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Cass' Interview with Walter Beasley

 

Cass' Interview with
Jazz Artist, WALTER BEASELY

Walter Beasley

Copyright Cassandra Henry, 2004

Cass:
Hey Walter.

Walter B:
Hey Cass.

Cass:
Thanks for putting your saxophone down for a moment to do this interview.

Walter B:
Where are you calling from?

Cass:
New Orleans.

Walter B:
That's right. I love New Orleans.

Cass:
Me too. Hey, finally getting to talk with you has been a Godsend.

Walter B:
Oh really! How so?

Cass:
The past two days have been horrible. So let me vent for a second. Yesterday, I didn't leave work until after 8:00 p.m. The fact that I had been there since 6:30 a.m. and only took 10 minutes to gobble down my lunch, only added to my frustration. Long story short, I was so aggravated that by the time I finally got into my car to go home, all I could do was hit play on my CD player. And to tell you the truth [because I only lie when I'm paid to] . . .

Walter B:
[Laughing]

Cass:
Walter, I’m telling you I was so frantic yesterday, that if my boss’ body came up missing, I know I would be a suspect.

Walter B:
[Laughing]

Cass:
Anywayzzzz, the further I drove away from work last night, I started paying attention to the CD and I was really diggin’ the music. So, I pulled out the CD case and looked at the title and it said, Go With the Flow. First I laughed, and then I said, "God, You did it again. You always know exactly what I need and when I need it." It just calmed me down. [And, I know folks reading this interview will probably say, "Cass is always saying stuff like this," but this is exactly how things happen to me]. I even flashed the CD cover to a brotha on the interstate, but that's another story.

Walter B:
Whaaaatt? You know what, I appreciate hearing that because I aim to please people with my music. Basically, a lot of the music that I do now, I think about how it feels before I put it on the CD. I also play traditional jazz, R&B and hardcore stuff pretty well. Because our lives are so inundated with so much stuff, music has a way of making us momentarily forget about our troubles, so we can appreciate what we've been given. If my music in some way can help people get to that place of balance, then I'm the fortunate one. At this point, in my career, that's my priority.

Cass:
Your music certainly centered me yesterday, and of course today, while I was rushing home to do this interview. My brother is a big jazz-head, and years ago he introduced me to your music. What I loved about your music then and now is the natural flow and unhurriedness of your style. Now, if you combine that with your mellow voice, it makes everything about your music so pretty. Is it okay to say a man has a pretty voice?

Walter B:
Yes, that's fine. My endeavor has always been to work on the sound of my voice, because there are people with better voices who can sing much better than me. But, my effort was to always be honest about what I was saying. So, if I said, "I love you," and sang those three words, at the core of your existence, you would believe me.

Cass:
Well, Mr. Beasley, let me tell ya, I do believe you love me because I was going to fly to Boston and marry you after I heard "What's My Name" from your CD, Midnight Love: The Ultimate Collection of Walter's Romantic Classics.

Walter B:
[Laughing]

Cass:
What's the history behind that song, and I promise I won't divulge all your secrets?

Walter B:
I was getting a little freaky around that time.

Cass:
How old were you when you were trying to get your freak on?

Walter B:
Probably in my mid-thirties.

Cass:
How old are you now, and when is your birthday?

Walter B:
I'm 42, and my birthday was in May.

Cass:
That makes you a Gemini. My mother's a Gemini, so I can relate! Do you really have two distinct personalities?

Walter B:
Oh yeah, and my family and close friends can attest to that.

Cass:
How did you get into music and how did you decide that playing the saxophone was what you wanted to do?

Walter B:
Actually, I loved the trumpet because my teacher played the trumpet, but I couldn't play it.

Cass:
Because you didn't have the lungs?

Walter B:
Right, I couldn't breathe. But, when I played the saxophone and a pleasant sound came out, my teacher said, "Let's give the boy that instrument."

Cass:
[Laughing]

Walter B:
Then when I heard Grover Washington, Jr., I was like, if this horn can make sounds like that, this is definitely what I want to do. Some of my favorite saxophone players were Johnny Hodges, Grover Washington, Jr., Cannonball Adderly, and Ronnie Laws. So, I studied their technique and style. Ronnie Laws especially because he played and sang and I just really loved his flow. George Benson is also one of my heroes.

Cass:
In fact, have you been told that you sound a bit like George Benson?

