VOJ: So you play the bass.
Todd Coolman: I try.
VOJ: How did that start for you?
Todd Coolman: I think it started in junior high school. They had what they called a musical aptitude test. And I remember it was a recording on a reel to reel tape. It asked questions like, “Which note is higher?” and then it would play 2 notes that were about 8 octaves apart. Or “Which rhythm is faster?” and it would play two rhythms that were radically different. I scored very high on the test, so I was automatically assigned to the orchestra, rather than the concert band, because the thinking was that the string instruments were more challenging to play for junior high school kids. So they walked me into a room, and I looked at the violin, the viola, the cello, and the bass, and the band director came in, and he held up my hand and said, “With hands like that, I think you’ll be a bass player.” So that’s how it started.
VOJ: Was anybody in your family a musician?
Todd Coolman: No. My parents didn’t play music. They did enjoy dancing to big bands. I have an older brother who was musically inclined, to some extent, but he just played by ear and never studied anything formally.
VOJ: So you started out playing mostly orchestral music, then?
Todd Coolman: That’s correct. It was called the school orchestra, but it was all strings. We played arrangements of classical pieces and novelty pieces. And I took lessons, eventually, when I was in high school, initially from another high school teacher at another high school who happened to be a bass player. We were just playing the typical beginning classical-type lessons.
VOJ: What was your first introduction into jazz?
Todd Coolman: As I was taking those lessons, one day when I had my lesson, the instructor handed me an LP and he said, “I thought you might like hearing this. There’s a very good bass player that plays on this record, and he plays a really different kind of way than we do.” And the record that he handed me was an Oscar Peterson Trio record called Night Train. Of course, Ray Brown was the bassist on the thing. So when I put the record on and heard it, I just flipped. I thought, “That’s what I want to do” as soon as I heard it. The next week, he came for the lesson and he said, “Let’s try page 2, number 3,” and I said, “Well, I’m not really prepared for my lesson this week…” He said, “Is your family okay?” because I was usually pretty prepared, and I said, “Yeah, they’re okay.” So he says, “Why aren’t you prepared?” I played the first chorus of blues. I memorized the notes Ray played on C Jam Blues. And I played the first chorus, just by ear, and from memory. My teacher said, “Oh, I see.”
VOJ: What was it about his playing that attracted you?
Todd Coolman: Far and away was the sound, first of all, and the feeling—just the sound and the feeling were just so overwhelming, it just grabbed me. I can’t explain it better than that.
VOJ: How did your musical interests kind of branch out from there?
Todd Coolman: Of course, in those days, they had record stores, and I didn’t know anything about jazz music—I just knew about that record. I had a paper route at the time, so that would afford me a few dollars a week of spending money. So each week, when I would collect for the paper and make a few dollars profit, I would go to the record store. I do recall the first time I went to the record store to buy a jazz record—the jazz records were in a jazz bin, and I’m leafing through them, and I saw an attractive album cover. It was a head shot—a large photograph of Quincy Jones. It said, “Quincy Jones: Walking in Space.” I turned the album over and I saw that Ray Brown was on bass. So, not knowing anything—I didn’t recognize any of the names, but I saw Ray Brown, and I thought, “That record that I have that Ray Brown is on is really great, so this one is probably really great too, because he’s on it.” So I heard that record and I got to hear solos by Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, and so forth. I sort of branched out from there. I probably went back the next week and looked for a Freddie Hubbard record and then probably discovered Louis Hayes, then I saw him on a Cannonball record, and so forth. So I kind of branched out from there.
VOJ: During your formative years, did you ever have a jazz teacher exactly?
