Richie Morales: Well, I lived in New York until I was about 12 or 13, and then I moved to Chicago. I lived in the Bronx, and there was a lot of Latin music, a lot of good R&B music on the charts, my parents played all kinds of music in the house, all styles, Pop, Jazz, Broadway musicals, Classical music. I remember in my middle school, I went to the same school as the Gonzalez brothers—are you familiar with them?
VOJ: No, I don’t think so.
Richie Morales: Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, they are the archetype of New York Latin jazz for me. They played with Dizzy Gillespie, they played with Eddie Palmieri, they played with everybody. They made a lot of records as The Fort Apache Band where they took the music of Thelonious Monk, and Art Blakey, and they put rumba on it, they put an Afro- Cuban treatment on it. They were among the first to do that.
So anyway, they went to the same middle school as I did and they played an assembly—I was in 7th grade, they were in 9th grade. And they played with a couple of faculty members and some other kids, and I remember they played Night in Tunisia. And that was one of the first times that I really heard jazz live. Also I remember the New York World’s Fair, in 1964, at the New York Pavilion, I went there with my parent’s and I saw Ray Barretto, who I ended up playing with—that was one of my first gigs many, many years later— playing Latin jazz. So there was a lot of music.
Also, late ‘60s, the rock thing was happening. There was just a lot going on. In Chicago it was hard, being underage, you couldn’t really go in the clubs per se, but you know, there were concerts, and I was hearing the blues. I know you’re interviewing mainly jazz musicians, but I came up playing rock and blues. That was my first thing, really. But I gravitated more towards the music that had an improvisational element to it. I dug the solos. In high school, I started playing with older musicians, and guys that had been to college, they had record collections, so they turned me onto records like Maiden Voyage, Herbie Hancock, Love Supreme, John Coltrane, Forest Flower, Charles Lloyd. Plus the power trios that I liked in rock music, they were very improvisational, like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Ginger Baker was heavily influenced by Max Roach and Art Blakey. Mitch Mitchell was really into Philly Joe Jones and Elvin. So I kind of got into jazz through the backdoor, by listening to rock music, Blues, and Latin Jazz music that had that improvisational component.
VOJ: Do you think it was your rock and Latin jazz influences that prompted you to play the drums?
Richie Morales: Maybe, I started playing clarinet in 4th grade. Back in the day, in a lot of school districts—not so much now, but in 4th grade, you picked an instrument to play. So I picked clarinet, but I pretty much was playing by ear, and I think they had a lot of clarinet players, so they said, “Play percussion instead.” Also there’s a seminal recording “Puente in Percussion” by Tito Puente featuring, Tito Puente Timbales, Carlos Patato Valdes,Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo, on various Latin percussion ( conga, bongo, cowbells, etc.) and Bobby Rodriguez on bass. It’s just Latin Percussion and bass. I heard this record as a child and I think it had a profound effect on me. What really got me into the drum set was seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I think a lot of drummers my age, regardless of their background, would cite that as an influence.
VOJ: Yeah, Ringo, man… captivating.
Richie Morales: Yeah, Ringo, and also Charlie Watts. The groups of the British Invasion did a lot to turn America on to Black music, the Blues, R&B. I learned how to play a shuffle—I got into Chicago blues from listening to the Stones and some friends of mine said, “You’ve got to listen to the real guys, you’ve got to listen to Junior Wells, and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson,people like that.” Actually, they had one of those big hippie gatherings, “The Human Be-in” in Chicago and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was playing there, and I remember seeing them. They had flowers and stuff painted on their faces. You know that record East Meets West?
Richie Morales: It’s a blues record but it has a long minor key jam on it called East Meets West. Raga Rock influences. Guitarists Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield harmonica . East Meets West is a classic record. It has like blues soloing, jamming, improv. So I was drawn to that.
VOJ: So after high school did you study at a college at all?
Richie Morales: In high school, I was in the orchestra. You know the stuff that high school orchestras do. I went to high school with a guy whose dad was a radio personality in Chicago. He did commercial voiceovers and made innovative spoken word recordings called Word Jazz. His name is Ken Nordine and he has a recording studio in his house. So we had a little band and we used to jam at his house,and we did high school dances and stuff like that. We would just vamp and jam, and his father just would roll tape and then make jingles out of the jams. All of a sudden, we started getting paid, we started getting checks. We were doing these little jams that got turned into commercials for AAMCO wiper blades, and various other products. I was largely self-taught, just learning. We had a band called Sun that did quite a bit of work at prominent venues around Chicago.
