W. Royal Stokes Interviews Guitarist Sheryl Bailey

April 25th 2010 04:44 pm

Copyright © 2010 W. Royal Stokes

I first met guitarist Sheryl Bailey in 1994 at Twins, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., founded in 1986 by jazz- loving Ethiopian twin sisters Kelly and Maze Tesfaye. This was when the restaurant was still on Colorado Avenue, a block east of 16th Street. A few years later the club moved downtown to a U Street location and has for more than a decade thrived as a major venue, serving Ethiopian and Caribbean cuisine and featuring a wide spectrum of jazz styles.

The occasion of our 1994 meeting was a gig of saxophonist Leigh Pilzer’s She Bop combo. My then twelve-year-old son Neale was with me. Apparently one of the musicians pointed me out to Sheryl and she came over to my table and handed me a copy of her first CD, Little Misunderstood, saying, “This is for you.” I had been hearing of her from D.C. drummer the late Louie Bellucci, who told me that he had caught a young Baltimore guitarist at the One Step Down and was very impressed. Her contributions to the evening’s program that Neale and I caught in 1994 verified Louie’s very positive assessment.

In the decade-and-a-half since, Sheryl Bailey has proved to be a major guitar voice in jazz (and other genres), taking third place in the 1995 Thelonious Monk Guitar Competition (she was the competition’s first female instrumentalist finalist) and releasing six CDs and a DVD under her own name. In addition to her active performance schedule, Sheryl has for the past decade been an associate professor of guitar at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, from which she had graduated. She has been a clinician and artist in residence at a number of other institutions and has authored two guitar instruction books. She crosses musical boundaries, working in jazz, blues, rock, Afro-pop, klezmer, hip-hop, and pop and has toured here and abroad with Richard Bona, Klezmer Madness, Jazz Guitars Play Jimi Hendrix, Jack Wilkins, and her own combos.

Sheryl’s most recent CD, A New Promise (Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild), has her leading a 16-member band, the Three Rivers Orchestra. The album’s title tune, penned by Cheryl, is in memory of guitarist Emily Remler, who died in 1990 at the age of thirty-two. Three of Remler’s compositions are included on the CD. The label’s publicity release has Sheryl giving expression to the impact that Remler had on her.

“She paved the way for me,” says Sheryl. “I really felt her pain and her struggle with where she was at that time [the 1980s] being a woman player. I really wanted to hear Emily’s person in me when I played. It meant a lot to me to do this tribute and pay homage to her and to say thank you.”

Detailed information about Sheryl Bailey can be found at www.sherylbailey.com and www.myspace.com/sherylbailey3.

I audio and video taped an interview with Sheryl in my former home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on February 26, 2005. I began by asking her to tell me where and when she was born and about her family background.

“ I was born in 1966,” Sheryl began, “outside of Pittsburgh and actually was born to a family of musicians. My grandmother and my great grandmother were music teachers. My grandmother had a doctorate from Columbia, which for women at that time was unheard of. And my mother also played piano wonderfully, with fantastic, incredible technique, and she was very humble about it. She didn’t pursue being a professional musician. But many times she did play church organ and things like that. She was a single parent. So that was a good part of growing up. We all had to take piano lessons. The music around the house was either my mother playing or my sisters playing — classical, Chopin, Beethoven, and also show tunes, arrangements, sort of stock, you know, books of pop music arrangements and stuff. My sisters were into the Beatles then. There was a big age gap between us. And my mother liked a lot of the crooners at the time, Andy Williams, whatever, those kinds of singers, so that music was there, too.”

“How early did you become aware of this music in the household.”

“I don’t know. I mean, I always thought it was what everybody did. We grew up in a rural area and there wasn’t a lot of culture there so I just assumed that everybody played. We would sing show tunes and all my sisters were always involved with musicals, musical theatre. My mother would also play. There’s a picture of me when I’m very small, it was in the local paper. I would just get up on the piano and improvise, just play sounds for hours, story sounds, you know, like children will do. Anyhow I guess I’d been at a women’s club meeting with my mother and got bored and got on the piano and just started off one of my fantasies, and so at a very young age I was playing keyboard, and interested in being creative with music. I was probably about three. I didn’t take lessons until later, but at that point it was just story telling for me, I would spend hours just getting lost in my fantasy world of sounds.

“What was the age gap with your siblings and what are the names of your family members?”

“My grandmother is Dr. Sally Tobin Dietrich and she passed away not too long ago. She lived into her nineties. My mother, Sally Bailey, recently had a stroke, so she can’t play the piano anymore. Sally is my oldest sister, eleven years older. Susie is just under her, and played great, still plays a little bit, and my brother John. I’m the youngest. So I grew up with this music around. My brother is a cartoonist now, Susie is a graphic artist, and Sally is a drama therapist. She runs the drama therapy department at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. So we’re all involved in the arts, and that’s just what I thought you do. And it wasn’t even that this was a career, it was what you do. I thought when I was a little girl, what am I going to do when I grow up and I would say, an artist or a great poet. I thought that’s the kind of stuff you did. I didn’t think about, I’ll be a doctor and make lots of money, or whatever, it was just the natural happening.