Todd Coolman: Unfortunately, the guy that was teaching, his name was Rudolph Finnell. He was, in fact, a jazz player. He played gigs mostly on the weekends. He did a lot of weekend gigging—jazz-type gigs and stuff like that. So after the experience with the record, one day he wrote out the chords to a 12-bar blues, started explaining the 12-bar blues form, and explaining chord symbols, and the theory that goes along with it. I think not long after that, I may have had a chance to go hear him play on one of his gigs. That was really exciting, because I had never heard jazz live, and he was playing in some kind of a ‘dive’ jazz club-type setting, and as a kid, I thought that was really cool too. And he was a good player. He did play with some of the better players in the area, and he gave me some of my first taste of that. But what was really amazing was just after that, he and a few of his colleagues—I guess by now, I was 15, or 16, or so—they asked my parents’ permission to take me to Chicago on a Sunday because they had a matinee at a jazz club that minors could go to at the jazz showcase. They said, “Yeah, okay, you can take him,” because these guys were high school teachers. I remember they took me the first Sunday and I heard Dizzy Gillespie with Roy Haynes. That was the first kind of jazz of that caliber that I had ever heard in person, and it was the first time in my life that I had ever seen grown men enjoying their work. I never experienced that before because I grew up in a steel town. I wanted to go the next week and check it out, so they took me the next Sunday and I heard Bill Evans Trio with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. Then we went a third Sunday in a row and I heard Ornette Coleman with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, and Don Cherry. I remember coming home from that and I asked my friend, “Which one of those was jazz?” They were all so different that it didn’t occur to me they could all be jazz. I figured one was jazz and the other two were something else.
VOJ: So as soon as you finished high school, what was the next step for you?
Todd Coolman: I had auditioned to go to music school and I was accepted into the program at Indiana University, which, at the time, they just offered a degree in what is classical performance, for classical music. David Baker was there at the time and I was aware of that, so they did have some jazz ensembles, and a few jazz classes, like jazz improvisation, and an arranging course. David taught all the classes. He was the only faculty member there, but you couldn’t get a degree in jazz, you couldn’t major in jazz. So I was a classical performance major, but I also played in some of the jazz groups while I was at school.
VOJ: David Baker is one of the most well-known jazz educators of all time. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to work with him?
Todd Coolman: He was a real dynamo. Also, enormously generous and very inspiring, and very energetic. He was always very encouraging, and yet, at the same time, very demanding of us to respect the music and really work hard at it. I remember taking his improvisation course. I remember going up to him after about 4 weeks and I said, “I was talking to some of the guys in class. We really love your class, but you go so fast—you move so fast through the material. We’re falling behind, and we can’t keep up. There’s so much to take in and you keep going at a hundred miles per hour. Do you think you could slow down a little bit?” He said, “I don’t like to assume what anybody’s level of comprehension is, so I figure if I lay it all out there, everyone will rise to the highest level they can, and that way, I don’t have to worry about leaving somebody behind.” I thought that was a really cool teaching philosophy. So, we kept up the best we could, but this guy, in the classroom, he was an absolute whirling dervish, going on and on. Even to this day, I have definitely not met anybody who had a greater single store of knowledge about every aspect of this music than David—history, composition, arranging, solos, records, players—the guy was a walking encyclopedia, and always available, always willing to help you, always willing to encourage you. He had a really good balance of having a certain kind of austerity because he was David Baker, and he was your professor, your elder, but he did it in a really friendly way that made him seem real genuine.
VOJ: So at what point did you leave school?
Todd Coolman: I left school a little early. I went a couple summers, and I stayed in the town and took some summer classes to move ahead in my class sequence. So I actually graduated in August of 1975. It was basically 3 calendar years.
VOJ: What was the next step in your development from there?
Todd Coolman: Prior to graduating, I had auditioned for, by tape, and got offered a job to play in what was called the Orchestra Simphonica Nacional de Mexico. There were 3 state symphony orchestras in Mexico and one of them was in a town called Jalapa. And when I graduated from college, in August, I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have a job, and I was offered that job, so I went down there and ended up working there for almost a year in the orchestra.
VOJ: What was that like for you?
Todd Coolman: It was a tremendous experience on many different levels. It was really cool to live in an entirely different culture than my own. It was a real challenge to learn how to speak in Spanish, because I couldn’t speak any Spanish before I went, and I never studied Spanish. But I had to learn. So culturally, it was really amazing. It was really cool to have a regular job and be with an orchestra that was professional. The orchestra was populated by musicians from all over the world—several from Europe, many Mexicans, many Americans, a few Asians, and others from other parts of the world. So that also was very interesting and on occasion, the orchestra sounded really good, and on occasion it sounded not too good. But it was a great experience for me, really.