Then I went on the road with another band that was an offshoot. It was like a gap year between high school and college. We did a lot of opening acts for big groups from the 70s, like the James Gang, Joe Walsh. He got famous playing with The Eagles, but his first group was the James Gang. He was an American guitar god. We did some shows with him, we did some shows with Sly and the Family Stone, which was pretty amazing because they were getting into the really jammed out period that influenced Miles Davis. They were still playing their top 40 hits, but they would jam. So I was getting a lot of experience playing live and doing roadwork. Then I went to University of Michigan. It wasn’t for music, but while I was there, I met Chris Brubeck, the son of Dave Brubeck. He had a group I guess you would call a progressive rock group, almost fusion, obviously lots of odd time signatures. So long story short, we met his dad, and we recorded on an album called Two Generations of Brubeck. It was Dave and his three sons, two of them were band leaders. So we did like a fusoid, funk, rock version of Blue Rondo ala Turk. That was on Atlantic Records. We did a little touring, as a package, with Dave Brubeck, and I met the great Alan Dawson, Dave Brubeck’s drummer at the time. He taught Tony Williams, and he was the head of the Berklee percussion department for I don’t know how many years.
Alan was a legendary musician, teacher and amazing player, represented a whole school of drumming. So that kind of opened my eyes to what playing the instrument was all about, in terms of technique, independence, and jazz, although Alan Dawson’s teachings are universal musically speaking. I had been professional for about 25 years before I decided to go back to school for a Master Degree in Music Technology at Purchase College where I still teach. So my training was largely on the job, although I had some influential teachers that I took lessons from, not for any great length of time. My time with Alan Dawson was more informal. It was just seeing him warm up back stage, and discussing, and learning about his concept, my first exposure to “The Rudimental Ritual”. I was thinking of moving to Boston to study with him, but it didn’t quite work out. I moved back to New York, I studied with Freddie Waits for a bit. Freddie played with everybody, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Ella Fitzgerald, the list goes on, and his son is the great drummer Nasheet Waits. Then I took a few lessons with Kenwood Dennard.
After I was with Spyro Gyra for a while, I kind of felt that I was at a dead end technically, and I was having some tendonitis issues, I had to review my technique. I studied with Joe Morello briefly which was a great experience. I played with master Latin percussionists Ray Barretto, Carlos “Patato” Valdez, Steve Berrios, Frank Malabe, Nicky Marrero, learning about the Afro- Cuban tradition. It was a form of apprenticeship. I also worked with percussion greats Don Alias, and Manolo Badrena . I learned by osmosis, on the job training, and individual study. I guess you could say I’m a jazz drummer, but I just like to think of myself as a drummer that plays a lot of styles authentically because that’s what you have to do to survive in New York, to be ready to play anything, Fusion, Rock, Latin, Funk, Straight ahead. The Brecker Brothers Randy and Michael, were instrumental in really opening my ears to jazz language and performance while I had the privilege of being in their band, even though it was a Fusion Jazz Funk band. The performance of Jacknife on their record Straphangin’ which I played on has a hard swinging section which is probably my first recording of a swinging “jazz groove”.
VOJ: Can you give any insight as to what it’s like to be on tour a lot?
Richie Morales: Well, the reality of it is that the actual amount of time that you spend playing music on the road is a very small fraction of your day. There are a couple of modes of travel—if you’re flying to gigs, you have to get up really early in the morning to try and catch the earliest flight, so that if there are cancellations or issues with weather, there’s a chance to catch other flights, so that you won’t totally miss the gig. You don’t get to sleep a lot. It’s hard to eat properly. I think there’s a quote by the late Phil Woods, he says, “I’ll play the music for free. You have to pay me for the travel.” If you’re driving, traveling by land, you live in a bus, so that’s better because at least you get to sleep on a bus, but it’s a little claustrophobic, you get used to it.
You get up early, you travel all day, you’re racing the clock constantly, usually you go straight to the venue, do a sound check. Sometimes it’s just a technical perfunctory check to make sure everything’s working, because you’ve done the show so many times that you don’t really have to rehearse. But then you might be with a leader who wants to rehearse every day, so the sound check amounts to being a concert in itself. I’ve been to sound checks where the music was better than the show. So you do the sound check, then they serve a meal, not always. Maybe you’re lucky and you get back to go to the hotel, you take a shower, catch a nap maybe, do the show. If you’re the headliner, maybe there’s another act before you. By the time everything is over, it’s near midnight, you tear down, you jump back on the bus and head to the next show, or maybe you have a hotel, you hang out a little bit, you get up the next day, and you do it all over again.
So it’s a lot like Groundhog Day, the movie, the same thing over and over and over again. It’s great, but for every exciting glory-filled famous high-pressure venue, you play a lot of little towns where it’s like, “What are we doing here?” You have to take a gig wherever the itinerary takes you. It could be international, it could be in the United States. It’s not a picnic; it’s hard. On the other hand, it’s a very simple lifestyle because all you have to think about is getting to the sound check and doing the show, that’s it. Everything else, all the mundane things that happen at home, you don’t have to worry about, you’re not there, whether the roof is leaking, or something happened to the car, or with family, or the dog got sick. You’re just in this other zone of get to the gig, do the show, make the flight—very, very simple existence.
