"Gil Scott-Heron and I, we saw each other as conspirators you know, as co-conspirators and trying to get the message of sensitive urgency about becoming more involved with our lives, more involved about what it’s going on at the time in America."

Early success

You’ve done so much, but you’re only 65 … ?

I started when I was really young. I think the first time I was 19 the first time I actually recorded. It was for an album called Pieces of a Man. I needed my mother  to sign the publishing contract. I wasn’t old enough… That was my first experience.

And it became a classic.

It did! Especially “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. It was an amazing experience to work with Ron Carter, Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws. At 19 years old, it’s terrifying!

What made you invite Ron Carter?

Bob Thiele was a master producer at Impulse! Records. He produced most of the great John Coltrane albums on Impulse!, as well as people like Archie Shepp and Elvin Jones. So, when Gil was approached by Bob to do an album of poetry, it wasn’t on Impulse! but it was on his new label Flying Dutch. At the time, Gil and I have been writing music together, but Bob was interested by spoken word pieces out.

After few months, we went up to his office, and we played a few songs that we’d played before. He was like a producer, like a record company guy, smoking his pipe, not saying anything, not moving, not showing any expression. And after we played the first few songs he said: “Ok, so, who do you want on the album?” And my mind just started to go crazy: “Who do I want?” And I started to name all these names: Wayne Shorter, Elvin Jones, everybody. We’re not thinking about how that was actually going to sound.

So he said: “Ok, we’ll see”. I’d mention Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and a couple of great people. And, in the end, he called up, maybe a week or two later, and he said, “Well, the bad news is I didn’t get Elvin Jones or Wayne Shorter, but I did get Ron Carter, and I got Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws.” So I said: “Deal, its fine with me!”

You stressed out?

Oh my god! Think about being 19 and you are in a studio for the first time, a professional studio, with the guys who had just finished playing with Miles Davis for I don’t know how many years!

Collaboration with Gil

Did you know Gil as a student? You knew what he had done as a writer when you met him?

Yes, well. Because we became friends. As soon as we met I understood the incredible talent he had as a lyricist and poet. And he also understood that what I was doing could definitely help to enhance the message we tried to convey.

So, we saw each other as conspirators you know, as co-conspirators and trying to get the message of sensitive urgency about becoming more involved with our lives, more involved about what was going on at the time in America. Not only with African-Americans but also with the erosion of the constitutional rights. About the wild tapping and about the illegal breaking and entering of the police.

So it was a match for you guys? I mean, if you were both conscious about these things.

When people think about Gil Scott-Heron and his work, they focus too much on the black consciousness, which is a very important element of what we were doing.

The black consciousness and progress were important to us, obviously, as black men in America. But, we thought that because no one stood up for us, as black people, the same kind of things eventually happened to everyone. It’s the message we tried to convey.

But he already had written “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, right?

Yes, he had written his book of poetry. And I think that it was probably that song that got us the contract. You know when Bob Thiele approached him.

Could you feel that something good was coming for you? That it will work?

Oh yes, the thing which came to us was probably jail [laugh].

Were you afraid in a way?

No, we weren’t afraid, I mean, we were young men and we had no families and anything like that. We couldn’t not do it. It was our life to write. It’s my life to write music and to be creative.

Did you have the impression to do something really new when you played with Gil Scott-Heron?

Yes. I mean, I was a big fan of Miles Davis’s philosophy which was: never play the same things twice, if it’s been done before, don’t do it again. So I always wanted to make sure that I was doing something new. But, with that consciousness, nothing is ever really new. You can’t invent anything that hasn’t been done before.

All you can do, is study what has come before you, absorb it, and then, try to use everything that you’ve learned from there and create something else. But I guarantee you there’s nothing that hasn’t been done.

What do you think you brought with your music at that time?

I think one of the things that we tried to do was to put a popular musical spin on some unpopular concepts. You know, something that maybe is difficult to talk about, some ideas not so easy to talk about, songs like “Daddy Loves”, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or “Johannesburg”.

What did you learn from Gil Scott-Heron and what did he learn from you?

I think we both learned that, first of all, one of the things we discovered was a magic between us that was evident. And there was something that was an evidence, even years later, when we started to perform together again, in 1998 until I guess about maybe 2001.

We also understood that we really loved what we did, we loved that job. We’ve met some incredible new people along our way, some incredible musicians that developed it into friendship.

In your opinion, what was the greatest hit you and Gil did together?

I would say all of them but, some of my favorites are from Pieces of a Man, and for instance “A Sign of the Ages” is definitely one of my favorite. “Your Daddy Loves You” is another one that I love because just Gil and I were playing: he was playing Rhodes and I’ve got flute.

I was very proud of some of the songs we did on Bridges such as “95’s South” or “We Almost Lost Detroit”. “Angel Dust” is one that I feel particularly proud of, “Shut ‘Um Down” too. There is so many but those other ones that have special significance.

Encounter with music

When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

I never really realized that I wanted to be a musician. I was looked up one day and I was playing music.

I remember that my music teacher told me once: “this is really gonna be a good skill for you”, because when you went to college you had to be able to pay away. So you know I had that on my mind.

How old were you when he told you this?

I started when I was 7 and I end it up when I was 14. And then I began to get the bug to write music and I started writing music for that time and studying jazz.

How did you meet music?

I always thought that it would be a useful occupation. But I really had no idea that I would be my life. I don’t think anybody does.
Now, people go to College for music. We have music Universities etc. But I had no intention of doing that, I’d just wanted to let it go and get that degree, trying figure out what I was doing but unfortunately, for me, the road was already paved in the direction that felt good to me.

You’ve been listening to music all your life?

My parents were huge music fans. There was always music in my house, always different types of music: jazz, or classical and European music… They were always listening.

New style, new projects

In 2013, you did your last record and you did it with some hip-hop guys?

Yeah, that was cool. I did it with M1 and Dead Prez. On that album I also worked with Gregory Porter and Chuck D. Black Bird Midnight was on that album. We had some clips from Bobby Seel. So it was a kind of an intergenerational kind of approach. So many people had come to us to tell us how influential some of the things we did! I would talk to Q-Tip for example.

A lot of hip-hop artists that I saw were using our material like Kanye, Kendrick Lamar… And it goes on and on. And they are still using our stuff. What they were saying to me or what they were saying in public was that they have been influenced by what we did. So I thought “why don’t we get some of these people together and do some music from their perspective?”

Today would you like to do more records with new people?

Yeah I’m going to. Right now I am working with a great jazz bassist name Charnett Moffett. He’s the son of Charles Moffett, who is one of the founders of the Free Jazz movement. And Mark Withfield Junior, who is the son of Mark Withfield, the drummer. So we’ve been having some great times together on the road.

Today, are you listening to what is going out?

Yes, there’s a lot of good spoken words. For instance, I would have to say like Kendrick Lamar, a tremendous musician.

You know that apparently he’s inspired by you and what you did with Gil?

That’s what I’ve heard. I would like to talk to him. Even Kanye. He has sampled a couple of our things.

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union