Charles Blenzig: Well, I think like most of us, it kind of picks us. I remember at a very early age, my mother got me piano lesson, which was pretty common at that time, to do for a kid. Pretty normal. And I got into first the music of my day, Elton John, the Beatles, and the day that changed my life was the day that I heard Coltrane. I guess I was about 14. It was an unusual situation. You wouldn’t think one would be at where one was. It’s just kind of funny because it’s the same kind of thing now. It wasn’t a protest; it was a walk. There was just that march a few days ago. But it was a walk to raise money for poor people, like they’ll do. And the night before, we were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the people that were walking. And that was a lucky thing. The kid was a jazz pianist and he put on My Favorite Things. And the reason I take so long to explain that is that moment in my life took a change. It is so clear. I didn’t know if I could do it. I was like, “Seriously, what is this guy doing on this instrument with a tune that I know?” So that kind of really, right there—and it has become my style of playing, very modern, or I like to think so. Whatever, I’m not a traditionalist.
VOJ: What do you think it was about the sound of that that drew you to it?
Charles Blenzig: One thing was I didn’t know it at the time, but it was on the soprano sax. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sound hadn’t really been used since Sidney Bechet. So, one it was that voice, because you’ve got that upper register voice, when you’ve only that A low flat below middle-C soprano. That is, for its time—it’s about 12 or 13 minutes long, the original on the record. And then some of the live ones, forget it. But I thought, “Wow, look at that! They just jammed on this!” And you know the tune, of course, literally, I think the bass may play a V [chord] now and then but 98% of the tune is just E. It’s all Jimmy [Garrison] playing rhythm on E, some Root-V stuff. But it was really intriguing to me. And of course, you trace everything else, but since I was in that kind of a mode, no pun intended, I got right into Kind of Blue, and then some partials, modal-type playing.
VOJ: At what point did you have a jazz teacher?
Charles Blenzig: I actually only studied officially about six to eight months. I don’t think it was even a year, but maybe it was. Six months to a year, with the great pianist and educator Hal Galper.
VOJ: It’s funny you should mention him. I just interviewed him on Sunday.
Charles Blenzig: There you go. The reason I giggle a little is just because it isn’t a long period of time. The extraordinary thing about him was he laid it out in a way by which he showed me organization in material, really, which is a huge thing of being a jazz musician, to compartmentalize stuff and say “I have to work on this.” And he made it simple, showing the Dominant Lydian scale, which is funny too, that he said, “This is the only scale. That’s it.” Of course, he was fucking around, but in a way, that is the first natural scale in the overtone series. It does have some weird significance with that, the upper partials. It spells that scale with a passing 7. But anyway, Hal is an extraordinary cat. I still see him all the time. He taught at Purchase. When he does gigs in New York, I always go out. But it’s funny, we became colleagues because he taught at Purchase for years. But that’s my only formal training. Everything else was really just hanging out with cats. It was a really good time for that in New York. The late ‘70s, early ‘80s scene was really kicking. So many people to hear, and you could go out, and it was still old school in the fact that people were still hanging out after gigs and somebody played a piano, and this and that, and if it wasn’t a jam session, someone would be playing something, and you could check out. And that’s just being fortunate, to be in New York at that period of time.
VOJ: So you never went to university or anything like that?
Charles Blenzig: I did. My mother said, “Listen, I’ll help you with college, but you’ve got to be an education major. That’s your ‘B’ plan, still in music, but that will be your ‘B’ plan.” So I listened to her, but also, my main instrument was timpani… Everything is weird with me. So I was a timpanist, and I actually studied with one of the baddest motherfuckers in the world. He was the timpanist that took over at the New York Philharmonic, and his name was Roland Kohloff. Anyway, the point was, I was pretty serious about it, but as it went, as we all do around that age, I thought it was for me and it just wasn’t. After putting two years of really hard studying into it, I was just like, “Nah, this isn’t really my thing.” So I got my ed degree and I was always playing. I think the Hal thing came up during school, while I was going to college, so probably that was around like ’78 or something like that.
