[MUSIC: Henry Threadgill, "To Be Announced"; Air, "Children's Song," "Roll 'Em"; Kalaparusha, "Ananda," "USO Dance"] FH: I'd like to say that Ted Panken is one of my old associates from Chicago when we were developing this particular style of improvisation and music. [MUSIC: "Ananda," Air, "USO Dance"] TP: "USO Dance" was performed at Studio Rivbea before Air had recorded any LPs, back in the so-called good old days. FH: [Laughs] I was a young kid and all that stuff. TP: This was when a lot of musicians had moved to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast, and were really making an impact and changing the New York scene around. The Wildflowers series was a springboard in introducing these musicians to a broader audience. FH: It certainly was. TP: You were doing quite well in Chicago at the time you came to New York. Maybe we could go into your background as a bassist in the Chicago area and how you came here. FH: Well, part of my experiences there were my early training, which started . . . I guess I have to start with my family first, of course, because there were seven musicians in my family. I had two brothers. One brother played all the woodwinds, flute, saxophone, clarinet, and he even played bassoon. Another brother played drums. I was in the band together with my younger brother, Dennis Hopkins. My older brother, Joel Hopkins . . . TP: This was in high school? FH: In high school. This was at DuSable High School with the famous, incredible teacher, we called him Captain, but his name was Walter Dyett. And also I had a sister, Patricia, who is now deceased, and she played clarinet -- she was in the band with me at the same time, too. Those were my formative years.
Also, one other important influence at that time, which was the deciding factor for the instrument that I chose. When I originally started off, I wanted to play cello. So I went to school, and Captain Dyett said, "What do you want to play?" I said, "I want to play cello." He said, "We don't have cello. You're a bass player." He actually told me I was a bass player. And he also intimidated me. He was one of those old-style teachers who tells you what's happening, and you learn later. And I liked that; I like it now, I didn't like it then.
But anyway, one of the other early influences was, I'll never forget this Sunday afternoon watching one of the public broadcasting stations, Channel 11 in Chicago, and it was a performance by Pablo Casals. He was in this old Gothic mansion in this large room by himself, and he was playing this music, this solo cello. And I heard the sound and I said, "That's what I want to do." Before that time I was listening to all these instruments, and I didn't know which one I wanted to play, but as soon as I heard the cello, I said, "Okay, I know I want to play cello." But as I mentioned, there was no cello, so I ended up playing bass.TP: Captain Dyett had many generations of Chicago musicians, as many people know, but some don't. Talk about his legacy at DuSable. FH: Well, some of his students included people like Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, George Freeman, and people closer to my generation like Oscar Brashear, who lives out on the West Coast now, who is doing very well as a recording musician and also is doing a lot of contracting work . . . God, some other guys . . .
TP: You could list a hundred performing professional musicians who are graduates of the DuSable program over a 30-year period. FH: Right. And not to mention all the people who were in the band who went to other professions in terms of being lawyers, doctors, bus drivers and all this. The thing about Captain Dyett is that the information that he gave us, you could apply to anything. After I left high school, several years later that's when it started to sink in that this information, whether I became a musician didn't really have nothing to do with it. He was just a positive thinking type person, and those were the things that he put on us. TP: I believe Captain Dyett had been a violinist in his younger years? Did you find he had any particular gift for teaching strings, or was he adept at every instrument? FH: Yes. Because like I said, his philosophy, since it included using your brain . . . He actually made you think, is what it was. So you can apply it to any instrument. But he was a violinist. In fact, any of the listeners who might know more factual things about this, please call. From what I understood was that he was in the Army; that's where his thing was. TP: After World War I he was in one of the Illinois regimental bands which he organized, and I think he also had aspirations to be a doctor, which he gave up on because of the racial situation. FH: Right, in America at that time, and maybe at this time, too. TP: So he went into education. FH: Anyway, what happened was, a fact . . . a small fact . . . My mother was at DuSable first went there to teach. So then, generations later, here come her kids and the same teacher is still there, which I think is quite incredible.
Anyway, what happened with Captain Dyett, as I understand it, is that once he started teaching there, and especially at this time we're talking about the '40s, '50s and when I was there in the '60s, the teaching level was a little bit higher than now in the black areas of major cities. They said he could have been teaching at some of the higher universities, and he had a lot of offers to do things like that, but he said, "No, I won't leave, because if I leave, who's going to teach you little . . . " -- I can't tell you what he called us.
