You live in Harlem, where jazz ruled in the 1920s.
That’s my home, on Edgecombe Avenue, where Billie Holiday stayed, Duke Ellington and his whole band lived, so I’m very much in the spirit of our ancestors. It’s a different time we live in and I feel the connection playing my piano in Harlem.
Please respond succinctly to the following:
Jelly Roll Morton: Creator of jazz and original funk.
Improvisation: Freedom, unity, respect, America.
Passion: Fire, the energy, the will to go on with hope for the future, the most important thing we have.
You’ve been given a pass to talk to a jazz master who’s passed. Whom would you choose to meet with?
I would like to sit down and talk with Duke Ellington, because he had one of the longest-standing careers in jazz. He was one of the foremost innovators of the music, not by creating something out of thin air, but by combining two schools of thought that were seen as separate. He taught us a lesson in unity. He took hot music and sweet music and put them together. He took society dance music and New Orleans African American music and combined them. He taught us the story of America.
Your musical success has resulted in numerous awards; which award surprised you the most?
Awards are nice, but I think competitions in general are a bit contrived. My biggest award is spending time around my mentors, the jazz masters. When I play with Jimmy Heath or Jimmy Cobb or Barry Harris – that’s the biggest award rather than any competition.
Are you a dancer?
I’m a poor dancer. All my friends will testify! Dance is probably one of the important elements in jazz and I’m working on it. I love to dance to jazz music, to anything that’s funky, anything with a beat, anything that has a groove and is played live by live instruments, whether funk, salsa, hip hop or jazz.
Besides the piano and organ, what instrument do you admire?
I appreciate the trumpet most. I feel the trumpet is the closest instrument to the human voice and human expression. Great trumpet players were often also great singers: Dizzy, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong. The trumpet has a rich history and legacy throughout the human experience.