VOJ: Do you remember one of the first professional gigs that you got?
Charles Blenzig: Not truly, truly professional, because I think that means you have to be making a profession, but my first paid gig was at a Girl Scout fundraiser dance, something like that. And we had about 4 tunes, so we just repeated.
VOJ: What tunes?
Charles Blenzig: I remember one. I don’t know why this sticks in my mind, but it was Livin’ for the City, Stevie Wonder. I just remember, I think that’s in five. It was just really, really great. But I’ve been a real professional since about—I was in a working band at 17, in high school, when all the other cats were in their late 20s, which is a big difference at that point in your lives, just being a young teenager. So they taught me all the evil ways of rock & roll. And I really started working since then. And I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had to take anything but music jobs since I got out of college.
VOJ: That’s great. Growing up in New York, I would imagine you got to see a lot of live music too.
Charles Blenzig: All of our stuff is really our influences and our environment. I can’t say enough about that. Yeah, I heard Elvin [Jones] once a year. At one point, he was coming in at least 2 times a year to New York. McCoy [Tyner] all the time, Chick [Corea]. I mean, almost everyone, because back then, it was really old school in the sense that we had no money, just like all you young musicians, and we would sit on the steps of the Vanguard. It was much looser then, mind you. This was in the ‘80s. And we’d be there listening, just low enough on the staircase, and then the waitress would come by because she would have to, and we would leave for 5 minutes and then come back. And then, of course, just paying for shows, but you could see anyone and everyone. Just having that, I was so fortunate.
VOJ: So you worked for some time with Gil Evans as well. Can you tell me how that gig came about?
Charles Blenzig: That was kind of my big gig in many ways, forget about the connections and all that. I agree with Miles that there are two great arrangements in music: Duke [Ellington] and Gil. Not that there hasn’t been all such crazy shit since then. Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, master arrangers from the 20thcentury. So there were three keyboard players at the time. Gil played piano, Gil Goldstein was playing second keyboard, and Pete Levin was playing keyboard. Also my friend Delmar Brown was in and out. It was combinations of different people, but there were always three keyboards, a minimum of three keyboards. So while Gil was still alive, one of the cats in the band—have you heard of this cat Chris Hunter?
VOJ: Alto player? Yeah.
Charles Blenzig: Well he was in the band, and I had just made a CD with him. Gil has a son, a trumpet player, and he heard my record and invited me to sit in one night while one of those cats was out. There were only two keyboard players and it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. So I only got to play one more time while Gil was alive because I don’t know if you know, he went out with cancer, and he actually went with his son to Mexico to pass on. Miles took over the band and there were a lot of different things. That one keyboard player wasn’t there, then Pete didn’t like to do it so much and this and that, so I started playing decent. So basically he said—and I tell all my young students this—come in and sit in any time you want. If any young musician hears that—it was a weekly gig, so dig that. A weekly gig in the height of the kind of scene in New York with Gil Evans, the Monday Night Orchestra. It was called the Monday Night Orchestra and it was at a defunct club now called Sweet Basil. But it was hugely visible. Absolutely everybody that was playing in town, or almost everybody or whatever, would come in and see and check it out. I was a New Yorker, but that led me into all the guys, really, that gave me all the gigs I got now. It’s all who knows this. Kenwood Denard, Lew Soloff, Hiram Bullock. These are all names I’m saying now and it’s incredible. They were idols to me. Delmar Brown—he’s not doing good. Anyway, the point was, what a gig. This is good for young musicians to know. Literally, it probably took me a year-and-a-half to two years to get paid. In my view, all these cats, it was a $50 gig. $50 was more in the mid-80s, absolutely, but still, big bands were hired. But I didn’t even get that. You know when you’re playing with motherfuckers and they roll on your instrument, sooner or later, you’re going to be first chair because they’re good and they’re not going to be there all the time. So one night, neither of them showed up, and then Miles could really hear what I do. And that lasted until the club closed. Again, very fortunate to be—you can imagine a visible gig once a week.
