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Taj Mahal puts his stamp on jazzy tunes from a golden era of American song.
For six decades, Taj Mahal has established himself as a master of blues and roots idioms. His distinctively rough-hewn vocals and deft picking on guitar and banjo are fueled by an encyclopedic knowledge of the music that pre-dated him, some of it gleaned directly from elders such as Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Throughout his career, Taj has followed his muse into a variety of roots music and its offshoots, including forays into the sounds of Jamaica, Hawaii and Africa, as well as soul, R&B and rock and roll.
Jazz has made appearances in the Taj Mahal discography but, with his new recording, Savoy (Stony Plain), it takes center stage. Teaming up with producer, pianist and longtime colleague John Simon, Taj interprets tunes that he heard growing up, either on the radio or from his father’s record collection. The album’s title alludes to the Savoy Ballroom, the Harlem hotspot where his parents first met.
Taj, who turns 81 on May 17, won a Grammy Award last year for Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, his first collaboration with guitarist and former Rising Sons bandmate Ry Cooder in nearly 60 years. He recently spoke to JAZZIZ by phone from his home in Berkeley, California.
BOB WEINBERG: I’m really enjoying the new Savoy recording. I know you’ve done some jazz in the past. TAJ MAHAL: Yeah, there’s been a lot. I did stuff with [bandleader-pianist] Jools Holland in London. We did [“I’m Gonna Move to] the Outskirts of Town.” I had a band put together with [trumpeter-arranger] Darrell Leonard for the music of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood — I did “Keeping Out of Mischief Now.” And then there was a movie called Rumor Has It, and myself and a young lady [the U.K.-based Nellie McKay], transatlantically, did a reprise of the Brook Benton-Dinah Washington song, “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes.” And then I worked with Ishmael Reed’s poetry with Allen Toussaint, and we did some jazz stuff with David Murray, Olu Dara, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Billy Hart.
Some heavy cats, for sure. I’m just wondering if there was a particular impetus for the Savoy record coming out now. I know you and producer John Simon go back a long ways.
Well, [John and I have] been talking about this for a long time. It’s like, other [rock] artists have shown their hand. Linda Ronstadt did a really beautiful set with Nelson Riddle and there are other artists out there. I mean, I grew up with almost all the songs that are on this album, with the exception of two. I think I remember hearing them when I was a kid in single digits, you know, in the ’40s, early- ’50s.
We should tell folks that that you grew up, at least part of the time, in Harlem.
No, no, no, no. I was born in Harlem. I was raised up in [Springfield] Massachusetts.
I think that one of the big problems of Americans’ interest in history, is they just want it in a block. History’s really people. You had three great migrations in the South. I’m from the Eastern migration, on my mother’s side. My father’s people were immigrants from the Caribbean. So, education, music, classical music, jazz, whatever it was, it was all the culture coming in all the time, particularly during those early years with music. A lot of people didn’t realize that was a part of the communication. You could hear the stories and hear what’s happening in the communities across the country, around the world, through the music, the points of view. And all of the great people, legendary [artists], were living at that time and making records.
So, I don’t know. It was the water I swam in. But given the backgrounds — Southern and Caribbean — there was a deeper vein, well, not even vein, but deeper ocean of music, which was like the older blues forms, which really were the support system to all of that great music. You talk to all those guys, and so many of them came out of the South, and they had experiences of being in that agrarian culture and the folklore and all that kind of stuff. But they moved on, you know?
You must have been a little boy when you moved from Harlem. But do you have any memories of that era? You talk about your mom and dad meeting at the Savoy Ballroom to go see Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald in 1938.
Of course, I wasn’t born until ’42, so there’s no way I could really have any knowledge of it, except through them talking about it. I was like 6 months old when we moved up to Massachusetts. … They told me I was born in New York, and that’s what my birth certificate says, Harlem Hospital. So I know that much. And of course, we went back and forth to New York periodically, and to Harlem, but both sets of grandparents lived in Brooklyn. So we spent most of our time there. But I did get a chance to have one or two experiences that I can remember intensely, being in Harlem with my dad and my mom.
