Vol. 1 no. 2
AW: What year would you have arrived here?
WD: 1955 or '56. I went to Toronto in 1958. My first big job there was working with Johnny Griffin. What a challenge; I've never heard anyone play so fast, and all night long. We went through four bass players and three drummers in one week. The best I could do to comp was play one chord in four, sometimes one chord every two bars. I made five nights, and the last night my fingers just seized up. The club was packed. The second week, I did two nights, and gave two nights away, and did the next two. Same with the bass players and drummers! He'd open up the first song with a burning tempo and take long solos. It was an experience.
AW: When you worked with those guys, would they tell you stuff?
WD: Oh, yeah. It was like a music lesson between sets. In Toronto at that time, the nights would end early, and almost all of them could 'comp' on piano. People would filter out by 11:30 or 12:00. So after that, they'd sometimes sit down at the piano and say, "Hey kid, come here. At this bar, play this chord." They'd play it, or listen to me play it, and say "no, not that voicing. Play this..." It was like a series of harmony lessons. You couldn't help but learn. Sometimes we'd rehearse on a Monday, more of a talk-through. They'd sometimes give you a list, and say, "Pick off what you know." At the end of the first night, they'd give you notes on your playing. Tuesday night, we'd play again with no further comment. Wednesday, if you were still making mistakes, you'd get 'the eye.' They expected by Thursday for things to be groove-time from then on. On a few occasions, you'd get told to lay out, if you didn't know a song, and were expected to hear it after a few choruses. I had started off learning the bass, so that helped.
For a while, when I was in England there weren't many good bass players, so I used to do that. When I came here, it was originally as a bassist. They had dancing girl shows, and the club owner would say, "We don't want a bass, we want melody and rhythm," so a lot of bands were sax, piano, and drums. That made me play more piano. Bass players were starving.
I've done some jobs in Toronto where I know people have turned out because they want to hear what's going to happen. I've challenged a lot of musicians with unusual musical situations. I used to hire Eugene Amaro, just in a duet situation at the Cafe des Copains. I'll play something that he doesn't know, and vice versa. Other times, I've hired just a drummer.
My house has no walls. If it has walls, that means one is confined to a specific space, and I don't think you should be confined to a space. You've got to know either broad limitations or the limitations of the person you are playing with. If he stretches, you stretch with him. My house has a roof, but no walls.
AW: Would you say you've been influenced mostly by piano players, or other instrumentalists?
WD: Originally, piano players, but not just piano players. Bass players, drummers, vibes players, saxophonists, not too many trumpet players, although Blue Mitchell was number one in my book. I loved the way he phrased, especially the way he played ballads.
AW: Mark Miller, in his chapter on you in the book Fourteen Lives, quoted you as saying that you really felt the blues were an important part of the music.
WD: Yeah, I used to tell my students that too. If you can play the blues, you can play anything. If you learn to play the blues and you have a good sense and feel, it can carry you through any other song. I tried to take Clark Terry's idea and apply it to the piano. He'd alternate between trumpet and fleughelhorn in the same solo, so I tried to improvise with the right hand alternating with the left hand on the blues. I tell piano players, "You've got two hands. Use them." What's this one-handed thing? I have no time for a one-handed piano player.
AW: When you start out with your students, who do you get them to listen to?
WD: Not just piano players. They should listen to singers singing the blues and horn players like Red Holloway, Sonny Stitt, or Charlie Parker. Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander for piano players. Monty can get really nasty in his playing. Phineas (Newborn Jr.) for technique, although I tell them to listen to other pianists for the technique of expression. I saw Phineas at the end and once in New York. There were little sparks. I went four nights, and one of those nights, he was brilliant. For me, there were all kinds of guys to listen to. Steep Wade, if he hadn't died, and Nick Aldrich, they were Montreal guys who were great pianists.
AW: What about being a Canadian jazz musician? Does it frustrate you that Canadians aren't really recognized by their peers?
WD: It doesn't bother me anymore. It used to when I was in my late 20's and early 30's. I kind of picked up certain physical habits and traits of people in the States, and I got to know musicians down there. When they would find out I was Canadian, they'd be surprised. "Canadian! Canadians can't play like that!" they'd say. They come up here and listen to Don Thompson, Ed Bickert, Rob McConnell's band, Michel Donato, and then they realize that we CAN play. We don't have to hang our heads. We have to keep that "kick butt" attitude inside, and do the best we can.
When I was with the Ice Follies in Charleston, West Virginia, I learned a good lesson. We'd just finished the show, and we came back to the hotel, and West Virginia at that time was a little funny. This guy was standing at the door with a bottle. He said, "I saw the show yesterday. I'm a piano player." It was his night off. "You play jazz?" I said no, because I had been playing the show for two years and hadn't really had much of a chance to play jazz. He asked me to come down and sit in with the bassist and drummer. I went upstairs and came down to get something to eat. The pianist kept asking me to play. So I went up and did my thing and thought I did OK, and this guy comes up, this little white boy comes up and cut me a brand new asshole seven ways from Sunday. I went up to my room and told myself, "Don't you ever do that again. Don't be disrespectful." There's no such thing as he plays white, he plays black. If that's the case then Jerry Fuller should be black.
AW: This thing about playing in all the keys; did you go through a point where you really woodshedded that?
WD: Yeah, even to the point of doing some not-so-nice things with the trio. The drummer is always sitting out there laughing of course. We woodshedded this song in Bb for about three months and then in a club one night I started it in C. The bass player said, "That's the wrong key." It's not the wrong key, it's just that sometimes I start an intro and end up hearing it in a different key. That came from working with a guy named Teddy Rodderman; two trombones, piano and bass. Three guys would call things; one guy would call the song, another guy the key, another guy the tempo. That made it a lot of fun.
I remember Mary Lou Williams and Buck Clayton taking me to Minton's in New York. At that time Art Blakey was playing with Addison Farmer, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, and Horace Silver. Mary Lou introduced me, Bud Powell came in and sat there all night long, grinning at my wife.
Anyhow, Art asked me to sit in, and Mary Lou said, "go ahead," so I went up. Art Blakey says, "We have a visitor from Canada, a good friend of Buck Clayton and a student of Mary Lou Williams..." and my ass just touched the piano bench when the tune started. A really fast version of All The Things You Are in E Minor! Everyone tears up the tune, I stared at Addison, and said, "I'll stroll for this tune." I was sweating, my hands got wet, first time in my life I got the shakes. I fought my way through the next tunes. Art said, "You'll be back?" I said, "I'll be back."
I came back to Toronto; I was devastated. Oscar said, "You got to get ready; this is what you do," and he ran some things down for me. He said, "You should have been practicing." That's why I like working with (vocalist) Jeri Brown; she always calls the funniest keys. All these things that have happened; they've all helped prepare me.
I like to practice in the dark, so you can't see the keys.
Teaching and Playing