VOJ: So it was pretty shortly after that that you moved to New York?
Todd Coolman: When I left Mexico, it was 1976, and I moved to Chicago, because that’s the area I was from, and I knew a few musicians there, and I wanted to start a freelance career as a jazz player. I knew some people there and I thought there was a chance I might be able to work there, just by referrals and stuff. So I worked there for 2 years and I moved to New York City in August of ’78.
VOJ: What was it about New York, compared to Chicago, that drew you there?
Todd Coolman: Chicago I thought was a great scene and there was a whole lot of work for bass players there, so I was getting really valuable experience. Actually, I think the guys in Chicago I was playing with were even better than they gave themselves credit for. They kind of subscribed to that whole ‘second city’ mythology. But I had the impression that New York was kind of the capital of jazz music, and the players I idolized the most—most of them lived in New York. So it seemed to me that sooner or later, I was going to move there, at least just to see what was really going on and see if there might be any place in there for me.
VOJ: Do you remember your first day there?
Todd Coolman: Oh, very well, yeah. I think we arrived in the evening, real late at night. I was driving a 24-foot U-Haul truck and towing a car behind it, and I didn’t know much about geography of Manhattan but I knew I had a street address where we had an apartment we were going to take, which was on 19th Street and 8th Avenue. So we drove across the George Washington Bridge, and because I didn’t know any better, I drove down Broadway from there to where we lived, and that took me right through the middle of Harlem on a really hot summer August evening. So there I was, the only white guy within miles, driving all of my possessions in my car down Broadway through Harlem. All these people were looking at me like, “This guy is out of his mind.” But I didn’t know any better. It was exciting.
VOJ: During that time, were you able to sustain yourself entirely from playing music?
Todd Coolman: I would have to say yes and no. I was, and am, married. My wife and I moved to New York at that time. She’s also a freelance musician, so when we came, we had no plan of any kind, other than we had saved a certain amount of money, and I figured we could live in New York for 9 months, on that amount of money, if neither of us ever did one gig. And I thought that if after 9 months, neither of us did one gig, it meant we didn’t belong there. When we were in Chicago, we did odd jobs. I think the answer is yes. All I did was play music jobs, I’m pretty sure. But the thing you have to keep in mind, though, in 1978, even if you consider inflation and all that stuff, there’s no question in my mind that even by today’s dollars, it was less expensive to live in Manhattan in 1978 than it is now, relatively speaking. We didn’t own much and we didn’t have any debt, so all we had to do was pay rent and eat, pretty much.
VOJ: I heard quite a similar story from Dick Oats, who moved to play in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, and he did more or less the same thing. He had maybe $5,000 saved, and he figured that was enough to live there for 6 months and he didn’t expect to live there for more than that, but he just figured it would be a good experience, and it ended up working out really well.
TC: I don’t know when Dick moved here but that $5,000 was the same amount I had saved.
VOJ: I think it was almost around the same time. It could have been ’77 or ’78.
Todd Coolman: That sounds about right. The difference is I didn’t have a gig. Dick came because he was invited to come by Thad. But I just came and just kind of winged it. I think by that time, I knew some musicians in New York because during the time I was living and working in Chicago, guys would come through and play with them, or I might meet them, or I might hang out at their gig or whatever. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know anyone. I was able to call a few people and tell them I was in town and then gradually, I started getting a few referrals here and there.
VOJ: I understand you started working with Horace Silver for a few years. How did that come about?