“ I don’t think I started piano lessons until I was in fifth grade, but in second grade — this is the weirdest thing I ever heard of — they gave us this sort of test, they were always giving aptitude tests back then, in the ’70s. And the results came back, and they said that I couldn’t be in the band because I didn’t pass this test. I was devastated, I was angry, I was just, ‘What are you talking about?’ So I had to talk to the music teacher and, like, you know, ‘I can do this.’ So because of that I actually was always a first chair, I took up the trumpet. I was so determined at five, I was, like, how dare you tell me I’m not gonna play music? It was actually a challenge to me, to show them. You weren’t gonna let me in the band, and then you let me in the band, I’m gonna be the first chair. So that gave me the drive to be that. I took a lot of pride in that throughout school. It was just standard band music. I would practice that stuff and then I would learn stuff from records, too, melodies and things. We had Herb Alpert records. So I spent a lot of time just playing the trumpet, outside of what you had to do for band.

“I would try to learn songs and play all the high melodies. I was doing it all by ear. I knew how to read music, better then than I can now. I played trumpet all the way up into high school. My interest in it dropped off when I started playing guitar. So I really got into guitar and then I just kind of kept my trumpet playing together to stay in the band. To be honest, I wasn’t the best piano student because the things I liked to practice were the minor key stuff, you know, Russian composers and stuff. I wasn’t a great student. I’m sure my piano teachers were shocked. I can’t remember my piano teacher. My band teacher, when I said I’ll prove to you that I can be that, was Frank Zimmaro, and he was a great influence to me as a kid, and he was in the music program at my school up until the time I graduated high school. He was always a very positive force, and was always very supportive of me.

“When I was thirteen, I wanted to play guitar. I remember being somewhere, on summer vacation, maybe Long Island. Maybe there was an outdoor concert. I remember just being fascinated by the guitar, and playing the guitar just got in my fantasy world, and I was into rock music. Maybe in some ways, too, having all these great pianists in the house, it was maybe a way to assert my identity, too, and get attention that way. But I think that it’s a common thing, kids fantasize about being a rock star, and that was the instrument that was associated with all the music that I loved, so I think I had these sorts of dreams in my mind, about playing the guitar, and I daydreamed, drew pictures of guitars all the time. So eventually I begged my mother to get me an electric guitar.”

By the end of the 1970s, when she was entering her teens, Sheryl had been listening to rock music for three years or so.

“I used to hang out with my brother John,” Sheryl continued. “We lived on a farm, so me and my brother were very close, we would hang out with friends, listen to all the rock bands. Deep Purple, Humble Pie, the Beatles, all those bands. Uriah Heep and all those kind of hard-rock bands, and so I thought John was the coolest guy. I loved this guitarist Peter Frampton, ’cause at the time he had this record Frampton Comes Alive, and back then on the rock records, the bands would improvise. One side of an album was a song — they don’t do that anymore. He was into this thing called the talk box and he would make his guitar talk, and I just loved that, I would listen to that, and it was my favorite record, and I thought that would be my dream, to be a guitarist like that. I don’t even know how it works. I would love to get one. You sing through it and it’s connected to the pickups of the guitar, so you can actually do vowel sounds to the notes that you play. It sort of shapes the notes as they come out. So you can actually sort of sing and it’s a voice that’s coming through the guitar, it’s really cool.

“So then I kind of followed up and got into other bands. I guess by the time I got my guitar, I was into all that music and Cream, which is Eric Clapton’s group. And, really, all these bands are blues guitar, they were copies of blues guitarists. So, really, what I was absorbing was Jimmy Hendricks, blues guitar, the history of blues guitar. That’s really what that language is of that style of playing, blues guitar.

“That’s the stuff we liked to listen to. And my brother was in a way sort of pivotal in getting me into jazz. He was sixteen or seventeen, and all of a sudden he came home one day and said, ‘I’m into fusion now.” And I was, like, ‘That sounds so cool! I have to get into that too.’ His fusion was a Stanley Clarke record, School Days and Al Di Meola’s Electric Rendezvous and “Just the Two of Us” [a song on the 1981 album Winelight] by Grover Washington Jr. He was into Frank Zappa, too. So he would go out and I’d sneak into his room and listen to his fusion records, and that got me curious about jazz.

“A kid up the street showed me how to play the basics. It’s a boogie woogie pattern, same old one from way back, but all rock songs use that basic pattern. So, as soon as I figured it out, I thought, ‘Oh, I can figure out all my favorite songs,’ and none of them were that harmonically complex, they always use that type of rhythm. So once he showed me how to do that, I remember just playing it for more than six hours one day, my hands hurt, I just had to break, open up my hand. But once I figured that out, yeah, I just taught myself everything. I remember reading in a book, too, or some guitar player magazine, about how you put a rock on top of your records to slow the turntable down and get stuff. So I would burn out the belt on the turntable! So I learned these little things that I needed to do.

“And then there were a couple of guys that really imitated Hendrix, I loved them too. British guitarist Robin Trower and Frank Marino, a Canadian guitarist. And I would learn all of their stuff. Then I got really into heavy metal, sort of like the next thing, because I was just playing the guitar all day, that’s all I was doing, all day. Then I started playing in bands, on my own, rock bands, so I got into that, and that was like the next challenge. At that time Van Halen was very big, so I would learn those solos. Then I would call up my friends and say, ‘Hey, check this out,’ and put the phone [next to the speaker]. So I was on that course, and I can understand why kids, if they have this serious direction, get into heavy metal, because those guys, virtuoso guitarists in that style, those guys are doing Paganini stuff. They’re masters of the guitar. So it’s sort of a natural progression, these days, for kids in guitar, if they’re serious, they get into the basic rock stuff, and then they get into heavy metal stuff cause it’s sort of the next challenge. Luckily, then I did a u-turn and got into jazz, so I put all that energy into studying the music which is jazz.”