Walter B:
Yes. We both come out of the Donnie Hathaway era, and Donnie is one of my favorite singers. I liked what Donnie didn't do. Even though he had the ability to do more with his voice, he would chose to do less because it was the song, the mood or the message that was actually more important than his voice. So, Donnie Hathaway and George Benson are my favorite singers and I've tried to pattern myself after them.

Cass:
I can't say that I hear a glint of Donnie Hathaway in your voice, but you definitely have a George Benson-like quality or tone to your voice. Did you always want to be a singer?

Walter B:
Early on, I wanted to be an athlete, but I injured my knee.

Cass:
What sport was that?

Walter B:
Baseball. I wasn't great, but probably a little better than average. What I noticed though was that girls also liked musicians. I decided if I could do this without being in pain and still get some attention, well . . .

Cass:
[Laughing]

Walter B:
That's basically how I got involved in music, but I didn't fall in love with it until later. Initially, it was just something to do to get attention from girls. I was a one-dimensional kind of brotha at that time. When I finally fell in love with music, it became a source of trouble in my relationships with women.

Cass:
How so?

Walter B:
Music is a very jealous type of woman.

Cass:
Why, because of the amount of time it requires that you devote to it?

Walter B:
Definitely.

Cass:
Your devotion certainly comes out in your music because every element in your songs sounds like you've given it great attention. In fact, that's how I can immediately recognize a particular song playing on the radio as a Walter Beasley original.

Walter B:
Well, I appreciate that.

Cass:
I'm sure you've heard that lots of time.

Walter B:
It still doesn't make me appreciate your compliment any less.

Cass:
That's cool. Even when I heard a part of the "Ironside" theme song. . .

Walter B:
On the "Blackside" track?

Cass:
Right.

Walter B:
That was my protest song?

Cass:
Why?

Walter B:
In the mid-90's, black radio went through a transformation. Radio stations basically threw out many of the black male artists who were at their zenith of creation for hip-hop. They started devoting airtime to kids between the ages of 13 to 21. I was angry and the only way I could express myself was on the other side of town through this thing that was called smooth jazz. I had a little reputation back then, but I really didn't want to go that route of playing hip-hop. So, I started doing the smooth jazz thing and I was accepted with open arms. Whereas, the same black radio stations that had played me before, especially since they were chasing the quick money, I was one of the artists they let go.

Cass:
You mean they stopped playing your music altogether?

Walter B:
Yeahhh. There are many other artists who didn't get anymore airplay simply because they didn't sellout themselves to hip-hop.

Cass:
My nephew and son are into hip-hop and, there are certain artists I like in that particular musical genre.

Walter B:
Don't get me wrong, because I love hip-hop. What I don't like about it is the bastardization of it or the way we approach it as if it were the only thing we as a people can do.

Cass:
In terms of the industry, talent or revenue?

Walter B:
Exactly. BET is the only Black television station we have and Black mothers can't let their children watch it because its negative depiction of Black women in music videos.

Cass:
I agree. Most of those videos are very offensive and degrading.

Walter B:
In fact, that's not hip-hop. It's what we've done to hip-hop, and I separate the two. There were radio stations that sold out themselves to the movement. What should have happened, and what I envisioned, was that hip-hop would have been a huge aspect of the youth culture. At the same time, we should have done what white folks did – exposing their children to a little bit of country western, classical, old skool, and R&B to the mix. With us, we're one-dimensional.

Cass:
But how does that relate to the "Ironside" intro on the "Blackside" track?

Walter B:
During that time, that's when I decided to write a song and make it funky. I entitled it "Blackside" because this is who I am, this is what I love to do, but I'm not ever going to get any radio play for this song. That's basically what "Blackside" was all about.

Cass:
Man, that's deep. I immediately recognized the song because of the television show, but because I also played it in high school. I love listening for how many different samples are combined in a song. Do you call it sampling in jazz?

Walter B:
Oh yeah. I sample and I don't have any problems with that.

Cass:
Where did you grow up?

Walter B:
I grew up in El Centro, California.

Cass:
What was in El Centro that shaped you musically?

Walter B:
I had a great teacher, Jimmy Cannon, who exposed me to a lot of different kinds of music, like the old school jazz. I couldn't get to Johnny Hodges and all that kind of music on my own. But at the same time, growing up in California, I heard a lot of Latin and Mariachi music and so I became bilingual. I also sang in Spanish and Latin because it was a form of expression that was very dear to my heart. Growing up in California, being able to speak and sing in Spanish and combine it with a R&B and old school jazz style, made me so well rounded by the time I went to college.

