Interview: Greg Bandy

The Jazz Brew Fundraising Concert Series, presented by and benefiting the SEMM Foundation and Jazz 98.5 FM, WSAX-LP, is celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month with a special Homegrown concert. On Saturday, April 28th at 7pm, the Jazz Brew Series presents Greg Bandy & the Jazz Alliance featuring Greg Bandy on drums, Josh Hindmarsh on guitar and Jon Eshelman on piano, along with a set from Urban Contemporary jazz group Copacetic, in the Walter Armes Learning Center Auditorium at Whitehall Yearling High School. Tickets and more details are available here. Also, visit the 98.5 website for details on how to receive a Radio Underwriting Package with your ticket purchase! Cleveland native Bandy has had a long and distinguished career since being discovered by Charles Mingus at the age of 20. He has played with countless prominent jazz artists over the last thirty-plus years and his 1997 debut CD “Lightning in a Bottle” earned two Grammy nominations. Bandy moved to Columbus in early 2017 to spend time with his sister and their 100 year-old mother. He was kind enough to have a phone conversation with me last week about Saturday’s show, his career, and his current plans – keep reading to learn more and check out a recent documentary.

On the 28th, you’ll be playing with your Jazz Alliance band, with Josh Hindmarsh on guitar and Jon Eshelman on keys, correct?

Greg Bandy (GB): Yes, we’re playing together. I remember when I got here, and out of all the cats I’ve seen, heard and dealt with, [Hindmarsh and Eshelman] have been working with me regularly. It’s going well. The music sorta takes care of itself. I don’t have to go through no bullshit, no politics, no nothing. They’re just two really good people to me, and they sound really, really good. They’ve been sticking with me since I got here, so, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What can we expect for the Alliance’s set at the show?

GB: I’m a creative artist, I don’t plan “canned” music. I might come in the room and have a different feeling than what I said I would. I’m very partial though to opening up, under any circumstances, with a blues. People around here don’t like the blues as much as they think they should. I don’t know what they think they call the blues. I like to do a good blues just to set in the band, set in with the sound system and all that kind of stuff. The blues works with every idiom of music. But I’m from the old school with Duke Ellington: “There’s two kinds of music: Good and bad.” All of the different [styles], “electric rock”… Man, it’s either good or bad, I don’t care what it is. If it’s a polka, “yakatakatakadicadeedah” – Give it to me right! [Laughs] Don’t come with all them categories.

I’d like to know a little more of your story. How did you get started with jazz?

GB: My father was a promoter when I was a kid. I started playing music when I was seven. By the time I was eleven, I was making gigs. My old man had a personal organization of his own, and he promoted jazz. He took me to see everybody – Everybody he took me to see as a kid I ended up playing with [laughs], if they didn’t die. I don’t know nothing but music. Don’t ask me to [work at] McDonald’s – you’ll be back because I messed up your order, I forgot to put the extra pickle or something. But give me some music and I know what to do!

How did Charles Mingus discover you?

GB: The first week I went to New York, I had a group called Black on Black. Roy Ayers got me and the group to New York, you know? As soon as I got there, some people that I knew that I was staying with – Dennis Davis, he’s passed now but you’ve heard his name with David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, he’s done tons of stuff before he passed away just about a year ago. He had a gig, but he didn’t want to do it, because he lived in New York – he wasn’t brand new to town, he grew up there. So he gave me and the band a gig that he had that he really didn’t want to be bothered with. And, the funnier thing about it, it was a place called Rafiki’s in those days, down on Avenue A and 87th Street, which was exactly one block from Charlie Mingus’ apartment. [Mingus] was coming home from a gig and stopped in Rafiki’s to have a nightcap. And here we were with our little young, green asses from Cleveland. [Laughs] And he starts checking us out. On the break, I went to him because I knew exactly who he was, just by sight – I had never met him. I told him what was happening, and he said “[Who are] you young cats?” I said, “We just moved here, three days [ago].” He said, “Look, you cats ain’t bad. I tell you what – you know where the Vanguard is yet?” And of course I had seen it, been past it, been in it, all of that because I went before the group to set stuff up. He told me he didn’t have a lot of money but he’d pay me out of his pocket to bring the group over to the Vanguard where he was the Monday night star in them days. The Monday night big band [there] was Charlie Mingus in the early 70’s. He said he’d pay us out of his pocket and all we had to do was come up on his intermission and play the break. And man, people loved it. At that time, we was young – I was 20, 21 – and the band sounded like an imitation of the Jazz Crusaders. [Laughs] You dig? It just happened. Charlie called us up onstage at the famous Vanguard and we hadn’t even been there a week. It was just fate, man. He let us play and gave us the little chump change he said he could afford and we was happy. But it went good, man. Later on I played with a lot of cats that was in Charlie’s band – Don Pullen, George Adams and all of them.