Todd Coolman: Basically, as I recall—this is very funny—I got a call from a woman who identified herself as a singer and wanted to know if I could make a gig with her at a loft that was at the corner of Broadway and Bond. Back in those days, they had lofts where they held informal concerts and stuff, so I showed up, there were very few people there, and this young lady came up and said hi, the singer, and I might have said, “Okay, where’s the band?” And she said, “It’s just the two of us,” so I said, “What do you feel like playing?” She said, “I just sing free. Why don’t we start?” I’m not kidding. She gets up there and I’m thinking, “What is this?” I wanted to just crawl into a little hole and I thought, “I hope nobody hears this. I hope there’s nobody here, nobody sees me, and so forth.” As it turns out, this place was a front for a drug selling business. But I didn’t know that at the time. People would drift in and out of there during the evening while we were playing, and I would imagine some of them were there to hang out, maybe some of them were there to buy drugs—I don’t know what people were doing. But I just wanted to go home. I wanted the thing to get over with and all that. But as luck would have it, the guy who was playing drums with Horace at the time just happened to stop by for a few minutes on his way somewhere else. And I must have met him and he asked for my phone number—although I didn’t know him and I didn’t know he was Horace’s drummer. I had never met this guy. So I can’t imagine why he did this but right after that, Horace was looking for a bass player, and he would ask his side men to recommend people they had played with in New York recently, that they thought would be good for the band. So he gave Horace my name and number. He called me and asked if I wanted to audition for the band. So I said sure, and I could go into a whole long story about that, but suffice it to say that some weeks later, there was an audition where he auditioned 9 or 10 bass players, and for whatever reason, he selected me. And that’s when I started working with him.
VOJ: How long did you end up spending with his band?
Todd Coolman: As I recall, about 2 years. Maybe 2 years and a couple of months or something like that. And at the time, he worked quite a bit.
VOJ: Can you tell me a bit about Horace the man?
Todd Coolman: He was one of the nicest people, one of the most easy-going bandleaders I’ve ever worked with. He really liked to rehearse a lot, which I loved because I just loved playing with him, and loved playing. So it never bothered me to rehearse a lot. And he was very particular about all the details of his compositions and how he wanted to play. So as a result, we always sounded really tight and really together as a band I thought. And that was a good experience for me, to be in an ensemble that really had a strong identity, and people could go hear it, and they knew they were hearing Horace sing. I learned my job was to play his music, rather than to worry about whether I could be a star or not. It was more like make his music work—that was my job. So he was extremely nice and not very demanding of us, beyond the music. He didn’t give us a lot of orders, he didn’t boss us around, he really didn’t have a cross word to say. He was pretty cool, actually. Very nice. Good sense of humor.
VOJ: Would you say that was the first gig you had with a name player?
Todd Coolman: I worked with a few people prior to Horace. In fact, when Horace called, I had been working with Gerry Mulligan. And I had worked around New York with some other guys, Dizzy Reese, the trumpet player, Albert Dailey, maybe Lee Konitz in the early days. But yeah, he was the first extended, in-depth, on the road experience that I had.
VOJ: At what point did you start the long stint that you had in James Moody’s band?
Todd Coolman: I want to say I met Moody in December of ’84. I think that’s right. I think Rufus Reid had been working with him up until that time and Rufus was busy and I think they were putting together a thing with Dexter Gordon. So Rufus recommended me to Moody, and Moody called one day and asked me if I was doing anything. I said not at the moment and he says, “Would you like to play a couple tunes? I’d like to get together and play a couple tunes with you.” I thought I was dreaming. I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll be over in 10 minutes,” and hung up the phone. I thought, “What does that mean? Where does he live? Does he know where I live?” At the time, I was living in New Jersey, and I didn’t know it, but he lived about 10 minutes away from me in New Jersey, so the doorbell rang 10 minutes later, and he’s standing there. And he’s got his tenor, his alto, his flute, and he’s dressed like a jogger, had a jogging outfit and a stocking cap on, and he comes into my place and he takes out his instruments and says, “Okay, let’s play a blues.”