And your dad was a jazz pianist?
Yeah, he was a classically trained Caribbean pianist that played and absorbed and mixed the music of the time. You know, jazz — bebop, big time — swing, jump blues. We had [records by] everybody, Erskine Hawkins, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Johnson, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Louis Jordan, Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart, some Ellington, a lot of Ella. That eventually led me to people like Dakota Staton, and then eventually to people like Etta James. And one of Etta’s last albums was all about jazz, because this music was played deeply. People were really moved by melody, good writing, good poetry, stories.
You do a few songs by Duke Ellington. Does he hold a particular fascination for you?
Well, aside from being the same astrological sign [Taurus], he had a tremendous amount of output. I saw a book that looked like one of those old-fashioned 8-, 9-, 10-inch thick encyclopedias — it was all the people that ever played with him. Somebody really did that kind of research. It was a couple volumes, you know? I mean, the guy was playing all over the place. And a lot of times, I heard the tunes. I didn’t know they were his, or he played them, or he and Billy Strayhorn or somebody wrote them.
I read that you and John Simon, when you were putting together tracks, had something like 59 tunes originally, and pared it down to a working list for the Savoy record.
[Fifty-nine] easy, man. You know you can’t do ’em all. And I just found tunes that rang in my head right now. So now I got all these done, if [a similar project] ever comes up again, we got plenty of stuff to work with.
You start off with “Stomping at the Savoy,” and it evokes that wonderful era, and of course, that Edgar Sampson tune that Chick Webb had done on Columbia Records back in the ’30s.
I think that there’s a lot of people, certainly our age, who would appreciate hearing this music. And then there are a lot of young people who are opening up to knowing that there’s other great music out there.
You also mentioned that John Simon had this talent for arranging these tunes so it sounds like a big band. What is it, a sextet, maybe septet?
No, it’s probably pretty close to nonet. There’s bass, drums, piano, guitar. You got trumpet, and then there’s two saxophones, a trombone, and a flute and a violin. And then in a couple places you got the three background singers. But yeah, John just is fabulous. He’d get up in the morning, five o’clock, have some coffee. By the time we got in the studio, he’d written a couple charts.
And he’s playing piano too. But you’re not playing guitar?
Nope. The only thing I play on here is harmonica a little bit. I also thought about, in a couple of places, to play either four- or six-string banjo, you know, give it that kind of older flavor. But Danny Caron was the guitar player, and he was handling the business of the guitar in there. And there’s no need [for me to play]. It ain’t a Dagwood sandwich. It’s a song.
Danny Caron and the bassist on Savoy, Ruth Davies, played with the great Charles Brown.
Oh, yeah, most definitely. Danny used to play at this place called Anna’s Jazz Island [in Berkeley]. That’s where I heard him first. And then I met Ruth Davies there, then met them out on the blues cruises with Charles Brown a couple of different times.
You also play harp on Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” So that kind of brings the record into another era, probably after the Savoy closed its doors.
It was always a good tune. I loved just about everybody’s version of it. I think that either Christian McBride or Charnett Moffett did a version of it recently. [It was McBride.] And then that great one that Quincy [Jones] did on Walking in Space, with Ray Brown and all them on it. And to me, it’s all connected, different versions of it.
And Louis Jordan, you do a couple of his tunes on Savoy, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Caldonia,” which would’ve would’ve been big hits at the time.
Oh, yeah. Well, Louis, he’s the original guy that set up video, you know, when they did the “Soundies” [short films]. He was really popular. He had the jukeboxes hopping.
I’ve seen some of those “Soundies” by Fats Waller, as well. David Sanborn used to play those on his TV program sometimes.
If we do another project [like this], Fats is definitely up. We got room. There’s a lot of great tunes, man. Fats, Hoagy Carmichael.
So, Louis Jordan, were these recordings your dad and mom had?
