Tommy Hunter on Sun Ra and John Gilmore

Tommy Hunter on Sun Ra and John Gilmore
John Gilmore Memorial Broadcast, WKCR-FM, New York

copyright © 1999, Ted Panken

HUNTER: . . . He used to come down every day and play me chess.

TP: He was a good chess player, Sun Ra?

HUNTER: Yeah, he was a pretty good chess player. He taught me chess.

TP: What was his game like?

HUNTER: He had a good game.

TP: Aggressive? Defensive?

HUNTER: He didn't like competition. He played me every day. So one day there was a man sitting there who was a Russian who was in the dance class or something, and he watched the game. So then after Sun Ra left he said, "Do you know what that man is doing to you? Let me show you what he's doing to you." -- and he showed me what Sun Ra was doing to me. The next day, when he came in, we played chess; I beat him for the first time in my life after about 200 games -- and Sun Ra never played me chess after that any more.

TP: That was it?

HUNTER: That was it. When I beat him, he says, "Okay, you learned your rudiments. Now you have to play the rest of the band." So he didn't play me any more after that.

TP: Do you think that's kind of a metaphor for his style with the band as well?

HUNTER: Well, somewhat. You know, I used to get criticized maybe more than any other drummer that ever worked with him?

TP: Why was that?

HUNTER: Well, he . . . As I told you, Max Roach was my . . . I played like. . .I sounded like Max Roach, but I didn't think that I did. I mean, I heard Max Roach a lot because I used to go to Birdland and the Royal Roost, and I sat right under Max. I went to hear Charlie Parker and then I went to hear Bud Powell, and Max was playing with both of them. So his style just got into me. It's just like something that gets into you and you play. So when I got to Chicago, I started getting a lot of jobs. I started working with almost everybody.

TP: That was in the late 1940s.

HUNTER: Yes. Now, how I met Sun Ra was in Lil Green's big band. Lil Green needed a drummer. Now, I lived at the YMCA with a lot of other musicians, and I knew the Vice President at the YMCA. His name was Mr. Elgar. He treated me like a son, and he started giving me . . .

TP: Was this Charles Elgar, the violinist and former bandleader?


TP: He was Vice President of the Black union in Chicago?

HUNTER: Yes. So he started giving me a lot of union jobs, with Stuff Smith and Eddie South and . . . Every time somebody needed a drummer there at the Blue Note, if the drummer didn't show up, he'd always send me. Well, he introduced me to the Fox Brothers. Lonnie Fox was a trumpet player and Richard Fox was an alto player, and they both had bands in Calumet City. Well, when the school decided to let me go from the school, I had no income, because I was getting my income from the G.I. Bill -- so I had to go to work. So I took a job in Calumet City. But this was after I met Sun Ra. The first I played with a pianist named Flux Kingslow(?), a good piano player, but you see, the problem is in Calumet City you don't have a bass player, so you've got to have somebody who strides. So from Flux we went to Raymond Walters. Incidentally, Raymond Walters is the only person in my whole musical life that tried to turn me on to narcotics. He didn't succeed, but he was the only person that ever tried it. Nobody else that I have met to date has ever tried to put me on narcotics. Nobody, except him. And after that, I really wanted to quit, but the guy that owned the nightclub said, "Well, listen, why don't you get a piano player, and I'll let him go and you bring in a piano player." I said, "No, I don't really want to take nobody's job." He says, "Well, he's going anyway." So then that's when I brought in Flux Kingslow, but he didn't last too long because the girls were complaining he wasn't strong enough. I had met Sun Ra in Lil Green's band, so I got Sun Ra, and we hooked up. It turned out to be great, because I had Red Holloway playing saxophone, and Jimmy Boyd was playing piano when Sun Ra would take a break. We'd take a break 10 minutes every hour.

TP: That was an arduous gig, right?

HUNTER: Yeah. We started at 8 at night, and we didn't finish until 4 in the morning.

TP: If you mentioned Calumet City 40 years ago, it connoted a certain lifestyle which not everyone today would know about. Say a few words about that scene.

HUNTER: Well, Calumet City was a place where I think it was either a steel mill company or something, and it was a place where the mafia owned it. They had all these strip clubs in Calumet City, and they had all these girls, and when these guys would get paid they'd come to this club, and the girls would take them in the back and steal their money and give them drinks that was watered down, or maybe iced tea when they got drunk -- stuff went on like that. I mean, I've even seen people shot down. Well, I didn't see it, but a club-owner I worked for, he got shot down, and he had maybe 50 bullets before he hit the ground.

