by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2023 Anil Prasad.
To say drummer Mike Clark and percussionist Bill Summers have stories to tell is an understatement.
They’ve been the nucleus of The Headhunters across 50 years, the mercurial, pioneering jazz-funk unit with a populist bent focused on memorable melodies and hooks. Both have also collaborated with many of the greatest jazz, rock, R&B, and funk musicians in history.
The Headhunters first spun off from the group that recorded Herbie Hancock’s platinum 1973 album Head Hunters. At the time, the band featured bassist Paul Jackson, drummer Harvey Mason, winds player Bennie Maupin, and Summers. Clark replaced Mason in 1974. Hancock recorded and performed with the subsequent lineup until 1980, resulting in albums including 1974's Thrust, 1975's Man-Child, 1976's Secrets, and 1977's Sunlight.
With Hancock’s encouragement, The Headhunters went on to pursue its own identity as a standalone band, releasing 1975’s Survival of the Fittest, produced by Hancock, and 1978’s Straight From the Gate, which included him as a special guest. The group, once again featuring Hancock as a full member, reunited for 1998’s one-off recording Return of The Headhunters, before it resumed activity with Clark and Summers at the helm.
The Headhunters went on to release 2003’s Evolution Revolution, 2009’s On Top: Live in Europe, and the Hip Hop-influenced Platinum in 2011, which featured appearances from Snoop Dogg and George Clinton. The urban elements were a reflection of the fact that Headhunters music has been sampled hundreds of times by Hip Hop artists and producers throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
It took 11 years for a follow-up studio album, Speakers in the House, to emerge. The recording, featuring Clark, Summers, saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Reggie Washington, and keyboardists Jerry Z. and Stephen Gordon, had a long gestation period. It was first available in a limited capacity in 2018 as an independent disc, before receiving a widespread release in 2022, when the band signed to Ropeadope Records. The new label has played a significant role in elevating the band’s profile, particularly during its 50th anniversary year. The fact that the album features all the classic Headhunters high-octane fusion hallmarks, including expansive jams, solos, and improvised elements, made it ideal to introduce the band to new generations of listeners.
The group rapidly followed it up with Live From Brooklyn Bowl in 2023, capturing the current touring lineup of Clark, Summers, Harrison, keyboardist Kyle Roussel, and bassist Chris Severin. The album combines a cross-section of the group’s ‘70s classics, including “Watermelon Man” and “Chameleon” from the original Head Hunters effort, with material from Speakers in the House, Evolution Revolution, and a spirited cover of The Meters “Hey Pocky A-Way.” The band continues performing the material across the world as part of its 50th anniversary tour.
The Headhunters represent an important element of the careers of Clark and Summers, but each has also scaled spectacular heights with their prolific solo and sideman output.
Clark has two 2023 albums to his credit, Mike Clark Plays Herbie Hancock and Kosen Rufu. The former finds him exploring Hancock’s classic ‘60s acoustic oeuvre with pianist Jon Davis and bassist Leon Lee Dorsey. The latter digs into jazz, funk, and avant influences with his longtime collaborator, trumpet player Eddie Henderson, as well as Summers, bassist Henry Franklin, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and saxophonist Skerik. Intrepid listeners also know Clark’s past collaborations include important recordings with Brand X, Betty Davis, Vince Guaraldi, Alphonso Johnson, Percy Jones, Charnett Moffett, and Michael Wolff.
Summers’ seven albums with his group Summers Heat were just rereleased worldwide. The band bridged funk, R&B, Latin, disco, and jazz to great acclaim and sales during its existence between 1977-1983. In fact, the title track of 1978’s Straight to the Bank was a hit single in both the UK and US, and the band appeared on Soul Train multiple times.
Summers’ group Los Hombres Calientes, which included trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, drummer Jason Marsalis, and pianist Victor Atkins, had a five-album run between 1998-2005, exploring the intersections between jazz and the rhythmic traditions of Africa, Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, and New Orleans. And as a sideman, Summers has worked with the likes of George Benson, Joe Henderson, Ahmad Jamal, Quincy Jones, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, and Joe Zawinul.
