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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with George Caldwell

George Caldwell

Today's subject George Caldwell is currently living his theatre life as one of the composers and the onstage pianist for the creative dance troupe Urban Bush Women. The company performs Walking with'Trane this Friday and Saturday in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center.

George Caldwell is an immensely talented musician whose career spans, theatre, jazz and now dance.

On Broadway, George conducted Black & Blue and Play On and also played piano and keyboards for Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk and The Full Monty. His conducting talents have taken him to Europe on tour with Body & Soul and Black & Blue. He also served as musical director for regional touring productions of original musicals, including Ella (Arena Stage and many other venues), Thunder Knocking on the Door, Cookin' at the Cookery, and Golden Boy.

George is also an accomplished jazz musician. He toured with the Count Basie Orchestra for seven years and with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for three years. He has performed with a diverse array of artists including George Benson, Dianne McIntyre, Savion Glover, the Nicholas Brothers, Bobby McFerrin, Brenda Lee, Elvis Costello, and Dizzy Gillespie.

If that weren't enough, I can also tell you from seeing George in Ella, he can deliver dialogue pretty darn well too.

If you are a fan of John Coltrane and want to experience his legacy in a new and inventive way, then check out Urban Bush Women's Walkin with 'Trane at Kennedy Center this weekend. It's sure to be a good time and George Caldwell's musicianship is one reason why.

Growing up, were you always interested in music and did you choose piano as your instrument?

Yes, I was always interested in music. My dad (who was a physicist and taught physics, chemistry, and math) was a musician and music lover. He loved music, so there was always music playing at home when I was a kid, of all types, jazz, classical, and pop music: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Beethoven, Chopin, and Oscar Peterson. I remember how excited he was when the bossa nova craze hit America. He played records by Astrud Gilberto for me and marveled at her flat tone. She used no discernible vibrato at all. One of his favorite piano concertos is Rachmaninoff's second in C minor.

I did choose piano as my instrument. We had moved to Holly Springs, Mississipi in 1959 because my dad was hired to teach at the college where his dad - my grandfather - had taught. So, we kids were enrolled at the Catholic school in Holly Springs. (There was only one Catholic school there -Holly Springs was a tiny southern town, similar to Mayberry in the Andy Griffith show, with a town square and a population of less than 2,000). St. Mary's school was run by the Franciscan nuns who established the school sometime after reconstruction to educate African Americans. The original red brick schoolhouse was still there in the middle of the property, flanked by the new, modern building. The old schoolhouse was used as the 'art' building. As part of the school tour, I was taken to the art building and shown the piano, the horns, violins, etc. The music teacher, Sister Marianelle, asked me if I thought I'd like to play piano. I remember looking at my parents in the way that kids have of asking if it was ok with them by looking at them, and they nodded and smiled. I was hooked.

What was your first professional gig as a musician?

My first professional gig was with a saxophonist named William Easley, at Bill's Twilight Lounge in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977. Bill's Twilight, as we called it, was a real old-school nightclub with red leather upholstery and low lighting. Memphis, at that time had drinking establishments which hosted set-ups and the patrons would bring their own liquor. Perhaps the club didn't want the expense and the hassle of getting a liquor license. Also, Memphis still had blue laws back then, which prohibited selling liquor on Sundays. I was so excited and nervous. I must've asked Easley a thousand questions, which, to his credit, he patiently answered. He told me that I did alright, so I guess I did; I was too nervous to tell.

How did you get involved with Urban Bush Women?

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and I did a tour a few years ago called The Fly Ladies Of Dance in which five icons of modern dance, Carmen De Lavallade, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Germaine Acogny, and Dianne McIntyre each performed a solo dance of their choice.

All the ladies performed with recorded music except Ms. McIntyre, who is very focused on performing with live musicians instead of with recordings. She feels that a very vital and essential element is lost when a recording is exchanged for live musicians. I tend to agree with her and not just because of the lost employment for the musician(s). So, she recruited me to play with her and even made the trip from Cleveland to Buffalo in order for us to rehearse. I was humbled by the quiet intensity of this woman and honored that she chose me as her accompanist. And in addition, I met and got to know all the ladies, had the opportunity to experience their artistry and wonderful stories, and found out more about how they influenced the world of dance.

