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Rich Willey Interview - December/2001

Rich Willey has the physically demanding job of filling the 2nd trumpet spot on Maynard's current lineup of Big Bop Nouveau. He took the time to answer the standard Maynard Ferguson Tribute Page questions and to shed some light on what a 2nd trumpet does.

1) What makes up your musical background?
I started playing trumpet in 6th grade. When I was in 10th grade (1970), our band director took us to hear the Count Basie band, and that changed my life. Within a few years I knew that I wanted to play jazz. In 1978 I went to North Texas State University and studied with Rich Matteson, Jack Peterson and Dan Haerle. In 1981 I moved to Philadelphia to study with Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt because I was having embouchure/injury difficulties; in the fall of that year I began playing valve trombone and bass trumpet. I spent some years in Philadelphia, then in New York City as a freelance valve trombonist, and managed to do a record with Mel Tormé (the Great American Songbook on TelArc). I went back to Florida in 1994 and got an associates degree at St. Petersburg Jr. College. It was at this point that I gradually came back to the trumpet. I earned a bachelors in music education at the University of South Florida in 1999. I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music in February of 1999, and got a 90% scholarship to study jazz performance/trumpet. I got my masters degree there in May 2001, and began trying to make a living as a freelancer in New York City.

2) Who are your musical influences?
The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinski, Gershwin, Hindemith, Bach, Holst, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton, Fats Navarro, Booker Little, George Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis . . . want me to continue?

3) What are some of your favorite jazz albums or artists?
I love Charlie Parker’s April In Paris (with strings), The Grand Wazoo (Frank Zappa), Clifford Brown/Max Roach, A Study In Brown, Clifford Brown Jazz Immortal, Cedar Walton Eastern Rebellion, Frank Sinatra Come Swing With Me and Songs For Swinging Lovers, Grant Green Idle Moments, Bill Evans We Will Meet Again, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers At The Jazz Corner of the World (with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley) . . . and on and on.

4) Before joining the band, were you a fan of Maynard's music?
I didn’t hear of Maynard Ferguson until 1973. A friend played the MF Horn album for me, and I was dumbfounded. However, at this time, I thought Freddie Hubbard was IT! So, even though Maynard had the most awesome chops I had ever heard, he still wasn’t doing the kind of stuff I wanted to hear, so I didn’t buy any of his albums. Going through the Navy School of Music (Army element) in ’74 and during my Army years I heard lots of Maynard and Chase, and felt the same: they were amazing, but not my cup of tea as far as the way I wanted to play. At North Texas I heard lots more Maynard and appreciated him more, now that I was hearing his earlier stuff (with Kenton, etc.), but by this time I was a confirmed Charlie Parker/Clifford Brown/Hank Mobley/Kenny Dorham (etc.) fanatic.

5) How long have you been with Maynard and his band?
I joined shortly after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. It seems that the guy who originally had the chair I played was from Germany, and his passport office was in the WTC . . . I was a last-minute replacement. I don’t know about a year from now or two years from now, but for right now, it looks like that will be my only tour.

6) How did you get on the band?
Well, the extended story is that I practiced and paid dues for 32 years or so. But the short version is that I was recommended.

7) How is playing on Maynard's band different from other gigs?
Maynard’s band is a showcase for Maynard’s chops and for his style, even though the whole band is featured. But a chart won’t make it into the book without that elusive “Maynard” ingredient (like the 11 secret herbs and spices). The sideman’s role is to provide the level of energy and excitement necessary to push Maynard onward and upward. If the band isn’t happening, then it’s gonna be really tough for Maynard to be able to put the pedal to the metal and burn.

8) What is expected from the second trumpet chair in Maynard's band?
The 2nd trumpeter (I was warned in advance) is quite possibly the hardest working member of the band. I played 2nd parts, naturally, but I was often covering lead parts so the lead could rest before a big high note, and then I’d go out front and blow solos, usually twice per show. I think there was only one gig that I wasn’t ready to die at the end of it, it was so demanding!

Rich Willey
Rich Willey

9) What song do you most enjoy playing on the road?
Believe it or not, Mizra Denukha was quite often so powerful that I was moved practically to tears at the end of it. It’s so funny, because I heard the band do that in ’98 (I think) and for the first five minutes I thought to myself, “What is this crap?” But the next thing I knew I was on the edge of my seat! I saw that happen night after night, and once when the entire audience rose to their feet at its conclusion, I actually did shed a few tears, but I don’t think anybody noticed.

