Vol. 1 no. 2
AW: I was reading the chapter about you in Mark Miller's book; he mentioned how you like to go off by yourself every once in a while...
WD: I don't advocate it for everybody, but it does me some good. I sit back, sometimes I don't even play, I just sit and reflect. Yeah sure, I change directions a little, but I mean, how can you really change directions when you can't get outside of yourself? I'm looking for other aural and visual stimuli.
My opportunities came from working for these people: Sidney Bechet, Bill Coleman, Sonny Stitt. Bill Coleman was Swing oriented, and Bechet New Orleans style. I was just starting out, I didn't want to do it, but somebody said, "Hey, stick around, you'll learn a lot of tunes. You don't always have to play the tunes like them." And so I did. I knew sort of what one hand did in that music, and I would go home and think about what to do with the other hand. You start slowly, first you learn to place the hands, and you play it slowly, and eventually you get the feel of it. Listen to Art Tatum. He doesn't hit all those notes all the time, but he sure hits a lot of them, and makes you forget about the ones he misses. Even Oscar, it's not easy to do.
I don't like sticking myself out without...I'll jump in somebody's pool, but I'm not going to try and swim the Atlantic! I think that not enough people challenge themselves. Why wait for someone else to challenge you? I'll jump out there and try something, and then how are you going to challenge me? I've tried it. Maybe tonight it worked, and so you definitely can't say anything. Or maybe it didn't work, in which case you still can't say very much because you didn't try it! It's kind of self-gratifying to try.
AW: Where do you think that came from?
WD: From my parents, my background. I don't do it because it has to be done, I do it because I want to do it at that moment. There are other times when I don't want to do it, and I won't.
I tell my students, "Birds fly. Now, we humans are not very aerodynamically designed, but I sincerely believe that with the right thought...if nuns and other serious religious people can levitate, then maybe I can fly from here to there. I just have to know when, and only I will know.
I have a mark, which stems from school. At Trinity, 80 was a pass. Now I see schools where 50 or 60 is a pass. I don't want those people as my doctor or dentist....My mark, therefore is 90. If I fall short of 90, 80 is not too shabby. That's just my own personal way of attaining. You can't really measure one person against another because we are all unique. There is no competition. Doing well is just for me, it's a selfish thing. I've taken steps over the years to build into my playing a certain level of performance. I really don't like to, but I've gone to work with chronic back problems, occasional migraines, and even broken glasses. If my playing is around a 75 or 80, that's OK, because I try to live up to a 90 when conditions are right. I won't go out and play below that level. If things aren't going well, you "play the book." You play short songs with set figures, and you stick to the arrangement. On a good night, you open up the chart. To the average audience member, I won't sound bad.
Look at it this way. If you've paid thirty-five dollars for a ticket to see a band, you go in the hall, can't drink, can't smoke, can't dance, and you see someone come out there in funky running shoes, blue jeans and a t-shirt, you just have to have a little more pride.
A suit to me isn't just for going to a formal occasion; it's for working, it's normal wear.
All these things have had some impact on me. You and I aren't getting on the bandstand without thinking about that.
AW: So when you were playing with Sidney Bechet and Bill Coleman, those were your early formative jazz years.
WD: My first jazz job was playing for a troupe of dancers, the Katherine Dunham thing, all original music. The guy who wrote the music tried to find a cross between Faure, Debussy, and Ravel with a little Art Tatum and Afro Cuban and Haitian rhythms. From there I remember being taken by a guy named Aaron Bridgers, who's still in Paris. He was a student of Pat Flowers who was a student of Fats Waller. This guy could play tenths and even twelfths! He was working at a bar in Paris, and so was Bobby Short. Bobby wanted to take a week off, so Aaron recommended me. I went in and spoke to Bobby and the manager, and he said OK, you can start for a week.
Meantime I practiced what little I could; I had a few Errol Garner records, and I learned those songs. I learned them just like Errol Garner played them; I knew about 10 or 11 songs. So I played them fast, and I played them medium, and I played them slow. I got through the first day, and the owner came up the second night after I started all over again, and said, "You haven't been playing very long, have you?"
"No, not really."
"I'll pay you for the week anyway, thanks but no thanks. When you get yourself together, come on back."
Then I went to the ringside, watching a whole bunch of piano players, and eventually someone mentioned that Sidney Bechet was looking for a piano player. I listened to him play, and I thought, I can do that. I stayed there for a while, and every once in a while I'd get to a jam session, and I'd see Rene Thomas, Fats Sadi, and Jean-Louis Viale.
Then I heard Bill Coleman was looking for a pianist. So I went with him, and I got to tour all around; we went to France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Spain. I came back from there and ran into Buck Clayton, who I had met in London through Mary Lou Williams, because I had studied with her. I had a lot of help; I happened to be at the right place at the right time. We went and did the Scandinavian countries; Dicky Wells, Buddy Banks, and Kansas Fields.
We started in the northern tip of Sweden; each and every town of 25,000 people and over! I mean all of Sweden! Then Denmark, Norway, and Finland.
I went and worked with Annie Ross, and lots of other gigs here and there.
When I came here, there were lots of places to work, but not too much jazz. I got a job working with Vernon Issacs at the Chanteclair. We were playing shows, but then in between we'd play what we like. He bought me a thing which strapped to the piano and supplied bass notes. That helped me get my left hand bass lines together.
I worked with Milt Jackson in France, and Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young.
AW: What was Django like?
WD: Very normal, nice guy. Life was different over there; the only thing the public didn't do was walk down the street in front of these guys and throw rose petals. They respected their privacy too. Sidney Bechet used to leave his car with a 24 karat gold brass ornament on the hood; nobody ever stole it. If anyone went near the car, somebody would say "unh unh," and they'd move away. People would sometimes go ape over American movie stars, but even they were respected. Sometimes you'd see them sitting along the Champs Elysee. They'd ask for your autograph at the stage door, or at the dressing room, and once you walked out of there, they'd treat you like everyone else. That I liked.