Music

Five Questions for Jazz Pianist George Cables

OPB | April 1, 2013 7 a.m. | Updated: April 2, 2013 10:02 a.m.

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George Cables

George Cables

Alan Nahigian

Veteran jazz pianist George Cables made noteworthy music with The Jazz Message at the Portland Jazz Festival. After he returned to New York City, we talked on the phone about his life with jazz.

1. You’re taking a walk and come upon Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Phineas Newborn and Bud Powell. Which would you choose to learn from?

I’m stuck somewhere between Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. As a pianist, I’d definitely want to sit next to Art Tatum. I used to talk to Billy Taylor about this and to Dexter Gordon as well. They all had great, interesting things to say about him. He was a man that loved to share, would share with you his way of playing, or what he did if you asked, ‘What did you do?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, I do it this way. I do that, but when you do it you have to do it your way.’ I really like that idea. I think it’s basically the old school way of playing jazz. It’s not ‘Do it this way and it’s THE right way — instead it’s ‘This is how I do it and you have to figure out how you’re going to do it.’ I think that’s a great concept.

2. Are you a dancer?

[Laughs] I used to be when I was younger. In my high school I felt like a pretty good dancer. I remember doing one of those TV dance shows. I made that circuit when Little Anthony and The Imperials was on that show. But now — not so much. I’m into the spirit of dancing, especially when I play the piano. One of the things I try to remember is to have that feeling of dancing when I’m playing, so I don’t dance anymore except on the piano.

3. What tune would you play for someone unfamiliar with jazz?

I might try to play a song that’s familiar to them in a way that’s in a jazz palate. Maybe I’d play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” because it’s a song I see people respond to. I did a documentary that was filmed in San Quentin about Frank Morgan. We went to San Quentin and played. If you think being there locked-up is life-changing … being there a matter of hours is life-changing. You get to meet some of the people. Alto player Grace Kelly came with us and played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and there were tears in the hardened prisoners, an audience full of teary-eyed big guys that were locked up.

4. What music do you like that might surprise some people?

Though I don’t know if it’d surprise some people that I like Scarlatti and Chopin, I’ve also been known to listen to some kinds of country music. Actually, when my partner Helena and I used to drive from Port Townsend down to San Francisco in the summertime, the only stations that would come in would be country stations. One song in particular that made us both laugh was “Everytime You Go Outside I Hope It Rains.” I like those stories that were humorous in that way.

5. Other than the piano, what’s your favorite instrument?

It changes from day to day. Some days I like the voice because of what it does. And I love the alto because it’s so much like the voice. But I used to play viola in high school and there’s a movie I really like which the violin turns out to be such a great, great instrument, an old movie called Humoresque — with John Garfield, Joan Crawford, Oscar Levant. I think Isaac Stern played the violin in this film. It’s great; I love the story.

To learn more, listen to Think Out Loud’s conversation with George Cables and Javon Jackson.

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