Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Drummer Paul Motian A look back at Motian, who died last week at the age of 80, with highlights from a 2006 interview. Motian played with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett before becoming a bandleader himself.

Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Drummer Paul Motian

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Before we hear Terry's 2006 interview with Paul Motian, let's listen to a track from the album "Portrait in Jazz" by The Bill Evans Trio with Motian on drums. This is "Come Rain or Come Shine."



How important are drum solos to you?

PAUL MOTIAN: Not very important.

GROSS: Why not? Because so often for the drummer, like, that's the showpiece, and that's where they get to really, like...

MOTIAN: I'm not a showpiece drummer. I'm not a drum - I'm not - I don't know. I listened to an interview recently with Kenny Clarke, and he said the same thing that I feel. He wasn't into solos that much, either, and I'm not, either. I just, I feel like - I'm an accompanist.

It's my sort of thing to make the other people sound good, as good as they can be. I feel like I should accompany them, and I should accompany the sound that I am hearing and make it the best that I can - that I can do.

GROSS: Do you feel that you've sat through a lot of boring drum solos over the years?



MOTIAN: But, I mean, there were drummers that played great drum solos, Chick Webb, for instance, great drum solo. Buddy Rich played great drum solos. So did Gene Krupa. So did Shelly Manne. A lot of drummers play them, but I just don't - I don't know, I'm just not into it.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your CD, "Garden of Eden," and this is "Evidence," which is a Thelonious Monk composition. And before we hear it, I want to say you played with Monk very briefly early in your career.

MOTIAN: Yeah, I did, and also that track that you're going to play is going to be a drum solo, which I just said I don't like to do.


GROSS: Right, well...

MOTIAN: That's fine, that's great.

GROSS: This is the exception that proves the rule, isn't it?


MOTIAN: Yeah, OK. Yeah, I did play with Monk a little bit. I was lucky.

GROSS: So what if anything do you feel like you learned from playing with him?

MOTIAN: I learned how to listen because when I played with him, I really wasn't that familiar with the music, with his music. It was back in the - the first time was in the mid-'50s, and the reason I got to play with him was because I went to hear him play.

It was in a club in the Village here in New York. And the drummer was supposed to be Arthur Taylor. And he wasn't there, he didn't show up, and the promoter of the concert was a man named Bob Reisner who had seen me around town playing drums.

He said: Paul, Arthur Taylor didn't show up, man. If you want to go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk. So, I ran home, got my drums, came back and played with Monk that night. And Thelonious paid me $10. I was thrilled to death. But I didn't know the music that well, so I just, you know, just gritted my teeth and did the best I could.

The next time I played with him was in 1960 in Boston. I played for a week. But I really didn't know that music. So you said what did I learn, I learned - I learned how to really listen and try to do my best to keep the time, to not get lost, to do the best that I could and to really listen to the music and try to learn from it.

GROSS: Did he give you any advice?


GROSS: No suggestions of what he wanted from you?

MOTIAN: No, he didn't say much. One time I did say - we came off the stage after one of the songs, one of the sets, and I said to Thelonious, I said: Gee, you know, I'm sorry. I think maybe I might have - I might have rushed the tempo on one of those tunes.

He said to me: If I hit you upside your head you won't rush. So I paid attention to that.


MOTIAN: I was very careful after that. No, he didn't say much. But one time he did get up and dance when we were playing, so I thought that I did OK.

GROSS: Did he dance like in a - spinning around?

MOTIAN: Yeah, you know, like how you've - I'm sure you've seen him do that, or people have seen him do that. So that meant - yeah, to me that meant that the music was happening it, he was enjoying it, and I was doing OK. That made me feel good.

GROSS: OK, well, this is the Monk composition "Evidence" on Paul Motian's CD, which is called "Garden of Eden."


GROSS: That's drummer Paul Motian from his new CD "Garden of Eden," and that was Thelonious Monk's composition "Evidence." Let me ask you about your formative years. When you were young, I guess this is maybe when you were in your teens that you studied with Bill Gladstone, who was the Radio City Music Hall percussionist.

