Dinners and drum music: A friendship with Paul Motian
In the last decade of living in New York City, I have become aware of many artistic communities here. I have had the great opportunity to not only base my life around these worlds of culture and creativity, but somehow survive doing what I love — photography. I can tell you right now that I would not be sitting here telling you this if it were not for Paul Motian.
When I met Paul, I had spent my first five years in New York City a diehard free jazz fan. It was what I knew and what I tried to be part of. Paul took me in and showed me another side of the scene. It was just like meeting an old friend that I had known my whole life — it just took me a little while to find him.
We would have dinner together, sometimes six nights a week, always in good places. His favorite was Po, an Italian restaurant in the West Village. We would go to Po sometimes every night of the week and each order the same thing. (Paul liked the linguine with clams but no pancetta. I preferred the cavatelli.) I was with him when he had his first steak in 30 years at Wolfgang's Steakhouse in TriBeCa. Each time we went to Wolfgang's, it was like my birthday for no reason. Neither one of us drank at any of these meals; it was just good food and good conversation.
Sometimes we were joined by other musicians. Most frequently, Bill Frisell dined with us when he was in town — also, the cats in Paul's various bands. I remember long conversations with Chick Corea and Ron Carter.
We had great hangs with the singer-songwriter Diane Cluck, another dear friend. Diane's music is not similar to Paul's in terms of style but it's also played from the heart, with intensity. I sent Paul a few YouTube clips and he told me right away that he thought she was really incredible. The first time I brought her to a gig, they hit it off right away.
We also had wonderful dinners with my girlfriend at the time. After Dana and I had parted ways, she moved to Detroit and bought a car. I told Paul that she needed some music for driving around. So Paul gave her about 10 CDs and signed all of them. She got little doodles of boats and a drumset, and one had a quote that he had heard from Dinah Washington: "Musically yours," it read. Paul often asked how Dana was; before Dana met me, she had never even heard of Paul Motian, and yet they became great and real friends.
Paul introduced me to espresso. I had never drunk a espresso in my life. After the first one, I was sold and we would have espresso after dinner. Then usually after the dinners, he would play gigs.
At first, I went to some of his gigs. Then it became all of his gigs. I went to every gig he played for the past three years, at least. I probably saw him play over 300 times. Sometimes, the gigs were even three weeks at a time, which was an incredible thing to be a part of.
We would hang out during most every set break. Sometimes we would go out for tea. Often, I would invite people I knew who had no real connection to music, people who had no idea who Paul Motian was. They were just good people, and Paul was one of those, so it made sense. Paul could tell right away if you were for real or not, and if you were, it was all right.
I would carry the drums in and out, and call him a car service. I had a list of drivers that would give him deals and I would be on the phone trying to find the cheapest ride home. I was happy to do it. It was always the best thing I could have been doing with my time. The music never got old, and never stopped making everything else in life easier.
Once, during a gig at the Village Vanguard with his celebrated trio of Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, I was backstage talking to Paul and Jed Eisenman, the club's manager. It was time for the band to play, and Bill said, "John, we are gonna play." I stood there. He said, "We can't play the show 'til you come out and sit in your spot near the stage with us." And he was serious, so I left and went out there with them.
See, Paul figured me out very quickly. When we met, I was already shooting for NPR Music, but I didn't have much other work. I was delivering burritos and taking odd jobs where I was treated poorly. Once, he asked me, if I could do anything, what would I want to do? I told him I just wanted to do photography and be around jazz and creative music.
Shortly thereafter, Paul had a gig at the Vanguard with Jason Moran and Chris Potter. He told me that the record label ECM was doing a live recording — which was eventually released on the album Lost In A Dream. I went to the first night and told Paul that I saw some things while watching the show and I thought I had a good vision of how I could take photos for the record. He said would call ECM and see what he could do. A day or two later, I was shooting for ECM Records. I still am.
With Paul's fans, it was always "no pictures, but I will give you a autograph." I asked him why he let me photograph him so much. He said, "It's different, man. You are a artist."
If Paul cared about you, then he wanted to help you. He had a huge heart for his people — especially musicians he enjoyed working with, like Masabumi Kikuchi, Thomas Morgan, Bill McHenry, Frank Kimbrough, Russ Lossing, Angelica Sanchez, Ben Monder, Rebecca Martin, Oscar Noriega, Tony Malaby, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, et al. Whether it was getting you a gig in his band, or just listening for hours on end and offering amazing advice, he was always the same if you were in with him. Paul told me so many times: "Stick with me and I will take you straight to the top." He sure did that for me.