VOJ: Can you tell anything about Gil Evans, just as a person?
Charles Blenzig: Like I said, I heard the band many, many times. I only sat in twice with him. There were guys who liked to smoke weed in the back—he was a big pot head. He didn’t say much. He really was a quiet cat. But with a master like that, you just feel shit when you’re around him. Only a few words here and there, but just profound stuff. A master like that, when you’re around that, it’s like a religious experience. When I sat in with him twice was when he would do his regular thing. He would have electric piano or some sort of electric piano up front. Gil or somebody upfront would be playing the acoustic piano, and then the third guy, which I started with, was more of the utility guy. That was another thing, what I really learned how to do is actually play third keyboard. You don’t really need that in too many situations, but it teaches you how to be humble and I just played what I thought was needed. I heard Pete Levin do it, sometimes just some sounds, some sound effects in the right place. It’s a very humble spot to be in, but if you rise to the music and forget about your ego, it’s actually really fun, but a bit challenging at times.
VOJ: Do you feel as though over the course of your career, you’ve had an advantage maybe, over other musicians, having been born in New York to begin with?
Charles Blenzig: Yes. An absolute yes, and as fast as I can say it. I can’t say that enough. So much of what everybody is for everything was their environment. So to be a wannabe jazz musician in the greatest jazz capital of the world—I didn’t know it at the time—at the last heyday of the big hang in New York. I’m thinking maybe by 2000, the shit was, I guess 9/11, in its own way, was its own punch in the face to the end of the real. And the funny thing was, I don’t know if you know, I ran the jam sessions at the Blue Note for about 7 or 8 years. It was during 9/11. Not the day of, but I worked every weekend, including the weekend, which I believe 9/11 was on a Tuesday, Monday or Tuesday, whatever it was. That weekend we worked, and boy, what an amazing feeling. I’ll never forget, Charles Lloyd was playing, it was his band. You could imagine the vibe. There was almost nobody in the club. What a weird night. What a weird everything because, as you know, the Blue Note is not that far. As the crow flies, with no traffic, if you’re walking, it’s not that far, so you smell the shit, you see the trucks pulling all the shit away. I did that for like 7 or 8 years and that I think fucked up my body clock forever because we would start at midnight and play until 4. So getting home at 6:00AM for 7 or 8 years. You can’t go back. But you do what you got to do. It wasn’t glorious all the time. My trio got to play a set and it was great to hear young cats come up. Sometimes it was a little fucked up, but hey, I tried to run it as best I could.
VOJ: How do you feel that New York has changed since you first started playing there?
Charles Blenzig: I try to answer all questions as clear as I can and I really do think that one of the things was 9/11. Because after that, you had the economy thing, which didn’t do anything good either. I’m going to use 9/11 as the kind of first marker of fucking up all of New York, and jazz is part of it. And then slowly, things became more polarized I think, in the music, and then digital sales, and so much shit went at once. My first CD was a real CD. That has changed everything too, so that whole money thing has been taken away, but as far as the hang in New York—I’m living in Manhattan, speaking to you, looking out on 2nd Avenue, and I’m saying this because I’ve been here for the last 6 months and I’ve been hanging a lot more than I did before. And I’ll just tell you what clubs that are cool to hang in, what their scene is. There’s definitely not as many clubs, let’s start with that. Big ones—the Blue Note, I’m still really associated with. I played with Gato Barbieri for like 15 years, something like that, and he just died like a year ago. At one point, he was a resident at the Blue Note—I’m bringing this up because I played there for years with him too, two times a month. But that’s not really musician-friendly, to tell you the truth. The only way it’s musician-friendly is if you played with someone. Then they let you come in for 5 bucks. Smalls, if they know you’re a musician, you can always get in for free. It’s a little bebop orient, but so many of my former students—I went in with a friend that didn’t know anything about music the other night, because she wanted to have a drink or whatever, and there’s like five or my former students, including the doorman! So that’s really friendly. You know about Fat Cat?
