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Teach On

Warren Wolf Latest in Long Line of Jazz Musicians Learning From More Experienced Peers

Michael Northrup

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/14/2008

The Warren Wolf Sextet

An die Musik May 17, at the Citiview Bar and Grill May 24, at Jazzway 6004 May 31, and at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum June 4.

Jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson first heard of the young Baltimore multi-instrumentalist Warren Wolf in 2006. Curtis Lundy, Watson's longtime friend and bassist, returned from a trio gig in Washington raving about Wolf.

"He came back and said, `You've got to get this cat Warren--this guy is a monster,'" Watson remembers. "Curtis brought him into the fold, and he wasn't wrong. That's how we are, we're always talking: `What drummers are you hearing lately? Who's the hot new trumpet player? Have you heard this guy? We've got to get that guy.' When we find someone we like and we have an opening, we try to hire him. When we started, we hired Christian McBride, Winard Harper, Roy Hargrove, and Benny Green. Now we've hired Warren."

"Curtis asked for my number," Wolf says. "And the next thing I knew, Bobby was on the phone, asking me to do a gig at Caton Castle in Baltimore. It turned out it was a warmup gig for a recording session. We played on Saturday and Sunday and recorded on Monday and Tuesday. I've been playing with Bobby ever since."

Wolf can be heard not only on Watson's new album, From the Heart (Palmetto), but also on his own second disc as a leader, Raw (Wolf Pac). And the way Wolf joined Watson's band is very similar to the way Watson joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers 30 years earlier in 1977. The young alto saxophonist, newly arrived in New York from Kansas, had befriended Curtis Fuller, Blakey's former trombonist. Fuller recommended the youngster to his former employer, and before long, when Watson was playing a jam session at New York's Storyville, Blakey climbed up on the bandstand and took the sticks from the drummer in the middle of a tune without missing a beat.

"It was like the band was going down the road doing 50, and all of a sudden, zoom, we were taking off like a jet," Watson, 54, says with a laugh. "I heard that big sonic boom behind me--I looked around and there was Art Blakey. He met me in the bathroom after the set and asked me if I wanted to join the Jazz Messengers. It took me about a microsecond to decide. The Jazz Messengers were my wake-up music in those days--I loved Art Blakey. He took me up to his apartment, handed me a bunch of records, told me to learn the music, and shut the door in my face."

Wolf is part of a chain of jazz apprentices and mentors that goes back through Watson and Blakey to Mary Lou Williams, the 1930s pianist and Duke Ellington arranger who, in 1946, hired an 18-year-old kid from Pittsburgh named Art Blakey. This transmission of knowledge and example from older to younger players is crucial to jazz. It's what separates the genre from pop music, where twentysomethings are perpetually forming new bands by themselves and reinventing the wheel.

"The only way you get better is by playing with someone who's better than you," Wolf says. The 28-year-old musician sits in a Federal Hill café, wearing a gray blazer over a black T-shirt; he sports a closely trimmed beard and Afro. "When I was with Mulgrew Miller, for example, I'd set up my vibes right near his piano. When I'd finish my solo, I'd turn around and watch his hands--how he voiced certain chords, how he accented certain rhythms. You'd think it might be nerve-racking to play with famous musicians, but it's not. It's a pleasure."

"The best teachers in jazz teach by example," Watson adds over the phone from his home in Kansas City. "They don't want to say anything--they just want to play. But if they have to pull you aside and talk to you, they will. When Art cussed you out, you knew he cared. He was dedicated to helping young people. The Jazz Messengers were a finishing school.

"He wanted us to shine," Watson continues. "He wasn't intimidated by us getting response from the audience--he didn't have a jealous bone in his body. Betty Carter was the same way, Roy Haynes, too, but there aren't many people like that."

Watson gives Wolf a chance to shine on From the Heart. The young vibraphone player not only gets many solos but even contributes a composition, "For Milt." This affectionate ballad, dedicated to the Modern Jazz Quartet's vibraphonist, Milt Jackson, boasts a strong melody that is first announced by Watson's warm alto sax and is then pulled through several rippling runs by Wolf himself. When Watson picks up the theme again, Wolf echoes his phrases as if commenting on them.