10) Do you have a favorite story from playing with the band yet?
Yes! And it’s a testament to Maynard’s professionalism, too. One night at Blues Alley, we were playing the “MF Hit Medley” and there was a crossed signal before we went into Gospel John. Well, part of the band was playing the next tune, while another part was on Gospel John, and without missing a beat, Boss went up to the microphone and tapped it and said “Testing, one, two” with a quizzical, whimsical look on his face, and then started conducting a 4/4 pattern starting on beat 3 or something, and the audience was just laughing out of control, as if that were a standard routine we did every night. I’ll never forget how impressed I was with Maynard’s skillful handling of an otherwise embarrassing moment.

11) How would you describe Maynard's bandleading style?
Maynard’s sense of humor is much like mine (or vice versa, if you prefer) and he’s always clowning around, but he’s dead serious about striving for musical excellence. Maynard delegates the authority to a musical director, and then there’s an understanding that either Boss, or maybe the musical director, or maybe even the drummer will count off a tune. It’s not a dictatorship, and I’d say that’s the key to his success. Fun is allowed, even encouraged, but not when it interferes with musical excellence.

12) Do you have any tips for our trumpet playing readers?
Decide what you want to do as soon as possible and then go for it. In my case, I have split my loyalties between being a jazz player and a lead player and that has cost me some progress in each area. When I only work on my jazz improvisation, my lead chops usually suffer, and when I only work on my lead chops, my jazz improvisation will tend to suffer. Most players have a knack for doing something (i.e., playing high notes is not difficult for some players), so I think if you can figure out what you have a knack for doing, you can build around that rather than at the opposite end of the spectrum. Something else I like to mention in clinics is the fact that the vast majority of work for a freelance trumpeter stays between low C and “high C” (two leger lines above the staff). If you don’t have a super range, and if you don’t have virtuostic technique, there is still plenty of work that you can handle. In my opinion, the key to success in music comes down to two words: “Don’t Quit!”

13) What equipment do you use?
I use a Bach Stradivarius, large bore with a 25 bell. Stock instrument, nothing fancy. I’m playing a Bob Reeves 43C3 because a good friend recommended it for me. I made the mistake of trying to switch mouthpieces a week before I left for the MF tour. Worse yet, a week into the tour I tried to switch yet again! (Hey, I never claimed to be a genius!) To me, it ain’t about equipment; however, switching equipment is risky business, especially in the “heat of battle.” My theory is that my sound is dictated by my concept, period. When I change equipment, my body tries to compensate to get “my sound,” and that can wreak havoc with my musculature. After two years of playing one set of equipment, no matter what it is, I fully believe that I’m still going to sound the way my concept wants me to sound. (So, I’m back on my Reeves 43C3!)

14) Tell me about Boptism Music Publishing. I understand that you have duet books as well as recordings?
Yes, I have a series of bop duets available through www.boptism.com as well as the two CDs I’ve made. I’d Rather Be Boppin’ – 24 Bop Duets by Rich Willey, Vols. I & II were originally available through Charles Colin, but I’ve taken steps to secure ownership of them, and am very happy about the formation of Boptism Music Publishing. One of the CDs, “The Rich Willey Quintet/Gone With The Piggies” is also available through the CAP website, www.jazzbeat.com. Both CDs have me playing trumpet and bass trumpet. Additionally, the Rich Willey & Boptism CD features trumpeters Claudio Roditi and John Swana, and saxophonist Chris Potter.

Rich also had these closing comments:

Thanks, Matt, for allowing me the privilege of this interview. I would like to take this opportunity to share possibly the most important lesson I learned during my recent tour with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau, if you have the space for it.

After the 1st rehearsal I had a splitting headache, maybe from nerves/stress, maybe from playing way harder than I was used to . . . it doesn’t matter anymore. But I started taking a couple Advil before playing MF shows to prevent headaches, and that was a mistake. What I didn’t know at the time was that Advil (ibuprofen) is an anti-inflammatory, and was actually shrinking my face, lip and muscle tissue. I was going crazy trying to practice more, practice less, warm up more, warm up less, practice after the gig, not practice at all . . . nothing was working, and it turned out that I was sabotaging myself with Advil! When I overheard somebody talking about ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory, etc., I realized “That’s it!” and stopped using the stuff before playing, and sure enough, my chops immediately started to return to their normal state of . . . shall we say, semi-dependability (it IS a trumpet, after all).

I would like to thank Rich for taking the time to answer these questions. Anyone who has any further questions or comments for Rich Willy can reach him at bopduets@yahoo.com.