“What was your first guitar? I ask Sheryl.”

“Well, I was the youngest, so I was expert at getting what I wanted,” she says, laughing. “But I had to pull out all the stops on this one. The first guitar I begged my mother for was from the J.C. Penney catalogue. There was a strap, a Harmony strap, and a cube amp, maybe a Harmony amp, and that was my very first guitar. I remember hearing her talking to a friend on the phone: ‘I’m gonna break down and buy her this guitar. I know it’s gonna sit in the closet and get cobwebs in six months.’ In a way, it was sort of like when I was a little kid and they said, ‘You can’t play in the band,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m gonna be first chair.’ Just overhearing that conversation I was, like, ‘No way!’ As soon as I got it, that was it!”

“Tell me about the garage band.”

“I would find some kids in school that played, there was a kid up the street who played drums, and most of the time I would show them how everything went, and I would sing too. So we would do all the rock songs, all that hard rock.”

“Mostly boys?”

“Yes, they were always boys.”

“How did they respond to a girl playing?

“I don’t know, I never was aware of it.”

“You were never aware of anything.”

“No, ’cause I was the best player,” she says, laughing.

“So you said you made a u-turn into jazz. Tell me about that and whom you were listening to, who influenced you and so forth.”

“Sort of about the time when my brother announced that he was into fusion, around that time I also discovered a radio station, WYEP, public access, and I remember I was just amazed by all the music. They had a wide range, they would play World Music, Latin music, but the jazz is what I was so fascinated by, it sounded so exotic, I used to love it. If I could understand that, that would be amazing. But also it really moved me in a way, but I didn’t have words for it. I felt really connected to it, and I was growing up in this farm town, I was always an outsider. You know, the kids at school, I didn’t really identify with. But hearing jazz made me feel connected to something really meaningful and something much bigger. So I was drawn, and just about this time too, I wasn’t doing well at school, cause I would not go to school, I stayed at home and played guitar all day. My mother was really upset with me, and I said, ‘Why do I have to go to school? I want to be a musician!’ She said, ‘If you’re going to be a musician, you should study.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ So she called Duquesne University and found a jazz guitar teacher, John Maione. All these things were sort of around the same time. So I started taking lessons with him. He would make me recordings of Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Kenny Burrell — and that was it, that was my new obsession, that was my world, my lesson every Saturday. First stuff we would do was a lot of chord solos, arrangements, and then a lot of things, very early players, Carl Cress, Eddie Lang, we would do Django Reinhardt solos, Joe Pass solos, Charlie Christian solos. He gave me a really great foundation of all the early players.”

“So you’re at what point now, well into high school?”

“Yes, about 15. Actually, recently I was back at our house and I found this list on the wall, my practice schedule. I should have saved it. I got a kick out of seeing it. At that point I was really into heavy metal. I had to divide my time up. I had practice schedules, six hours a day I would practice. At least three hours I would dedicate to heavy metal, at least three hours to jazz. Then, eventually, I was just playing jazz all the time. And of course today I’m full circle.”

“At some point,” I observe, “it must have then gone beyond the garage band, to some kind of playing in the community, or outside of your garage, or something.”

“Well I think John Maione was great in that. The music studio where he taught, he would have recitals and competitions and stuff, so finally, my garage band played at school for a talent show. So John got me involved in recitals and performances through the music studio and then also he got me involved at Duquesne University, where they had summer jazz programs, and that was like the best time of my life, in my teenage years, going to jazz camp in summer, getting a chance to play, and really play with kids, and jam sessions. John was very encouraging. They had brought Tal Farlow to Dusquesne. He was the first actual real jazz guitarist I ever saw, and I’ll never forget that incredible time. In Pittsburgh there’s a guy named Joe Negri. Pittsburgh is a quirky town. He was also on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was a fantastic guitarist, like a Johnny Smith type guitarist, and he was also a legend in Pittsburgh. He was like a TV personality, one of the people on the local news channel, everyone in Pittsburgh of a certain age knows Joe Negri. ‘That sounds like something Joe Negri would play’, it’s a funny, very cool thing. So Joe was involved there at Duquesne. So they brought Tal Farlow in, and that was just indescribably incredible at that time. And also later on they brought in Joe Pass, so I had an opportunity to see a lot of these players. And talk to Joe himself. So my goal then by eleventh grade was to go to Duquesne and to study with Joe Negri, and be involved in the great jazz program there.”

“That’s what you did?”

“That’s what I did.”

“For how long?”

“I was there a year, I had a friend there, and I was sort of the young whatever, hot kid there, so I got a lot of opportunities to play with the big band and other ensembles, and studied with [saxophonist] Eric Kloss there. He was a great influence.”

“Wow!” I interrupt. “I interviewed him twenty or so years ago on my radio show. He has resurfaced. I’m sure he’s been playing all this time. He was written up recently in Down Beat and Jazz Times.”