My dad. That was the deal between my mom and dad, that he wouldn’t pursue a musical career traveling on the road, and he would get a job that would support his family. She was a college graduate, and they wanted a big family together. But she said, ‘You know, I’m not gonna be in the kitchen tied to the the stove all the time because I want to go to go back to school and get my master’s degree.’ So, in 1951 and ’52 she got her master’s degree — with a husband and five kids — and that allowed her to become an incredible teacher. She spent 30-some-odd years teaching elementary school kids.
My father’s part of the deal was, ‘OK, if I’m gonna get a job and support the family, then I want to have a piano in the house, and I want to have a really good radio/record player set up and collect the records and listen to the music as it changes.’ So, I was lucky. I mean, that was the water I swam in. Everything from the great Caruso to the great Illinois Jacquet.
Do you recall any early experiences going to see bands, maybe with your father?
Well, yes, there’s one, but actually, the band came to see us. My mother was born in the same town as Dizzy Gillespie, in Cheraw, South Carolina. In that area, there was a great musician and his sister, Buddy and Ella Johnson.
So, Buddy Johnson my mother knew from his playing historically black colleges down South, and certain kinds of proper places that he could play. And then he moved up to New York. So when she moved up to New York, she also ran into him. But by then, Buddy also knew my father, because my father was a composer and piano player. And he used to write the charts out for the band. So that’s what he was doing the night that he ran into my mom [at the Savoy], bringing the charts to Chick Webb’s band, to hawk his tunes and check out what’s going on. He saw this table of good-looking women and went over to take his chances. I’m the harmonic from that.
Close to us, in Springfield, was a place called Holyoke, Massachusetts. And in Holyoke was a place called the Valley Arena. And all the touring bands — Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, you name ’em, Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk — came through the Valley Arena. So I guess I must have been 8 or 9 years old, and we heard all about Buddy Johnson all the time. We had his records.
But anyway, I remember my mom spent like three days cooking and she didn’t have one extension put at the table — she took out two. She extended the table twice as long as it normally was. And they put us to bed the night that those guys came to town and told us that they would wake us up when the band got there. And so, it must have been well after 1 o’clock, 1:30, a big old bus pulls up in front of our house, and then all of this hoorah, boo-kooing and yoo-hooing are going on. Because they all knew my dad and they knew my mom. So they came up and saw how she had really set it up for them. And they were all excited because they were a band on the road. You know, they’re eating Spam sandwiches and turning their shirts inside out and doing all the stuff that they had to do to be on the road. So they were really very happy to get some real South Carolina home-style cooking. And each guy went out with at least two plates on each hand, and with a dessert on top of each one. And, you know, the leftovers was like, plenty, too. She made hams and chickens and candied yams and okra and collard greens and black-eyed peas, lemonade.
Buddy and Ella Johnson had sort of proto rock and roll tunes, like “A Pretty Girl, a Cadillac and Some Money.”
“That’s What You Gotta Do.” That’s a great song. That’s straight-up rock and roll. Plus, Buddy wrote “Since I Fell for You.” Phenomenal tune. Everybody’s recorded that.
You were very little when all this went down, but did that spark anything in your imagination? Perhaps something that you recalled later that said, ‘That’s a lifestyle I would like’?”
Oh yeah. It clearly told me at that point, at 8 or 9 years old, that, boy, I’d like to have a band like this one day. So sure. Always had a soft place in my heart for that.
On the new album, you call on an old friend to do another chestnut, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” And that’s the great Maria Muldaur. You guys have a long history together, correct?
Yep, 61 years. We’ve known each other since we were both 19.
There’s a story that you had met backstage at Gerde’s Folk City. And there was a young man by the name of Bob Dylan, who she was working with. And you came in with your banjo?