Charles Blenzig: Cats want to play so motherfucking much, dig that, listen, I’ll go check out my boy John Benitez there. He’s arguably one of baddest Latin bass players out there. People still really want to play but there’s not that comradery and there’s not enough clubs to really hang. I don’t really do the Smoke scene. That’s even more bebop-oriented, and really clique-y. I really don’t do that. Birdland’s seems more like a tourist thing. I’ve gone up there but you can’t really have a hang in midtown. The hangs were always traditionally in the village. That’s where all the clubs were. And there was a great club… For this, I am so fortunate. Did you ever hear of a club called Bradley’s?
VOJ: Of course. From many people.
Charles Blenzig: That would start as a duo room, bass and piano. So as a young pianist, you could hear it so clearly. Obviously, it’s not within the rhythm section. It’s right there, that and bass, and I heard so many cats in the raw, just them, and could isolate it perfectly. I guess what I’m saying is a big part of it was hanging there and listening a lot. So it was like built in. Really built in.
VOJ: What would be your advice for a young musician who wants to have a career in New York?
Charles Blenzig: It’s really funny. I’ve got some students I’m very proud of. First of all, my students are like musical children to me, because I know it’s really tough. I don’t want to get into every struggle I had or whatever, but you know, anyone who is a musician in New York—listen, making it is a lot of shit too. If you’re young, my cats that are out now and they’re paying rent, they’re making it right now. So I got a couple of kids you probably know. They’re on the scene. I think I mentioned one from your area, Theo Hill. There’s a bass player Dean Torrey doing really well for himself, Aaron Seeber.
VOJ: Yeah, I don’t know these guys personally but I know who they are for sure.
Charles Blenzig: Yeah, dig, I’ve got half-a-dozen students out there, that stayed in New York, that are living off music, and I go check them out all the time. I live in Manhattan and that has been a great thing. For me, it’s really pleasing to go see them. And I tell them, too, “You’re doing it, kid! You look like you’ve been eating; you look like you’ve been sleeping.” So I didn’t really give you any advice. I told you some of my cats in there, because I’m going to give you the advice that I’ve been giving my students. My daughter is a singer and I brought her to this really heavy coach for a few things. He knew she was serious, and he sat down and told her what I’m going to tell you, but I didn’t hear it. It was something all the masters know and that is this: forget New York and everything. Don’t even go into this unless—as he described it and I describe it—it’s like a calling. It’s a calling, because when you give everything up for it, you love it so much that you probably don’t feel it, but when you analyze it years later—I’m 58, man. I’ve given tens of thousands of hours to something I truly love and that is the first thing. If you don’t feel like you’re in a calling, and this is what you’ve got to do, and you have the discipline to put in 4 to 6 hours a day. Everything is different, every instrument is different, but my really serious guys are doing 4 to 6 hours a day. That is the biggest thing, because the rest has to be slightly played with. You’ve got two big things: total time by yourself—but unlike classical musicians, let’s say, and they want to go into the orchestra, they don’t have to be in the orchestra that much to really develop their style, and we do. So the discipline of playing with people and then the last component, I call it the magic. And it is. It’s all about shit that happens on the stage when you leave, blah, blah, blah. You’ve got three components of that. If you’re good with that, then you’re talking about New York. New York is one of the hardest places to make it, but so many possibilities for different outlets, different styles of music you may not have even thought you liked, but there was a chance for a horn section and some pop thing, whatever it is. There’s more opportunity here than anywhere. Very hard but so many opportunities. And I tell my kids, you’ve got to piece your career together. I always tell them, you’ll probably teach in one capacity or another. Even if you’re teaching younger kids, if you have the temperament for that. I used to give lessons all the time. For me, as a pianist, I used to accompany for dance classes. So on your instrument, you’ve got to find things that can only be done on your instrument. Like you can’t do solo sax for a dance company. You have to put all those together and it is the scene, though. Any night, you can go out and still hear a lot of great stuff.