But an incredible man. He put his stamp on me, and I think I was really fortunate to be one of his students.TP: You were in DuSable around 1961 or '62? FH: Yes, I went to DuSable in '62. TP: So what kind of things would the band play? Which band were you in? He had several. FH: I was in the concert band. They had the concert band, they also had a choir, and also there was a dance band, which we called the "jazz band" at that time, because we'd get a chance to groove, you know. First I started off in the concert band, and we played only concert band music. And an interesting fact for all the bass players is that for the first year that I studied bass, he did not let me use the pizzicato at all. I did nothing but bow -- and on threat of death. No pizzicato. Only arco work. Because his idea was that you start from the foundation of anything, and then once you get that correct you can go on and do whatever else you want to do with it. Again, later on I discovered that was some invaluable information for me. TP: What kind of material would the jazz band be playing? FH: They did a lot of the stock big band songs, things like "Cute," some of the Ellington classics, and some other people that I didn't know -- probably if I saw the book again, I could remember a lot of things. TP: How about music in the community? Were you hearing music apart from school in the neighborhood? FH: Yeah. Well, at that time, every little tavern, every little bar . . . This was during the period of live music, and every place had some kind of combo. I lived on 45th Street and State in Chicago, and actually there was a tavern across the street from my mother's house. In fact, I always remember hearing this bass going, just boom-boom-boom. As a little kid, I used to sit on my porch late at night, and I'd see all this commotion over there, and people talking, and all the things that go on in taverns -- but I always remember hearing a band. So my influence in that sense was everything . . . And also walking through the neighborhood, I could hear gospel music, blues, jazz, the rhythm-and-blues of that day, and classical music. In other words, I was exposed to all kinds of music as a kid, and it affected me subconsciously, I would imagine. TP: Were you listening to jazz records at that time also? FH: Not really. You know, I really didn't listen to jazz until actually when I started playing music, and then I could appreciate what was happening with it more. I was listening more to classical music at that time, my personal choice. And my brothers and sisters played all kinds of different music. So like I said, I was exposed to a lot of things. But I didn't really actually have a preference when I was a kid. Not really. TP: The question was really leading toward the hackneyed old influences question. FH: Well, in fact, I was looking for this list that I made for this interview, and I'm sure I left out several people, but it included about 50 people. Most of them were musicians, of course, but all kinds of people -- even my accounting teacher in high school. TP: How about bass players? FH: Even though I may not sound like it all the time, I'm really kind of old- fashioned in that I like an old, fat bass sound, and people like Jimmy Garrison and Paul Chambers -- those were my real early influences. TP: Let's get the course of events that led you out of high school to the Chicago Civic Orchestra and into the AACM. FH: Oh, yeah. I think they thought I had a little talent! But anyway, what happened was that after I left high school, I was . . . Actually, I was just working. And once I left high school, in fact, because of Captain Dyett's method, which is the more talent you have, the harder he is on you, and he gives you some encouragement, but not really, so that you won't get a big head and you won't have any ego problems. So when I left school, I didn't know I even had talent, because he was so hard on me. So for about two or three years, I was working at A&P [grocery store]! I was playing a gig like every month or two months or something like that.
Then I met a couple of other friends of mine, like Hobie James, who was a trumpeter (he's a pianist now), who at the time was working on his masters degree in music education. I became his roommate, and I got re-interested in it, and really wanted to perform. So I started practicing again . . .
Anyway, in fact, on Captain Dyett's recommendation, even after high school.. . .He stayed in touch with everybody, or we stayed in touch with him also.TP: With that kind of discipline Captain Dyett instilled, did you have ambitions to join an orchestra? FH: [tape gap -- audition/acceptance process for the Chicago Civic Symphony] . . . and a sight-reading piece, which you didn't know what that was going to be, and then you can do one thing that you liked that you thought you did the best. So on the Beethoven piece I did pretty good, because I liked Beethoven, and the Bach piece I was okay, and the sight reading I did okay. But still I almost didn't get in, because there were people who had really actually studied orchestral music a little bit more than I had. So my auditioner said, "Look, why don't you just play something you want to play." So I said, "Okay, I know what I'll do." So I did this improvisation on "You Don't Know What Love Is" -- arco. And he said, "Oh, okay."