“He’s had a hard life, for sure. And he was back in Pittsburgh. I guess he’d been in New York and it wasn’t working out. But there was a great opportunity for me to be in his ensemble at Duquesne. So anyway, my friend, Pat Hunt he was a guitarist and a senior there, he got me psyched to go to Berklee. I don’t know if he’s playing now anymore, but he was like number one guy, I was number two. He and I were, like, the hot guitarists. He was a good friend and he was just looking out for me. He said, ‘You know what, Sheryl, this place is too small for you, you gotta get outta Pittsburgh, you gotta do this. So I took his advice and went to Berklee.”

“Up to this point, were you doing any playing outside the educational context?”

“I would do some little gigs, but I really felt at that point like I was a student. I mean, I was doing a lot of things at school, and sessions, but I wasn’t really gigging, and I still felt like I had a lot to learn. Did occasional gigs, yeah, like at the campus bar.”

“So you stayed at Duquesne for a year, then went on to Berklee?”

“ Yes.”

“Tell me about that, what it was like being in the big city?”

“It was kind of a shock, for sure,” she says, laughing.

“How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm . . . ?”

“Yes,” she concurs, laughing again. “Well, I made a good friend who taught me, he was a Bostonian, actually, a city person, he told me. You know, I would walk out in my overalls, fresh off the farm.”

“Like Louis Armstrong arriving in Chicago with his big boots on.”

“I loved Berklee. For me, at that time, it was so much knowledge, which is what I wanted. I just wanted to understand harmony, and they had the most incredible, and I still think, most incredible approach to teaching harmony. So for me it was an amazing time. I had Ed Tommasi, a class called Harmonic Considerations. I still have that black book for it, it’s like the bible. I would never miss that class. At a certain point at Berklee I didn’t go to many classes except his class and my private lesson. I studied with Bruce Arnold, who taught me a lot of the Charlie Banacos approach, in ear training. Bret Willlmott, voicings and polyrhythms. Jon Damian, who’s just more sort of abstract concepts of improvising, playing lines. Hal Crook had started there, who’s an incredible teacher, just teaching concepts for how to improvise, how to practice improvising, set goals for yourself, and all this. So, I teach there now and I’m still always humbled that I’m on the faculty with them, because everything I know, really, even as a teacher, comes from them, from their way to just deliver information so clearly. And that’s what I wanted, everything I wanted at that time. So all I did at Berklee was, I mean, if I practiced six hours a day when I was in high school, I would put in ten hours a day transcribing solos. That was a great time.”

“Who were some of your classmates?”

“Well I was there with some people that are famous today, but I can’t say that I knew them. Branford Marsalis was there, and there were a lot of people there, but I was still kind of really backwards, and I wasn’t really sociable, I was just really into practicing. So I think, if I could do it again, you know, having grown up quite a bit, and just being more grounded with myself, I probably would have had a better time socially, but for me I was just there to get this information and practice, so I was sort of a hermit in a lot of ways.”

“Did you get out to some of the places in Boston and Cambridge?”

“Yeah, there was a place that closed called the 1369 Jazz Club. I used to go there and see Dave Liebman, and saw Kenny Burrell there, and Bill Frisell. That was a great club. And Ryles. Then there was lots of stuff on campus that was always happening, music happening all the time. Then towards maybe my last year there I started playing in the house band at Wally’s Café, which was still going when I was there, and they had music — it was just like a little dive — and a house band. Antonio Hart was in the band then, the last summer before I left Boston.”

“I can’t think of the names now,” I say “but Claire Daly, who was there probably two years before you, told me about some of the places that she used to go to, and in fact she tended bar at one of them.”

“Yeah, Michael’s. Oh, then the Willow Jazz Club was there, and actually my first official jazz gig as a leader was there, with [saxophonist] Matt Otto, Matt Wilson on drums, and Mark Turner, bass player, still up there. Yeah, I had, like, a weekend there. First time I went out as the Sheryl Bailey Quartet. At that time I was gigging around town, doing trio gigs and playing in the house band at Wally’s.”

“And you were about twenty?”


“How long did you stay at Berklee?”

“I finished there, mainly because my mother wanted me to get a degree, and she was right, because now I have a degree and I teach there. So I did finish there in three years, and I stuck around Boston maybe six months. Then some friends from this area [D.C./Baltimore] that I knew from there were starting a band. They called it Afro Funk Band. So I didn’t know where I was going then with my life, so I moved down here because of that. Drummer named Anne Herson, who’s in New York now. Steve Berson was the bass player. It was their band. They were all good players. We did original music, and then we did covers of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade tunes or just tunes that we liked — maybe we would do a Led Zeppelin — and we wrote a lot of the music and it really was based out of that style of music, Afro Pop and Reggae. So that’s how I ended up in Baltimore.”

“So tell me about the scene in Baltimore.”

“Well, when I came to Baltimore I just went out and started booking my own gigs and also to just meet the players there. Eventually I met [pianist] George Colligan and [trumpeter] Alex Norris and I just kind of made things happen for myself so people could get to know me and I get to know them. Then I just started freelancing as well as doing gigs booked under my name as a leader. It’s funny, I kind of just went to work. I started teaching at Towson University in maybe ’92.
I used to play in the house band at the Haven and I played a lot there over the years. It’s a little dive, but it’s still going, it’s like the jazz club [in Baltimore]. There were other places that would open up and close down. I started working with this drummer, Larry Bright, who was, like, a fusion drummer, and [bassist] Gary Grainger. We would do drum festivals and drum clinics and stuff. It was just this all out, just this crazy power trio. And in a way this is sort of me coming full circle into my rock playing, fusing that with the jazz playing. A lot of the players were really curious about how I played, ’cause I didn’t approach it like a rock player, per se, but I had technique from playing that kind of music. Really, I was approaching everything from a bebop perspective, playing over that kind of music. So a lot of the players were really curious about how I was playing, what I was playing. I was playing Bird, but with electric guitar, with distortion, or digital delay, wawa pedal, whatever, to make that sort of guitar sound, but the phrasing and content of my lines are all coming out of bebop. So people were curious about what I was doing. ‘Just get an Omni book! [I.e., Charlie Parker Omnibook: For C Instruments (Treble Clef)] It’s all in there!’” she says she told them, laughing.

