Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian

Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian


Fall 2000, Sweet Basil's, Greenwich Village, NYC, late night. Paul Motian, legendary and beloved jazz drummer, is standing near the back of the club, to the right of the bandstand, with a cymbal bag. His band (The Electric Bebop Band, featuring, as best I remember, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Ben Monder on guitar, Chris Potter and Chris Cheek on tenor sax, with Tony Malaby subbing for Potter later that week, and Jerome Harris on electric bass) has just finished its second or third set. It's a weeknight, the club is mostly empty, and he's wearing a hat. VS, college kid and aspiring jazz drummer, is sitting at a table just to Paul Motian's right. This is the third time VS has heard Paul Motian play live. He loves and admires Paul's playing, is thrilled to have heard him tonight, and has been on the lookout for a chance to have a conversation with him. Fate seems to have given him the opportunity tonight, and he is ready. Both Paul Motian and VS are approximately the same height.

VS: (nervously, tiptoeing, excited):
Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian:(loud, brash, amused):
Hey! Yeah? What do YOU want man?

VS: (thrilled the great man has deigned speak to him)
Well, I was just….wondering……(knees actually knocking together here) if the last piece you played……was called…."Cabala".

Paul Motian: (intrigued but ready to be unimpressed, and speaking very loudly)

VS: (in an annoying tone)
Oh, I thought it was "Cabala" from the Le Voyage album.

Paul Motian: (exact same tone as previous, and practically shouting)

VS: (still pursuing…..what?)
If that's "Drum Music", then what piece is "Cabala"?

Paul Motian: (his voice has not modulated at all)

(Perplexed and aware that this exchange could go on indefinitely, it dawns on VS that a subject change might be in order)

VS: (reaching) Do you ever give drum lessons? (It immediately occurs to VS that this is a dumb question, and his face reflects this knowledge.)

Paul Motian: (now even more amused and somewhat less loud):
NO, no MAN I don't DO that, I don't know WHAT TO TEACH I HATE doing that shit man there was a kid in my building who said he wanted to play the drums and then when I saw HIM AGAIN HE HAD A CLARINET HA HA HA HA HA!!!! A CLARINET!

VS: (Relieved, hanging in there, thinking of something to ask, and being annoying):
Is the trio you have with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell going to play in town anytime soon?

Paul Motian: (now slightly irritated)
NO MAN WE WERE SUPPOSED TO PLAY FOR [period of time] AT [a jazz club in NYC] BUT [name omitted] DOUBLE BOOKED US (now actually yelling) AND WE HAD TO CANCEL MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF! MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF…..

VS: (Eager to end the yelling that his question has brought on. But still being annoying.)
Well, I hope I get to see the trio sometime. Thanks for the music tonight!

Paul Motian: (aroused out of his ire, terse and loud but polite somehow, making eye contact) OK MAN…..YEAH…..


Spring 2001, interior of Iridium, 63rd and Broadway, NYC. Pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian have just finished a long second set. It's another weeknight. It's one of the greatest sets of music I've ever seen.

The music is now over. What more could I want? I know! An awkward conversation with a great artist!

VS: (Still in college, high on the music, and still rather annoying): Hello, Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian: (By himself at the bar, as the club is clearing out. He's quieter, sipping out of a shot glass, satisfied, greeting VS like he knows him.) Hey man, what's happening?

VS: (aware that Paul has no idea who he is, but…but……he MUST tell Paul Motian, at all costs, that the music he had JUST PLAYED was very good. What if Paul doesn't know????? VS to the rescue! ) That was a great set. (Relieved that his mission has been successfully completed.)

Paul Motian: (Humoring him.) Alright man, ok. Yeah. (He looks around. He is a benevolent dictator.) You know, I like this club, this is a good club. (Thinking out loud, and this kid seems ok enough) I think I'd like to bring my bebop band in here.

VS: (Yes, I actually said this.) Oh, I don't know if you want to do that.  

Paul Motian: (Reasonably incredulous that a child is saying this to him): WHAT?