MOTIAN: Oh right, yeah.

GROSS: How old were you, teens?

MOTIAN: No, it was later.

GROSS: Twenties?

MOTIAN: Yeah, early 20s.

GROSS: So what - I read that he was famous, but what was he famous for? What was his thing?

MOTIAN: He had a system of playing where he used his fingers almost more or as much as he used his arms and his wrists and his hands. He could do amazing things, just hardly - I mean, if you watched him play, you'd think that he was hardly moving. He's just playing with his fingers, I mean, controlling the drumsticks with his fingers and playing incredible stuff like really strong, powerful strokes.

I mean, he was something else. He had that system. He had developed it. I mean, it was pretty hard for others to adapt to that system. Shelly Manne studied with him, too. He was sort of a - I think he kind of copped that style somehow.

But it was hard. I mean, the principle was, like, if you were bouncing a ball, the closer you get to the floor with the ball the less you're moving your hand. And that was the principle of his thing, with using his fingers.

GROSS: So did you learn how to do that?

MOTIAN: I tried.


MOTIAN: But I never could do it as well as he.

GROSS: Now, did he play it like a show-biz type of drumming?

MOTIAN: Sure. I mean, he was the drummer at the Radio City Music Hall for, I don't know, lots of years, maybe 10, 15, 20 years or so. And I heard that people used to go just to watch him. He was so amazing.

DAVIES: Paul Motian, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with jazz drummer Paul Motian, who died last week at the age of 80. Their conversation was recorded in 2006.

GROSS: Pretty early in your career, you played with the pianist Bill Evans, I think, and you played with him in various groups and in various settings. How did you first meet him?

MOTIAN: I met Bill, I guess it was pretty soon after I got out of the service, the military service. He was in the Army around the same time that I was in the Navy, and I guess it was around mid-'50s. And I used to go to the union hall here in New York looking for a gig, looking for just, you know, to hear what's going on, if there were any gigs around, any jobs, I'm looking to work.

And I overheard someone say that clarinet player Jerry Wald was having auditions, and he was putting a band together to take on tour. So I found out where it was, and I went to the audition, and there was Bill Evans, who also went to the audition.

And I heard him play, and I really liked what I was hearing, and I got to audition. Bill got to audition, and we both got the gig, and that's how I met him. That was the first time I met him. We got the gig, and we went on tour with Jerry Wald.

GROSS: So after meeting Evans at an audition and playing with him in various settings, you and Evans and the now late bass player Scott LaFaro had a trio that became quite famous and quite important.

It was a band that was, like, very kind of quiet and subtle and famous for having three musicians play as equals, for having a lot of interplay between them that wasn't just a pianist with two accompanists. Was that something that you actually talked about? Did you talk about having that approach, of having a trio of equals because that's how it was seen?

MOTIAN: Yeah. No, it's true. I mean, that's what happened. I mean, we didn't talk about it, but that's what the result was, of us playing like that. And nobody played like that before. I think we were probably the first or one of the first groups to do something like that.

Before that, it was always like the, you know, the pianist with bass and drum accompaniment. And that just happened that way. I think it was because of the three of us, the three individual players who played the way that we played, and when we played, that was the result. That's what happened. We didn't talk about it that much, we really didn't.

GROSS: Because the band was quiet and subtle and played a lot of ballads, did it limit what you could play as the drummer?

MOTIAN: I never thought of it as a quiet setting. I mean, maybe that's the way people conceive it now and listen to it, but...

GROSS: Well, there's so many ballads, like on the Vanguard sessions. There's so many ballads on it that, you know...

MOTIAN: That's true. That's true. Someone told me recently that the record company - I don't know what record company by now - but all that stuff from the Vanguard was released in a box set exactly the way we played it, with all the outtakes, and there's even one take where we stop playing, and you hear people talking and all that. I wonder what's on that. I've never heard it.

GROSS: I have it right in front of me.


MOTIAN: So I mean, are there all ballads in that or mostly ballads and slow things?

GROSS: Well, it's a mix of things, but there's a lot of ballads on it, "My Man's Gone Now," "Detour Ahead," "My Foolish Heart," "Some Other Time."

