Interview with Mike LeDonne – September 2019
1) How would you describe the style of Jazz music you are bringing to Calgary?
Some people call it “Soul Jazz” but I don’t like that term because:
1. All jazz is “soul” jazz if it’s good and this includes the avant garde.
2. Soul Jazz implies a simpler style of jazz meant to appeal to the masses and that is not really true of the music we play.
3. What the Groover Quartet does is to play the highest level of music we can over tunes taken from R&B and pop hits that people today might recognize. But I swing them and restructure them so they’re good vehicles to play over. They are also tunes I grew up with by people like Earth Wind And Fire, The OJays, The Spinners, Stevie Wonder etc…Pop music has always borrowed from jazz music so I decided to borrow some pop music and turn it into jazz music. The solos of the musicians involved are not dumbed down to make us more popular. We play the same over these R&B tunes as we would over any other jazz tune. The difference is that a younger audience gets to hear a melody they may actually recognize and this brings them into the music. So all we’re doing is what jazz musicians have always done from the beginning, interpreting popular tunes of the day.
4. So to answer your question, we are playing straight up jazz music that swings, is soulful and fun to hear.
2) Who are some of your influences in this genre?
My first was the King, Jimmy Smith, back when I was 10 years old and just starting out. He remains one of my favorites to this day. Then I discovered Don Patterson and saw how Be Bop could be played on the organ. Melvin Rhyne was another big influence for the same reason. Jack McDuff was a major force in my life. I had always loved his playing and arrangements. I had stopped playing organ in my college years and one night, after I moved to New York, a friend of mine took me to one of Jack’s gigs in Harlem. It was at his urging that night that I bought another B3 and made the organ a priority again. Groove Holmes and Charles Earland really shaped my concept of playing the bass on the organ. Charles was also a major influence in taking pop tunes and swinging them. I learned about playing chord solos from Shirley Scott and Wild Bill Davis. They also showed me how to play organ when a bass player is playing. And of course Larry Young showed me how the language of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane could be translated to the organ. McCoy had already been a major influence for me on the piano. Last but not least, Dr. Lonnie Smith showed me all the incredible sounds that can come out of the Hammond Organ and how to switch from one to the other. I love everything about his playing.
3) How might you briefly describe your long-time bandmates, joining you for this tour? (ie. Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Joe Farnsworth)
They are my musical family. We’ve been together for 19 years now as the Groover Quartet but we were playing together long before that. Besides their role in the band they are simply some of the greatest masters of their respective instruments in the world. All leaders in their own right I am very lucky that they’ve stuck with me all these years. We are one of the few real bands you’ll hear in this day and age.
4) Might you have a few words about the impact that Harold Mabern had on you? (ed. note: Mabern recently performed at BuckingJam Palace in April 2019)
Unfortunately I just found out last night that Harold Mabern passed away. Devastating news since he was like family to me. His impact goes way beyond music but musically he was a huge inspiration. Harold’s energy could have powered the world and I loved being around him. He sparked both excitement and projected love to everyone around him when he played. He was one of the few musicians left on this planet that got me off my butt to go hear him everytime he was playing because I knew the electricity I love in music would be there. His music was all about rhythm and he showed me how to use both rhythm and harmony in new ways.
Mabes could rock the house like no one else but he could also play beautiful ballads. He knew a million tunes and could play in any key. He was a real master and pro but also a beautiful humble man. I want to be just like him when I grow up.
5) What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from the many masters of this music you’ve performed with?
The lessons I learned are plentiful. I was lucky to get to apprentice with a wide variety of masters. From Benny Goodman and Roy Eldridge through Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan, 11 years with Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Hutcherson and George Coleman to name a few. I’ve been with Benny Golson for 20 years now. Phil Woods called it “tribal music” meaning music you don’t learn in books. It is handed down from generation to generation by wrote. What I’ve learned is that Jazz is an art form that has many branches on its tree but the roots are based in the blues and in African American culture. I feel it is very important to maintain an African American aesthetic in the music for it to be truly called “jazz”. This is what people like Milt Jackson taught me. Not that you have to be African American to play it but that that basic aesthetic that comes from the blues be present. All the masters I played with had it. Milt Jackson was steeped in it. He called the blues progression “magic”. It had something in it that always lit up the audience no matter if they were jazz aficianados or new comers. He would often start the night with it and that is something I often do as well. That aesthetic is found mainly in the underlying rhythm of the artist. Everyone that learns this music gets obsessed with notes, and they are important, but I learned from these great masters that it’s the rhythm and the sound that is most important. And lastly I learned that no matter how I feel physically or mentally, when I hit the bandstand I give it my all. That’s because it takes everything I got, in every note I play and on every beat, to make the music pop and come alive. If you do that you’ve done all you can do and you can feel good about the performance. You’ve done your job.
6) What advice do you have for young, aspiring Jazz musicians?
Enjoy the journey and take your time. You’ll know the kind of jazz artists you truly like by who you listen to the most. But don’t stop with your current favorites. Go back and see who their favorites were and check them out too. Knowing lineage and history is a big part of what gives you substance and depth as an artist. Don’t skim either. Whatever you get into get ALL the way into it. Live it, absorb it and move on. Dizzy Gillespie once said if there’s something you heard and liked but you don’t understand it, figure it out! Keep growing because that’s the fun of this music. There’s always more to discover. Don’t worry about innovating and reinventing the wheel all the time. A good friend of mine used to always say: “Everybody today is trying so hard to be great they aren’t even good!” That’s the bottom line. Make playing good music your priority. Get your ego out of the way and serve the music. Keep your focus on giving and not receiving when you perform. Watch out for jealousy and envy because they are the enemy. It’s a challenging life but also an incredibly rewarding life.