VS: (Surprised that he would have to explain such an obvious truth to such a brilliant man.): Well, this is a very expensive….place for me to come….and I think….well, it's not a great place, you know, expensive.

Paul Motian: (Currently impossible for him to care less about this conversation and/or VS's comment): Yeah? Well, I DON'T CARE about that. (He turns his back and continues sipping out of his Scotch glass).

VS: (Slinks and cowers away. A gradual awareness of his titanic silliness creeps over him.)


Summer 2001, Village Vanguard, NYC. The Paul Motian Trio- Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Paul Motian on drums- is playing here for six nights. Two sets Tuesday thru Thursday and Sunday, 3 sets on Friday and Saturday.

Clearly, Paul Motian had not heeded my excellent career advice about avoiding jazz clubs with cover charges over $0, and so I decided to spend my meager earnings on the $15 cover and $10 minimum the Vanguard charged at the time. This was my first time seeing Paul at the Vanguard, and I sat either right in front of the drums in the "general seating" area, or at the bar.

I was working at a grocery store during the day, and I believe I went to 6 sets that week (3 trips to the Vanguard, and I stayed for two sets each time.) I, like everyone else that heard that trio in that room, was in heaven. I remember they opened every 1st set with "Jack Of Clubs", I remember "Body And Soul" every night, and I remember "The Sunflower" every night.

A most great and well-known jazz drummer (W.K.J.D. from here on out) has been giving VS drum lessons for a while. Knowing of and sharing VS's admiration of Paul Motian, W.K.J.D. offers to provide VS with a proper introduction to Paul. Fantasies of blissful conversation flower in VS's underdeveloped imagination. The time has come! Here's W.K.J.D. in attendance at tonight's show at the Vanguard!

W.K.J.D.: Hey Paul!

Paul Motian: Hey [name omitted] WHAT'S HAPPENING MAN ALRIGHT!

W.K.J.D.: Yeah Paul, I can hear you've been practicing.


W.K.J.D.: (smiling and joking) Yeah, you been taking lessons?

Paul Motian: YEAH MAN since I WAS 12 years OLD HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (aside) I don't believe I can contribute to this conversation.

W.K.J.D.: Paul, I want you to meet Vinnie, a student of mine.

VS: Hi Paul. We've met before.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? I don't remember! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

W.K.J.D.: Yeah, he's a big fan of yours.

Paul Motian: Really? Why? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (awkward)

W.K.J.D.: Hang on, I'll be right back. (In the distance) Hey! Alright.

VS: (awkward)

Paul Motian: (silence)

VS: Have you known W.K.J.D. a long time?

Paul Motian: Yeah, man. You know his father was a [and here Paul told me a very interesting and non-scandalous fact about W.K.J.D.'s father that I'd never heard before and haven't heard since. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in total corroboration of what Paul told me. ]

VS: (Interested and surprised) Oh yeah? (Can we…TALK about this??)

Paul Motian: Yep. (Orders a drink and turns his head in such a way as to immediately informs VS that the conversation is over.)


January 2002. For a college project, VS is presenting transcriptions of Paul Motian's drumming and compositions, a biographical sketch, and recorded examples of his music. Having heard that his phone number was in the NYC phone book, and seeing friends develop mentor/student relationships with musicians they had no prior connection to, VS decides to give Paul Motian a phone call. He cannot see how this could possibly be anything but a good experience for both of them.)

VS: Here he is, Stephen Motian, okay, 212 [beep beep beep] (ring..ring….ring….ring…) [automated voice says I can leave a message] Um, hi Mr. Motian, my name is Vinnie, and we've met, um, we've met a few times, and I've transcribed some of your compositions, and I'm wondering if I can send them to you, and if you would tell me if I've gotten them right or not, um, that would be great. My phone number is [whatever the hell it was]. Ok, thank you. (Hangs up phone, walks away from the phone).

30 seconds later


VS: Hello?


VS: Who's this?

Paul Motian: This is Paul Motian WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT????

