If Jack Walrath ever had the idea that he'd want to divert attention from his trumpet-playing, he has succeeded. There's a unique clarion call in his musical sound. In an ensemble of strong players, his trumpet (or sometimes his flugelhorn) rings out above all the others. He doesn't have to hit the highest notes or play the fastest tempos necessarily; he's simply the most ecstatic player.
With just a few slightly eerie notes the other night in the Village Vanguard, he carried a simple, four horn opening of The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife and Other Jive Slippers by Charles Mingus up to another plane, where it became a strong, sunny, swinging, performance by the Mingus Dynasty. The piece was also Walrath's tour de force. He has named the great reeds player after Mingus's heart, as Eric Dolphy was.
"I like the horns wailing, the drums pounding. I like energy. All these guys from long ago had energy," he said the other day in an interview, for which he dressed in a tee shirt emblazoned with a large, golden trumpet.
The clarion call extends, in 43-year old Walrath's matured philosophy, from his playing style to his composing. He can even be a forceful promoter. When he had a 1998 Grammy nomination for a track on his Blue Note album, Masters of Suspense, he couldn't convince the people in charge of promotion for the entire company that the song had the makings of a hit country-and-western single. It was a simple, straightforward vocal by superstar Willie Nelson on Jack's arrangement of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Jack did interviews on country and western stations in his native Montana; the deejays there are still playing that track.
Jack left it at that and went back to the main point for him: playing, composing, and recording his second Blue Note album, Neohippus released last February. It showcases the composer's versatility. One track, Fright Night, sounds like a vortex of fear, perfect for soundtrack of a sophisticated suspense film. (He hopes that someone will pick up the Nelson track for a film, too.) Also on the new album is Village of the Darned, which refers to the tiny Edgar, Montana, in the wide-open spaces where Walrath grew up. The record cover sports a photo of Edgar's rustic main street, with small figures of Jack as a child and his mother in front of a drugstore.
It is easier to locate Jack with his ebullient, ringing sound on the record, where he ended up because of his mother's encouragement. An amateur violinist, she owned a record by trumpeter Clyde McCoy. Jack soon told her, "I want to play that thing that goes 'wa wa wa'". The next year, when he was ten, she took him 30 miles down the road to Billings, where Louis Armstrong was giving a concert. Jack went backstage to shake Armstrong's hand and fell in love with the ambiance of a musician's world, along with the music itself.
During high school, dreaming of a musical career, he read in a magazine about the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Right after graduation, he headed there and earned a diploma in composition in 1968, the first year that Berklee had a graduating class.
In school, trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, "who was the best teacher in the world," Jack recalls, and who had recorded with Bird, taught technique and urged Walrath to use it any way he wanted to. Jack's idea was to blow full force then. Jack married while he was still in school; he and his wife worked for survival wages, she in offices, he in rhythm and blues bands, sometimes as the backup for well-known artists such as Jackie Wilson. Jack also played with peers destined for the limelight. Gary Peacock on bass worked in an eight-piece r&b band with Jack in Boston; the band's founder would later writeThe Monster Mash. Jack headed to Los Angeles in 1969, where he played with a saxist and bassist who would join Herbie Hancock. When they were in an r&b band with Jack, they were more interested in macrobiotic dinners than rehearsals, Jack recalls.
So he began playing in Latin bands and kept building a jazz record collection which would reach 8,000 items and date back to 1919. Jazz always held the most allure for him. At Berklee, he had been considered "far out," he recalls. "I used to write arrangements of three bands playing at once; people putting things in the piano; people plucking things and hitting their instruments."
In Los Angeles, with his r&b group failing to get off the ground, he felt that he was living in "deep space." So he found his way into Ray Charles's band, where his section mate was Blue Mitchell. "I count my professional life from then. I learned how to fit in." After a year, he tired of a big band role and left Charles in San Francisco. By 1973, deducing that his playing on Oakland's scene was a dead end, he set out for New York City.
Among his dreams was the chance to play with Charles Mingus. The reality was that he played with Latin bands to survive, spending a year with bandleader Louie Cruz, who wrote for Ray Barreto. Others jobs came up; for example, Paul Jeffrey also wrote Mingus's compositions out for him. And learning about Jack's dream, Jeffrey introduced Mingus and Walrath. One night Jack sat in with Mingus at the Village Gate. Three days later, Mingus called Jack to join his group in late 1974. And his musical odyssey took a quantum leap for the next three and a half years.
"Mingus taught me how to put technique and theory together. You have to get the experience, the ear. A lot of kids coming out of school now can play the hell out of bebop, but it takes a while to hear it. They've got Charlie Parker analyzed down to numbers, and they can play it, but it doesn't come out to Charlie Parker. Life experience and hearing the music make the difference," he says.
When Mingus became too ill to play anymore, Walrath kept playing and arranging some of Mingus's music under drummer Dannie Richmond's leadership. And Walrath was inspired by the drive that kept the paralyzed bassist composing until the end of his life.
Though Mingus had been "hard to get along with," Jack recalls, and increasingly "paranoid," he still emphasizes how Mingus treated him with respect as a trumpeter, an employee and a man.
During the Mingus years, Jack had an NEA grant for composition. After Mingus died in 1979, Jack decided to make some of his own records. Divorced from his first wife, he remarried in 1980 to a woman who managed his career. But they divorced three years later. Devastated, he says, he spent a few years recuperating and reminding himself that he should make even more records. He presented a tape to Blue Note, which gave him contracts for his tenth and eleventh records.
Above all, Jack wants to keep his group together and write for his musicians, as Ellington used to do. Jack's group is sufficiently stable that it can perform 60 of his compositions. The politics of the marketplace are stressful, he has learned. Few of the great old groups such as Blakey's remain. New groups are marketed most easily for the personality of the leader or as a collection of stars, each with his own goals. Jack sometimes dreams that it would be nice to have a rustic hideaway where he could write music in peace. He's exploring the possibilities of writing for films. A friend in the film industry has tantalized him with the notion that he might play and also deliver lines.
So his odyssey is in an interesting period, with his compositions out there on records, one of them a Grammy nominee, and all of them fresh, brazen and exhilarating.