TP: How would you approach that situation musically? I know you would have to play certain things, but did you use it to your musical advantage?

HUNTER: Oh, yeah. That was the best practice in the world. Because you're playing for dancers, mostly dancers and singers. They can't really dance, but mostly all of them know rhythm. And I had some great teachers, like Early Zell, Ike Day and some other guys that were working out there. I mean, they taught me how to play for dancers, they taught me how to play burlesque. You learn so much, and what you learn is basic. For any kind of music you want to play, it's basic.

I guess I stayed there about two years; me and Sun Ra and Red Holloway stayed together about two years.

TP: Until about 1951 maybe?

HUNTER: Yeah. And what happened to me, I had a birthday, my 21st birthday, and I'll never forget it. They gave a party for me at the Club De Lisa, and one of the girls who was dancing in the club, and she was . . . The owner of this club in Calumet City, his name was Frenchy, and I'll never forget him, too, because he liked me. He really did like me. I could go in the restaurant and sit down and eat, and nobody else could do that. If you were a black musician you had to go in the back door, and get a sandwich, and you couldn't stay.

TP: So you were just the hired help. You weren't doing anything but . . .

HUNTER: Yeah. But man, he really liked me, because I kept my word, and I was on time, and I was always neat. So he was at the party, too, and this girl was at the party. So when they announced it was my birthday and Club De Lisa gave me a bottle of champagne, which I had never drank before in my life . . . I had never tasted any alcohol in my life, not even a beer, and I tasted this champagne -- and it was almost like ginger ale. Anyway, I got a little tipsy, and so one of the girls from the show came over, and she started kissing on me . . . I remember the MC saying to me, "The show is up here, it's not down there; would you be so kind?" Okay, finally the show was over, and I went home with the girl, and that was it. The next day I went to work; I saw Frenchy standing in the wings. So when the girl finished dancing, he called me (and naturally Sun Ra came over with me), and he says to me: "You know what? If I didn't like you, you'd be dead." He says, "We have told you, and you've been here all this time, and you've never done this before. For that, I'm going to let you slide this time, but I don't ever want to see that happen again." He said, "You're not to fraternize with any of the girls here." So I said, "Okay."

So when we finished the job that night, Sun Ra said to me, "Pack your drums." Now, I'm the leader, right? But Sun Ra says, "Pack your drums. I'm sending you home." Which he did. I packed my drums, I took my drums. Frenchy asked me, "What are you doing with the drums?" I said, "I've got a record date tomorrow." I packed my drums, I got out of there, and Sun Ra took me to the airport and put me on a plane home . . .

TP: And back to New York.

HUNTER: Yes. He said, "Listen. You're young. You don't know. You've never lived here. You've never lived in the South. But when a man tells you that, he means it." He said, "I know you. That girl is not going to leave you alone, and I don't want you to be . . . You're too good a person and too good a musician to be wasted like that. So you go home and get yourself together. When you feel like, you can come back to Chicago, but right now Chicago is not safe for you."

TP: So you would have left Chicago before John Gilmore came back after his tenure in the service.

HUNTER: Yeah. I came home and I studied for two years. I got a band together, and I worked at Copa City. I don't know if you know about Copa City. It was a club in Jamaica, a pretty popular Jazz club, but they had stopped having music. So I went and talked to him, and he let me bring a band in. I would have a house band, and I had to bring in a name every week. I started off with Lou Donaldson, Kenny Hagood, Thelonious Monk, Art Farmer and Addison Farmer. Mal Waldron was there just about every week.

TP: When did you first meet John Gilmore?

HUNTER: I went back to Chicago, and I played . . . Sun Ra had just started his band and we started rehearsing. John Gilmore wasn't with him them. I think he had Victor Sproles, and he had [James] Spaulding, and I don't remember the other musicians. We were rehearsing in the Pershing Hotel.

TP: Which was a big music center on the South Side, with several different venues.

HUNTER: Now, earlier than that I had met Pat Patrick. I hadn't met John, but I had met Pat Patrick because the Musicians Union had given me a job with Captain Dyett, and Pat Patrick was in the band. In fact, Pat Patrick was the only person in the band who talked to me. He has a photograph, but I can't get it from his family.