“One aspect that you kind of glided past since your high school years,” I remark, “is who were you listening to? You mentioned some people you saw in person, or that you heard on records, Kenny Burell and some others. These years that you went through Berklee, what were you doing in terms of buying records and listening to them. You mentioned Bird, of course. You must have gone back and kind of done some self-education.”

“Well in a way, like I said, my first teacher, we really did a lot of early stuff, Carl Kress and Charlie Christian, but when I was at Berklee the hot players there were Mike Stern, John Abercrombie, and John Scofield. They still are to the kids there now. That’s really who I was into. And really, for me, when I look at it, when I came out of Berklee, I was just such a typical product from Berklee, and those were the players I was into. It wasn’t until I was in New York that I really dug in and went backwards again, back into the old players, and I have in recent years more so. When I was in Baltimore, I was more of a modern, kind of fusion player, played straight ahead, but my concept was coming out of those players that were happening in the ’80s, even though I loved Wes [Montgomery] and I transcribed tons of Wes solos, and Sonny Stitt and Bird solos, for sure. I guess, as a guitarist, the style I was playing in was more of this modern jazz guitar style. Now, actually, I’m probably going further back to grab out of players like Grant Green, and older Pat Martino. At that time I was way into Mike Stern and John Abercrombie. My first record, which I did in Baltimore, was a very Mike Stern, Scofield sounding record.”

“So you were in Baltimore for a couple, three years?”

“I was there five years, ’90 to ’95.”

“Mention some of the people you played with.”

“One gig I did for a while at that time, a high profile gig, was with [saxophonist] Gary Thomas. And that happened when I was still pretty fresh, in ’92. I did a couple of tours with him, [pianist] Tim Murphy, [bassist] Ed Howard, and [drummer] Adrian Green. Adrian plays drums on my first record Little Misunderstood.”

“Where did you tour?”

“We did Japan, and then we did some shows in D.C., Philadelphia, stuff like that. I think when his record The Kold Kage came out I was replacing Paul Bollenbach. So I worked with him a bit in ’92, ’93, ’94. And I also worked with [pianist] Stef Scaggiari over in Annapolis, and really all the guys here in D.C, a lot of great players, [bassist] Paul Langosch, [Saxophonist] Ron Holloway, I used to work with him. And [drummer] Harold Summey and [saxophonist] Fred Foss. I worked in Harold’s band a long time, particularly around the time when he was doing the Monk competition, we had a regular gig. That was a great band, a great opportunity. Couple years, definitely, like ’93, ’94. Then in Baltimore with Greg Hatza, I used to do his organ trio a lot, at the Haven or concerts.”

“Did you ever play with trumpeter Allen Houser?”

“Yes, I worked in his band for years at Bertha’s [in Baltimore].”

“Yes, I thought you did. I know he was trying to reach you after you got up to New York, and I had your number.”

“Yeah, he did, he sent me a copy of his record. Yeah, it was good to hear from him. I loved the repertoire he used. He did a lot of not the typical stuff that everyone else uses. It was great. Yeah, I did that gig for quite a number of years.”

“Okay, tell me about the beginnings of your New York time, which has been for the last ten years.” [the interview was taped in 2005]

“Yeah, ten years.”

“When did you move to New York?”

“Officially, in ’96. I was in both cities for a while. I was teaching at Towson University down here and going up to New York. I would rent a couch from somebody and I was working with a band that had a lot of club dates and stuff, so it paid well for me to go up there. Then I’d go out and hang out and start picking up gigs and before you knew it, instead of a weekend, I’d be there all week, then two weeks. Then I had enough work that I felt like, ‘Oh I can move up here and do this.’

“Well as I said, I spent a year making the transition. I had a band that did a lot of club dates, so when I moved there I was making a lot of money but was kind of going mad just doing silly music. So I rented a rehearsal space where I would just have sessions almost every day of the week.”

“Who were some of the musicians you were coming into contact with during this process of beginning to network and get into the scene there?”

“Wow, there’s so many. I mean, that’s the thing about New York. There are so many fantastic players that it’s just such a great experience being around all these players. In particular, there was a really good friend, [bassist] Ashley Turner. My second record that I did was with him and we were really good friends and neighbors and we played all the time together and did gigs together. And his friend [saxophonist] Roger Manning, is from New Zealand. So we played together a lot. Wow, there were so many players! [Drummer] Sylvia Cuenca. I can’t think of all the names. If I would just meet somebody at a session I’d say, ‘Hey let’s play tomorrow.’ I’d just make a list of players. [Pianist] Sarah Jane Cion and I used to play quite a bit when I got into town.”

“Were you getting out to the clubs?”