VS: (!!!!!) Oh, well, I just transcribed some tunes of yours…..and…..was wondering if I could show them to you to see if they're correct….


VS: Well, it's for a college project, and it would be really great if I could show them to you. (Pouting) Just to see if they're right! If I've got the tunes right!

Paul Motian: NO! I don't wanna see them.

VS: But just to see if they're right.

Paul Motian: Listen, they're simple tunes, they're right, and I don't wanna see them.

VS: (something)

Paul Motian: (hangs up the phone in a decisive manner)

VS: (back to the drawing board)


Summer 2009. I've seen Paul Motian play many times since I wisely stopped trying to talk to him. He had a health scare, stopped traveling- he'll barely go to Brooklyn for a recording session- and plays more frequently in NYC than I ever thought he would. It seems he's at the Vanguard once every six weeks now.

Several of my friends and colleagues begin playing with him- Jacob Sacks, Thomas Morgan, Michael Attias, Bill McHenry, and Loren Stillman. His playing, which had been growing more and more minimal when I first heard him, seems to have reversed course and become more dense, more active, with a wider dynamic range and a more 'drumistic' vocabulary. I see him play double strokes, conventional time-keeping patterns with brushes, backbeats, shuffles, idiomatic fills- things I'd heard him play on old recordings, but never thought I'd see him play live. His gigs, and the groups he presents, are a balance of tried and true and experimental. And he is, maybe for the first time, a happy fixture on the NYC jazz scene, making many recordings with younger musicians, and occasionally even appearing as a listener at other people's gigs. From my distant perspective, he seems a proud elder statesman. Of course, there are stories of his moods, and I see a set at the Vanguard where he's definitely NOT happy (and yelling at the band), but overall, a sunnier figure than the one I first saw and heard ten years ago.

This week he's at the Vanguard with Ben Street, Thomas Morgan, Masabumi Kikuchi, Bill McHenry and Loren Stillman.  Early evening, I meet my good friend, a most wonderful jazz musician who's worked with Paul, to go to hear Paul at the Vanguard. This FOVS (Friend Of VS's) knowing of my great-and-still-growing respect and admiration for Paul's playing, suggests that we meet at a restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the Vanguard, where, he says, Paul likes to go before the gig.

VS and FOVS: talk talk joke joke talk talk joke joke (with an eye toward the door)

In walks Paul Motian. He is a very small man.

FOVS: Hi Paul

Paul Motian: Uh oh, you're following me!

FOVS: (smiling, genuine) No, we aren't following you, just getting some food.

Paul Motian: Alright man, alright.

(He goes to the counter, and orders. We continue our conversation as he waits for his food. When it comes, he takes it to a table, and sits down, alone, right behind us)

FOVS: (casual, genuine) Paul, you're more than welcome to join us if you'd like.

Paul Motian: Ok man, sure.

FOVS: Paul, this is my friend VS, a drummer.

VS: Hi Paul, really great to meet you.

Paul Motian: Alright, man, yeah. (Quietly, and gladly) So, what you guys up to tonight?

FOVS(delighted, humorous, respectful- a master at engaging with Paul Motian): We're coming to see you, man!

Paul Motian: Uh-oh! Hahahaha, alright. Cool man.

FOVS (knowing just what to say): How're the crowds so far?

Paul Motian: Pretty good, man, they're pretty good. We have two basses this week. It's really great having two bass players, really great. Hey, [fantastic musician] took me to this vegan restaurant on 13th Street. I went there with Poo the other night man. You know this place? I think it's called [name omitted]?

FOVS: Sure, we go there a lot with [fantastic musician]. Vinnie plays with [fantastic musician] too, Paul.

VS: (going for it!): Yeah, a student of mine that works there [the vegan restaurant] told me he waited on you guys last night.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? That guy was your student? Alright man. (Pleased. Settling in. To VS) I gotta play at Cornelia Street Cafe next week, you ever play there?

VS: Yeah, I've played there a lot actually.