You know, that’s how New York does. You go in there and it seems, no matter where you come from, that everybody give you a grace period of “You new in town.” After that, you gotta earn your stripes to keep getting calls. They’d say, “Now we’ve seen your little debut, but can you kick something else off?” [Laughs] It goes like that and then you have to build for real. And the way it ended up man, the group I had, after a few months the novelty wore off, and stuff started slowing down and being real, they all packed up one morning and told me they was going back. [Laughs] I waved goodbye. I stayed there 46 years. But I’m like this now: New York, I can get off the plane, bus, subway, anything, out of a cab – and if I ain’t working, somebody will recognize me, if I’m in a musical setting somewhere. Here’s where it’s hard for me to gig. I’m serious! I can count the number of damn gigs I’ve had since January of last year on my two hands. [Laughs] Whereas, I can get off at Port Authority on the bus ride from Columbus and see 47 people before I can catch a cab. But I’m gonna be right here, man. I’m doing what I need to be doing for my family and I’m enjoying it. And I don’t need New York! New York loves me. Now I’m playing the game with them – what’s that old saying? “You never miss the water till the well runs dry” or whatever? Now that I’m outta sight, they miss me, you know? When they see me everyday, on the subway or whatever, it has a different effect now that they don’t see me all the time, I just come and go in periods. I setup the periods ahead of time so when I get there, I’m hittin’. I’m not just “there,” I’m not on vacation. I’m on vacation for damn near a year here!

You’ve worked with and paid tribute to Art Blakey, correct? He was a mentor of yours?

GB: Oh yeah, I learned a ton from Art. Matter of fact, I did a thing in the Tri-C Jazz Festival [in Cleveland] some years back. I had a tribute to Art Blakey show which was one of the biggest shows of the entire festival. I had all of these Jazz Messengers and me! I had a video backdrop, it was well put-together. It was one of the best gigs I was ever allowed to do and I loved it. I had all of the heavies I could get from the Messengers. I had John Hicks, Curtis Lundy on bass, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wallace Roney on trumpet. Eddie Henderson was gonna do it, but at the last minute he got called for a tour with [Herbie] Hancock, so I got Wallace Roney to sub. Gary Bartz, me and Bartz played a lot over the years together. You know, gotta just let it happen, man. Just let things happen. Sometimes, when you prepare ahead of time, it dissolves, to me. Too much preparation ahead of time on what you gonna do in the future makes the music stale. I like to come in and feel the room. You might come in and feel some EXCITEMENT and want to hit something, “POW!” Or you might come into the room and ain’t nobody there but you and the band and you wanna do a ballad. You know what I mean? So I play what I feel. I’m a creative kind of artist. Premeditated – that don’t work for me. It works if it got to, to make money, but I’d rather feel it out.

I have to ask – How did you become the “Mayor of Harlem?”

GB: Oh man, I had many different locations in Harlem over the years. When I wasn’t living in Harlem, I was hanging in Harlem. They even painted a mural of my face on a wall on 145th up until a couple years ago. It was done by an artist that’s a friend of mine and got the proposal approved. They took a wall from a building and did a picture of me with my cigarette hanging out of my mouth – that’s when I was still smoking cigarettes and all of that. But it said, “The Mayor of Harlem.” Then the neighborhood changed. Harlem ain’t Harlem no more, shit. [Laughs] It’s changed its style, let’s put it like that. But everywhere I go, I try to take my feelings with me, my energy with me and whatever I need. Take it with me, instead of going somewhere and depending on something to be there. Be flexible! So that’s what I’m hoping do on the 28th. Plus, I really enjoy working alongside you and Ron [Johnson, of 98.5 FM] – this is a treat for me. Somebody’s trying to help me! I’m trying not to embarrass you. [Laughs]

Are there any projects you’re currently working on?

GB: Put it this way – I’m really working on trying to produce some shows on my own, because that way I can step up my tempo. So I don’t always have to wait for a call. I’m really trying to put a piece of paper together and produce with it. I could bring Harlem here! [Laughs] That’s what I’m talking about. I’m even talking to some people between Harlem and Brooklyn about a couple of projects. Like maybe a bus tour, where we’ll start up there and bring them down here, and set ’em up in the hotel, have a musical presentation planned for a couple days, you know? And down here, a lot of stuff we have here they don’t have available that much in New York. Shopping centers and all of that. Ohio State, matter of fact. …I’m trying to tie in there. It’s the world here. If you ain’t hooked into Ohio State, you’re dead! It’s either be a Buckeye or die, there’s no in between! [Laughs] So that’s what I’m trying to do, put in this situation.

I’ll tell you like this – I had enough of New York. And I’ve played with everybody under the sun, in every place, and everything, and there’s nothing for me to get what I need up there. But at the same time, it’s a challenge for me, where I can do so much stuff in the last 60 years or less, and then get here and count the number of jobs [he’s gotten] in the last year and three months. Something’s wrong with this picture. I’ve played all over the world with the greatest musicians in the world, and now I get down here and I got to promote my own band, and pay the band out my pocket. Man, that’s bullshit. I’m sorry if you’re mad that I went to New York and paid my dues but that’s what you oughta do yourself, try it yourself. Instead of being the big fish in the pond, be a shark in the ocean! I’m trying to win, not lose. And if you can do 46 years successfully in New York City, there’s no reason you can’t do a year or so in Columbus. And like I said, I’m here for my mom and sister, it’s family. I’ve been [around] long enough and done enough stuff to take advantage of [time with] the family, what’s left.

So I’m happy, I’m just trying to build it up. I’m trying to make it more successful and exciting around here, I think I can be helpful. I’m looking forward to keep working around here, as much as I can. I’m really trying to establish myself here more than I am traipsing back and forth. I’m tired of all that traveling, it’s a headache going to the airport! And it’s a long ride from here on the bus. So you know, I can do it right here! I don’t see why not.

Check out a documentary to learn more about Bandy:

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