Makin' a Racket

The Downbeast interview, Part 1 By Matthew Duersten

June 20, 2007

David Witham is a monster musician—and we mean not just his in-demand chops but the fact that the guy is around 6' 6'' with a big booming voice, linebacker's gait and ham-sized hands that can lightly caress the 88 keys on a piano and then crush a metal napkin dispenser.

Witham's Spinning The Circle, which comes out on Cryptogramophone June 26, would pop the champagne-bubble dreams of his Hoosier relatives, who the 50-year-old pianist recalls "had high hopes of me playing on the Lawrence Welk show someday." Spinning The Circle is Witham's second solo album in, um, twenty years, and it's vanguard jazz for the YouTube Era, an intensive channel-flip through divergent musical styles, from electric piano funk and World Beat to Euro-acid jazz and Sacred Steel gospel—not to mention a couple of gorgeous ballads that could have come from one of his mentors, Alan Broadbent. The album's title refers somewhat to Witham's experience growing up in 1960s Long Beach during the golden age of Southern California AM radio, which was almost unimaginably diverse and esoteric. The DJs followed their own quirky tastes rather than the dead-from-the-neck-up programming formats we see today. In Witham's words, "They took you on a journey through their own heads and tastes."

As a result, casual listeners (or, George Benson fans who know Mr. Witham as a studious-looking head bobbing over his arsenal of keyboards) may find themselves glancing back at their CD covers to ensure that Spinning the Circle is not in fact a compilation. But be reassured, the album is in fact the work of one artist, and the surprises don't stop there. One glance at David Witham's resume would also quell those misgivings, with the breadth of experience on display virtually ensuring such a diverse approach.

Born in Greenwood, Indiana in 1957, Witham began musical studies at age 7 and later continued with Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he won awards for excellence in both jazz and contemporary classical music). For the last twenty years, he's been the Musical Director for Grammy Award-winning guitarist George Benson. He has recording and performed with the likes of Patti Austin, Joao Bosco, Michael and Randy Brecker, Larry Carlton, Chick Corea, Jose Feliciano, Eddie Harris, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Missiles of October, kd lang, Charles McPherson, Maxi Priest, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott, Grover Washington and Ernie Watts. He is also a member (and producer) of the acid jazz/spoken word group Bluezeum as well as composing scores film, television, and album projects, including Jim Carrey's The Mask, documentaries for PBS, and educational videos.

But that's not all. Somehow, Witham finds the time to be the creator, producer and host d'jour of the award-winning Long Beach community television series Portable Universe, which since 1999 had showcased a broad array of musicians (Phil Upchruch, Mike Miller, some guy named "Nels") and artists (Jennifer Bowens, Norton Wisdom, Candice Gawne). The program is quite a hoot and is a good window into Witham's various talents and enthusiasms—not to mention a wry, absurdist sense of humor.

Recently, we sat down with David to ramble (briefly) about his early years and influences and how he came to hook up with the wacky Cryptogramophone crowd:

Q: So why be a musician? Isn't there something more practical you could be, like a dental hygienist or manager of a Pep Boys somewhere?

DAVID WITHAM: Well, that's a good question. I guess I've wanted to be a musician since I was five years old, so practicality never entered into it…After that it was about just getting out there, getting interested in different kinds of music, getting involved with all sorts of situations and finding yourself along the way amidst all those influences. I enjoy the ride so I guess that's why I do it.

What made you want to become a musician at such a young age?

My mom kind of drew me into it. She bought an organ at Bob Pierce's store in Long Beach. [Google note: Pierce was known as "Mr. Piano and Organ"; he had the largest collection of miniature pianos in the world and may have sold the very first Hammond B-3] I started taking lessons when I was about six. . .and it just looked interesting to me and I wanted to take a lesson or two. I studied at age 7 with Louise Knudsen, which was a real stroke of luck. She taught me harmony and how to read out of fake books in that first couple of years, which served me quite well along the way. She also had a Hammond B-3, and was probably still doing some bar gigs at the time, which I thought was really cool. Of course, I remember coming home from my first lesson in tears. It was just too much to do: You had to play both manuals of the organ – We're talking one of those old Lowery Home Organs, "Home Entertainment" was a big concept in the sixties – and play the foot pedals and I was an uncoordinated kid. My mom had an ulterior motive and it did ring my bell so my parents encouraged it. She drew me to that I think because at first, in the fourth grade, I was playing the bass drum in the orchestra. Drums were interesting first, I gotta say.