“Yeah. Every night. Smalls, and I was at the Zinc Bar a lot. That was my favorite place ’cause they always had guitar players. I was gigging, too, all the time.”

“Where were your gigs?”

“There was a place, First on First, where we used to play trio gigs. There was a place around the corner, La Linea. Dharma. Wow, where else did we play? Those were our main places when I first got there and we were playing a lot. And Augie’s Jazz was happening then. I started playing with Dwayne Burno, bass player, in his band, which was a really great opportunity, with [saxophonist] Myron Walden, and [drummer] Jeff Ballard played quite a few times. And [drummer] Joe Farnsworth, we played Smalls, we played at Birdland. That was, like, my first couple of years in New York.”

“Now, you said that you started to go back in time in terms of listening?”

“Well, I think there’s something about drummers in New York. There’s great drummers all over the place, but there’s something about the drummers in New York. And the time. And I think, for myself, to really just dig into the feeling of swing and the feeling of jazz, I realized that I had all this knowledge and technique and all this stuff, but I really wasn’t as in touch as I could have been with the soul and the spirit of the music. Just being in New York, you could go down to Smalls and sit in with [drummer] Jimmy Lovelace, or [pianist] Harold Mabern, and you played with these guys that are the history of the music, and it’s such a bigger thing than you could imagine. So I think that experience just made me really go back and listen to a lot of Grant Green, a lot of Wes, Tal Farlow, and just really dig in, and also, Jack Wilkins is another guitar legend. We’ve become really good friends in the last few years. And just being humbled by, like, wow, how much I don’t know and how I needed to completely open my mind and start from square one, that’s what I felt like. And I still feel that way. I think being in New York makes you feel like that, like I’m just a speck, that I don’t know anything and I’ll just open my mind and learn whatever I can. I think mainly because when I was in Baltimore I was a big fish in a small pond and I knew that, and that’s why I had to leave. You know, these great players, just for myself, that’s what I needed to do to grow. I needed that feeling of that openness and inspiration of just being around some of the great players, and older players, to be around that history.”

“Going back into the history and listening, you mentioned mostly guitarists. Who were some of the others you listened to, on horns and piano and so forth?”

“Definitely, Horace Silver is one of my favorites as a composer and just his whole concept of the blues, and his comping. Monk, as composer and a player. I just adore his writing. Kenny Dorham, trumpet player, I love. I always loved Cannonball [Adderley]. I think the style of playing and writing that I’m most attracted to is probably that late ’60s and mid ’60s Hank Mobley, love all those records, and the feeling of those records of that time, that had the biggest impact. Chick Corea, but more from the early’ 70s late ’60s Corea, the feeling of that music is what inspires me. I always listened to Bird since I first got into jazz.”

“Did you go earlier than Bird? Did you get back into the Swing Era?”

“I have, only recently. I did a State Department tour. Well, I’d done the one on Ellington, for which I really studied the repertoire and stuff. But the next one we did was Louis Armstrong, and I had never really checked that out. So what we’d done for the project was to transcribe some of the solos and harmonize them and use them as points of improvisation, and that was an incredible experience, because I’d never really checked it out. You know, you hear it, but didn’t ever really play it or play along with a record. That was a really great experience.”

“What period?”

“Well we picked stuff from all different periods, but we did ‘Potato Head Blues’ and a couple of tunes like that. I became a fan,” she says, laughing, “from that experience. So, yeah, but there’s so much more, though, I need to dig into. I learn a lot from an artist that I work with, David Krakauer. I would consider him an expert person of that era, or maybe not that era but probably Lester Young, and he’s really into Johnny Hodges and Count Basie, so he turns me onto records all the time when we’re on the road. So it’s sort of like a new thing that I’m getting through just listening, going backwards.”

“Don’t neglect Artie Shaw.”

“Okay, I won’t neglect Artie Shaw.”

“And his Gramercy Five, a wonderful group. The first version of it had Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord, Billy Butterfield on trumpet, and electric guitarist Al Hendrickson. That was in the 1940s. In 1954 he put down his clarinet and never picked it up again. Now, did you go in the other direction? You mentioned people up through the late ’60s, and you mentioned some people like Hank Mobley. There are other people in the’60s, how about Trane?”

“Oh of course.”


“Yes, I love Ornette, I haven’t listened to him a lot lately. Love his writing.”

“So the years in New York went on, and you were getting yourself established there, doing gigs, sometimes just putting the hat down.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“You were also doing some touring. You said you got to Japan.”

“Yes, well, I started working with this guy Richard Bona, a Cameroon bass player. Most people know him for his work with Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Harry Belafonte, Chick Corea, he’s worked with everybody. He’s electric bass, sub-electric. Anyway, in recent years I’ve worked with his band, which again is sort of an interesting thing, it’s not really a jazz gig, it’s a pop gig, Afro pop gig, playing his music, and of course we do all the jazz festivals. A fantastic musician, one of the world’s best, greatest electric bass players living. Definitely great musicians in the band.”

“Tell me about touring in Japan. The response of the audience I’ve heard about from various musicians. I’d love to hear about that.”

“Yeah, well I was there with Gary Thomas, too, in the early ’90s. They’re really attentive and they love the music, but they’re not gonna get up and start dancing during the set, you know, or even snapping their fingers. Maybe you get someone moving a little bit. But, yeah, they’re very attentive. But going there with Richard, he’s a super star there, he’s a mysterious kind of guy to them, so they treat us great.”