MOTIAN: OK. Right. OK.

GROSS: So yeah, so on the liner notes to that box set that was recently reissued of the Village Vanguard recordings from 1961 with you, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, the producer of the session, Orrin Keepnews writes the liner notes.

And he describes Bill Evans as having had low self-esteem. Did you think of him that way? And he seems to think it affected his approach to recording and his discomfort in actually, like, arranging a recording date. And Keepnews says one of the reasons why he wanted to record live - one of the reasons why Keepnews wanted to record live at the Vanguard is that, you know, Evans seemed uncomfortable about recording, and this would be a way of just kind of getting it done without scheduling a separate recording date and of making him comfortable.

MOTIAN: It's kind of true because - well first of all, Bill was really particular about any recording. If it wasn't - if the result wasn't topnotch, if the result wasn't really great and satisfying for him, he wouldn't want to put it out. He wouldn't want to release it.

I'm sure that he would be against a lot of this stuff that is being released now: second takes, outtakes and all that stuff. And he did sometimes think of himself as not really playing great.

I remember one time we were playing at the Vanguard, and we were playing something, and it was really good, and it was moving along, and it was great, and all of a sudden it seemed like it took a nosedive, like he just didn't feel like playing anymore or something.

And after the set, I asked him what happened. I said: man, what's - how come that happened during that tune, like it just kind of stopped? You didn't stop playing, but it seemed like you weren't into it anymore.

He said: Oh, I heard some people laughing at the bar, and he said I thought they were laughing at me. And another time he said to me: Gee, I don't know if what I'm doing is real. He says: Sometimes I think I'm a phony.


MOTIAN: So he did say things like that, which would make you think that he had low self-esteem. But, you know, that was really early on, and I don't know what - I didn't play with him after like the mid-'60s. I don't know what he was like after that.

DAVIES: Drummer Paul Motian speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. Motian died last week at the age of 80. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with the great jazz drummer Paul Motian, who died last week at the age of 80. When we left off, they were talking about Motian's work with the Bill Evans Trio, which also included bass player Scott LaFaro. Motian was with the trio from 1959 to 1964.

GROSS: At least during part of the time that you played with him, Evans was addicted to heroin. Did that complicate your personal and musical relationship?

MOTIAN: Yeah. I quit.


GROSS: Because of that?

MOTIAN: I quit playing with him. I couldn't - I didn't - I couldn't stand seeing him destroying himself and the music. It wasn't like that in the beginning. And I quit. I left him in California. I would - I'd kill anybody that would do that to me. But...


GROSS: That would do what do you?

MOTIAN: Leave me in the middle of a tour, just quit and go home. That's what I did.

GROSS: Was there something that was the last straw?

MOTIAN: The music was going downhill. I was - you were saying before about soft and all of that. I mean, the music was getting like that. I was playing with brushes, and it just seemed like I couldn't play soft enough. It was just - I felt like I was playing on a pillow or something.


MOTIAN: The music was just - I mean, it just wasn't happening for me, man. I said Bill, man, it's not happening. I have to go home. I can't do this anymore.

GROSS: And did he...

MOTIAN: And he begged me to stay, you know, because, I mean, he had a tour to do. He had - and I think he went to Europe for the first time after that. And I just, I left, man. I paid my own way. I went home.

GROSS: Well, let me play something that you recorded with Evans and Scott LaFaro.

MOTIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: This is from those Village Vanguard sessions from the recent box set that was released. And I thought we'd hear "My Foolish Heart."

MOTIAN: Take one, I hope.


GROSS: This is the take that was released.



GROSS: Do you want to say anything about this before we hear it?

MOTIAN: No. Go ahead and play it.

GROSS: Okay. Here it is.


GROSS: "My Foolish Heart," recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1961. Bill Evans at the piano, Scott LaFaro, bass and my guest Paul Motian on drums.

MOTIAN: You know, you talk about the Village Vanguard recordings with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro a lot. I prefer - everyone says that's great, and those are great. But the first record that Bill and I did with Scott was something called "Jazz Portraits." I really liked that. I think I prefer that to the Vanguard record, and that was a studio recording. It wasn't a live recording.

