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David Hazeltine

A Milwaukee native, David Hazeltine has arrived not once, but twice, on the New York jazz scene. Each time, he has advanced his career by earning the respect of singers and musicians as a supreme accompanist. And with the release of a string of CD’s that he has led, Hazeltine has established himself as one of the more articulate and technically adept pianists.

Ordinarily known for his straight-ahead acoustic piano work, Hazeltine is expanding his horizons by working now on a Hammond B-3 organ, thus returning to his first instrument.

In parallel, Hazeltine continues to work with his trio consisting of Peter Washington on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. And in a combination of personnel, Hazeltine’s trio has recorded with Eric Alexander, who plays with Hazeltine in the collaborative group, One For All. The Classic Trio Meets Eric Alexander documents the work of musicians who not only have developed voices of their own, but also feel comfortable playing with each other, their supportive exchanges of ideas creating a collective groove that’s distinctive and explorative.

JazzReview: I understand that you and Jim Rotondi started an electric band recently.

Hazeltine: That’s true. I’ve done some writing for the band and arranged some standards. Actually, it’s called the Jim Rotondi-David Hazeltine Electric Band. Jim uses a lot of effects with his trumpet, and he also uses a synthesizer. We’ve been having lots of fun with the band.

JazzReview: Who else is in it?

Hazeltine: We have a guitarist by the name of Greg Skaff, a bass player from Israel named Barak Mori and a drummer named Joe Strasser.

JazzReview: Do you plan to record the Electric Band?

Hazeltine: Hopefully. We’re looking for a label right now. We put together a few things we’ve done at the club to shop around a tape. We haven’t put all of our energies into recording yet. We’re still perfecting the music to get an idea of what we want to record.

JazzReview: How has the audience at Smoke reacted to the Electric Band?

Hazeltine: You know, it’s funny, but a lot of my fans show up there and say, "We didn’t think we would like this music, but we love it." They know me only from my straight-ahead performances. We’re starting to get big crowds to hear us. Of course, every once in a while someone does come up and say, "What happened to you?"

I arranged some standards like "Love For Sale" or "Out Of This World"--as well as some obscure tunes--with a funk backbeat. We do play a few tunes that I wrote for One For All, but we make a funk adaptation out of it. Jim has done some writing for the band too. And then we do some Herbie Hancock tunes. I’d say that about half of our music is new, a quarter of it is rearranged standards, and then a quarter of it is music already written in that tradition, like Herbie Hancock’s.

JazzReview: The liner notes to your new CD with Eric Alexander, The Classic Trio Meets Eric Alexander, provide some information about you I hadn’t read before.

Hazeltine: Zan Stewart did a good job. That’s my thirteenth CD as a leader, and it’s harder to write some interesting material in the liner notes with each successive CD.

JazzReview: One of the interesting aspects of the liner notes is the biographical information it contains, like the time you met Louis Hayes.

Hazeltine: I was a huge fan of his, even as a kid. In fact, I taught myself to play drums based on some records that he had played with Phineas Newborn, Jr. I mean, I had some drummers in Milwaukee guiding me too. I listened to Louis so much that I tried to play the cymbals like him. My first chance to play with him was during a gig in 1989. As a matter of fact, I had just come to New York to do that gig with Brian Lynch. So, it was a big thrill to get to play with Louis. I went on to record with Brian, and then I recorded my first trio CD with Louis. I’ve been in Louis’ band, and he has done trio work with me for the past six or seven years.

JazzReview: How did you meet Peter Washington?

Hazeltine: I played on a record date with him when Brian recorded once. I got to know Peter better when I came to New York in ’92. After that, we played together in some bands. For instance, we played with Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters band in ’94. Later, we played with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. I had the experience of playing with Peter and a number of drummers, and he made every drummer sound great. Peter was on my first CD, and he’s been on just about all of them since then.

JazzReview: So Louis and Peter have formed your trio for the most part since you moved to New York.

Hazeltine: Yes. Joe Farnsworth has recorded with me too because Louis isn’t always available.

JazzReview: Eric Alexander appears on your CD as well.

Hazeltine: George Fludas, a drummer from Chicago, introduced me to Eric. We never worked together, though; we just sat in a couple of times. At that time, I was playing in a little club in Milwaukee called The Estate. Eric was pretty young at that time, and he sounded like Dexter Gordon. That was before he left Chicago and went to William Paterson University. I ran into Eric all the time when I moved back to New York in ’92. His playing was evolving at that time, and it solidified into his current style a few years later. He has combined a lot of different influences to get his own voice. He can only get better. At that time [in the early nineties], we finally started putting some gigs together, and that’s when we started One For All.