“They don’t applaud until the end of the concert?”


“Mal Waldron told me that then this wall of applause comes that practically blew him back.”

“Yeah, it can be a little disarming, especially, like, you know, Richard’s music per se is funky, anyone would want to dance to it, and you’re just looking out and everybody’s sort of sitting there and, like, ‘Do they like this?’ And then at the end you get this standing ovation like, well, ‘They musta liked it,’ but you didn’t know until then.”

“So you did the European scene too. Which festivals?”

“All of them, at this point. I’m working with David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness and we’ve done all of the major festivals.
We’ve certainly played Blue Notes in Italy, Blue Notes in Japan, other clubs. We did a live record, David Krakauer Live in Krakow, which was a really great experience because we did three sets for live audiences and we recorded five nights. You just knew you had the rest of the night, or the next night. So that was really great, it was one of the most interesting records I’ve made. And yeah, it’s a record I’m really proud of being a part of, ’cause Krakow’s a beautiful city, we spent a week there, and we played there last summer at the Jewish Music Festival. It’s a huge festival with, like 10,000 people doing hora dances in the squares. David’s a super star in Krakow, for sure.”


“We played a lot in Germany, Austria.”

“How about, coming back across the ocean, South America?”

“I toured there doing the Ellington project for the State Department.”

“Tell me about that.”

“It was interesting, every country was unique. Some of the poorer countries, somebody actually came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never heard Ellington played on the electric guitar.’ And I’m sort of, like, ‘Well it’s been going on for a few years now.’ So, I mean, the audiences were really curious about the music. And I met so many just friends when I went back later to Chile to do my own thing, do a concert of my own, so I have a fondness for Chile and its people.”

“Who was with you on the state department tour?”

“It was a trio with [flutist] Jamie Baum and Jennifer Vincent on bass. Then, when I went back to Chile, I did a concert using guys from there who were fantastic, could have been in New York, just blew me away how great they played, how they swung and could read. We just had a fantastic concert. Great musicians down there.”

“Why don’t you move on to the New York years and bring it up to the present.”

“Yeah, I guess we were talking about just getting there, doing a lot of sessions,” she says, laughing. “I mean, I just, don’t know what to tell you. Gigging all the time, playing all the time. Just trying, again, to keep an open mind. I’ve also, being a guitarist, done lots of hard rock projects, played bass in rock bands. I guess I was always thinking about when I was a teenager, and I was trying to divide my time between playing heavy metal and jazz. I thought they were so separate. But now, having had this experience of playing straight ahead, blues, heavy metal, jazz, and then playing African pop music, when I was in Baltimore, then later with Richard Bona, and then playing Klezmer music, I actually have this holistic view of all music, and the guitar in all music. So here I am playing at CBGB [& OMFUG: Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers, a club in New York], with a hard rock band, doing tracks on some people’s records, or I’ve done some things with Irene Cara, pop singer, have actually been working on her project, which is pop, R&B, some rap on it, a really contemporary project. I don’t really see them as separate things, I don’t have to separate my mind, when I do these things. I guess it’s the kind of thing, I was thinking, when you’re young, or something, you can’t see the forest for the trees. At this point now, I just see it as they are all forms of communication and expression, and I just feel honored that I can be a part of it all. People call me, David Krakauer, or Richard Bona calls me. I’m not an African musician or I’m not a Jewish person, but there’s something in my element as a jazz player, again, what I was saying, when I was here [in the D.C./Baltimore area], playing fusion music, people were, like, ‘What is it you’re playing?’ I’m, like, ‘I’m playing Bird.’ This is my sensibility that’s coming through, that attracts people to have me on their projects, so I don’t really see them as, well, I’m doing this heavy metal gig, like I have to turn some switch or something. I’m either playing with good musicians or bad musicians, and I don’t work with bad musicians. If it’s musicians that I love to play music with, it’s gonna be a great time.”

“If you think it’s a stretch for you to be playing Klezmer, what about Don Byron? He’s in my new book and he talks about that.”

“Sure. I’d love to read that, I’d love to read his talk about it. ’Cause it is, after a while, maybe learning to use different dialects of the language. We trill like this, in this style, we bend notes like this in this style, or we don’t bend notes in this style. We still have harmony, melody, and rhythm. Africans play on this side of the beat, Jewish guys play on this side of the beat, and the jazz players play on this side of the beat. It’s all connected, to be able to switch dialects like that. Sometimes I look at my calendar for a year and think, well, I was out on tour for six weeks with Richard Bona and then I came home and did my band, my music, and then I went out on tour with David Krakauer and the Klezmer musicians, and then I came back home and did a pop project. You know, actually, I get a kick out of that, to be able to have friends in all these different worlds of music. But I see them as all connected.”

“Tell me a little about the process of getting a state department tour. How did that come about?”

“It’s sponsored by the Kennedy Center. I think now they have quartets. At the time, they were just doing trios. They’ll usually have some sort of theme. I did one that was music of Ellington, and then Louis Armstrong. They might have Latin music as a theme, or vocal. They had blues one year. It’s almost, in a way, like writing a grant. All the members of the trio have to write sort of an essay about their feelings about presenting American music and the subject that we’re presenting, and then getting letters of recommendation from people, and then, eventually, if you get picked, to do the final audition/ Then you’re really in a way presenting a workshop, because that’s what you do, you do a lot of different kinds of things on this tour. Sometimes you are just sort of cocktail music at the ambassador’s house, or sometimes you’re doing a workshop for young musicians, or you might be doing a cultural concert. So there’s a lot of different roles that you play when you’re doing this tour. You put together a program that sort of touches on any of those situations. I have to say that the competition to get the gig is high. They not only want people that have a great band, but that also can present the music in a positive way or an interesting way.”

