: Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, his brother, George. He never had no sad players. He had people who were interested in developing their talents.

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