So we did that and then he says, “Do you know Freedom Jazz Dance? Can you play the melody? Let’s play the melody for that,” and then we played something else and he goes, “Listen, we have a concert this Saturday, in Indianapolis. Can you make it?” And I said sure, so he handed me a plane ticket and it said Rufus Reid on it. In those days, before all this security and stuff, it didn’t matter whose name was on the ticket. If you had the ticket, you could go. So I went. I flew to Indianapolis, I get there, and we were playing a concert for the Indianapolis Jazz Society. The band was Harold Mabern, Billy Hart, myself, and Moody. And the four of us had never played together before. We got up there, he just started calling off tunes, and we played. After that gig he said, “Listen, I’ve got a week at Sweet Basil. Can you make that?” I said sure, so that’s where it started. And never did I think that would be the beginning of what amounted to a 25-year relationship. I was just freelancing, working here and there, and I didn’t think that I necessarily had a gig or anything. I just figured he was looking for someone, he had a few gigs, and that was that. But he kept calling, one thing led to the next, so.
VOJ: By the time you had spent a number of years playing with him, what was it like to have that kind of longstanding relationship with one person, in terms of how you play together?
Todd Coolman: Well, certainly, you sort of walk a tightrope, because you really do learn the other guy’s moves, and you learn what that individual likes and dislikes, and you learn how best to support what his goals are, musically. You learn how to play for the guy and in our business, especially when you’re a freelancer like me, you play with all kinds of people, all the time, in all these different situations and for the most part, you have very good working and business-type relationships, you play your gig, and at the end of the gig, you say, “That was fun. Thank you. Say hello to the wife and kids and I’ll see you on the next one.” And that’s pretty much it. In Moody’s case, for some reason, he seemed to take a liking to me. He was always so kind, and so supportive, and so mentoring in so many ways. He’s such a musical giant that we started to develop a close personal relationship that just sort of grew organically. That’s something that a freelancer never really expects necessarily. What you expect is to have a reasonably good business relationship, but you don’t necessarily hand out with the guys that you work with day after day, or remember their wives’ names, or remember them on their birthday, or call them out of the blue. So it just sort of developed and became a really fruitful and professional relationship. We grew to really love each other and it was a wonderful by-product that wasn’t part of the deal but I’ll always be grateful.
VOJ: How do you feel that he influenced you?
Todd Coolman: First of all, he was really honest; he didn’t have a dishonest bone in his body. He was really honest and real straightforward with people. And I noticed that he treated all people the same way. He really didn’t care what anybody’s background was, race, gender, economic—nothing. It didn’t matter. To him, we were all part of the human race and that’s all that mattered. He treated everyone with respect and dignity. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone, ever, except maybe a few politicians. So that really impressed me, the way he carried himself and the way he felt about his place in the world. He was extremely modest; he definitely underestimated his abilities I think. And musically, the guy practiced all the time. He was really just a very hard working individual. I’m not even going to begin to say that I’m as hardworking as he was, but I will say that I did learn that whatever you expect out of it is what you’ve got to put into it. If you really want to achieve something worthwhile, you really have to work hard it. Too much is made of the word talent and not enough is made of the idea of hard work, because talent is just a lot of hard work applied to a given situation. There might be such a thing as some talent but talent is probably overrated. He was really great because he always worked at it.
VOJ: So at this point in your career, you’re known as a pretty prolific educator in addition to performing. How did you get involved with that scene originally?
Todd Coolman: I never had any desire to teach. I never had any plan to teach when I came to New York. It never entered my mind. I just wanted to play the bass. I was playing with Horace at the Village Vanguard one week and on an intermission, a guy came up to me and said, “Are you the bass player, Todd Coolman? Did you go to Indiana University and study with David Baker?” And I said, “Yeah, I did,” and he said, “I do these summer jazz camps and we’re doing 6 weeks of them this summer across the country. Have you ever done any teaching?” I said, “No, I haven’t. I occasionally had a private student at my house once or twice but I never really taught anything.” He said, “Would you like to try? Would you like to be on our faculty for the summer jazz camp? My name is Jamey Aebersold.” And to tell you the truth, I had never heard of Jamey, so I never had any play-along records. I didn’t know that. I never went to a jazz camp or any of that stuff. Back in those days, I had only been in New York for a little while, so if anybody offered you a gig, the answer was yes. It didn’t matter what it was. I had to work, I had to pay rent, and if somebody offered me a gig, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And that was my first experience teaching. On the faculty there was some of the best jazz educators of all time. They were my colleagues all of a sudden. David was there, Dan Haerle was on the faculty, Jerry Coker, Aebersold himself—monster teachers. And I had never seen anything like that and I had never seen how guys could be really effective at reaching students, showing them about the music and this, that, and the other. That how it began and then after I had been doing that a little bit, somebody called from a local college and they offered a degree in music business. One of the courses that the students took was jazz improvisation for non-majors. They wanted to know if I could teach that course, and of course, the answer was yes because I needed a gig. So I started doing that and that was at William Paterson University. They had a good jazz department at the time, so I started showing up there to teach this course, and then gradually, some of the jazz teachers started asking me to sub for them and stuff. One thing led to the next and I wound up teaching part-time at the college level, at maybe as many as 4 or 5 different colleges in the New York area for a period of about 16 years. That’s kind of how I honed my teaching craft. At a certain point then, I was offered a full-time position at SUNY Purchase College and that’s where I established the beginning of a full-time teaching career that I had for roughly 16 years.