So anyway, that's how I got into the orchestra. And I studied with Joseph Gustafeste, who was the principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was another very valuable period for me, because it was like . . . Instead of teaching me orchestral bass playing, he actually (on my request, by the way) taught me about the instrument. And once you know about your instrument, you can perform any kind of music. And that's what I was really after. I didn't know all this at the time, by the way. But those were the things that were happening. I stayed with the orchestra for about three years. In fact, most of the world-renowned conductors of the day, in all of the major orchestras, had conducted our orchestra, because all the guest conductors conducted the Civic Orchestra also. So all these guys like Muti, and in fact even Georg Solti conducted the orchestra one time. It's amazing, the power . . . It's just like an instrument. I mean, the power that a conductor has over an orchestra is amazing.TP: How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra? FH: Well, we played all the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony. In fact, we used their same music. And let me say that some of the music was very difficult music, and also very enjoyable.
So I stayed with them for three years, and then it was time, of course . . . As things happened, it was time to change and do something else.TP: We'll get into what something else was after we hear some music, with two of Fred's frequent collaborators over the last decade, Hamiett Bluiett and Don Pullen. [MUSIC: Bluiett, "Mahalia"; Pullen "In the Beginning"] TP:: When we went into the music, we were talking about Fred's time in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and what he did afterwards. FH: I kept working, that's all. It's just a logical progression. But as we were saying, fortunately, I had good teachers, and the whole thing was to . . . Everything is like a step towards something else. It's never a final . . . You don't finally become a good bass player, you don't finally become a good electrician; it's always about learning more and opening yourself up for more stuff. TP: Where you achieved renown as an improvising bassist was in the AACM in Chicago in the early 1970's. So let's recapitulate the events that brought you into the AACM. FH: Well, that was actually a very exciting period for me, because up until that time . . . You asked me earlier if I had listened to jazz music, which I didn't when I was a kid -- not knowingly, I should say. And the same thing with the improvisation in music of the AACM in the '60s. In fact, at that time I was still in the Civic Orchestra, and I was doing like piano duo gigs in the Rush Street area of downtown Chicago, and things like that . . . TP: With who? FH: You're going to get me stuck on that. But I'll come back if I remember. And not to leave anyone out, by the way.
So anyway, I was doing more traditional type of gigs in Chicago. And I just remember hearing about the AACM; this was in the early '60s. That's actually when a lot of the guys started going to Europe, and people like Muhal Richard Abrams and Kalaparusha, Henry Threadgill was part of it at that time, too, the musicians of the Art Ensemble, John Stubblefield, Braxton . . . So anyway, I started hearing about these guys, but I had no idea what their music was about.
So one day I went to a concert they were having in Hyde Park, and I couldn't make heads or tails of this music, but it felt good . . . And also, by the way, chronologically, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and these people were playing at the same time, too, so there was a lot of excitement about doing some different type of things with music at that time that I was becoming exposed to.
So anyway, I went to this concert, and I heard . . . I can't remember what band it was. It might have been a collaboration of all these different people in the AACM at the time. And I said, "What are they doing?' But it felt good. But I couldn't figure out technically what was happening, and all this freedom and things, and all these different arrangements. Some bands had no bass player, some had two drummers and a violin, people like Leroy Jenkins . . . And I said, "What are they doing?!"
So anyway, I didn't get back to that music, because like I say, I continued my studies and these different things. But then I met Kalaparusha, and he asked me did I want to play with him. I said, "Well, sure. I've never done this kind of music before, but I'll do my best." And it was like someone took the shackles off of me. They said, "Okay, Fred, you can do anything you want to do" -- as long as it's musical, by the way. And I said, "Wow!" I really enjoyed that. In fact, my first band in this particular type of music was with Kalaparusha. Kalaparusha, Wesley Tyus, Rita Worford, and Sarnie Garrett on guitar.
I guess being my first band and my first experience to the music, it really opened me up. And I was amazed at myself (and it's not just an egotistical thing I'm talking about) that I was able to do as many things as I could, simply because we had at that time . . . Very little music was written down for me personally in the bands that I played with, and so I was able to get into this whole improvisational aspect.
So anyway, that led to meeting other musicians and playing with other bands, and also letting me listen more. Then I think one of the really deciding factors, when I really decided, I said, "This is what I'm going to do" . . . I heard an album of John Coltrane's, the first album he did after he left Miles Davis and these people, Coltrane Sound, and it really changed my whole outlook on music. I knew then that I could do anything I wanted to do -- and once again, as long as it's musical. And from that point on, I just got more involved, and started meeting more people over the years.