On Watson's composition "Climbing the Stairs" Wolf moves over from vibes to piano. On his own Raw, Wolf plays both vibes and drums. His triple-threat chops are due to the practice regimen laid down early by his father, Warren Wolf Sr. Wolf the younger grew up in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village, running through the alleys where they'd nail crates to the telephone poles and play basketball.

"But when 5:30 hit that's when practicing started," Wolf says. "From 5:30 to 6:30 it was piano. From 6:30 to 7:30 it was drums. From 7:30 to 8:30 it was vibraphone. It was like that five days a week from the time I was 5 till I was 17."

His father was a social studies teacher in Baltimore--working at Northern High School, Booker T. Washington Middle School, and Dunbar Middle School, among others--but he was also a percussionist who led a group called Wolf Pac at local clubs such as the Sportsmen's Lounge. He had always dreamed of becoming a full-time musician and he wanted to make sure his son had that chance. His son made his public debut at age 11 with the Wolf Pac at the Sportsmen's in 1990, and has now released Raw under the label imprint Wolf Pac.

"It was hard because what kid wants to be stuck in the basement practicing when he could be outside playing?" Wolf admits. "But when I played a solo with the Rock Glen Middle School Band, people clapped and later came up to say, `Warren, you sound really good.' I got off on that, so I kept practicing."

All that practice got Wolf into the Baltimore School for the Arts, where the jazz teacher his first year was guitarist Steve Yankee. Instead of playing jazz arrangements of "Eye of the Tiger," as he had in middle school, the teenager was now playing Sonny Rollins' "Doxy." Suddenly the music started making sense. His role model became Dennis Chambers, another Baltimore drummer who had played not only with jazz guitarist John Scofield but also Parliament-Funkadelic.

"That's my man," Wolf exclaims. "He can lay down a beat like no one else. But even when he's playing very fast, all over the drum kit, he seems very calm, in control, very musical. He proved that you don't need that ride-cymbal pattern all the time for it to be jazz. You don't have to have that walking bass. You can play a funk groove and turn it into jazz if you throw a lot of chords at it."

Wolf took that attitude with him to Boston's Berklee College of Music, "which is full of every style of music you can imagine--straight-ahead jazz, fusion, rock, R&B, classical," he says. "Why not take advantage of it all? Why not absorb all those approaches, wrap them up in a big ball, and make it your own style? That's how you become a complete musician. You can definitely hear all those tendencies on my new record."

At Berklee, he befriended a like-minded group of musicians that played every weekend at a local spot called Wally's Café Jazz Club, from 2002-'04. The club's address, "427 Mass. Ave.," became the title of the first tune on Raw, recorded by that same group of players. By the end of that run at Wally's, Wolf had graduated from Berklee and had even served a year and a half as a teacher there. He decided, though, that he wanted to be a touring musician.

The summer of 2004 was lean, but then the phone began to ring. In September, saxophonist Tim Warfield called to offer Wolf his first road gig--playing in St. Louis with Nicholas Payton. Two days later Mulgrew Miller called to offer two weeks in Japan the following summer. Even with this kind of work, however, Wolf couldn't pay Boston rents, much less New York rents. He was a married man with two children (a third would come along in 2007), so he moved back home to Baltimore in January '05.

Before he left, though, he recorded his first solo album, Incredible Jazz Vibes, with Miller and two of his Boston pals, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Vincente Archer. That came out in 2006, around the time he returned to Boston to record Raw. A little later, he met Lundy and Watson.

"Warren's vibes playing is soulful and very clear--his lines lead you from point A to point B," Watson says. "Some people play notes just because, but he has a purpose behind his notes."

After playing a spate of local CD-release shows, Wolf hits the road again with Watson for a tour of Scotland and Italy. He's looking forward to soaking up as much from Watson and Lundy as he can. "Bobby's bringing down all that experience to me," Wolf says. "All the tunes he knows, all the tricks he's learned, all the cats that he's played with. He'll tell me stories about when Wynton [Marsalis] first joined the Jazz Messengers and tried to make everyone dress better. Bobby and Curtis are mentoring us in music, but they're also mentoring us in the musician's life.

"But more than talking, I learn from listening to Bobby play. When he does a cadenza on a certain tune, it might be something I never would have thought of. So when I do my own gig, I'll try something like that, not exactly the same, but similar. That's how you get better. That's how this music gets passed on."

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