Gentleman Jim

Since he arrived in New York City in 1987, Jim Rotondi, born in 1962, has been acknowledged as one of the best hard bop trumpet players. Whether as a leader or coleader with One for All, his elegant and skillful playing at the trumpet and the flugelhorn places him in the line with master trumpet players Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham while he remains an underestimated composer. As a stylist who loves to play standards with unexpected arrangements, he explores the creative paths that vibraphonists (Joe Locke, Steve Nelson) and organists (David Hazeltine, Sam Yahel, Renato Chicco) offer him and whose sound he appreciates so much. Over the years, Jim Rotondi, a former sideman of Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, recorded more than 60 albums -twenty-some as leader and co-leader with One for All and forty-some as sideman (George Coleman, Charles Earland, Bob Mintzer). Since 2010, he has been an educator at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, in Austria, after teaching for 10 years in New York. In this interview, he reflects on his experience and developments as a musician and on the encounters that inspired him.

Interview by Mathieu Perez
© Photo X, by courtesy of Jim Rotondi

© Jazz Hot n°663, Spring 2013

Jim Rotondi

Jazz Hot : You were born in Butte, in Montana. Were you always surrounded by music?

Jim Rotondi : I’m the youngest of the five kids, and my mom was and still is an active piano teacher. We always had music in the house. So I started with the piano. That was my first instrument when I was eight years old. All the kids in my family were required to take piano lessons. It wasn’t an option. It was obligatoire. I still play all the time. And in my teaching it’s imperative.

Has the piano influenced your playing of the trumpet?

For the playing of the trumpet, if I could put a number higher than a 100 % I would because it informs everything that I think about when I improvise. When I play with my eyes closed, my vision is a keyboard, not a trumpet at all. So my whole basis for jazz improvisation is a piano. Applying the piano certainly takes a lot of the limits away in terms of understanding what’s happening in improvisation. I believe Dizzy said years ago in an interview that he suggested to Miles Davis to start working on the piano because the trumpet is one note but if you can see the whole keyboard you know all the notes that fit in. I write everything at the piano. I don’t think I’ve ever composed anything on the trumpet in my life. It is for that reason that if you listen to a tune of mine you’re often going to hear a specific piano part written out note for note.

You have been an educator in New York for 10 years. You are now teaching at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, in Austria. Is the piano an element of your teaching?

Absolutely. In fact my students all hate me because I make them play the piano (laughs). Few trumpet teachers do that. Some young students don’t see right away the relevance between studying the trumpet and studying the piano. I just find it critically important. And I think students progress a lot faster when they start to understand the chords and to visualize them.

How were you awakened to jazz in Montana?

Jazz was absent. When I grew up it was still the era of vinyl records so like most towns of the USA, we had small record stores. I got a lot of records that way. The first one that I heard was Clifford Brown and Max Roach in the great EmArcy collections. And I heard some things on the radio that I wouldn’t have heard elsewhere.

Was jazz a natural vocation?

The point that I decided to make it my life’s vocation was after I’d left Montana. I was going to college in Oregon pretty much aimless at that point. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I hadn’t really selected it. My brother and I were going to school together and my father was sending me money and I was using it to buy jazz records and not all the books I was supposed to buy for school. The second year I was there I just said obsviously all I want to do is play the trumpet and practice that and work on that. I was 19.

After studying at the University of Oregon, you went to North Texas State University and became one of Don Jacoby’s student. What did you learn from him?

That could be an interview by itself ! Don Jacoby was very instrumental for me not so much on the jazz side but just from the technique side of playing the instrument. His genius was as a teacher of executing things on the instrument. What he would always tell his students was : ‘I don’t care what kind of music you like to play. I’ll teach how to play it better.’ He had very simple ideas. The trumpet is a physical instrument and you have to work to play a C. Before I met Mr. Jacoby, I think I had a lot of physical barriers in my mind. I was thinking it was really difficult. So he taught me a lot about natural breathing and simple ways to think about it and realize it was not that difficult. Then he really opened me up in terms of playing. He allowed me to do more things.

What were you listening to during those years of apprenticeship?

