Veteran bassist shares his story of gigs with McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey, plus his own solo career
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 21, 2009
Avery Sharpe is an electric and acoustic bass player, as well as a composer and bandleader. He spent twenty years as McCoy Tyner’s bass player and has also performed with Archie Shepp, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Pat Metheny, Kevin Eubanks and many others. Sharpe has been commissioned numerous times to compose for ensembles of various sizes, including classical trios, chamber groups and full orchestra. He is the founder of JKNM records, which has just released his latest CD, Autumn Moonlight. Avery resides in Massachusetts.
FBPO: Tell me about your introduction to music. Growing up as one of eight children, was there always a lot of music being played in your house?
AS: I am number six of eight children. I was born in the segregated south, in Georgia, in the 1950s. My mother is a piano player and directed choirs in the black, Pentecostal “Church of God in Christ.” She taught us all piano. I started lessons at age eight and was the first one in my family to stick with it. Eventually, my baby sister and brother took piano and stuck with music, too. The first six kids are two years apart in age up to me. I was the baby for six years before my little sister came along, so I was the first to be able to spend more time with my mother during those formative years. In the Pentecostal church at that time, people went to church almost every day of the week, either for prayer service, choir rehearsal or regular service. My mother played for all of the services, so I was with her much of the time. The services were conducted in what we’d call “storefront churches.” The music was incredible black gospel music from the 1950s and 1960s. It was considered an extreme religion, where people would get “happy,” as we used to say. They would shout, dance, run down the aisles, speak in tongues and get the Holy Ghost. The rhythms were unreal and could remind one of similar African rhythms or an amalgamation of African American culture.
My mother only allowed sacred music in the house, mostly black. Because of the rules of the church, we were not allowed to listen to secular music or “the devil’s music.” So we listened to Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Clara Ward, Shirley Ceasar and other black gospel artists of that day and of the past. The great thing was that, although my mother was in the church, my father was not, so he brought all kinds of music in the house, “the devil’s music!” He loved Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He also listened to what my older brothers and sisters liked but weren’t allowed to bring in the house. So my father would buy the records and play them for us. He liked James Brown, Motown, Stax Records artists and other soul and rhythm & blues artists. He also loved gospel music. Mahalia Jackson was one of his favorites. She is still one my favorite singers of all time, in any genre of music.
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player? Were you equally interested in both the electric and upright, or did one win out over the other?
AS: I became interested in the electric bass at 16 years of age, when we lived in Springfield, Massachusetts. I wish I could give some deep reason why I started bass, but like any adolescent, I was interested in girls and thought girls liked bass players. My father bought me a hollow body bass made by the toymaker Ideal. He got it from a pawn shop, along with a “Checkmate” practice amplifier. I still have the amplifier, but lost the bass while moving around in college. I began playing gospel music in church to satisfy my mother’s wishes, but I also played in local soul bands with friends for fun and to earn money.
I attended the University of Massachusetts as a physical education major, though that only lasted a semester. I was getting more interested in music and started really listening to more jazz, particularly artists and recordings from the CTI label, like Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Grover Washington, Jr., and many others. I heard Ron Carter’s bass on those recordings and fell in love with the acoustic bass. It just so happened that the great Reggie Workman was coming to teach a couple of days a week at the university. I saw Reggie play on campus with Max Roach. I also saw the Bass Violin Choir with Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Lisle Atkinson, Bill Lee and others on campus. After that concert, I vowed to get an acoustic bass to get to that sound.
FBPO: How did you choose University of Massachusetts, given that you were born in Georgia?
AS: My father was in the Air Force at the time. After being stationed in Savannah, Georgia, they moved him up to Plattsburgh, New York. By 1965 my father had already fought in World War II and Korea. By the time he was 39 years old he had seven children and had been in the service for 23 years. When they wanted to send him to Vietnam, he decided he had had enough and retired. Rather than uproot the family again and move us all back to Georgia, he decided to stay up north and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Even though it was the mid-’60s and I was only in junior high school, my oldest brother had already convinced me to go to the University of Massachusetts. He said it was a great school and had a lot to offer. He was absolutely correct. I was originally bound for Springfield College as a physical education major. I had heard that James Naismith, the man who invented basketball in 1891, had attended that school.