GROSS: What's your favorite track from that?

MOTIAN: I like "Witchcraft." I also like "Come Rain or Come Shine." And I guess one of the reasons why I really like it and I thought it was really well done was because we'd just finished playing for - I think it was for two weeks at a club called the Showplace in Greenwich Village. And we did that, and we did that recording right after that. So we had been playing together for quite a while, and then we went into the studio to do that recording. "Autumn Leaves" is on there. That's a great record.

GROSS: Then why don't we hear a track from that record?


GROSS: Okay. So this is Bill Evans at the piano, Scott LaFaro, bass and my guest Paul Motian on drums.


GROSS: That's "Witchcraft" with Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and on drums, my guest Paul Motian. And Paul Motian has a new CD, which is called "Garden of Eden."

When you played with Evans and when he was addicted to heroin, I can see how you would be - and anyone close to him - would be in a really awkward spot. I mean, there were probably times when he was really strung out and felt that he couldn't play without getting a fix. And so that puts you in the position: Are you going to help him get it? Are you going to give him money he might need, or help drive him to his connection or whatever? And if you do - the word enabler didn't exist then, but I'm sure the idea did. I mean, it just strikes me you must be in a really awkward spot of either watching him being unable to play or helping him do something that you knew was bad for him so that he could play.

MOTIAN: No, I never did that. I never thought about helping him get high. Never.

GROSS: You mean that would've been out of the question?

MOTIAN: I was never - well, first of all, I was never asked, and if I was, I probably would say no...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MOTIAN: ...go (bleep) yourself.


MOTIAN: But there was one time when we were playing in Washington, D.C., and the bass player at the time was Jimmy Garrison. And we were supposed to play for two weeks, and I think we ended up playing only one night, or only two nights. And one night in particular, we were on the stage, and Jimmy and I were waiting for Bill to start playing. And Bill was just sitting at the piano. He wasn't playing. And he - all of a sudden, he stood up, and he went to the - walked to the front of the stage to the microphone. The place was packed. It was full of people. And Bill said - made an announcement to the people, and he said, you know, I don't feel like playing right now. It's just - can you understand that? And they all applauded. And they were all for him. And we walked off the stage.

And I believe the reason for that was that Bill didn't have the drugs he wanted to have. And at the end - and then Jimmy and I said, well, what's happening, man? What's going on? And he said, well, he said I want to go to back to New York. And we said, well, man, we're supposed to play here for two weeks. And Bill said I don't care. I just want to go back to New York. And finally we - after talking to him about it and arguing back and forth, we finally got him to stay and to finish the week. So we finished the one week, and then we quit and went back to New York. But that was one instance where he didn't feel like playing because of that, because of not having drugs. But I would never have thought about, well, I'm going to go get him some drugs so he'll play. No way I'm going to do that. That's his life, and he can do it - do what he wants with it.

GROSS: You know, you said that the audience applauded when he said he didn't feel like playing.

MOTIAN: Yeah, they did.

GROSS: Do you think that the audience saw it not as a sign that he needed a fix, but rather as a sign of his, like, authenticity, that he played so much from the heart that...

MOTIAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...if he wasn't feeling that impulse and it just wasn't going to, like, measure up to his standard, and so he wouldn't play at all.

MOTIAN: Well, I think it was more like that than about his habit.

GROSS: Oh, okay.

MOTIAN: I don't think they knew about his habit, or if they thought about that at all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So do you think it was both for him? That it was partly this, like, need to feel the music in a way directly from the heart, but also that he needed a fix?

MOTIAN: Probably. Probably. I mean, I don't know for sure. There's no way to know for sure.

DAVIES: Paul Motian, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with jazz drummer Paul Motian, who died last week at the age of 80. Her conversation was recorded in 2006.

GROSS: Later on, you started playing with the pianist Keith Jarrett.

MOTIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you played with him for nearly 10 years?

MOTIAN: I think so, yeah.

GROSS: And...