TP: Walter Dyett had several bands, and he would put his most talented student musicians in the Union and then work gigs with them. Was this that type of band?

HUNTER: I guess so, because we were working at a ballroom, a big ballroom. But what Captain Dyett said to me after the job was over, "You're a good musician, and you've got the potentials" -- but I couldn't play Latin. I could read the music, but what I couldn't do, since it was Latin . . . I didn't have that feel for mambos and stuff like that. I didn't have that feel, because I never listened to that type of music. So he told me, "You have to learn that. You have to learn Latin music. You're going to have to learn all of that." He said, "Why don't you come over to the high school, and we'll have a talk? Maybe I can get you in the school."

What happened was, I went in the service a year before I graduated high school. So when I got into Midwestern Conservatory, I had to make up an English class. So he said, "Why don't you come in and spend a year in the school and get in the band, and you'll get your credits," and blah-blah-blah. But it so happened that I got a job with the Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all- girl orchestra, and I left Chicago. I left Chicago with the group, and then after I finished that job I came back to New York, then I started to work with Celia McCloud and Richard Ottle(?).

TP: What years are we talking about?

HUNTER: Now we're talking about 1951-'52.

TP: This is after you'd left Chicago.

HUNTER: Yes, and Sun Ra still didn't have his new band. But then I started working with this trio, and we were very popular. We worked every week. We'd go to Chicago every so often, and I'd go to a rehearsal, to Sun Ra's rehearsal. That's the first time I met John and Marshall.

TP: What were they playing like in 1953 or '54?

HUNTER: John Gilmore was one of the fastest saxophone players I had heard. He was really fast. I mean, he was fast. Pat was lyrical. Marshall wasn't playing any horns then. He was playing flute and I think clarinet, but he wasn't playing alto.

TP: Did John Gilmore have his sound developed by that time?

HUNTER: Oh yeah.

TP: Was he playing fast with that big sound characteristic of the "Chicago style" of tenor playing?

HUNTER: Well, this is probably something you don't know about John. John loved the big tenor sound that came from Texas, like Arnett Cobb and lots of others. That's where he got that big sound from. I guess that's when he was in the Army. But John basically was Charlie Parker. Now, he's even told me that himself.

TP: I think that's the case for most musicians his age who came up in Chicago.

HUNTER: And Pat told me that when he was studying, it was Charlie Parker. God, it just blew my mind. That band just blew my mind! And he had a trumpet player . . . I don't know who the trumpet player was. It must have been Art Hoyle. But that band sounded so good.

TP: Had you been playing some of Sun Ra's charts on your first visit to Chicago, or was this your first experience with his own music?

HUNTER: No, I had been playing Sun Ra since the day I met him.

TP: So while he was working in your band, you were also working with him in those rehearsal bands he ran in the late '40s.

HUNTER: Yeah. See, Sun Ra used to come to my house every day. Every day. Not a day passed that I didn't see Sun Ra after I got to know him. He used to take me in to libraries and show me books to read, and he used to tell me a lot. I got very impressed with what he was talking about. Not everything I agreed with, but there were some things that really had been bothering me all my life, and I couldn't figure out the answers to them -- so he talked a lot to me. We would go to the park and sit in the park all day, and he would talk . . . Sun Ra liked to talk, and if you listened, you couldn't get rid of him!

TP: You were a good listener, I take it.

HUNTER: I wanted to learn. Well, Sun Ra wanted to change the way I played drums.

TP: How so? I gather from various sources that he would write out just about everything, including the rhythm tracks on his arrangements.

HUNTER: Well, it started out that way. Then it goes out that you have to. . . He'll tell you what to play, and then you have to write it out. But he got mad at me once and said, "You can't write my music. I don't want you writing my music." And since that day, he never gave me another thing to play. Except when I played alto saxophone, he wrote out the parts for me.

TP: Was he doing that for John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick? Was he telling them explicitly what to play?

HUNTER: He would tell them what to play, and then they would play it right, then they could write it on their charts.

TP: And then they could interpret and improvise? How much room was there for them to do that?