Cass:
I haven't heard your bilingualness reflected in any of your songs? Do you plan to include that in the future because I would love to hear you sing something in Spanish or in another language?

Walter B:
Cass, you would enjoy it because you're a different kind of connoisseur, but most people would wonder if I lost my mind.

Cass:
But if you incorporate this into your jazz performances, you might get a different kind of feedback.

Walter B:
Actually, I did in California, and I also sang a song at my high school and the kids went crazy.

Cass:
Crazy in a good way or crazy in a bad way?

Walter B:
A good way. The Mexican students were shocked. I learned and spoke the language so well because I lived in the Barrio for half of my life. It was funny because people who didn’t know me thought I was either Puerto Rican or Cuban.

Cass:
I guess that’s possible because of you complexion.

Walter B:
Right. In Mexico, you don’t see anybody who looks like me speaking Spanish that well. There were certainly some fringe benefits, but we won’t go into that.

Cass:
[Laughing]. Well, at least not on the record.

Walter B:
It was certainly an interesting time. By the time I got to Boston, I was welcomed by my mentor and by my surroundings for a successful music career. I tell people that this was a gift given to me. Sure, I’ve worked hard and continue to, but when I look back, all the pieces fit perfectly together to get me to this point.

Cass:
Do you honestly believe that because you injured your knees while playing baseball that playing music was the natural progression your career would have taken? And, did you play in the band and on the baseball team at the same time?

Walter B:
Yes, because girls hang around athletes and musicians. Look, all the cats I know didn’t start playing music because we initially loved it. [Laughing].

Cass:
And you’re admitting to that?

Walter B:
It’s the truth. Check it out. If you look at all these singers or musicians, for example, Brian McKnight, every time you see them, they’re wearing basketball jerseys or doing some kind of celebrity basketball tournament. Grover Washington, Jr. was the same way. We’re all frustrated athletes.

Cass:
So, how do you decide if a song will be strictly instrumental or include vocals?

Walter B:
The song speaks to me. In fact, I'm working on a CD and the theme is about a particular individual, and the things we have gone through in our relationship over the years. I'm using my imagination to create this musical painting. I was remembering certain situations, which in turn becomes a song – e.g., "What's My Name" and "Slow Role". Quite naturally, each song has a story behind it. My philosophy is that music today leaves nothing to the imagination.

Cass:
Because it's soooo explicit with all that bumping and grinding.

Walter B:
Right. But that doesn't mean that I have to be that silly in dealing with music and I can still maintain a certain level of imagination.

Cass:
And class.

Walter B:
There ya go.

Cass:
You said that the "song speaks to you," so at that point you know a particular song will include lyrics. How do you decide that when it's an instrumental that you can convey a particular message, what technique do you use?

Walter B:
I don't know if the song speaks to me or if it births itself. For example, my song, "Don't Say Goodbye," that was actually a big hit, and I just sat down at the keyboard one day and I just started singing.

Cass:
Well, for those who don't know, "Don't Say Goodbye," is your beggin' song, honey.

Walter B:
You know about "Don't Say Goodbye"?

Cass:
Honey chile. Any man in the doghouse should memorize those lyrics because it might help get him out. ["Don't say goodbye, don't you leave me because I would not make it without you. My pride got the best of me, and I don't want to mess up this beautiful love that we. . ."] [Track 6 from Walter Beasley Live & More Re-Issue],

Walter B:
You don't sound old enough to know about "Don't Say Goodbye." You sound like you could be 14. So how old are you?

Cass:
You can bet that if I were 14, my mother would certainly be eavesdropping on this interview. I'm 46.

Walter B:
[Laughing]

Cass:
How do you decide that a song will be a strictly instrumental and is there a particular inflection that you use to convey love or pain?

Walter B:
Okay, two things happen -- the song births itself and the song speaks to me. If you use dark chords, or a kind of chord progression that makes you feel a certain way, then I go with that feeling. For example, strings are going to make you feel a certain way, so if you positively say, okay, I'm going to put strings here it, then that becomes that next idea. Then, if I decide to put something over the strings, that feeds into yet another idea, and so on. That's pretty much how it ends up. Most of my better songs, write themselves in like 5 to 15 minutes.

Cass:
5 to 15 minutes to write just your part?

Walter B:
No, sometimes I write the whole thing, like "Three Way."

Cass:
Oh yeah, "Three Way." The title of that immediately conjures up, well, you know.