“How do you feel about traveling?”

“I love it and I hate it. I love how we get to this beautiful concert hall, and it’s packed, and the audience loves us, and we get standing ovations, and we’re treated so great, and we play, and the sound is great, the music is great. I love it. Jet lag, waiting at the airport, and having all your bags checked, and arguing with the gate guy if you can take your guitar on, and all this stuff, that’s what they pay me for.” She laughs heartily. “That’s what they pay me for!”

“I just want to put one final question to you. When you’re not playing the guitar, or practicing the guitar, playing gigs, or getting back and forth to gigs, you have other interests, I’m sure, reading interests, or just in the arts.”

“I try to stay fit. Right now I’m into jumping rope a lot, running. I’m always involved in some sort of working-out activity. And also, I’m vegetarian, I really kind of try to stay strict. In a way, it’s a hobby, you know, particularly when I go on the road, it’s kind of a hobby, where can I find a health food store, or a vegetarian store? And also reading. Recently, I’m sort of on a fiction kick, I’m reading a Hemingway book, Islands in the Stream, so I’m sort of in a way catching up with great fiction writers that I’ve just been curious about. James Baldwin and Zecharia Sitchin would be authors that I enjoy. I have all these books at home that I’ve collected through the years, that’s my basic library, the great fiction writers.”


“I love it. Don’t make enough time for it. I love great movies. I’m always going, ‘That’s another one’ that I’m always trying to catch up with. Of course I love visual art when I get a chance. Yeah, there’s so many things I love to do, but not making the time.”

“Now, the two-nighter you’re doing tonight at Twins — you were there last night — the musicians are?”

“Aaron Walker on drums, Tom Baldwin on bass. Also I have my own trio [Gary Versace, Hammond B3, Ian Froman, drums], which I have to give you a new CD [her 2004 Bull’s Eye] of. We’ve been together since 2001 and it’s been really fantastic, to just have a regular band, the same band, it’s been a really great experience, because it’s just been growing and growing. Right now that’s also one of my focuses. I’ve always been a side person, maybe do” — holding her hands far apart — “like, this much of side person and” –- then bringing her hands halfway together –- “this much of my own project. So that’s really what my goal is now, it’s what I’m working on, is doing my project and my music more of the time, and side person less, reversing that ratio. So, yeah, I try to keep us at least working in the city all the time, at least once a month, Smoke, or Zinc Bar, 55 Bar. We go out to the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. So that’s getting us out of town. Any of those, just to keep the music going.”

“I said that was the last question but I have one more question. You do a lot of composing. Tell me briefly how you do that. Do you compose on the guitar?”

“Yeah, I usually compose on the guitar, and composing is a very lighthearted thing for me to do. It’s more of a letting go, just listening, almost transcribing. And I write a lot. Good thing about having a band playing at least once a month, I’ll bring in some new tunes, and if I don’t like one, it doesn’t go in the book. Or, you know, maybe it just doesn’t feel right. I don’t worry about it, ’cause there will be other ones that will come. So I sort of have, like, a fifteen-minute rule. If I can’t write it at one sitting, usually it doesn’t get in the book, I find. So when I find I can be the most open-minded and just let go the most, and it just comes out, those are always the keepers.”

“Do you literally write it? Pencil and paper?”

“Yes, I’ll write stuff out, ’cause I wouldn’t remember.”

“So you play a little bit, then you write some, then you go back to the guitar.”

“Yeah. But it’s usually almost like I’m transcribing, in a way, like I’ll just start an idea, and I’ll just, okay, here’s the next part of it. So it’s simultaneous, playing the idea and writing. They seem to come at once, the chords and the melody. Usually revolves around the melody. And I just let it happen. I don’t even try to think about it that much.”

“You don’t tape yourself playing or use a computer to record it or document or put it down?”

“Usually I write it but sometimes, if I’m away from the guitar, if I’m on a subway, I’ll call my answering machine and sing it. Like, I wrote a tune that’s on my new record, ‘Old and Young Blues,’ on an airplane, on a cocktail napkin. I try to remember to always travel with manuscript paper. But I just heard it, so I just made staff paper and wrote it out so I would have it. Yeah, I usually have to write them down, to document them. I guess it can happen anywhere, inspiration. It’s lighthearted, I don’t really judge it at all, I’m not attached to it. The way I am about my guitar, I’m very methodical, and I cringe if something’s wrong or I don’t like it, it’s not right. But my writing, like, ah, I don’t like it, I move on. So it’s fun, it’s been fun to write for a band. In this case, for this particular trio, I write for them, their personalities, they inspire me, ‘Ian’s gonna sound great on this.’ It’s been fun to sort of sculpt it that way, and have players as committed to doing it as I am.”

“Well I think we can conclude it with that. Thank you very much, Sheryl.”

“Thank you, Royal.”

W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post’s jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). His novel Backwards Over will see publication in 2010. He is currently at work on a memoir and a fourth collection of jazz and blues profiles.

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