I came in, signed in to play the open-mic night and asked, ‘Where’s the tune-up [room]?’ And they said it was downstairs. And so, on the way down the stairs, up the stairs was coming Maria with Bob Dylan in tow. I remember seeing him at Gerde’s maybe two or three different times. He started out on Burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff. I actually watched that go down. He had two bottles of … I don’t know what kind of red wine it was. One had the cork pulled on it, and the other one had the cork coming out of it, and he just would keep whacking it down and playing. And he had a great big old red [Gibson] Sunburst J-200 he was playing. And he had that kind of Lyle Lovett eraser haircut.
[caption id="attachment_54379" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Photo by Jake Blakesberg.[/caption]
You don’t have to describe Maria from back then, because we all know how beautiful she is.
Oh, yeah. Still is. Whoa. She and her sister, Dawn.
I did want to ask you about Frank Loesser’s, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which in recent years has taken some shots (as being politically incorrect or sexist).
I don’t care. Take shots if they wanna [laughs]. I mean, it’s like, wimpy, wimpy, wimpy. Come on, for God’s sakes! It’s like, ‘Oh, excuse me, guys. Have you looked at the sperm count and the birthrate?’
I think context is important here. The way you and Maria do the song is quite fun. And there’s some great affection going on between the two of you.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it’s funny. You know, we’re both the same age — I’m about four months older. So I went to see her play for her 80th birthday. She did two sets. She hadn’t lost a whit.
She has such great knowledge of blues, going way back to its origins.
Well, she [interpreted] the women that bailed the music business out of a hole [in the 1920s] — Mamie, Trixie, Bessie, Diamond Teeth Mary, Ma Rainy, all of them, on and on and on.
You mentioned Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, and she was from down here in Florida. And the Savoy recording was mixed at a studio in Miami, and there are some backing vocals that came from some of our Miami musicians.
Yeah, if you got the goods, wherever you got ’em is where we gotta deal with.
You’ve gotten an opportunity to meet some of your heroes in the blues. We’ve talked about Mrs. Etta Baker.
Oh, yeah, man, it’s pretty fabulous. Listen, I was coming into all that finger picking and stuff, and to hear somebody play like that, and then finally meet her and play music with her … . There’s a great album we got out called, Etta Baker With Taj Mahal. She was in the Music Maker Foundation, and so I got a chance to pick alongside of her, go visit her at her home and play with her. To me, that’s the real stuff.
I’m guessing you might have had an opportunity to meet both Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, to whom you just did a tribute record.
Yeah, they knew me by name. I knew those guys real good. Loved them.
You and Ry Cooder just took home a Grammy, for last year’s Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Ry was the reason I came to California, because I heard this guy that ended up in the Rising Sons, Jesse Lee Kincaid. And he had taken lessons from Reverend Gary Davis and taken some lessons from Ry. And I heard what Jesse was playing. I said, ‘Who taught you how to play like that?’ And he said, ‘Uh, well, I took some lessons from this guy in California.’ I said, ‘Man, well, you think [Cooder] would like to be in a band?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s get him out here.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s possible. He’s 17 years old.’ I said, ‘Seventeen years old! We’re going to California.’
Wasn’t a week after I was here, I was up at his house, and I told him what I was about, what I was interested in. He was fantastic. There was a lot of guitar players that were inside the scene and studio musicians, but nobody had it like him. Still, to this day. The next person that had it like him, in a different way, was Jesse Ed Davis.
There’s a story that Gregg Allman told about how he brought his brother Duane your first record, the Taj Mahal record from 1968 with Jesse Ed Davis on slide guitar. And when Duane heard that, he took the Coricidin bottle, put that on his finger and was inspired to play slide.
The thing is, it all starts out with me going to the University of Massachusetts and discovering a whole other kind of catalog of records that I’d never seen before. Of course, I knew what was on Columbia and Aladdin and Savoy and Capitol, Decca and all those records. But I didn’t know anything about Vanguard, Orion or Folkways. I thought the music was really great, the old music. My luck was that my next door neighbor came from North Carolina. He could play guitar. And around the corner, my buddies, they came actually off of Stovall Plantation, outside of which was where Muddy [Waters] was from, outside of Clarksdale.