MOTIAN: Yeah, I met Keith, gee, it must've been - I think it was in the late '60s, and I stayed with him till around 1976.

GROSS: Now, you ended up buying his piano...

MOTIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and then you started taking piano and composition lessons.


GROSS: So...

MOTIAN: Where do you find out all this stuff?


GROSS: I was just reading up on you.

MOTIAN: That's amazing. Wow. Yeah, okay. Go ahead.

GROSS: So this was, I guess, in the early '70s. What made you want to head in that direction, of, like, learning piano and composition?

MOTIAN: Well, ECM offered me a record date, and so I thought that I should write some music and learn how to compose and to write music and put a band together and do all those things. And I wanted to study the piano so I could be familiar with the piano, so it would help me with composition. That's what happened.

GROSS: Did it help you conceptualize music once you learned more about the keyboard, which is such a great visual...


GROSS: Of all the instruments, it's like the clearest visual representation of melody and harmony.

MOTIAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So was that helpful for you in thinking about writing?

MOTIAN: Sure. Yeah. I think - I love the piano. I think it's my favorite instrument. And I don't - I don't consider myself a pianist. I'm not really good at it. But by taking the lessons and learning a little bit, it really helped me.

GROSS: Why don't we hear something you recorded with Jarrett in 1972. And I think this was one of your first compositions, "Conception Vessel."

MOTIAN: True. Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?

MOTIAN: Well, the title came from acupuncture.

GROSS: Oh, really?


GROSS: What's the connection?

MOTIAN: Yeah. Well, the conception vessel is - it runs from the top of your head down to between your legs. That's the vessel.

GROSS: Is it like an energy path in the body or something?

MOTIAN: Yeah. Right. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Okay. Well, why don't we hear "Conception Vessel," Paul Motian's composition, recorded with pianist Keith Jarrett in 1972.


GROSS: Paul Motian and Keith Jarrett recorded in 1972. And, by the way, that track is featured on a fairly recent CD on ECM called "Paul Motian: Selected Recordings," and it's a collection of his favorite ECM recordings that he appears on. As you look back on your career to date, is there any particular moment that you're particularly proud of?

MOTIAN: Well, I'm proud of a lot of the music I made with Bill Evans, and also some music with Keith Jarrett. There were some great moments there. And I'm proud of the fact that I'm able to still be around and be able to write music and get better at what I'm doing.

And I feel like I'm still learning. Sometimes I feel like I'm still learning. I mean, I learn stuff - one day, I was playing with some French musicians in Paris, and we were playing a ballad. And I started to think about what I was doing. And I realized that I was playing three different tempos on the drums against another tempo that was totally different that the other musicians were playing.

When I realized I was doing that, and I tried to figure it out, and as soon as I thought about it, it started to fall apart. So I stopped thinking about it and continued on. And that was amazing.

GROSS: Is that the way you have to work, to, like, not think too hard about anything?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I think so.

GROSS: Yeah.

MOTIAN: Yeah. Just, I guess - I mean, at this point, I mean, I've been playing so long, I just - I feel like I can just let it happen and do whatever I want and everything will turn out okay.

GROSS: Well, one more thing. So how have you managed living in a Manhattan apartment all these years - how have you managed to practice drums?

MOTIAN: Oh, you know, I don't practice drums in there so much now, but I used to have rehearsals up there with Keith Jarrett. We used to rehearse there. And when I was first putting bands together, I rehearsed there and I played. And one time after playing, I was playing and practicing, and I got in the elevator, and it was this huge woman in the elevator.

She must've been about seven feet tall and weighed about 300 pounds. She looked at me and she said, is that you playing them drums? And I said, oh, man, she's going to beat me up. And I said, yeah, I'm sorry, you know. She says, oh, well, keep it up. I like it. I like it.


MOTIAN: So that's how that went. I never had any complaints about playing drums in there.

GROSS: Well, thanks so much for talking with us.

MOTIAN: Okay. You're welcome.

DAVIES: Paul Motian speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. Motian died last week at the age of 80. Here's another recording. This is Paul Motian and the EBB, "Holiday for Strings."


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