Supreme Skill and Humility
By Gary Gomes
Reggie wouldn't remember me, but we met when I was in an Afro-American music appreciation course when I was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in the spring of 1974. It was a tremendous time to be on that campus for any fan of creative music. I had just "discovered" avant garde jazz or "the new thing" as it was called in the summer of 1971, when I saw the Ornette Coleman Quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell close out a Saturday afternoon show at the Newport Jazz Festival. Entranced and energized, my friends and I watched in amazement as Ornette took bold stabs at the violin and trumpet, Charlie Haden used a bow and wah wah pedal on an acoustic bass, Dewey Redman pulled massive sound out of his tenor and Ed Blackwell danced with his sticks on the drums. My friends and I, as fledgling musicians, had started checking out jazz earlier after reading about some of the influences of Frank Zappa (check out the inside cover of Freak Out for an outstanding reference list), the Nice, Spirit, Soft Machine and other jazz-inspired bands and my drummer friend had picked up some Elvin Jones and while I had picked up some Coltrane (more on this later), Wayne Shorter and John Handy--but Ornette provided a new world of reference.
As I enter my sophomore year at UMass, I am pumped up to see more daring musicians. Gary Burton and Dizzy Gillespie had shown up my freshman year, but as much as I loved Diz, I fell asleep during the concert (I was studying pretty hard my freshman year--don't laugh, it was true and I had the cumulative point average to prove it), but by the time I made it to sophomore year, I wanted more. So, at the start of my sophomore year, I start a band with two guys I met at Newport (the Coleman concert was the day before the fences were broken down when Dionne Warwick was singing and they cancelled the rest of the festival, ruining my chances to see the classic Soft Machine quartet live, and essentially kicking adventurous jazz out of Newport forever), one of whom was the esteemed Enrique Jardines, bassist for Absolute Zero, of whom I have written much. I had also run for Student Senate and get elected on the promise to bring live rock music to UMass again (it had been banned the previous year because of a bizarre concert incidents, the details of which I shan't reveal here). So most of my sophomore year was engaged in the band, the concert committee, a girl friend, and other distractions that got me in a heap of trouble with the administration, because I was pumped up, truth be told. However, a group of us did get live concerts back at UMass (Fleetwood Mac-three guitarists edition- headlining).
But while all this was going on, I was astonished to find that Archie Shepp was visiting my campus. I saw him speak, saw him play, and the following year, in 1972, he came on board as faculty, with Max Roach, the legendary drummer, and Reggie Workman. In another legendary moment, both Sun Ra and Sam Rivers came to UMass to play in 1973 and almost the entire AACM of Chicago--minus the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble--played there in 1974.
After Reggie Workman was placed on the University of Massachusetts faculty in 1973, a marvelous appreciation of his craft developed on my part (I know it was a big lead-in, but you're here now, and aren't you happy to have finally arrived?).
Reggie was perhaps most widely known for his time with John Coltrane. He was a member of Coltrane's group and can be heard most frequently on Coltrane's recording of the Coltrane classic "India" in which he sets up a tambura-like drone with fellow bassist Jimmy Garrison. There are rumors that Workman could have become the permanent bassist for Coltrane were it not for the unfortunate prospect of the military draft looming in his face during the Vietnam conflict. Shortly before Garrison played with Coltrane, he played for Coleman and, according to Coleman in A.B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives, he grew frustrated playing with Coleman, subsequently leaving for Coltrane. One can understand why; at least with Coltrane. At that time, Coltrane was involved with modal improvisation which rendered a key center. Coleman often took keys as suggestions, so the sound was not as grounded in familiar territory as Coltrane's was. Eventually, Coltrane moved to more extreme territory than Coleman (check out Meditations, which was cathartic). But Coleman had established his playing style. Compare Coltrane perhaps to Schoenberg who started using Brahms and Wagner as springboards, but who evolved into atonal, then serial music. Now imagine Coleman or Cecil Taylor as being metaphors for Varese or Ruggles--two composers who chose a sound from the beginning, but would not change their approach significantly. They started at an extreme level and added references that deepened, but did not radically change their language. Now imagine an individual who can work with all of these idioms, and also function well in a traditional environment, and you have individuals like the late Eric Dolphy and... Reggie Workman (I know comparisons of this type are dicey at best, and are not meant to compare classical and jazz players in any way, except in terms of broad stylistic approaches).