At that time, I was really trying to emulate other artists. I was transcribing Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham. When I would transcribe those artists, my deliberate intention was to sound like those guys. At that time, I wasn’t trying to find my own voice, I was trying to understand how they found their voice. And it’s through studying that you find your own voice. Being a teacher, I see that there are students that don’t want to do that. They want to have their voice now. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. They think they know everything but ignore the power of Bix’s music that date back back to the 1920s. That’s why I encourage my students to do it the way I did it: study the artists in depth and take from them what you like.

Did you leave for New York after your studies in Texas?

It was in 1985. I didn’t have any money. A lot of the guys that went to North Texas University went there so that they could get in a band and go on the road with Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman or Stan Kenton. But that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I knew long before I had finished in Texas that I wanted to move to New York. I couldn’t afford it and and coming from Montana… So I went to Florida to work for a year on one of those cocktail party ships. And then I moved to New York in 1987.

Was New York as your imagined it in your mind?

When I first got to New York, it was really eye opening experience because I thought I was playing pretty well  at that point. I litterally was overwhelmed with how many great cats there were and that I had never heard of. They could play any tune in any key in any tempo. I think of my first five years in New York as my Master’s Degree, my finishing school. I found out in New York what I didn’t know. What I thought I knew I didn’t. I admit I didn’t know the Cole Porter songs and the standards. In college, they didn’t teach us that. They teach you ‘Stella by Starlight’ and the blues. I had to learn quickly. You can call it a crash course. I would go out to those jam sessions and always someone would call a tune that I didn’t know and that everybody else seem to know. I made lists. If someone calls a tune that I don’t know, by next time I go there I’ll know it. I think it’s a healthy way to approach it.

Do you remember your first experience as pro musician in a Broadway show?

It was a little scary. Up to that point I hadn’t any experience. And it happened the first two or three weeks after I’d arrived in New York. It was called Beehive and it had been playing at the Village Gate, then they decided to take on the road. It was a review of black and white girl groups from the 1960s. We were doing Tina Turner, all the music of that era, basically R&B. It was a different kind of thing for me and it was well paid. It lasted three months.

Was the Artie Shaw Orchestra your first experience as a jazz musician?

That one didn’t last long either, about three, four months. It wasn’t the perfect gig for me. The whole purpose was to re-create the hits of forty years ago. I learned some great music that I didn’t know but creatively… We played some great arrangements, I had respect for that.

Meeting Ray Charles and playing with him was a decisive moment in your life. How did you meet him?

At the time I was living in an appartment in Brooklyn with roomates. I heard from a musician that I knew that was playing in Ray’s band. One night, I saw him at the Blue Note and I told him I would love to do this gig. We stayed in touch. The next time they were in town he said it was the end of the tour and he knew there woud be two trumpet chairs opening for the next tour. He suggested that I send Ray a tape of my band. My band? I didn’t have a band. I thought I’d hire some guys. I ended up using my cassette player. I put on an Aebersold Play-A-Long of Charlie Parker and I played along with it. I sent him the tape and I said that this was my band. A couple weeks later, I came home and found on my answering machine a message from Ray himself saying : ‘Hey man, it’s Ray. I’m sending you a ticket. Come on out to L.A.’ That message scared the shit out of me! One regret that I have is that I didn’t save this cassette…

How was it to be on tour with him?

Working with him was heavy on a lot of different levels. The environment was not easy. We had a lot of rules. He was very much a perfectionist. He wanted it his way every night and if he didn’t get that from you he would fine you or fire you. I was young and I was scared because I had to play a lot of little solo parts just with him and nobody else in the band. But on another level, it was incredibly spiritual. I learned so many things because Ray was such a great performer. No matter what the situation, if you’re gonna go on the band stand, you have to give a 110 %. I saw him play sick, I saw him play drunk, I saw him play sick and drunk. It seemed to me that it was when the conditions were at the worst that he was at his best. He could lift any bandstand by himself anytime he wanted to.

Were the arrangements written down?