Clark and Summers spoke to Innerviews about The Headhunters’ resurgence, and they each reflected on many notable solo and collaborative projects from their multi-decade histories.
What’s your take on the value of music to create positive change in such a volatile world?
I’m not one of those artists who thinks music can change the world, because it would have changed it by now. But I do think art definitely raises the consciousness level of the world somewhat. Most of the artists I dig are somehow reporting on social conditions through their music. People like Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane were doing that in some of their work. They were addressing difficult issues.
I think the idea of cause and effect is important across our universe. When you throw a rock in the pond, there’s a ripple effect. Look at how America was started, for instance. Most people don’t do the homework or know their own history, so they don’t think the situation applies to them. But the ripple effects of the founding of America are still felt economically and socially, today. It affects everybody and some more than others.
It's incredible to me that we’re still facing the banning of books, and that some people are trying to erase or sweep under the rug obvious history. The big problem is that if you don’t know history, it’s going to repeat itself. And it still does even if you do know the history. The temptation of greed, anger, and stupidity is always going to be there.
So, to change the karma and actions that take place in our world is a huge task. In the hundreds of years America has existed, you see that we’re always fighting the same battles we always did.
As for me, I feel a certain responsibility to say something and you’ll see me doing that on social media and on stage, sometimes. I can’t really change things myself. There’s no switch you can flick to make things happen. We have to turn the switch on inside every individual. It’s grassroots—one at a time. If one person can change, maybe the world can change. So, changing our perspectives at the core is something to consider. Negativity can be a full-time job and we see that out there. We need to counter that each, individually.
The Headhunters are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Discuss the journey you’ve taken with the band.
It goes back to the fact that getting the gig with The Headhunters with Herbie Hancock changed my life forever. It’s really interesting in that playing funky music was something I dug doing every once in a while before The Headhunters. Everyone loves Ray Charles, James Brown, or a good shuffle blues. Before The Headhunters, I might have sat in with a band playing that stuff, but the funky thing was not my main interest. It was something I knew how to do in order to make a living.
So, when I got the gig with Hancock, it was a double-edged sword. I thought, “I’m playing with Herbie Hancock, the guy who worked with Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter and made all those incredible records one right after the other in the ‘60s. But I’m gonna play funk.” And that was challenging.
The guys in the band believed with all their hearts that they really wanted to do this. I was like, “Well, it’s a gig with Herbie. He’s an amazing human being. I’m gonna learn so much and it’s gonna make me well-known, worldwide.” Let’s not forget, nobody would have heard of me otherwise. But I did really have a good jazz career in the San Francisco Bay area before that when I worked practically every night. I never thought about not working.
So, I was already playing with great people. I had to make a decision about what I’m gonna do. I thought “I do need this job. I do need the money. It is Herbie. But we’re not gonna play jazz and it could throw a wrench into my acoustic jazz career, which is my passion.”
Of course, I did it. It was an amazing experience. I saw the world. I learned amazing stuff. I learned about Buddhism from Herbie, which I practice to this day. I got to work with a guy who is a genius not just in music, but in everything. He just seemed to have all the answers, you know?
At the same time, the band was kinda loud and not the most sensitive situation for a guy like me who was used to reacting or not reacting to every sound I heard on a stage. It wasn’t a conversational band. It was more like a backbeat kind of thing. There were a few tunes in which we could interact, but even then, you had to interact over the top of these monitors and loud sound systems. I’m not a Billy Cobham-type power drummer. I’m a jazz cat and always have been.
The great drummer and my friend Michael Shrieve once said how he was plagued by his performance at Woodstock constantly. No matter what he did, people pointed to that solo he did when he was 20 and people felt he could only play that way in that style. It’s hard for people to understand that you can do more than one thing, which I think is boneheaded. If you can play drums at a pretty good level, and if you can play jazz, you can probably play another type of music. You don’t have to have eggs every morning, right? But that stereotype did kind of put the brakes on my jazz career for a while.