Walter B:
If you listen to the song, that's all I needed to say. I could have written the song for New Orleans, Baton Rouge and another city, because the song is about three cities in Louisiana, and let the person's imagination take it where they want.

Cass:
What I love about your music, and what I definitely hear throughout is that you enjoy playing.

Walter B:
You are so right. I enjoy playing with people's imagination and certainly my own imagination as well, because it's provocative.

Cass:
Right.

Walter B:
Now there may be another song that speaks of total commitment, which is not unlike me. If I'm involved with someone, I'm totally committed, as well as to the craft of making music. Life is to be lived and that's what I want my music to represent -- all aspects of living life to its fullest.

Cass:
But do you think that there was a pivotal point in your career, besides getting hurt on the baseball field, that moved you even further into becoming a jazz musician?

Walter B:
I think you're looking for something profound. I'm a blue-collar musician. I went to school with Branford Marsalis and Donald Hanson. Actually Donald Hanson is up from your way, New Orleans. The three us call ourselves the Greasome-Threesome. We each had our strong points, and all very good saxophone players, and I considered myself like the blue-collar of the three because I could play everything. I was trained in the church, so I played gospel, blues, funk and R&B music real well. My endeavor was to always move the common man. Branford and Donald were making statements to raise the level of intellectual engagement with their audience. My intent was to make the audience feel an emotion.

Cass:
When you break it down like that, I get where you're coming from.

Walter B:
Like, "Don’t Say Goodbye" is very plain. Every person could understand what the hell "Don't Say Goodbye" means.

Cass:
I'm a little slow. Does it mean, begging someone not to leave or say goodbye?

Walter B:
[Laughing]. Well, I bet you understand what "What's My Name" means?

Cass:
I have to admit, I've heard it a couple of times when someone was asking me my name.

Walter B:
Okay, with the jokes. I'm not looking to make profound statements. There are other avenues for me to use to express myself and to deal with intellectual discourse or engagement. When people listen to my music, I simply want them to sit back and relax. Plus, we all need some kind of balance. Other people deal with music in a much different way. To be honest with you Cass, even though I was very good at my craft, I was very incomplete.

Cass:
Incomplete in what way?

Walter B:
Well, even though I kept critiquing myself and I knew that it was technically right, I was still unhappy because I felt my music was lacking something.

Cass:
Perhaps, what was missing was the essence of what made Walter, Walter

Walter B:
You hit the nail right on the head. I remember saying that the music was too right and that life is not always so black and white. Life is not always so sterile, but a little dirty with some germs thrown in there for good measure. And, even if I made a mistake in the execution, at least I can feel the song's intent.

Cass:
It's good to have those inner-conversations with ourselves to help guide us in the right direction. Let's change the subject a bit, and play the word game. When I say a word, say the first thing that pops into your head.

Walter B:
Okay.

Cass:
Saxophone.

Walter B:
Sex.

Cass:
You won't believe this, but I have the word sex written next to saxophone. Somehow, I just knew you were going to say sex. If I send you my notes, you'll see I'm not lying.

Walter B:
[Laughing]

Cass:
Okay, love.

Walter B:
Women.

Cass:
Challenge.

Walter B:
Balance.

Cass:
You see, I have women next to challenge.

Walter B:
You would have been right. You know what, I would have to say forbidden.

Cass:
So a forbidden woman is a challenge?

Walter B:
I have had one great love, but I was never able to get that right. Duke Ellington wrote a book, Music is My Mistress, and that was one of the best books I could ever read because I found so much of myself in that book. It's very difficult to have a relationship when you're this kind of musician.

Cass:
Why so?

Walter B:
Because "the music" always wants the attention and its says, "You know what, if you don't take care of me, I'm not going to be as easy for you to play the next time you get on stage." Musicians are always having that inner-conversation -- e.g., If you don't treat me right, if you don't practice everyday, I'm not going to be there for you when you get in front of people, and I'm going to embarrass you."

Cass:
I think writers and artists have the same type of inner-struggles because of the reclusive lifestyle we live.

Walter B:
That's right. In my book, Performance Insight for Musicians, I advise musicians not to get involved in intimate relationships while they're in college because either their music or their relationship will suffer. My commitment to my music has definitely caused my personal relationships to suffer. I took my athlete prowess and put it into my music. Michael Jordan is great because of two things -- God blessed him with the skills, but Michael worked everyday, from sun up to sun down, on those skills.