JazzReview: Chet Baker encouraged you to move to New York?

Hazeltine: Yes, but that was in 1981. I stayed here a couple of years. Then I went back to Milwaukee to run a jazz department at a conservatory. I had been the house pianist at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. So, I got a chance to play with a lot of the cats who came through town, like Sonny Stitt. We did several gigs together in the time span of a couple of years just before he died. I got a chance to play with Pepper Adams.

JazzReview: Who else was in your group?

Hazeltine: A lot of times a drummer from Chicago named Joel Spencer worked with me. Marvin "Smitty" Smith played on some of the jobs. It consisted mostly of local people.

JazzReview: And you went to school with Brian Lynch in Milwaukee.

Hazeltine: Yes. We went to college together at the Conservatory. Then we both came to New York in the early eighties. He stayed and I left.

JazzReview: And you used to play with Jon Hendricks.

Hazeltine: I moved to New York the first time in order to play with him.

JazzReview: How did you meet him?

Hazeltine: I hadn’t met him. He came through Milwaukee and needed a bass player. He got one named Skip Crumbybey. Jon liked Skip a lot because he was a special guy. He played at the Jazz Gallery with most of the nationals who came through. Once Skip went on the road with Jon, his piano player gave notice. So Jon asked the bass player if he knew of anybody, and he suggested me. That was when I was getting ready to leave Milwaukee anyway. I got a phone call from Skip saying, "Why don’t you come with us and relocate to New York?" And that was how I started with Jon. I worked with him for about a year.

JazzReview: Who was the piano player you replaced?

Hazeltine: Eric Donen. I don’t know if he’s still around New York. I think he came from the Poconos. Michael Weiss came right after me. When I came back to New York in ’92, Jon was one of the people I called. I played a few months with Jon in ’93. Jon is probably my favorite jazz singer. I have so much respect for him. I was a big fan of his from Lambert Hendricks and Ross. He’s totally a musician’s singer. I remember that we used to travel in a van when I joined his group in the eighties. He sang entire records by himself. One of his favorites was "’Round Midnight." He sang the Miles solos and the Trane solos. Then he wrote lyrics to what he sang.

JazzReview: So, by the time you returned to New York in 1992, you already had connections to draw on.

Hazeltine: Sort of. It was very painful. I remember that one of my first gigs was playing at the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center. I was in a dance band, and the agents came up every night to yell at us because we were swinging too much. They wanted it to be as non-swinging as possible.

JazzReview: But you got some chances to play the kind of music you liked.

Hazeltine: Yes. And I got a chance to record. I did a couple of records with Jim Snidero. Also, I started working for Marlena Shaw at that time. I met her through a drummer named Ray Appleton. She was coming to play a week at Fat Tuesdays. She needed a pianist, and Ray introduced me to her. We got along well, and Marlena took me to Japan for the first time. Then we recorded two recorded for Concord that I wrote and arranged. That also gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of contacts.

JazzReview: I see that you played organ before you played piano. Did you get some gospel influence early?

Hazeltine: It’s funny. I’m back to playing organ now in the Electric Band. This is the first time I’ve played organ since those early days.

JazzReview: People don’t know you as an organist.

Hazeltine: Not at all. I don’t want to be known as one. I’m just playing it a little bit at a time on this gig.

JazzReview: Do you think you’ll record yourself on organ?

Hazeltine: No. I don’t see that happening.

JazzReview: How were you able to record your first CD?

Hazeltine: I knew Marc Edelman at the time that he started his label, Sharp Nine. At the same time, Slide Hampton had asked me to join his band, The Jazz Masters. I was on a six-month college tour with Slide. At the end of the tour, I asked Slide to make a CD with me. The producer liked the whole concept, even though it was pushing the envelope for a first CD--a quartet with a trombone. Actually, that first CD is one of my favorites. Ray Appleton, who introduced me to Marlena Shaw, is the drummer on that first CD.

JazzReview: What’s he doing now?

Hazeltine: He is still playing. Unfortunately, one of his legs was amputated from the knee down as the result of diabetes. He has a prosthesis, and so he can use both feet when he plays. He uses the prosthesis for his hi-hat.

JazzReview: How did you get to record for Venus, the Japanese label?

Hazeltine: Todd Barkan introduced me to the president of Venus. Then, I recorded a tribute to Bill Evans. Less than a year later, I did a tribute to Horace Silver. Lou Hayes was on that one because he was Horace’s drummer.

