Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Warren Wolf Interview Part 1

Warren Wolf is an amazing young multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore. He plays the drums quite well, and I've hired him and worked with Wolf the drummer in a number of settings. He is THE premier young vibraphonist on the scene. He also plays piano and bass extremely well. I hope he doesn't play anything else! You might have seen him with Christian McBride or Wolf's own group. I was able to finally sit down with him and find out how he turned out so well.

GC: Warren Wolf! I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, finally getting to it! How’d you become such a bad motherfucker?

WW: (laughs) That’s a very long story.

GC: (laughs)

WW: In basic detail, my dad, Warren Wolf Sr.. His main day job was a school teacher. He was a Baltimore City Public School teacher, he taught History - U.S. history, World history, things like that. He also had a band on the side. Music was a serious hobby of his. I would say around 1978 or 79, the year I was born, he wanted to buy an instrument. He wanted to do something completely different than what everyone else was doing, so no saxophone, trumpet, or drums, things like that. So he bought a vibraphone. I was born in November ‘79, and a couple years later, three years later, he got me started.

GC: Wow, so you started at three. Wow!

WW: Now that’s not just vibes, that’s everything. From the vibes to basic piano to drums. It started at three. Most people, as far as drummers go, most people know that I’m a left-handed drummer. I’m not a left-handed person though. I’m a left-handed drummer because my father’s a left-handed person. So the way he played drums - that’s how I saw the drums coming up. I saw the drums set up as a lefty. So I thought “oh, that’s right, that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Then I got older and started going out and seeing all these cats playing right-handed drums and I realized that I’m the wrong person. So that’s the drum side... as far as mallets go, I took lessons at Peabody Preparatory with Leo LePage. He’s now deceased, but he was with the Baltimore Symphony. He was also a jazz drummer when he lived in Boston back in the day. Took lessons with him every Saturday for like an hour, outside of my normal practice that I did every day from the age of three to seventeen, I practiced 5 days a week, 90 minutes. 30 minutes on drums, 30 on vibes, 30 on piano. That ranged from jazz to classical to pop music to Motown. Everything, just about. My father wanted to give me a crash course in music.

GC: That’s very regimented, for such a long time. It sounds like it must have been very focused if
 you were compartmentalizing it like that.

WW: It was very focused. I mean, my dad - he knew what he wanted me to be from the moment I was born. I didn’t have a choice so much.

GC: But you do love it.

WW: No I do love it. I didn’t really start loving it until middle school jazz band. But before that - what kid wants to be in the basement? I had a typical childhood - I went to school, got home and watched my cartoons. But when my parents got home, around 5, it gave them a half hour wind-down time and then my father was like “okay, let’s go”, and we were in the basement from 5:30-7pm every day. After that, I do homework, eat dinner, go to bed, do it again the next day. Saturdays were the day at Peabody, an hour at Peabody. Then after that - I have two older sisters, so I would just play with them or go outside in West Baltimore. Same for Sundays - I didn’t grow up in church, so they were just another free day, with family or whoever.

GC: So would you do music that day?

WW: No, no music.

GC: So you don’t know life without music.

WW: Pretty much. It’s pretty much all I know. I mean, just like any typical kid, at least what I saw growing up in Baltimore, I see sports on TV and rap music and so I knew that stuff, but music was and is my life.

GC: Did you do any listening? I assume he had a lot of records.

WW: He had a pile of records. I don’t recall anything in particular. But I always had a good ear, I just didn’t know it then. He’d put on the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, Anita Baker...all of those records are what I remember. That’s what he played in his band. He had kind of a fusion band that played around Baltimore, called the Wolf Pack.

GC: I don’t know them.

WW: No, no, it wasn’t a band that actually went out. Just a local band that played restaurants.

GC: Was it like... did you ever know that band Moon August?

WW: Oh yeah, I knew them, with Harold Adams on tenor. I think they were more on the swing side.

GC: Really? I thought they got...smooth...at a certain point.

WW: I think they did a mix of things, they played classic songs like “Sugar”, “Stolen Moments”. Then they’d easily go into something like “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker. That’s what I grew up listening to. And my parents still do this to this day, they still play a lot of Motown songs from back in the day. I heard all of that stuff, Motown, Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson - I heard all that stuff growing up.

GC: That’s how you make a virtuoso I suppose. You get to the point where you’ve just been doing it for so long. I mean, you’re a lot younger than me, but you’ve probably been playing longer than me.