VOJ: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
Todd Coolman: Jazz music is—at best, you want to supply a student with a toolkit they use to solve musical problems. The best way I know how to try to communicate music to students is trying to simulate, as best I can, my experience on the street. I try to bring the street into the classroom. So the demands that a person faces on the bandstand in real life are really the fuel, so I really try to, as best I can, simulate that environment, and the requirements that I’ve learned over the years that a musician has to have, the things that are expected of a jazz musician to work, certain things that are givens that people must know if they expect to play with others. So my philosophy is to try to direct and mentor the students with that in mind, and then, at the same time, to some extent, stay out of their way so they can hopefully develop their own voice.
VOJ: What do you think it is about jazz that has kept you interested for so long and continues to keep you interested?
Todd Coolman: More than anything, it seems to me that you never really fully learn how to play jazz. There’s always more to learn about it, no matter what you’re playing. It would be naïve to think that you’ve known and heard and played everything that there is to know, and therefore it will never get better. There’s always something to learn. There’s always the need to improve and build upon what you know, so to me, it’s new every time, it’s a challenge every time, and I don’t really feel that I’ll ever learn how to play jazz completely. I think I’ll become better at it if I get more experience, and I think the joy I have is in the chase. That’s what I love about it. So that’s kind of what keeps me going, the idea that I can get a little better and maybe I can try to solve the puzzle in a uniquely different way tomorrow than I did before.
VOJ: That’s a good answer. So to wrap this up, do you have any words of advice who may be considering pursuing a career in playing jazz?
Todd Coolman: The thing I would want them to understand is first of all, if there’s even the most remote possibility that they can see themselves being happy and fulfilled in life doing anything else, they should probably so the something else. I think, to make a career playing jazz, especially today, the only thing that makes sense to me is that you go into it because you can’t possibly, even remotely, see yourself being happy doing anything else but that, and the reason you want to play jazz professionally is because you have to. It calls you, rather than the other way around. If you decide that you want to pursue a career in jazz, then there’s a lot of ifs. If you have good instructions, if you listen to the music constantly, if you learn about its history, if you have experience playing with other people, if you have a great work ethic, if you are a great networker, if you have some measure of luck—if, if, if, right? Then maybe, if you have all that, maybe there’s some niche in the business you’ll be able to occupy. But you see how the odds are. All these ifs, and then if you’ve got all that, there’s a maybe. So really, going into jazz music as a professional musician is a highly irrational decision. There’s probably a lot of things people can do that would have all kinds of advantages, over being involved in jazz as a profession. Having said all that, I have to say, at least in my case, if I had to do it all over again, I would do it again because it has been that rewarding. I don’t really have any regrets. The other bit of advice I would give is get used to the idea of—especially in the beginning—of experiencing drastic highs and lows that can come in rapid fire. You have to be able to weather those storms, and hopefully over time, the waves aren’t as tall, and the going gets a little bit even keeled. But you have to be able to recover from severe disappointment. You have to handle success and not get carried away by it, and everything in between. It’s not for the faint of heart, I’ll tell you that.
More on Todd Coolman can be found on his website.