VOJ: Having worked with such a diverse range of groups and a wide array of different personalities of band leaders, what would you say makes a band leader a great band leader?
Richie Morales: Well, first of all, generally, the character of the bandleader shines through and that permeates the whole vibe of the organization. Band leaders have to have a lot going on because they have to have the business thing together, they have to worry about the music, and they have to have people skills in order to lead the band effectively. There are different leadership/management styles. Certain band leaders micromanage the music, they micromanage every aspect of your playing, but it’s all about the music, because they want the music to sound a certain way, and it’s for the greater good. That could get a little annoying. Other band leaders lead more by example, they come and they play hard every night, and they give the audience what they want, and they strive for that bright musical moment. Maybe there’s less verbal communication and more musical communication. Other band leaders like a little chaos, to instill a little tension and anxiety in the ranks, they like the effect that has on the music. There are different leadership styles and I’ve had the opportunity to work with all kinds. I’ve learned from a lot of different ones.
VOJ: Looking back at your career, are there any band leaders that stick out in your mind as being particularly easy or difficult to work with?
Richie Morales: Well, I don’t want to get into airing dirty laundry or anything like that. But like I said, some guys are, “Listen, let’s go over this tune. This is what I’m looking for,” and other guys are, “Let’s just play.” Others are like, “Listen, we have to listen to the record, because we’re selling lots of product and the people are coming to the show, they’re paying us X amount of money, and they want to hear us re-create that recorded experience.” Personally, when I go to see a band, I would like to see the band use the recorded material as a point of departure for improvisation. Other people don’t feel like that. One time I was with working with an artist and they had a particular song getting airplay on the radio, and it sounded a certain way, and we came up with a great arrangement for the live presentation, and the feedback we got from industry people and some fans was, “We didn’t really like what you did with the song. It didn’t sound enough like the record.” Depending on the genre, if you’re working with an artist that uses loops and a lot of technology on the recording, people’s ears get used to hearing a certain sound, and then when they go hear it live, they might either be disappointed or pleasantly surprised if the artist presents something that sounds different. You never know.
Wayne Shorter, for instance, the band that he’s been touring with, they’re playing free, they’re rhapsodizing. Even though they might be playing Nefertiti or Footprints or any one of his classic compositions, they’re so stretched out that they’re unrecognizable. I heard mixed reviews by some people who really loved it and other people had an unrealistic expectation. They were listening to records made in the 60s or 70s and we’re in the second decade of the 21st century. Wayne’s conception is different now. It’s not like classical music where you have an idea, if you go in to see a program of a particular composer, you know what you’re going to get. As opposed to with jazz, or any form of improvisational music, who knows?
VOJ: Any words of advice for a young musician who may be considering pursuing a career in playing music?
Richie Morales: Well, first of all you have to love it. If there’s any question—we all have questions about the path we’re on—but if there’s any question, “I’m not really sure if this is what I want to do,” then it’s not for you. A lot of guys say, “I didn’t choose music; the music chose me.” I think if you speak to a lot of my contemporaries, they’ll say that. There was never any question that this is what I was going to do. Today, young musicians have to be more entrepreneurial, in terms of marketing themselves. Jazz musicians, I think, and maybe classical musicians too, artists in general, are notoriously bad at the business aspects of their industry. They spend a lot of time practicing and learning repertoire and modes and scales, and working on technique, but then when it comes time to get a gig and for self promotion, they haven’t worked on those skills as much if at all. Even in conservatories and collegiate music programs now, there is more emphasis being placed on entrepreneurship and arts management.
The other day, I did a gig with somebody, and it sounded pretty good, it was videoed and recorded on an iPhone and the leader said, “Yeah, man, I’m going to make an EPK with this.” And I said, “I’m sorry, what’s an EPK?” And he said, “Electronic Press Kit.” You’re probably familiar with that. I knew what it was, but it was the first time I had really heard the term with regard to something I was involved with musically. We have MTV to thank for that. Everything is done on the internet so you need to be savvy with social media, likes, hits, downloads, the quality of the product is almost an afterthought, and there’s so much coming out every day. It’s a tough time because there are fewer places to play and there are more musicians coming out of the conservatories. Today’s economic reality is tough, cost of living rent etc.. So it’s purely an issue of supply and demand.
There are just a lot of tools that you need, plus money. Life’s a struggle so you need lots of different weapons to go fight the fight. You need your artistic skills and your business chops, educational credentials. So many people have that ed degree to fall back on. Some people just play for fun. But you never know where the music is going to take you. I know a lot of musicians who got their degrees, they got their thing together, then they became expatriates. It’s a fact in jazz you have to travel internationally to make a buck.—I know some guys who live in Korea or Japan, Tokyo and Seoul, and they’re playing with the top guys over there. They’re playing gigs, and festivals, working all the time and doing things they probably wouldn’t be doing at that level if they were in New York. But you never know…
More on Richie Morales can be found on his website.