WW: This is year 30 for me now.

GC: Yeah. I’m 42. I didn’t even really get serious about piano since I was 21.

WW: Yeah, I’ve been playing for a long time, but like I said I didn’t really start enjoying it until I got to middle school. I went to a school called West Baltimore Middle School, back in the day in the 60s and 70s, they called it Rock Glenn Middle School or Junior High School. The band teacher was Betty McCloud and we had a jazz band, concert band, wind ensemble, but the jazz band consisted of 8 trumpet players, 6 trombones, and a pile of horns. No bass player, but I was the pianist and sometimes drummer in the band. I think what made me really start liking music - like I didn’t really understand the concept of changes and playing in the key. My whole thing back then was play whatever the hottest song was on the radio for your solo.

GC: (laughs)

WW: One of the songs that we did - we actually did not play jazz oriented big band charts. We were a big band in that setting but we played songs like “Eye of the Tiger”, things like that. One of the songs was “Louie Louie”. So when they got to the keyboard solo they were like “alright Warren, you go!” and I forget the name of this girl, but she was very popular. This was 1990 or 1991. And I could sing the chorus of this one song... (sings chorus) and I learned that on piano. So I used to play that on the solos and I would watch how my peers in the auditorium would react - they’d get up and start clapping and dancing. So I was like “wow, if I can get that reaction playing songs like this I wonder what it could do for real?” So at that point, I think it was 6th or 7th grade, that’s when I really started loving music.

GC: You liked the attention.

WW: Yeah.

GC: So your concept was “get house immediately”?

WW: Nah that wasn’t really the concept but that’s just what happened.

GC: It’s kind of a concept!

WW: Yeah, I guess. I mean, like I said, I knew a certain thing about changes but not too much.

GC: When did you really learn about changes?

WW: It kind of slowly picked up - I can’t say there was a given moment. My dad had these charts, I remember when I was starting to learn how to read. He had a big band chart of St. Thomas. And it had some time of solo in there, written out. And I remember playing it and I still remember how the solo goes to this day but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just like “okay I’ll read it down, this sounds good over this.” At some point in middle school my dad would take me out to the club. We used to go to the Sports Lounge. Organ player, his name was Chico (that’s all I know him as) and the drummer Bobby Ward. We used to go over there, and he’d play the vibes, and sometimes his band would go over there. There wasn’t anything that I specifically worked on to learn what changes were, it was more just playing and playing. Like I said, I always had a good ear but I never knew it. One of the classes that I had at Peabody was classical theory.

GC: In high school?

WW: Middle school.

GC: Wow!

WW: I had to separate myself between high school and Peabody, but I’ll talk about that in a minute.

GC: Okay.

WW: I took a theory class in middle school and I was pretty terrible at it. My teacher always had said “he has a great ear”, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. Eventually after I graduated middle school and got to high school - Baltimore School of the Arts, fall of 1993, the staff told me that I could not attend Peabody anymore and I could not study with the percussion teacher because the teacher at the School of the Arts was also a member of the Baltimore Symphony, but he was strictly classical. His name was John Locke. Basically they didn’t want me studying with two guys from the Symphony, they already had someone there at the school. So I got accepted into the school. How I figured out I had a good ear - I had perfect pitch, but this is how I figured it out. Ninth grade, 1993, there were a lot of students who were trying to figure out a popular song - a Mary J Blige tune called “Real Love”. Very popular back then. The students couldn’t figure it out at all. I was like “hey, I can play it!” They didn’t know what it was, we were freshman. They said “yeah right”, and I just got on the piano and played it right away. They were like “wow! Can you play this one?” They kept asking me. And I had never played these songs before. So I did some research after a while and found out I had perfect pitch, and that’s why a lot of people said I have a good ear.

GC: Why didn’t they tell you?

WW: I don’t think they knew. I think it was just something I had to figure out on my own.

GC: It’s interesting, you taking those classical lessons and your ear never coming up.

WW: That’s another problem in my youth. I was at Peabody Prep for years and I wasn’t just some little kid taking lessons. During that time I was also going on tour and performing as a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony. My first concert as a soloist with the Symphony I was  about 8 years old. I played all sorts of Concertos, Bach’s Concerto in A Minor, Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major.

GC: On mallets?