Interestingly, about six months after that record came out, Horace called and asked me if he could have a copy of the CD. He left a message on my answering machine. Of course, I called him back immediately and said, "You’ve got to be kidding! Of course, you can have a copy of it." I sent the CD to him and included a letter in which I told him how much I love his music and how much of an influence he has been on me. Two weeks after that, he returned my call and left a long message on my answering service. He said how much he loved the CD and how well he thought I played. I was trying to figure out a way to take his message off my answering service. I wanted to transfer it to a tape. But by the time I figured out what I was going to do, my thirty days had expired and so the message was erased. Since then, I’ve thought about calling Horace just to be able to record his voice. [Laughs]

JazzReview: And you recorded Pearls on Venus too.

Hazeltine: Right. That was the last CD I recorded on that label. It included a lot of my original tunes and my arrangements. So, I made three CD’s for Venus within two years. I haven’t done anything with them since then. I guess I’m saturating the market in Japan. I just saw Mr. Hara, who runs Venus, when I was playing at the Vanguard with Eric last week. The CD with Eric has just come out in Japan, and it’s pretty popular over there.

JazzReview: I wanted to talk about your interest in education.

Hazeltine: For the most part, I’m self-taught. I did have a teacher when I was twelve-Will Green. Then I had classical piano teachers in college. But for the most part, as far as learning jazz goes, beyond what Will taught me--which was very basic--I learned everything else by ear from records. As I learned the music, I wrote it down and tried to systematize it. I wanted to be able to absorb what I was listening to without copying it. As I was writing the music, I was thinking about how I was teaching myself. So, it seemed that a natural outgrowth of that activity would be to teach the system to others. So, I taught piano privately even before I worked at the conservatory. I had a lot of success. Older musicians came to me to learn how to play bebop.

When I started to run the jazz department at the conservatory, it was out of the love for teaching people. I had a lot of ideas, and I revamped the conservatory’s whole program. I arranged the program according to my methods. Music had been taught there according to book methods. I set up a program that involved learning from the records. The material was organized and put into systematic practice routines based on the performances of real people, as opposed to theory that students would learn from a book. There was a listening component, but it was based on how I organized the material based on what the musicians were playing.

A lot of times, jazz is taught from scales. Sometimes they teach, "If you have this kind of chord, you do this." What I taught was, "When you have this kind of chord, this is what McCoy Tyner would do. This is what Barry Harris would do. This is what Sonny Rollins would do." So, I organized these ideas by player.

I had some really good students. Lynne Arriale was a student of mine around 1980. At that time, her name was Lynne Bernstein. She was one of my first students, and I taught her for about a year. She initially was a classical pianist. Also, there’a a guy in New York I taught named Rick Germanson. He hasn’t recorded yet. In Milwaukee, I taught a guy named Mark Davis. I’m really proud of him. He took over my job at the conservatory.

JazzReview: How did you get the job at the conservatory.

Hazeltine: By starting my own school and then when the conservatory tried to run us out of business. I did a grass roots kind of thing in a jazz club, The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. What we did was brilliant. The school got a lot of press, and it was taking students away from the conservatory. Later, it looked as if the club was going to close. We were going to have to move, and then the conservatory made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

JazzReview: Were you the only teacher at the Jazz School?

Hazeltine: No, I worked with a friend of mine there named Scott Black. For a while, the jazz scene in Milwaukee was cooking. There were a lot of clubs in the mid-seventies. Buddy Montgomery, Hattush Alexander and Melvin Rhyne lived there. There were a lot of older, very good players in Milwaukee. They took us all under their wing. Brothers and drummer and bass player Mark and Billy Johnson lived there, although they’re in New York now. At the time, we were young, and the older players were inspirational and good teachers.

JazzReview: And you were an associate professor at Berklee.

Hazeltine: Yes, I taught there for one year. I taught there one day a week. While it was great to teach at Berklee, and while there were a lot of great students there, it didn’t seem that it would work out, especially since I had a lot of work to do that involved subbing out for my traveling.

JazzReview: There seems to be camaraderie among the people you play with in your groups.

Hazeltine: That was the premise for forming One For All. As busy as all of us are-earning money and doing gigs with other people--that group has stayed together a long time. It has made six CD’s. We continue to play, and everyone continues to write for the band. We are very like-minded people, especially musically. I think that friendship takes the music to another level. There’s a possibility for growth into new music and new forms. The creation of cutting-edge ideas is only possible in that kind of situation. I mean, look at the way that Coltrane’s group stayed together for so long. They were musically cutting-edge, but they were also tight. They played music all the time. One For All has stayed together, even though we aren’t together all the time. Over time, we hope to accomplish the same thing, probably over a longer period of time. But we’re also getting to the point where we will be playing much more together. There’s a lot of friendship within the group.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: David Hazeltine
  • Subtitle: The Interview
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