Especially for a kid. . .

Yeah! Just makin' a racket. The drum set was really a cool thing in 1966-67. I had a kit and I played for awhile but I was left-handed, so it was kind of weird and awkward. Never really took lessons either. When you can't play anything, bass drum in the orchestra is what they put you on. I wanted to play snare drum but there was another guy who was better at that.

But the keyboards, it seems like they've always been there to a certain extent. The keyboard has everything in it—it's the whole orchestra in one, you play bass chords and the melody—and that was very attractive to me. The other thing was that in Long Beach at that time, the music departments were amazing. Every elementary school had a band and an orchestra—a lot of the high schools had two orchestras—there was a group of people who were making a concentrated effort at one point to have music be a really big thing in the community and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Concurrent with the keyboards thing, a lot of my friends played brass instruments, so you'd just pick them up because your friends have them. I played a little trumpet and at one point I played tuba in the orchestra in junior high and the Pep Band in high school. It wasn't just the keyboard though, but music in general and all its aspects.

What were some your earliest influence before jazz?

Radio. [laughs] In those days, AM radio was so rich. You'd hear everything from The Archies to Ramsey Lewis to Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances"—that was a big one, I remember going to downtown Long Beach and finally getting that record and bringing it home and just wearing that thing out, man the way that guy sang was just ridiculous! I also liked surf music, like Jan & Dean, The Surfaris, Dick Dale…Beach culture was definitely a big part of the deal down in Long Beach in the Sixties. The Beach Boys were local heroes—in a way, just round the corner there in Hawthorne. Really liked a Surf band from Laguna around that time called Honk - one member of the group - Richard Stekol - would later be a frequent collaborator.

I got back into jazz in high school. We used to go to Disneyland and hear the big Bands at the Carnation Plaza: Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich. Then I heard Oscar Peterson and was thrilled with his feeling of swing. Then I bought Herbie Hancock's Headhunters album when it came out thinking I was getting something that would sound like Maiden just blew me away. Same thing with Miles Davis' Big Fun; I thought it would be like Live at the Blackhawk, and was just shocked and delighted by the sound.

When I was playing the home-organ thing, Louise Knudsen tunred me on to the music of this cat named Earl Grant, who was an organ player. He was a black guy from Oklahoma City and what he was playing was a little hipper than a lot of the stuff I was exposed to. He played nice chord changes and had a great personality, kind of in between jazz and pop, something you'd see in a lounge with red leather booths. But it was kind of exotic to me then, and very appealing. [Googlin' Note: Earl Grant's recording of "Ebb Tide" rose to #7 on the pop charts in 1961. He made a few appearances in motion pictures and television, including Tender Is the Night (1962), Juke Box Rhythm (1959) and The Ed Sullivan Show (1961). He died instantly in a car accident in Lordsburg, New Mexico, at the age of 37.]

What was your first gig?

I was about sixteen. My school band director got me a wedding gig at a party right near the school. Some of my cronies from high school, we had a band with about four horns. We played the dance place called "The Ram Shack" on Friday nights and we'd play Tower of Power, Chicago, Kool and the Gang, The Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly Stone and lots of others.

How were your ears opened up when you attended the New England Conservatory of Music?

I was with Jaki Byard, just hanging with him every week. Jaki wasn't a teacher in the conventional sense but if you just hung around and played duets with him and listened to what he had to say. I was trying to learn how to play stride piano at that point, and of course Jaki was a master of that stuff. I was all eager: "Jaki how do you that stride thing?" and there were two pianos in the room, we're both sitting at them, and he turns to me and says, "Well you just sit your ass down in the middle of that piano seat and do this" and then he would play an absolutely flawless Fats Waller run while looking me dead in the eye from across the room: "Just sit there and do it boy, you'll figure it out."

Wow. How much did that cost for tuition?

