Walking with the giants of jazz… How I met my idols…        
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When I arrived in America at the end of 1967, my only purpose was to observe (for a couple of months) my idols, which were mostly instrumentalists. I wanted to play jazz, not sing it.

The first person I met on the second day of my arrival was Thelonious Monk. I went to the Harlem and was attempting to get into a club called Club Baron, and the doorman was giving me a hard time. I had never seen Thelonious Monk personally; he was standing behind the doorman and saw what was going on. I could barely speak English; my English was broken and I had an accent. Thelonious scolded the doorman and extended his hand to me. His hands were big and he was tall. He said to me, “Come on in. Don’t be afraid. I want you to sit with my friend.”

I gave him my hand and he walked me through the club and took me all the way in and sat me at the table with a white hair lady who people were calling “Baroness Nika.” She was the same lady who apparently took care of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. At the time I also did not know who she was. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know how Thelonious Monk looked like. It was not until the show started and I saw him sitting at the piano and playing, that I realized what had happened to me.

In that club as I walked in, I saw Wayne Shorter at the bar, Art Blakey and Carmen McRae. Oh, Miles Davis came in grand style with a beautiful lady on his arm! Every single jazz musician I idolized was at that club that night. It was the hangout of the musicians in the late 60’s and 70’s. I was in awe. Richard Davis and Chick Corea were there. I didn’t know Chick Corea then. He was not well known, but later as I started working with him, I knew I had met him somewhere and then I realized that it was at the Club Baron. It was an incredible experience. Can you imagine me? I was only 22 years old, from Brazil, just trying to learn more about Jazz musicians, their styles and what made them choose that venue of music to express themselves. It was the greatest moment of my life.

After the show, we went to Walter Booker's house where all the musicians that played in every other jazz club in the city converged to hang out and play music all night long, and jammed with each other until the early hours of the morning. So at that time to me, that was what jazz was all about!

Meeting Horace Silver…

One story I can't forget is about the time I met Horace Silver. He stayed at my house by chance. Sergio Mendes invited him [Silver] to come to Brazil to stay at his house in Niterói, which is a city across the Guanabara Bay. I used to live in Rio de Janeiro and at that time, I was living with a well-known drummer named Dom Um Romão who ended up playing with the group Weather Report by the end of the 70's. Sergio had asked if we could have Horace at our house, because he wanted to see more of Rio de Janeiro and we had an apartment in the middle of Copacabana, near all the clubs.

One early morning I heard the piano being played and when I came downstairs, I saw Horace Silver striking some chords and melodies. I didn’t want to startle him so I sat on the stairs where he couldn’t see me. He was beginning to write a song that became “Song for My Father.” That composition became one of Horace's classics. Later on I asked him: why did you called it “Song for his father”? Then he told me his father was Portuguese and that he had migrated to America and that they used to live in Connecticut. He also told me that his father’s real last name was Prata, which means silver in Portuguese.

2002 Ordem do Rio Branco for Lifetime Achievement.

It was awesome. I wish it wasn’t a Lifetime Achievement Award. I feel I have a lot of things to do in this lifetime. But it was a great acknowledgement because it came from my country. I’m not very well known in my country by the public. The musicians and the crowd into jazz know me better.

The award was a surprise to me. When I went to collect it, the tears began to flow in front of 2,000 people that attended the ceremony. Then the theater was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, where the award winning films nominated for the Oscars are announced. The ceremony was held on Sept. 7th, which is the day we celebrate the independence of Brazil. It was altogether a very special night.

Music is my genes…

Both of my parents were classical musicians. My mother was 15 years younger than my father. And my father was born in Russia. My mother was born in Brazil. My father didn’t want to hear anything in the house, but classical music. At the age of four I began studying classical piano and at the age of twelve I moved to acoustic guitar. My mother, who was a pianist, loved Oscar Peterson and Errol Gardner. She would bring home those 78 vinyl rpm’s and when my father was at work, she would play them. That was how I got exposed to jazz music. Basically listening to Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. But also a lot of piano players, such Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Errol Gardner, those were my mother’s favorites. And that’s how I was introduced to jazz and classical music.