Cass:
But he had issues, which we won't go into.

Walter B:
Everybody has issues. But, what we do, as a profession, is not normal.

Cass:
Being a musician is not something normal?

Walter B:
Not really. Even looking at the traditions of African society, we were still considered to be special people. Special in a good sense and weird in another sense. So it's not uncommon for people who try to get involved with musicians to say that they (or we) are out there and they don’t want to deal with the internal conflicts that come with the territory.

Cass:
Remind me to stay away from musicians, especially saxophone players. Off the subject just a bit, how do you help your students deal with racism within the industry?

Walter B:
The music and the profession have changed so much. The whole hip-hop culture would have you believe that we are much better because white kids are into hip-hop and feeling black. Madison Avenue is portraying it like we're a mosaic and everything is much better in the country now. It's very difficult to teach our kids about the history of music because they don't think they need to know about it because they believe we're so much better off now

Cass:
Which is a sad commentary.

Walter B:
Exactly. My point is that they devalue history. Their mindset is such that they think what's in their head is not as important as it once was simply because they can now sit at Massa's table and master a record.

Cass:
Or, they think of the glitz and they're willing to sell their souls for a quick buck.

Walter B:
Some people will say that's what Civil Rights did. My grandfather was an entrepreneur in Virginia, and he said, "Son, sometimes, I think integration was the worst thing to ever happen to our people." What I try to do now is to concentrate more so on music because I'm a lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to trying to teach young musicians that they cannot be the best that they can be unless they study the history behind the music, socially, politically and everything else in between.

Cass:
History helps prepare them for the future, and can certainly teach them how not to repeat some of the same mistakes our legendary musicians made -- i.e., like signing contracts and making slave wages, etc

Walter B:
Such a good point.

Cass:
But I digress. Back to the word game. Okay, teacher.

Walter B:
Student.

Cass:
Sport.

Walter B:
Life.

Cass:
Parents.

Walter B:
The Best!

Cass:
Heartache.

Walter B:
Relationships

Cass:
Syncopated.

Walter B:
Heartbeat.

Cass:
Flow.

Walter B:
Delivery.

Cass:
Definitely. Your delivery is effortless. Besides the women, what are some of the other perks that come with being a jazz artist?

Walter B:
Recognition, which is also the downside. I remember when I took a trip across country, I let my beard and mustache grow, and I was basically a bum. When I got to Camden, Texas, I felt good because I thought nobody would know who I was especially in this small town in Texas. Sure enough, at the hotel I was staying at, there was this family reunion gathering and somebody yelled out, "Hell, ain't you Walter Beasley."

Cass:
How would they know that?

Walter B:
Because I look like him.

Cass:
[Laughing]. That's right, you do.

Walter B:
Out of habit, I said, "Yes". The next thing I heard was, "Can we get a picture with you." Remember, I was traveling undercover as a bum. Now, I had to take a shower, shave my head, change my clothes, and all that.

Cass:
Why couldn't you have just taken the picture as is?

Walter B:
Because people would start saying, "Did y'all see Walter Beasley? He looked bad." Then, that kind of news would get back to my family, which I have family everywhere, and then they'll be wondering if I'm all right.

Cass:
This just means you have to be looking sharp every time you walk out in public

Walter B:
I try my very best to do that now.

Cass:
So, Go With the Flow is your 7th or 8th CD?

Walter B:
Tenth.

Cass:
Tenth? Get out of here! How have you grown, in terms of your musicality?

Walter B:
As I have matured as a man, my music has matured with me. What I feel as a 42-year-old man, I now convey that through my music, and I think that's positive. If people do like it or don't like it, that's not important to me. The point is, am I being honest and true to myself, and does that come through in my CD's. I'm pretty hopeful that it does.

Cass:
If this interview is any indication, your candor and honesty, is certainly a reflection of who you are and that alone reveals your heart.

Walter B:
Thanks for saying that.

Cass:
I'm not just saying that to blow smoke up your saxophone. Your heart is in your music, and anyone listening to it will certainly appreciate all your hard work

Walter B:
What a sweetheart.

Cass:
Walter, I think at least 45-minutes of our conversation has been off the record. Thanks for listening to me vent in the beginning.

Walter B:
I'm glad I was here for you.

Cass:
I'm sure we could talk for hours, so thanks for sharing your precious time with me.

Walter B:
Hey, that's what time is for. It's been a pleasure.

Cass:
Peace and Blessings my friend!

 

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