That was about four grand right there, and it was totally worth every penny! Jaki, in terms of free playing, he was a walking history of jazz music, particularly jazz piano. He'd go in the course of a single solo from Fats Waller to Cecil Taylor and make it work somehow, and make you believe it. Jaki was also involved with Charles Mingus so I got hip to all of his great music, just getting deeper into guys like Joe Henderson, Miles, Gil Evans, Trane, finding friends that had similar tastes and bootlegs and imports, records with these amazing all-star bands with guys like Steve Lacy and Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderly. At that point Weather Report was an enormous influence, Joe Zaniwul, he was The King, and he had the concept of acoustic and electric [instruments] going at the same time, the synthesizer orchestrations and things like that. I liked his open-mindedness, he wasn't afraid to dip into various wells for his influences. Bill Evans, forever and ever. Keith Jarrett, can't be ignored. Cecil [Taylor] was part of it, but I got hip to him just prior to going to New England. Talk about how the radio has changed: I can remember going to college at Long Beach State and they played literally a half hour of Taylor's Silent Tongues, uninterrupted! Never happen today!

After that a total immersion in jazz started - heavy doses of McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, Paul Bley, Wayne Shorter, Denny Zeitlin, John Coltrane, Oregon, George Adams, Richie Beirach and Don Pullen. Then I got into what I call the Foundation of Piano Playing - Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion, Fats Waller - which eventually led me to some of the funky piano players - Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack, James Carroll Booker, Otis Spann, Donny Hathaway, Richard Tee, Joe Sample, Charles Brown, and Ray Charles. Then there's Classical music, which has influenced as well: Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, George Crumb, Messiaen, Scriabin, Mozart, Bach, Bartok, and Chopin have all figured prominently in my life.

Jazz—at least the vanguard styles you and your friends play—has been having a hard time in the last few years in Los Angeles. What keeps you in the "desert" when you could be in the "jazz Eden of New York?"

Yeah, especially right now, with the CrypoNights [concert series] is not happening, it's kind of a weird time. I stayed here because quite simply I love the West Coast. It's home for me. There was a period of time where I wanted to live in New York, of course, and maybe I should have made that move twenty years ago, but for personal reasons I couldn't do it—my father being sick was one of them—and at that point I was going to school in the East Coast and it would have been logical to stay there, but I needed to come home and take care of him. Once I did that I started going out on the road and then I would be in New York all time. I have a lot of friends there and have maintained great relationships with them for the last 20-25 years, so I figure I kind of have my finger in that scene there to some degree. Then as you get older, New York becomes a place you'd rather visit. I feel like each region has its own strengths, like New York has that kind of vertical mash because it's so small, so you get that great cross-pollination thing that happens.

What is the musical appeal of Los Angeles then?

In L.A., it's so spread out and post-urban, and there's all these little scenes all over the place and if you're resourceful you can kinda tap into all of them and do your own cross-pollination. It just happens in perhaps a different way and perhaps takes a little longer. I know it did with me. I've always been kind of the odd man out, I remember coming back to L.A. after finishing school and being sort of a hardcore "jazz snob" and being into music that people out here wind up getting into 20 years later in terms of the harder sound and edgier approach…Actually I was a little lost out here for a while. I was playing in fusion bands and playing with what would eventually become the "smooth jazz" guys. It was okay but it wasn't really ringing my bell. When I met Jeff and Alex and Nels and Eric Von Essen and once I hooked up with those guys, they were interested in all this stuff that I had kind of been thinking about for awhile.

How did you meet Eric Von Essen?

Yeah, I must have met him through Paul Kreibich, the drummer. Eric used to come down and play this gig I had with Paul and Eric Marienthal [the sax player that used to play w/ Chick Corea] at this place called the Studio Café in Newport Beach. Eric had that gig for about 11 years, Wednesdays nights, and it was just our sort of Boys Night Out, just chance to do our thing. But Eric would come down and play those gigs and I always dug his approach because he was really open-minded. It wasn't just bebop, he was interested in a lot of different types of music: world music, orchestral music, groups like Oregon... at one point, Eric was trying make his way into the jazz world more. Quartet Music eventually folded and Jeff was going to start a new group and Eric recommended me for that, and that's when I met all these guys, it was like 1990-91, they knew all these records that I was totally into when I was going to the New England Conservatory. They were the guys I'd been looking for for 15 years! And it's developed from there, and really helped me to get back on track to do the kind of things I wanted to do.

Stay tuned for Part II of our exclusive interview, where we talk about Witham's new album and what it's like to play for George Benson. Check out the Crypto Tour Page to find a David Witham gig near you.