My greatest creative influences…

I’ve heard a lot of people, but I think I would say a Brazilian musician named Hermeto Pascoal was one of my biggest influences. Through the years he mastered the keyboards. He use to play the organ Hammond B3, flute, saxophone, percussion and guitar. He is one of the most complete musicians that I ever met. Not too long after we came to the United States, Airto Moreira introduced him to Miles Davis, who recorded three of Hermeto’s compositions on his album "Live Evil."

On the early 70's, Chick Corea asked me to listen to some songs after a gig with Miles. None of his songs had lyrics. He had sent his music to Ella, Carmen, Sarah and Nancy, and they all sent it back saying the music was nice, but they couldn’t take a risk to change their style from Bebop to that style of music called Fusion. So one day he asked me if I could come to his place and try to sing his new compositions. Then I took a chance and I went.

Chick is a very talented and creative musician. At the time he also needed a drummer, so because Airto was playing with Miles, he asked Airto if he could do the rehearsals until he found a drummer to play with the new group he was forming. That was how the group "Return To Forever" was formed.

My experience with Gil Evans…

I met Gil Evans and joined the Gil Evans Band. He insisted that I played the percussion and I created some crazy sounds while the band was playing, Gil fell in love with the music we play, and whenever I did a gig on my own or with Airto, he would show up. I believe that between Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Ron Carter, we found our best friends in America.

The other legend that was an incredible part of my life was Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy is still a part of my life. If you ever come to my house, there are pictures of him all over my walls. In the three years I spent singing with the United Nations Orchestra, he taught me so much about American music that I got involved with a new way of singing jazz music. I learned from Dizzy the difference from traditional mainstream jazz and bebop. I read somewhere that Dizzy Gillespie was one of the greatest influences for Miles Davis as well. He created bebop at a time when swing and Dixieland were prevailing.

Besides being a very funny man who made hundreds of jokes, he would sit in the back of the bus with me for several hours telling life stories about his family and things that happened to him. And then he’d teach me how to play in 4/4, the time signature used in American music, as apposed to 2/4, the time signature used in Brazilian music. I carry 2/4 in my blood and maybe that's why I am different than some singers when I improvise. Dizzy thought this was strange at the beginning, but he realized this was my cultural background. He took the time to sit with me and show me with his hands where one was, so if I ever wanted to go into another level of jazz positions I could go into it. I loved him not just for that, but I loved him also because he gave me a lot of insight and spirituality, he even gave me his praying book.

He used to carry his praying book all the time. His praying book had his name printed in gold. One day, when we were on the airplane going to Australia, he said to me, “I want you to have this.” Then I said to him, “If you give me your praying book how are you going to pray?” He told me he knew every prayer in the book by memory. I didn’t believe it. So he challenged me to open the book on any page and ask him to tell me the prayer of the page. So I opened the book and he asked me what prayer was that, and I said the Traveler’s Prayer. He asked me which number it was, and then I told him it was the number 3, and he recited the entire prayer. I quizzed him on another prayer and again he blew me away. He knew every single prayer of that book.

So I asked him what was his religion and he told me he had been a Bahai for thirty years. I asked him what was the philosophy of Bahai religion and he said among other things, is the oneness of mankind, universal peace upheld by a world government, equality between men and women, mandatory education for all children of the world and a spiritual solution to the economic power. I was impressed.

What you can expect from me…

I try to reinvent myself as often as I can, meaning right now I am going on a tour for eights weeks. And my change has to do with what I understand as my mission, which is to spread love and hope, and tell everybody what I know through the music without preaching, and that is if each one of us do our part, meaning that our part is to help each other, and when someone is in need, to extend a helping hand. And if we can lift people with rhythm and sound, we will do it. And not to be afraid to ask for help if we need it and never ever forget to be in touch with each other.

So now you can expect me to be in the forefront, trying to become a pillar of hope and doing as much as I can to lift as many people as possible, including myself.

Edited by Tatiana Reyes

Based on:
Queen of Brazilian Jazz
Artist Interview by: Beatrice S. Richardson
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