Workman is an interesting figure in the history of the acoustic bass. He is, first of all, a consummate technician. I can recall visiting him in the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts, which was a charming old building which served as a music library and rehearsal space. He was practicing Bach pieces on the acoustic bass. So, he was grounded in many different musical forms and is always curious about new ones. His knowledge of the African-American music tradition is awe-inspiring. I can attest to that as a student in his class when, 30 years before Ken Burns' Jazz, he broke down the legacy of jazz for serious students in a college classroom, not only as a student in jazz history, but as a participant, having recorded with Art Blakey, Gigi Gryce, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, among others. He not only had respect for Ellington and Armstrong, but also Coleman, Taylor and Sun Ra. Not to discount Wynton Marsalis' knowledge, but Workman should have been the creative consultant for Ken Burns' Jazz--at least the last fifty years of jazz history would have been treated with some respect, rather than the dismissive summary Burns documentary presented.
Workman, in 1974, already had a legacy under which he could have retired. A muscular bassist with a full, but gruff tone--more virtuosic than Jimmy Garrison, less extroverted than Cecil McBee, not as resonating as Charlie Haden, but very forceful and pushing--Workman ranges from funk to freedom with ease, a chameleon with a recognizable face.
Workman had started his musical studies by playing piano, then progressed toward the double bass later. His early friendships included trumpeter Lee Morgan, who he reported in an All About Jazz interview, had a huge record collection, and he went on to record as a member of groups led by Gigi Gryce, super drummer Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter and Red Garland, finally hitting the point for which he has the most fame, replacing Steve Davis in John Coltrane's Quartet. Despite taking part in some landmark recordings (Coltrane's composition "India", reportedly influenced quite a few ‘60's rockers-Roger McGuinn of the Byrds reports that the group played that recording repeatedly in the months prior to recording "Eight Miles High," for one example), family obligations, mainly his father's illness and subsequent death, caused him to leave the quartet. There, he was replaced by Jimmy Garrison, in what was the best known incarnation of Coltrane's quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums.
After fulfilling his family responsibilities, Mr. Workman returned to the jazz world, and enjoyed a career that spanned working with such legends as Art Blakey (an incredibly underrated drummer and composer); Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, James Moody, Archie Shepp (he was on Shepp's classic Impulse recording, Four for Trane), David Murray, Thelonious Monk and many other players across the spectrum of creative black music. He has also played with legendary iconoclast and genius Cecil Taylor.
Mr. Workman also devoted a significant part of his life to teaching at the university level--many, many years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, time served at Bennington College, the University of Michigan, and full associate professor at New York's New School for music. He has also been involved in music education in a community setting, helping to found the Collective Black Artists. He is also currently the co-director of the Montclair Academy and serves as founder of the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival, an artist-driven festival of futuristic music and concepts held every Sunday in February in New York.
While involved in academia, Professor Workman in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's was performing with a wide variety of challenging performers, including Max Roach, Art Farmer, Mal Waldron, David Murray, Sam Rivers, and Andrew Hill, and also began leading his own group, the Reggie Workman Ensemble. He also started collaborating with pianist Marilyn Crispell that lasted into the 1990's and resulted in a reunion in 2000. Workman also worked (and is working) with Trio Three with Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille as well as Reggie Workman's Grooveship and Extravaganza.
The single most fascinating aspect of Workman's career is his ability to work with mainstream and avant artists. Even the more conservative performers with whom Workman has worked with (Waldron, king of the minimalist tension-building piano improvisation and Andrew Hill, one of the most innovative post-Monk composers and pianists, but whose compositions still show a recognizable swing and structure) show a fierce individuality and personal vision that elude many contemporary classicists. Workman has shown a willingness to play only with artists of uncompromising integrity--a rare quality, but one which a musician of Workman's range and technical skills can command.
Trio 3 (Oliver Lake- alto sax / Reggie Workman - bass / Andrew Cyrille -dms)Professor Workman once made the comment that, as one travels along his or her path, in accord with Hindu philosophy, that as one moves further and further along the path, one has fewer and fewer associates. It seems that, contrary to the dictum, with time, the bassist's associations have expanded, not contracted, and he is reaching more people than ever.
Mal Waldron quintet with Reggie Workman- Ed Blackwell
He was named a Living Legend by African-Amercian Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia and is also a recipient of the Eubie Blake award and has been suggested as a 2014 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award. Seems like the vitality, care and compassion, as well as his attention to his craft, are still in full focus, well after the nearly forty years after I first encountered this legend of music. His contributions to the music we sometimes call jazz have been legion, and his influence, as a performer, composer, leader, and educator, shall endure.
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