Paul Motian: They have some Canopus drums there, right?

VS: Yeah, uh-huh, Canopus.

Paul Motian: How are they? They any good?

VS: They're great. Fine. Totally cool.

Paul Motian: How're the heads on the bass drum? They don't have those pinstripe heads on there, do they?

VS: No, no. Just some ambassadors. The drum rings a bit.

Paul Motian: Right, ok. I played there before, that's what I remember. (Easing back, feeling comfortable, enjoying talking shop) You know, I used to have this Gretsch kit.

VS's Mind: I know. Before that you had a Slingerland, and you apparently had a Sonor kit that you may have used only in Europe, but you seem to have had an endorsement deal with Sonor, at least for a brief period in the 80s, based on the magazine ads and the Sonor drums shout-out on the It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago LP from 1984 on ECM Records. The Gretsch kit was in a Modern Drummer article that appeared in 1994, just as you were debuting the Electric Bebop Band. I actually still have the magazine and I remember the day I got it in the mail.

VS: Oh yeah?

Paul Motian: Yeah, I recently got rid of it, and got a new set of Canopus.

VS's Mind: Yes, this apparently happened some time in the last 6 weeks, and I regret that I didn't attend the Vanguard the week you first used them. I believe you bought them at Maxwell's, isn't that correct? Everyone tells me you have an 18" bass drum, which I've never seen you use. I'm most curious as to how they sound.

VS: How are they?

Paul Motian: (Glad you asked!) Well, I have an 18" bass drum now. I'm starting to tune them up, they sound pretty good. I have to play at Birdland in a couple weeks. (Seeming to enjoy himself, and the company.) What do you think of those drums?

VS: Well, you know, to be honest, I don't dig them. I don't like the way they sound.

Paul Motian: Well I dig 'em, cause at least then I don't have to bring my fucking drums, ha ha ha ha ha ha! I hate bringing my drums, and packing 'em up, ha ha ha ha ha ha. But I know what you mean man, I know what you mean. You guys going out of town this summer for some gigs?

VS: No, not this summer.

FOV: One gig in Italy next month.

Paul Motian: Oh man, one time I was in Italy, at this big hotel, and I was in the lobby, and there's Milt Jackson at the desk! ha ha ha ha So I go up to him and I say "Hey Milt, hey man!" He turns around and looks at me and says "Oh hi Paul. Still playing the drums?" (Paul slumps over in his chair to demonstrate how he felt). Man, I felt like two inches tall. So I said "Yeah, Bags." Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

FOVS/VS: (Surprised by his candor, happy that he seems happy.) Hahahahaha!

FOVS: (Changing the subject) Hey Paul, did you ever play with Billie Holiday?

Paul Motian: (guarded, but willing to talk) Yeah man, one time, out on Long Island.

FOVS/VS: (expression of joy and admiration).

We eventually realize it's time to go.

Paul Motian: Hey man, so you teach drums, huh?  

VS: Yeah. I teach all the regular stuff. Reading and rudiments. We do the Wilcoxon book.

Paul Motian: I used to practice out of that book all the time.

VS: Really?  

Paul Motian: Yeah man, since I was a kid. You know, one time in Chicago, Philly Joe and Max Roach were in a hotel room practicing out of that book, and Old Man Wilcoxon was there, and he heard them playing his book, and (he holds his hands up to his eyes) he was so moved that tears come to his eyes.

VS's Mind: This is the greatest story I've ever heard. This is too much to handle, because it's literally everything I love in one place. Paul Motian talking about Max Roach and Philly Joe playing for Charley Wilcoxon, overcome by emotion, because of snare drum, rudiments, and traditional grip. The only way this could be improved would be if we were all reading The New Yorker right now.

VS: Wow!

Arriving at the Vanguard, I make a motion to get in line, but both FOVS and Paul gesture for me to follow them downstairs. Paul then tells the person working the door that we're friends of his. So I enter the Vanguard, without paying the cover, and for a moment I am a friend of Paul's.