FBPO: How did the gigs with Archie Shepp and Art Blakey come about?
AS: Archie Shepp was one of my professors at University of Massachusetts. In the mid-1970s, people like Archie, Max Roach, Reggie Workman, Horace Boyer and Fred Tillis were all there. Each took me under his wing and nurtured my development, especially Horace Boyer and Archie Shepp. Shepp and Boyer really helped define my direction to pursue music. I was in Archie’s classes and did a lot of playing. I also did a great deal of playing in Boyer’s classes. I did regional performances with Shepp and his group on both electric and acoustic bass. This eventually led to Archie giving me my first international gig when he took me to Europe to tour with the “Attica Blues Big Band.” While in Paris, the Big Band was performing and Art Blakey sat in. He was so taken by my playing that he indicated that when the time came to change bass players, he wanted me to be in his band. I didn’t really think he was serious until a couple months later, when Dennis Erwin, his bass player at the time, left and Art gave me a call. The first night I played with the band was the first night that Wynton Marsalis sat in. A few months later, around the time Wynton joined the band, I left to join McCoy Tyner.
FBPO: You were with McCoy for many years. That must have been a great experience.
AS: McCoy first heard about me from Charles Greenlee, a great trombonist. Charles was living and working in Springfield. When McCoy came to Amherst, Charles told him about me. When McCoy heard about me again from his agent Jack Whittemore, who, coincidentally, was Blakely’s agent too, he asked me to join his band. I was thrilled because I had always wanted to play with McCoy as I was deeply inspired by the whole John Coltrane legacy. McCoy and I clicked musically and personally right away. This led to me working with him for twenty years. One of the great musical groups I had the pleasure of being part of was McCoy Tyner’s trio with the great drummer Louis Hayes. McCoy and Louis come from the same generation and I represented the generation after them. I learned so much musically and personally from both of them.
FBPO: I bet a lot of people don’t know that you’re also an accomplished classical composer. Talk about some of the things you’ve done in that area.
AS: I wouldn’t say I am a classical composer per se because I didn’t study classical composition in school and I didn’t study with some famous composer. I like to think of myself as just a composer. I don’t have any formal training in orchestration. I taught myself composition, orchestration and arranging. I studied theory and improvisation in school, but my composition, orchestration and arranging just came from getting the books, trial and error and just doing it. I have written for classical trio, chamber and full orchestras. These compositions would be considered jazz pieces because they include soloing and improvisation.
I have written pieces that have combined jazz ensembles, gospel choir and full orchestra. I am writing and arranging for a holiday pops concert this holiday season for gospel choir, rhythm section and full orchestra. I was commissioned by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra to write a jazz concerto for trio and orchestra, which premiered in 2007. The trio was made up of Kevin Eubanks on acoustic guitar, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums and, of course, me on bass. It was fantastic! Kevin and “Smitty” are the best! I was telling my wife that I love mixing elements of jazz with orchestras. My fantasy situation would be the John Coltrane Quartet meets the New York Philharmonic. I am planning to do an original composition for jazz quartet and orchestra in the idiom of John Coltrane. I don’t know where the funding will come from, but I’m searching and I’m optimistic.
FBPO: In addition to being an in-demand sideman, you’re also a leader in your own right. Tell me about the groups that you’ve led and the albums you’ve recorded.
AS: I was with McCoy for so long that many people weren’t aware of many of the other projects I was doing. I used to tell people if I’m not fronting my own groups, the next best thing is playing with McCoy Tyner. Playing with McCoy was so rewarding that it was easy to get lost and lose sight of my own projects. Fortunately, playing with someone like McCoy can’t help but influence and inspire you. It makes you determined to express yourself. I was putting together groups and leader recordings while with McCoy. One of my first groups was with John Blake on violin, Joe Ford on saxophones, Clyde Criner on piano and Ronnie Burrage on drums. These guys were basically the members of McCoy’s band, the first band of his that I was in. We did performances when we weren’t working with McCoy. Later, Marc Puricelli replaced Clyde Criner on piano. Eventually, John Blake left and it became a quartet. Now that I’m no longer with McCoy, I have a permanent trio with Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano and Winard Harper on drums. I recorded my first record as a leader on Sunnyside Records back in 1988. It was called “Unspoken Words” and the band was made up of Blake, Ford, Criner and Burrage. Guillerme Franco was a special guest on percussion and McCoy played on one tune as well.