He had a big book of arrangements for his orchestra. But some of the things that I had to play with him were not written down. I had to learn from recordings and then I had to go talk to him personally and he would sing it to me the way he wanted it. The arrangements changed over the years and over the nights. He didn’t want me to sound the same way the guy before me did. The rule on the band was if Ray Charles calls you into his office after the gig it’s bad. You don’t want that to happen. Every night for the first two weeks, I was called into his office. And one night he said finally: ‘What’s wrong with you? What don’t you get in this tune?’ I said I was listening to those recordings and I was trying to play it the way the guys before me did. ‘Don’t ever do that! », he said. And he sang the arrangement. After that, I never went to his office again.

What relationship did he have with the band?

He wasn’t close with the band. He never travelled with us unless he absolutely had to. He had a custom-made bus with a lounge room and an electric piano and a bar and all that. In my whole time there, I think he rode with us once and that’s because the trip was only thirty minutes long. Other than that, he always took a plane or a limousine. And he purposefully removed himself from the band to keep it on a business level. He had tough and strict managers. There were the bad guys more than Ray.

When do you become a sideman?

While I was working with Ray I made my first sideman appearance with Eric Alexander. And his album was hugely popular. I was torn because I loved playing with Ray but I wanted to get my own career together.

Then you played in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra for six years. How would a musician become a part of it?

Usually you started subbing for someone else on a couple of gigs then eventually it became your gig. I had been covering for some friends in New York and Joe Magnarelli eased out. At that point, Lionel was old. Touring wasn’t hard. We would go out for one, two weeks at the most. Then go back home for a month. I learned a lot from him. He’s another one who tried very hard when he played. He gave it his full. I probably learned from Lionel the feeling of the music because he was so close to the audiences. It was very important for him that the audiences were happy. Sometimes you see that young musicians don’t really do that.

How did your first album Introducing Jim Rotondi happen?

In 1996, as a sideman I had done Eric Alexander’s album Two of a Kind, produced by Gerry Teekens for Criss Cross. Teekens would come to New York maybe three times a year and always wanted to find new guys that didn’t have any recordings yet. I was one of those guys. And Eric Alexander had already recorded with him. One night, Teekens came to my gig and hired me.

There are few originals in your albums. Why?
I guess I am not really convinced that my songs would be as strong as some standards would be on a record. I think with time my compositions have gone better. Now I could release an album with all original compositions more easily. Coming up with nine tracks is a lot of work. I go through cycles. I’m not one of those people that make my self compose. Ideas of songs come to me and then I elaborate on it. But on the other side, when a recording project comes up, I know I need three or four tunes for it.

In your second album Jim's Bop, released in 1998, you worked with musicians that you never left…

John Webber, Joe Farnsworth, Harold Mabern, Eric Alexander, I can’t imagine a better team. Joe’s brother and I went to school together in Texas. And Eric and Joe went going to school at William Paterson University where Harold Mabern teaches. John Webber was around a lot of things we used to do. It’s a family. We all together used to play at Augie’s, which is now called Smoke. A lot of stuff that we do now comes from those gigs.

Eric Alexander and you used to write together…

We used to compose together a lot. For his first album Staight Up, Eric needed material. We wrote five tunes in a couple hours. And it became the way we did out for each of our records for the next few years.

In 2001, the album Destination Up was an important moment in your musical career. Was it at this point that you realized you had your own sound?

This album is a bit of a departure. My approach prior to that album was maybe a littlemore conventionnal : sax, trumpet, piano, bass, drums, more or less influenced by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown. This album was the first one where I experimented a different kind of sound, the trumpet and the vibraphone which I continue to use. Mulgrew Miller was on it. This record showed me different ways I could go.

Same thing for New Vistas (2004)…

More of a departure. This was recorded with a lot a guys that were considered to be the new young generation : Chris Potter, Sam Yahel, Bill Stewart and Peter Bernstein. I was told this album was popular because of that. My students identify more with this album. Because it’s considered to be more of a today’s approach as opposed to a more traditional. To me it was just another record.

In each of your albums, you play a standard. Why is that important to you?

Harold Mabern and George Coleman have shown me the importance of standards. That’s why there is always one in my albums, it’s important. Throughout the history of the music, Miles showed us that with Herbie and Wayne that you can take any kind of music and use as a backdrop. It’s the way you interpret it that’s going to make it unique or not. I can’t think of a good reason to not play a good standard. These songs are called standards. For me they’re called standards because they let you find out where you are in the music. I’m glad I grew up at a time when I had a chance to learn those tunes. I’m always interested in trying to make those songs sound new. « Love for Sale » is a David Hazeltine arrangement and it’s completly different then what you usually hear.

