Although the interview was originally set to take place between the sound-check and the performance with headliner Cecil Taylor, vocalist Andy Bey, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff on Sunday evening, Henry Grimes and his wife Margaret Davis were concerned that all of the chaos could disrupt the flow of the interview. So, the following evening, Henry and Margaret returned to the Blue Note to talk about Henry’s life – both inside and out of the jazz world. By the mid-60s, Henry was of the most in-demand bassists in New York and shared the stage with jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Thelonius Monk, and many others. In 1968, on the way to a gig with Jon Hendricks on the West Coast, Henry’s bass fell into disrepair after baking in the hot sun on top of the band’s vehicle. He didn’t have the money to repair and it and ended up selling the bass altogether. “I was just waiting for something to happen. And I spent the next 30 some years in Los Angeles, just waiting for something to happen,” Henry remarked during the interview. It took far too long, but when that “something” eventually happened, the jazz world regained one of its most treasured musicians. Armed with his dark green bass “Olive Oil,” Henry is quickly making up for lost time.
In the video below, a young Henry Grimes performs on TV with SONNY ROLLINS and drummer Pete LaRocca
What would you call your music? How do you feel about the classification?
I call it avant-garde jazz. Or free jazz. I just see it for what it is, and that has a lot to do with people’s opinions regarding what’s different, whether it’s avant-garde or fusion, whatever it be. There are many titles that everyone uses, and jazz is just one of them. I heard Duke Ellington once say that he didn’t like the name jazz, so that should really tell you a lot. That was back in the ‘50s. Jazz, the name itself, was something that he didn’t appreciate at that moment in time.
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Speaking of Duke, you were playing with some of his contemporaries like Coleman Hawkins in the 50s. Were those guys your heroes growing up?
Yes, they definitely were. Everything they played, I learned how to play. That started in more or less the mid-50s. By the late ‘50s I was playing with all of them, like Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano. It was just like the jazz scene today with a lot of people participating. I played violin in junior high school, but it wasn’t jazz, it was classical.
Did your classical upbringing help the jazz?
It directed me towards the music that I wanted to play. I was able to incorporate a lot of things into my jazz playing because of that training. When I got to Julliard, I took up bass and stopped playing the violin. But recently, I am happy to say that I have started playing the violin again. She (points to his wife Margaret) gave one to me as a gift, and now I’m playing free-style violin. It’s been really great so far.
Is it a green violin?
No. (laughter) It’s kind of a carmel color.
How did you get from playing swing and bop music to avant-garde? Was it a natural transition?
Yeah, well first of all, we called that music from back then cool jazz. It came from be-bop, re-bop, hard-bop, and all those other names that were popular at the time. I used to play with Arnett Cobb, who as I understand, caused a lot of musicians to steer in that direction of educating others and seeing the music for what it is. He had a lot to do with not just playing rhythm and blues, but also teaching.
Lennie Tristano also had a thing with teaching the musicians.
I never got involved with him on that stage of events, but I did play with him at the Half Note in New York. That was the last time I played with him.
People talk about your rumored bass duo with Charles Mingus. Did that take place?
No, it wasn’t exactly a duo or a duet. Mingus actually played piano, and he had to arrange his compositions, and in order to do that we played gigs in Baltimore and some around here. Most of them were in Baltimore and he played piano and I took over the bass chair so he could get the arrangements going. He directed me in terms of what he wanted me to do, and that’s how I got to know all of the guys in Mingus’ band.
Was he encouraging to you?
Yeah, he was very encouraging just by calling me up for that kind of thing. When somebody like William Parker calls to talk to you, and says, “Hey let’s go to work and play two basses,” that’s what I’m talking about. He was encouraging just by calling me up. Mingus was also a decent piano player. He didn’t play that much but he had ability.
There’s a great video of playing with Monk and Roy Haynes. Have you seen the video?
Yeah, I’ve seen it, but certain details about it slip my mind. They lose effect – but I know people who tell me about it and ask if I’ve seen it. I guess I don’t act like I remember seeing it! – but I do remember doing the gig.
How was working with Monk?
He was the kind of guy who would just turn around and point to the musicians and just let them know what he wanted them to do as a band. He was a technical master but was a very…kind of low profile type of guy. But the Jazz on The Summer’s Day was a great thing. I did work with him one other time at some places that aren’t around anymore in New York City. It was with Billy Higgins and myself, and I wasn’t even hired for the gig. I think the bass player was late or something like that, but I went up and played a short thing with Monk. I think during that song he was just dancing around and looking for the bass player anyway!
When you made your return in 2003, were you surprised that avant-garde jazz was still being played? Because it was a movement of sorts…
No, because there are always transitions behind the names of the music. People pay attention to how it’s described, the names – like the name “jazz” for example. What I’m trying to say is that the problem has always been labeling the music. Charlie Parker did it, Monk did it, Cecil Taylor. For some reason the style of playing is created by improvising. That’s the common theme that holds it together. When you think about the application to music and what it means to play it, improvisation is the common thing. Monk did the same thing as Parker – not the same thing, like copied it or technique wise – but held the same concept.
People seem fascinated by your disappearance. How do you feel about that?