But when I went to the university, here were all these young New England-bred, European background kids, head-over-heels for Booker White and Josh White and Brownie and Sonny and Sleepy John Estes, Gus Cannon and Will Shade. I’m going like, ‘Well, wait a minute. You mean to tell me these people are really recording this music?’ And there was several ways it was being recorded. Some were going looking for these guys. And also, many of these musicians, because they were being rediscovered, they were touring around the colleges and coffee houses. You didn’t have to be in the mainstream in order to be able to make a living or enjoy playing the music. I enjoyed learning the music, playing the music and meeting the real people that played it.
Would that have been the Cambridge scene?
Cambridge, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, New Haven, North Hampton, Amherst. But Greenwich Village, that was the big thing, you know? I went down there to see what was going on. Sounded like it was a cool scene to me, and it was.
Was it difficult to pull up stakes and move to the other coast?
Ummm, no. At that point, I was footloose, fancy-free. I didn’t have any reason to stay on the East Coast, and from what I saw, California looked pretty nice. I was really surprised certain kinds of music were happening out there. But then, it took me a while to figure it out, that, like I said, it was three migrations — the Eastern migration, the central one that went basically Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas up to Chicago, and then the Western one that went Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas out to California.
So, the Rising Sons was the result. You and Ry Cooder put together that band, which then led to your own solo career.
Well, it led to both of our solo careers.
So you guys reunited last year for the Sonny and Brownie recording?
Well, yeah, I mean the physical getting together. We hadn’t played together in like 57 years, and maybe once in a while, he’s unpacking and heading in [to a venue], we’re going out. ‘Hey, man, how you doing? Blah, blah, blah.’ That’s all we ever had time for. And then, long, long, long bouts of not seeing, only hearing through the music or through the business, what’s going on. And then about seven or eight years ago, I found out when his birthday was and just wished him happy birthday. And we started picking up a little bit. Not constantly on the phone every day yakking, but periodically. Then he said, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ So I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about trying to get together and doing something?’ He said, ‘Come on down. Let’s see what we got going.’ So I came down, we spent a couple of days talking, you know, like grown men … . I mean, he was 17, I think I was 20, 22 or 23 when I first first met him. So here we are, both over 70 now, you know, and hadn’t played together [since]. And everything that he was back then was now even more amplified.
He sounds pretty fierce.
Oh, yeah. He can play, man. I mean, there’s just no two ways. If I gotta be around guys that can play — him, Johnny Lee Schell, the Phantom Blues Band guys, the Hula Blues Band guys, the quartets, the Savoy band that we put together — these are players.
It’s kind of nice that you bring your own interpretation. You weren’t trying to sound like Sonny and Brownie, for instance.
I mean, we could do it, but then what value is that to somebody listening to the music?
And you bring your own thing to these great songs on the Savoy record, as well. It’s so much fun to hear the blues roots of these songs. They always had the blues in them, but people don’t think of them necessarily as blues songs.
Well, that’s a product of marketing.
There was a time when jazz and blues, people didn’t separate them out. Back then they said, ‘Oh, these are race records,’ because they were made by Black performers.
That’s what I’m saying. A lot of why people think of [categories], there’s a half a degree on either side of the box and if he goes outside of that, they don’t know what to do. And I just walked outside all the boxes. ‘Wait, uh-uh, I’m out here with it.’ There’s tuna in the ocean, there’s marlin, there’s mahi mahi, there’s wahoo, there’s a whole lot of fish in the sea.
And they all taste good. … Well, it’s a treat, getting to hear you put your own spin on these familiar gems from the Great American Songbook.
Well, it’s good stuff. I spent a lifetime finding the underpinnings of all these great songs. And so now it’s time to say, ‘OK, this is what I heard first.’ What I’ve been playing is what I thought was underneath it, you know? And then I just got to a point where I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, how about you not even go back, but bring forward what you heard that really inspires you in the first place?’ I’m really pleased.
[caption id="attachment_54380" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Photo by Jay Blakesberg.[/caption]
Featured photo by Abby Ross.