HUNTER: Well, the reason for you writing it your own way is that you write it the way you play it. If Sun Ra writes, it's going to be different. But if you write it yourself, you can play it back the way you played it the first time. That's the reason that he asked musicians to write their own music. When you're doing rehearsal, you write your own music out. You know what I mean? As many rehearsals as I've been to, which is a lot, it's always happened that way. And even when we're going to do a record or something like that, we might go in before we do the record and do a three-hour rehearsal. Then when we get ready to do the recording, we would play what we rehearsed.

TP: How much doubling was John Gilmore doing in those early bands?

HUNTER: Well, I really got to know John when they came to New York.

TP: So this is five or six years after your first meeting with him?

HUNTER: Yes. I really got to know him in New York. And John was playing oboe, and he was playing the bass clarinet (and everybody played drums; everybody played drums), and he was playing tenor. I never heard play alto? I think I've seen him with the alto, but I never heard him play alto. Pat was playing flute and baritone, alto . . . At that time, when he first came to New York, Billy Howell and Al Evans were playing trumpet.

We were doing a lot of recording in that time. I don't know what happened to all the recordings, but we were doing a lot of recordings. How that came about, I bought an Ampex in the pawn shop. I had a lot of experience, because in Chicago Sun Ra bought my first tape recorder, which was a Webcore -- and we used to record everything we did. So I got to learn how to place mikes and stuff like that. However, when I bought the Ampex, I just had enough to buy that, and I had no microphone. So I borrowed a microphone. The first recordings was with just one microphone hanging in the center of everybody, but then I got enough money and I had three microphones. All those records were with three microphones mostly.

TP: You did a good job.

HUNTER: Well, you know how you'd place them was, the bass player and Sun Ra would be on one mike, you'd put an omnidirectional mike on the floor, and you'd have the bass player standing there, and you could adjust the volume between the two of them by lowering the mike or bringing it up closer to the piano. So it would take me a couple of minutes to do that, and then have a mike for the horns . . . All the horns had to stand around the mike, so he had them sitting around one mike. Then the other mike was for whoever was singing.

TP: How much rehearsal was the band doing at this time? Was it the same sort of every-day, all-day thing he'd done in Chicago?

HUNTER: As soon as the place closed for business, which was around 9 o'clock. . .

TP: This was Choreographer's Workshop?

HUNTER: Yes. If it was Saturday or Sunday and there was no business, Sun Ra would bring the band, and we'd stay there all day. Sometimes we taped and sometimes we didn't tape. But he would stay there all day, then we'd have dinner and everything at my house. Maybe the band would leave, but Sun Ra would stay until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning before he went home.

TP: I know some band members who said they didn't ever know when he slept. He'd retire with a stack of covers, and in the morning all the covers would be completed.

HUNTER: Well, you know what happened? Sun Ra used to read a lot. Nobody would ever catch him reading. I caught him reading a couple of times.

TP: What was he reading?

HUNTER: He was reading different books. You very seldom found out what book he was reading, but he would read this book and he would mark it . . . I mean, you should see a book that he read. It would have everything underlined, or marked in red or marked in yellow.

TP: This is kind of an off-the-wall question. How would you compare the personalities of Walter Dyett and Sun Ra, given your limited acquaintance with Captain Dyett?

HUNTER: Well, Captain Dyett I only met that one time. He was a nice man. I didn't study with him. Just that one job I played, and I guess the reason I never called him back was because I didn't play Latin. But he told me that I was a good drummer and I had a lot of potential, but I had to learn to play Latin and learn to rhythms.

TP: What was John Gilmore's role when the band was rehearsing? Did he take a very assertive role? What was his position within the reed section?

HUNTER: Every day it was different. One day Sun Ra might single out Pat Patrick, and a whole day would be devoted to Pat and the arrangements, and Pat's place in that arrangement. The next day would be John Gilmore, or the next day it would be Ronnie Boykins. But it would never be me! [Laughs] I mean, he used to cuss me out. He was saying, "Listen, why do you want to be Max Roach? It's never going to do anything for you being Max Roach, because Max Roach already exists. You want to be something else. You want to do something else. You want to do something better. Well, you can't do it as long as you're doing Max Roach. I don't want you to play in my band! Go over there and sit down and listen."

C o m m e n t s

Tommy Hunter & Earl Ezell 1 of 6
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July 09, 03

Earl Ezell in this story , he still plays in Chicago . He played with Tommy Hunter in the late 1940s. Earl played w/ Sun Ra in early 1950s.

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