I’m fascinated myself, to be honest. It’s comfortable, though. What comes up as being a part of the past – I mean a lot of musicians in the past have gone missing. I don’t know what the analogy is or anything, but a lot of musicians have played, and disappeared, just like I did. It wasn’t a conscious choice to stop playing music, but it was a conscious choice to at one time to get out of the way of the New York scene, so I went to San Francisco. I got there by getting a job with Jon Hendricks, and then I worked around San Francisco for a while there. The thing was that on the way there, the bass heated up on the back of the car and it was in bad shape anyway, so I had to sell it. The repairman said that it would have cost $500 just for a repair, so I decided to sell it to him. After that, I just waited in Los Angeles, and I was just waiting for something to happen. And it lasted 30 some years out there in Los Angeles, waiting for something to happen.
What did you do out there for all that time?
I worked as a janitor, in the custodial field. Other than that, I wrote some poems, and I got into the habit of writing poetry. At the time I wasn’t sharing it with anyone, but after I came out of it, I immediately started to share my poetry and other intimate thoughts of my own.
I know you are also writing about metaphysics – what is metaphysics and what does it mean to you?
Metaphysics are philosophy – that’s the best way I can answer it. (Margaret chimes in – “It’s the union of the causes of things that aren’t really apparent.” Henry continues:) And I guess I can agree with that pro or con! It’s difficult to just define – like jazz music in a way – and I do believe that jazz is a metaphysical thing.
In 2002, you got a call out of the blue from Marshall Marrotte. What happened?
He was a social worker at the time, and he was calling people up to try to find out where I was. At that time when he was calling people, I was totally not “here.” When he found out I was the guy he was looking for, things immediately changed. I met her (again, points to Margaret) and William Parker, and a few others…David Gage, and Paula Jones, a Los Angeles person who died some time ago last year. But as soon as I started communicating to others that I was available and here, and not missing, I started to get jobs.
It must have been an incredible shock to your system – you ended up returning to the same exact place you were 35 years before.
Yeah, the same place, except for people like Margaret, William, and others helping me and giving me the support I needed to get to where I am going. They were beautiful. It’s hard to explain. Was it fate? Well, I can think of a poem or a sketch that could describe how I feel about it, but poetry wouldn’t be the best way to describe things to a material society. If you want to say that it was meant to be, philosophically or something like that, you can go ahead and do that if you want. I just refer to describe it as something that came to me. Things come to me in many directions and it’s just a matter of enlightenment or spirit. I would call it an act of God, in a sense, which is a term I got from one of the European philosophes.
Well the jazz world is very thankful, however you want to describe it! That must mean a lot to you, to have people react the way they did.
Yes, it was immediate. As soon as I talked to Marshall Marrotte on the phone, it was all there. The hotel I was staying in didn’t even have enough accommodations to handle it all. People were calling from Europe and everywhere else. I didn’t even have a phone! But I’ve really enjoyed it so far, it’s been wonderful. Thank you all for your support.
Talk about your new book, “Signs Along The Way.” Where is it available?
People can get it at my website, http://www.henrygrimes.com/. The contents of the book is poetry, and what is reflected in people’s minds… “Signs Along The Road” means people who are not hip. A lot of people don’t have an understanding – they think they’re into it, but they’re not into it – and that can be anyone. The whole question – “What is poetry? – is what the book is all about. The poems are sketches. They are different but they have that sameness about them, the subject that ties them together. Poetry allows you to really view a subject in a different light. I love poetry. I used to go to the library and get all my information there, and I really enjoyed it. At that time I was alone, and this is what I did at the time. It was my way of expressing myself without the bass in hand.
You also have a new CD coming out.
It’s a duo CD with Rashied Ali called “Going to the Ritual” which is the name of one of my poems. I played with him the ‘60s and we were on an Archie Schepp record together with Bobby Hutcherson. That was before I left, obviously.
Has your playing changed since the 60s?
I think it’s changed vastly and drastically. The change is in a technical sense, but the philosophy of life really changed the way I play. After the experience was over and I got the bass, I started practicing. My bass’ name is Olive Oil, and that’s a mechanism of defense I use to escape (laughter). But I did it.
Margaret: It means so much to him to know that people care. The fact that someone gave him a bass, or that a 22 year-old kid like Marshall Morrotte knows all his solos and wasn’t even born when Henry recorded them…that has to make you play better!
How was your gig last night at the Blue Note with Cecil Taylor? The press was scrambling to hear what the trio would sound like with vocalist Andy Bey.
It was a full audience and they were very responsive. They were able to enjoy the music just as it is, and the responses were fantastic. The music that we played was really enjoyable. Andy Bey was great, and so were Cecil and Pheeroan. Professionally it wasn’t that different than any other gig, really. We all knew what we were doing and we just were playing some unusual stuff, with Cecil and Andy in the same set. Actually, a long time ago I went to Sunday School with Andy Bey! It seemed strange that it should come up at this time, but I looked at this guy Andy, and I swore I was seeing someone that used to be in Sunday School with me. He was a South Jersey guy and I was from Philly, so it’s possible.
Is there anything else that you want to say that we didn’t cover?
Well, just to my fans over the years, I’d just like to say “Cheers” and thank you for your inspirations.