WW: Yeah, on the marimba. I also did a two week tour with the Symphony when James Galway was a soloist. We did John Corligiano’s “Pied Piper Fantasy”. And we all know the story of the Pied Piper - the guy who comes and takes the kids away. I was one of the little kids, we had a snare drum/field drum part in that piece. We did that for a long time. Basically I did on and off work with the Symphony for 14 years.

GC: Wow! That’s amazing. So you went to school for the arts, and then you went to Berklee.

WW: Yep. Fall of 1997.

GC: How old are you?

WW: 33. Just turned 33.

GC: So what was Berklee like for you? Did you feel advanced?

WW: Um...Berklee was cool. I feel I learned, like any serious musician, I learned more outside of the school. I learned some things in the school, how to write music, how to notate it, certain things about harmony. But a lot of the things they teach at Berklee, I was just like “what’s the point of this?” Like in Harmony 4, we were analyzing pieces of music and putting brackets around chords and indicating whether or not it was a ii-V, and I used to always think “what the hell, why would I ever use this?” Basic stuff in Harmony 1 and 2 was what I needed, then I was cool. Same for Ear Training. I think any college that has a music program is going to have pros and cons. Some things are good, some aren’t. A lot of those classes at Berklee I think were just designed just to take your money.

GC: Ugh, and that’s a whole other conversation.

WW: (laughs) Yeah.

GC: As an educator myself...well, maybe we’ll come back to that. Berklee used to be a place where people would just come through. Most people didn’t finish Berklee - the joke was that if you actually got a degree from Berklee you were probably sad cause no one come through and took you away. But I think times have changed, I think people want their degrees and it’s not quite the same in the industry.

WW: I don’t think so. I mean, I finished the school.

GC: Did your parents want you to get the degree?

WW: Yeah, but I mean...I got a Performance degree. I didn’t really need to go to Berklee to get a Performance degree because with the type of work that we do, it’s like... who cares if you have the degree? It’s either you can play or you can’t play. It’s not like I can just go to Christian McBride and say “hey, I have a Performance Degree from Berklee, get me in your band!” I mean - I do think it’s necessary for other types of things, like if you’re doing Music Education or Music Therapy, of course you need that. Berklee has all of those. Everything else just depends on how good you are.

GC: So did you start hooking up with the cats you play with now at Berklee?

WW: Yes. One of the first people I met at Berklee who really helped me out was Jeremy Pelt.

GC: While he was a student?

WW: Yeah.

GC: Is he your age?

WW: He’s about 4 years older than me. You know, being a new person on campus a lot of people just start talking about you. Actually one of the first people I met up there was Jaleel Shaw. I just happened to be walking around the hallways, because that’s what freshman do, and I met Jaleel and a friend of mine, Rashawn Ross, trumpeter for Dave Matthews. All these guys were in the room, just playing, and there’s a set of vibes in the hall. So I’m seventeen years old, just walking around I asked to play with them. They said “sure, come in!” And we played for maybe an hour and a half or two years. Jaleel must have gone around telling people “check out this cat on the vibes, he’s the guy!” So word starts getting passed around and Jeremy finds me. It was easy to find me because I lived in the dorms. He asked me to do a couple of cafe shows - Berklee had this thing where students would perform in the cafeteria, just give us a little bit of experience being a leader. So I did that, and my name eventually got passed on to Wayne Escoffery. He gave me my first gig as a leader at the club Wally’s. John Lampkin was another part of that, him being from Baltimore and he’s always trying to look out for the guys, you know, like “yeah that’s my boy from Baltimore, you gotta give him a chance!” I remember my first gig at Wally’s, John wanted to give me the chance to play. I never got paid for that gig.

GC: (laughs)

WW: But the gig was like 50 bucks for 4 hours. They let me play everything that I knew. So I called all the tunes that I knew from Baltimore...”Sugar”, “Stolen Moments”, “Ornithology”, “My Little Suede Shoes”...songs that they don’t play at the club. So they said “oh yeah, you sound good, come back tomorrow”. So I come back the next day and they start calling tunes that I now think everybody should know but at the time I had no idea what they were. Like...”In Your Own Sweet Way”, “You Stepped Out of a Dream”. So instead of writing all this stuff down, cause at this point I had perfect pitch, I figured “well I don’t have to know the melody right now, I can at least hear these changes out.” So John, Jeremy, Darren Barrett, Jaleel Shaw...those were the main ones that really got me started in Boston.

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