When talking recently to Jed Eisenman about Paul, he told me Paul was so cool, if you were 5% as cool as Paul was, you'd be the coolest person on the planet.
In reality, we were all lucky that Paul was alive until now. Paul had told me about how he was friends with Eddie Costa, the great piano/vibes player. The night Eddie Costa died in a car crash on Manhattan's West Side Highway, Paul had been with him at a gig. He said he felt Eddie didn't seem right, and when Eddie offered Paul a ride home, he declined. If Paul had been in the car, he may have died also.
Paul often spoke fondly about his bandmate in the Bill Evans trio, bassist Scott LaFaro. Tragically, he also died in a car crash.
I remember at a certain point Paul asked me, "So I get the idea that you have never really thought about Bill Evans or listened to him." I told him no, I had not listened to him that much — I enjoyed his playing, but I wasn't a huge fan like everyone else. I think Paul respected that, but told me which Bill Evans records he liked the most and what I should check out should I ever wish to. He said that he felt his life was so much more than his time with Bill Evans, and that he was tired of people coming up to him all the time asking about that one moment in time.
Paul Motian was a link to a previous era of jazz. It wasn't just the fact that he actually saw, say, Jimmie Lunceford, or could recall rehearsing with Albert Ayler, or remembered many lesser-known sidemen — forgotten names like Al Cotton, or Joe Puma. It was a link to this world that I spent my whole childhood learning about and wishing I could have been a part of. During my first decade in New York, I was linked into it.
We would walk around the West Village and he would point out places where there used to be clubs and who he had worked with at this club or that. Once we sat in Washington Square Park on a warm fall day for about two hours. He told me it was the first time he had ever really just sat in the park, and how much he liked it.
Once, I brought the great, overlooked drummer Billy Kaye to a gig Paul was playing at the Vanguard. Billy was 78; Paul was 79. It seemed both drummers had been a few steps away from each other in the same city their entire professional lives, but had never met. Billy impressed Paul by having played with Lester Young, something Paul never did. (Paul did hang out with Lester Young in his hotel once, though.) They spent a long time just talking about this bass player or that trumpet player, people whose names only historians would recognize. Maybe not even that many historians, at that.
Several times, Paul told me about playing at Woodstock with Arlo Guthrie. For a while, he was playing with Arlo pretty regularly in the late '60s. Paul said for Woodstock, the band decided to drive upstate from New York City. Halfway there, it became clear that the New York State Thruway was closed. So the organizers flew a helicopter to Arlo's limo and picked up the band and flew them to the staging area. All you could see for miles was people everywhere, he said. Later in life, when Paul had to go to St. Vincent's Hospital for some reason, his doctor said, "I know who you are. We looked you up on Wikipedia. You played at Woodstock. That's awesome!" Apparently, he was not charged for that visit.
I think one of his proudest moments was playing with Thelonious Monk. Paul said he was at the club, hanging out, and Monk's drummer didn't show up. The club manager came up to Paul and told him he had to play drums with Monk. So he ran home to the East Village, grabbed his drums and made it back in time for the gig. He said when he played his drum solo, Monk got up and did his trademark dance. He was so very proud. Recently, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who was on that particular engagement, came to one of Paul's gigs at the Vanguard. It was wonderful to see them together again.
I once sent him a YouTube clip of the great pianist Bud Powell playing Monk's "'Round Midnight," and he told me it made him cry. He recalled seeing Powell at the Cafe Wha? and how this video reminded him of that moment, and how much of a genius Bud was.
He told me about sitting in with John Coltrane at Birdland and how Coltrane asked him what he thought about having two drummers at once in his band. That was before Coltrane actually had two drummers at once in his band.
But mainly we just talked about life, the Yankees, what I was doing, what he was doing, stories from our pasts, old movies. He said The Set-Up (which I have yet to see) is the greatest boxing movie of all time. He told me one day he would surprise me with all of his old records but we never got around to it.
Paul knew his time was coming up, I think. He seemed to hint at it from time to time, and later, he did so more blatently. I didn't tell anyone because Paul was family, and that's what he wanted. I have a mother who loves me but Paul was my family too, and our love was as real a love as I have ever had. The few years we spent together were the happiest years of my life — the first time I really felt good and at ease and could focus on being a artist. It was the first time in a long time that I had a friend who loved me and showed me love every day.
It's that love that has me so very sad as I write this, but makes me know that Paul will never die as long as I live. I will one day pass, and I hope I will think about Paul at that time — among all the great artists I've been so lucky to spend my life with. Paul would want us all to live our lives and be ourselves and try to put beauty into the world. That is something that none of us should forget.