You are the co-leader of One for All. How did the band start?

It came at the time of my first album. One for All was together three or four years before that recording. One for All really came together at Augie’s. It started with jam sessions at Dave Hazeltine’s place. Our first gig was during mine at Small’s. We knew the spirit of it right away. Sharp Nine had been working with Hazeltine. He talked them to it and we made the record.

Many critics have pointed out the reference to Art Blakey. Was the initial idea to pay tribute to the great drummer?

Steve Davis was in the last version of the Jazz Messengers. Their record is called One for All and that song is on there. Joe loved this song and wanted us to play it. That was one of the first tunes we played a lot. It was just natural to call that band that. It was not so much in tribute to Art Blakey but in reference of the collective spirit of the group. No leader but six guys that like to play together. As far as the association with Art Blakey, a lot of people have said that in print before, but we don’t a make a concerted effort to get that sound. The way we write and the way we play is just our natural way of doing it. But as a trumpet player, how I could I not be influenced by Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, the cats that played with Art Blakey. Those comparisons are natural and inevitable. But as a group I don’t think we try that.

What is the difference between your sound and One for All’s?

In our records, there are original compositions. Each of the band members will take two. You will hear original songs rather than arrangements of standards. In comparison, my records have less originals and I’m more willing to take a chance with the sound, with the vibraphone, the organ. One for All  is going to be a specific sound. Over the years, our writing has got better. When I listen to the first album, I think the playing was really good but when I hear the later records, the writing has come up to the playing. Now when I write for the band, I know exactly what it is going to sound like, how we are going to play it. It was natural, now it has become easy to play with the guys.

As leader

1997. Introducing Jim Rotondi, Criss Cross 1128
1998. Jim's Bop, Criss Cross 1156
2000. Excursions, Criss Cross 1184
2001. Destination Up, Sharp Nine Records 1022
2004. The Pleasure Dome, Sharp Nine Records 1029
2004. New Vistas, Criss Cross 1251
2006. Iron Man, Criss Cross 1275
2008. Four of a Kind, Posi-Tone Records 8034
2009. Blues for Brother Ray, Posi-Tone Records 8045
2010. 1000 Rainbows, Posi-Tone Records 8062
2010. The Move, Criss Cross 1323
2013. Hard Hittin' at the Bird's Eye, Sharp Nine Records 1050

As coleader
1997. One For All, Too Soon To Tell, Sharp Nine Records 1006
1998. One For All, Optimism, Sharp Nine Records 1010
2000. One For All, The Long Haul, Criss Cross 1193
2001. One For All, The End of a Love Affair, Venus Records 35095
2003. One For All, Wide Horizons, Criss Cross 1234
2004. One For All, No Problem, Tokuma Records 35322
2006. One For All, Killer Joe, Venus Records 35351
2006. One For All, Lineup, Sharp Nine Records 1037
2008. One For All, What's Going On?, Tokuma Records 35411
2010. One For All, Incorrigible, Jazz Legacy 1001005
2011. One For All, Invades Vancouver!, Cellar Live Records 91210

As sideman
1992. Eric Alexander, Straight Up, Delmark 461
1997. Steve Davis Sextet, Dig Deep, Criss Cross Jazz 1136
1998. Eric Alexander, Mode for Mabes, Delmark 500
1999. Charles Earland, Cookin' with the Mighty Burner, HighNote 7014
2000. George Coleman, Danger High Voltage, Two And Four Recording Company 3
2000. Charles Earland, Stomp!, HighNote 7037
2001. Eric Alexander, The Second Milestone, Milestone 9315
2004. Joe Farnsworth, It's Prime Time, Sony Japan 9600372
2004, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo, Wounded Bird 1079
2007. Eric Alexander, Temple of Olympic Zeus, HighNote 7172
2008. Bob Mintzer, Swing Out, MCG Jazz 1030
2013. Craig Wuepper, Leaps and Bounds, Cellar Live Records, 113012