Ok, fast forward to three or four years ago, when I get a call from Jawole, asking if I wanted to play in a tribute to John Coltrane. The tribute would employ Coltrane's signature composition, A Love Supreme. As a jazz musician, I have a special love for John Coltrane and his music. The beauty, power and depth of expression of this artist changed the world of jazz forever. Every jazz musician I know has a special place in his/her heart for him. So, I said yes, with great enthusiasm! Then, I asked who else was in the band, and she said no one. I was taken aback, because when you think of that famous recording, what comes to mind is the power of Elvin Jones' drumming, McCoy Tyner's piano, and Jimmy Garrison's bass playing and the sheer, monumental energy they created together. It's kind of hard to imagine solo piano creating that sort of atomic explosion. So, needless to say, I flew to Brooklyn that summer and we began the process.

Urban Bush Women's Walking with 'Trane. Photo by Judith Stuart Boroson.

Can you please tell us a little something about the show?

The show started as a choreographic realization of the music itself, which runs an intriguing gamut of emotions and includes improvisation in the dance, as well as the music. Originally, it consisted of only the music from A Love Supreme, but later, as the show evolved, Jawole included an impressionistic biographical sketch of Coltrane, the man, with music by the great composer Philip White, who used a unique approach to his compositional technique. He recorded the music he composed, cut the recording into fragments, then reassembled it according to his creative narrative in relationship to the story. The resulting two pieces were renamed Side A and Side B, with the bio sketch first as Side A.

George Caldwell at home behind a grand piano. Photo courtesy of Urban Bush Women.

The production you are playing with Urban Bush Women is inspired by the music of John Coltrane. Was Coltrane one of your musical heroes growing up and what is your favorite recording of his?

Coltrane was definitely one of my musical heroes. The complexity of his music and his approach to improvising jazz was so new and different that on first hearing it I didn't get it; I had no idea what he was doing. I could hear that he was very intense and passionate, but I was at a loss when it came to understanding it. I do remember that when I first focused on his music, he had already advanced to the so-called 'sheets of sound' period in his development, in which he played almost incessantly, articulating an emotional intensity that was, to me as a classical pianist, almost frightening. It took a while for me to understand what was happening. I later discovered his work with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billy Eckstine, and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as his earlier work, which was so in tune with what was happening in that time-civil rights unrest and the Vietnam war. Then there was a side of Coltrane that was so simple and beautiful-plaintive, almost. Listen to the recording of him playing "In A Sentimental Mood" with Duke Ellington and you'll know what I mean; it is so beautiful and can bring tears to your eyes. There's so much music of his to choose from, so many different moods and styles, I can't really say which is my favorite, but that recording is one of my favorites.

L to R: George Caldwell, Cliff Kellam, Tina Fabrique, Rodney Harper and Ron Haynes in Ella. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

You were musical director for a fantastic show called Ella. What did you enjoy the most about working on that show and working with its star Tina Fabrique?

That was a really great show. Tina Fabrique and I knew each other from working together in the Duke Ellington Orchestra years before Ella. In fact, the reason I moved to New York is that I was hired by Duke's son Mercer Ellington to play piano in that orchestra. During my stint with the orchestra, the vocalist, Anita Moore, left the band and Tina came in as her replacement. My greatest joy after shaping the arc of that show with all the musicians, Tina, and Rob Ruggiero (the director) was playing for the audiences. In the jazz world, performing live consisted, to a large extent, of playing in clubs where the patrons came to eat and drink and talk amongst themselves. It was nice to have a captive, quiet audience to interact with - and one that came there just to watch and listen, not talk. Not that the talking in the clubs was bad. It wasn't; it was expected and very normal.

What are your next few projects after this engagement with Urban Bush Women?

Well, I'm teaching at the University of Buffalo and I have a new CD out, called Accord with my buddy Bobby LaVell (available on Amazon). I'm also involved with a new organization in Buffalo called the Buffalo Jazz Collective and I've been talking with the great pianist-composer Donald Brown about a future recording project with him as producer. He's been on the jazz scene for years, having played and recorded with Donald Byrd, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Freddie Hubbard, and Kenny Garrett (to name a few). He has an incredibly creative mind and beautiful spirit; it should be very exciting.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's plié perfect dance publicist Brittany Laeger for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional photo assistance was provided by Arena Stage publicist Lauren Alexander.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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