I started my record label, JKNM Records, back in 1994, with encouragement from Yusef Lateef and Kevin Eubanks. This was long before everyone started to make that move because the industry had changed. Since that time, I released 1) Extended Family, 2) Extended Family II – Thoughts of My Ancestors, 3) Extended Family III – Family Values, 4) John Blake/Avery Sharpe Duo – Epic Ebony Journey, 5) Dragon Fly and 6) Legends and Mentors.
FBPO: How about Autumn Moonlight?
AS: Autumn Moonlight is my latest release. It is with my current trio, with Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano and Winard Harper on drums. I approached this project more like a traditional piano trio. This is the second recording on my label where I didn’t play any electric bass. It is a slightly different approach for me not to play all the melodies and soloing on everything. When I solo on everything and play all the melodies, suddenly it becomes a “bass record” and it isn’t taken as seriously as it would be otherwise. To me that is really strange, but maybe it’s because I’m a bass player. Piano, sax, trumpet, singers and most instruments can do that and no one ever says, oh it’s “just a trumpet record” or “only a sax record.” When you do it on bass, though, suddenly it’s different. Hmm!
I love this trio. Onaje and Winard have their own bands and each has a wealth of experience. At our live performances, I often tell the audience, “You are looking at over a hundred years of experience, playing at this high level, standing before you.” Onaje and Winard can go anywhere I choose to go musically and they are always right there with me. The trio has been performing together for a while and we are really beginning to take the music to another level. The recording was inspired by where I live, at the foothills of the Berkshires, not far from Tanglewood and Norman Rockwell country, in Massachusetts. The woods and landscape are beautiful. Summer and autumn nights are really something. The view of the stars and the moon some nights can be as clear as a bell. On the recording are six of my originals, two of Onaje’s tunes, a Woody Shaw tune and an arrangement of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
FBPO: What lies on the horizon for Avery Sharpe? What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to do?
AS: As mentioned, I want to do a jazz concerto for quartet and orchestra, an approach to the music that maybe John Coltrane would have taken. Also, I plan to write an oratorio, an unstaged opera, based on the life of Booker T. Washington. I guess you could call Booker T. the original Barack Obama from the 19th and 20th centuries. Booker T. influenced every major African American leader, from Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr. I would also like to expand the concept of my recording “Legends and Mentors,” the music of McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, and Yusef Lateef. I’m working on getting those three heavyweights on stage with me, playing the music I wrote for them on that project. I’m always optimistic. We’ll see what happens.
FBPO: What sort of things do you like to do that aren’t necessarily musically oriented?
AS: I am a serious health enthusiast. I am a vegan and take an enormous amount of supplements and exercise daily. I mentioned earlier that I was a physical education major my first semester in college. I still love to stay active in sports and physical activity. I have been a vegetarian for some thirty-plus years. I was a vegan for about the first five years. I used to actually cook my food the first couple of years I was on the road. Then for about twelve years I added fish and cheese into my diet because of the difficulty of finding health food stores and restaurants on the road. Then around 1994-95, I went back to being a pure vegan. It had become a little easier being on the road and finding alternative choices.
I ran a half-marathon down at Cape Cod this summer and will do another one in eastern Massachusetts in a couple of weeks. I’m not trying to break any records; I’m just trying to challenge my body and cross the finish line. I do find that being a health enthusiast does help my music, especially my playing. There are some physical demands when playing the bass, or at least the way I approach the instrument. If everyone went vegan at least one day a week for a year, that could put an incredible dent in our carbon footprint, not to mention how it would save untold millions of animals’ lives. But enough about that. I could go on all day.
I’ve been playing chess since I was nine years old and I love it. It’s a great game that helps exercise the brain and teaches you to look ahead before you move, similar to life. It is difficult for me not to make a connection with things that may not seem to have anything to do with music, but eventually I find a way to make that connection. The art of creativity and improvisation makes one use all of his or her experiences, knowledge and senses to be most effective at expressing one’s self. So I find a way to bring the most mundane situation to fruition, regardless of whether it’s pleasurable or not.