Going back to the current Headhunters, when we’ve been on the road for a while and we get warmed up, we’re a great band. We can be extremely interactive, like a jazz band. We’ve got brilliant guys in the band right now. Every one of those guys is really great. Donald Harrison is one of the greatest musicians in the world. Chris Severin is an amazing bass player on acoustic and electric. And Bill Summers’ work speaks for itself.
Talk about why your friendship with Summers has endured for so long.
Bill and I almost killed each other when we first met. We didn’t like each other. I always wanted to become violent and so did he. We were young, macho, testosterone-filled cats. There was also a race thing. I was the only white guy in the band and that would be brought up a lot. It was a case of, “Yeah? Step outside the van and let’s do what we gotta do, baby. I’m from the streets, too.” Bill wasn’t afraid of me one bit. [laughs] But we could play, and for some reason, do that really well together. I did love Bill’s sense of humor. He could be a really funny cat.
I can see the irony in almost anything. Bill is a brilliant man and very spiritual. Like myself, he’s a wounded soldier. He’s become one of my most favorite people in life. He’s a brother. I know his family and all about him. He knows all about me. We can read each other without speaking. He’s also my business partner. I totally respect him.
Bill can move to any town, whether it’s in Alaska or Guam and start a band and create business for it. He’s a community guy. He’s also an activist.
I always say on stage, when I’m goofing around, that I’ve been married four times, but Bill and I are still playing together after 50 years. It’s true. We’ve traveled the world and made history together. So, I love Bill. We started out wanting to kill each other and then became brothers.
The Headhunters’ most recent studio album, Speakers in the House, has a long history. Describe how it came together.
It’s an interesting story. It started when we were on tour in Europe and some guy hired us to play on his large boat in Saint-Nazaire, France. Next to the ship in the harbor was a giant warehouse and it had a studio with kitchens and live-in bedrooms. It was a really upscale thing with a kick-butt recording facility. Part of the deal was if we play the gig on the ship, which held 500 people, we could stay for a week in the units and make a record for free. So, that’s what we did. We recorded the basic tracks for the record there.
We weren’t writing before the show, so we came up with music on the fly. We did our best and even did a straight-ahead version of “Actual Proof” that was more swinging. We also came up with “Rocking at the Mole House.” Donald had to leave after the gig, so when we got back to the States, we sent some things to him, and he put some melodies and solos on them. I also had a friend, the great organist Jerry Z., who has played with The Headhunters, contribute to the record.
I also did some more drum tracks at a place called Raw Recording in Carmel, New York, and Bill put some percussion on some of the tracks. So, some of it was done in sections.
When we got it to a point of it sounding good, we put it out in 2018 briefly as an independent album. But I had a connection with the Ropeadope label and suggested they put it out properly, so it was rereleased on that label in 2022. They’ve always been good to me, and I love those guys. They’re great people.
Let’s discuss the new recording Live From Brooklyn Bowl. What was special about that gig that made you want to release it as an album?
Our manager Greg Lucas called us and said, “We’ve got a gig in Brooklyn.” I’m a working musician, so The Headhunters are on my calendar along with a lot of other gigs. So, I’m like, “Okay. We haven’t played there in a while, so sure.”
It usually takes a couple of nights for the band to get going, remember everything, and work bugs out. So, I just went to the gigs, set up, took my little jazz kit with an 18” bass drum, and played.
For some reason, and I don’t know why, everything felt really good. It was really easy to play. It wasn’t a hassle. I wasn’t bombarded by volume that makes it impossible for the drums to cut through. If you can’t hear your kick drum, you’re done, no matter what. So, everything was cool. And then I didn’t think anything more of it. I just remembered it as being a good gig that I had a blast at.
Then I heard the tapes later on and found out the label is thinking about doing this as a record. When I heard them, I thought, “Yeah, go ahead. This is so cool, man. It’s exactly how it was.”
So, I don’t have a lack of appreciation for this recording, and I don’t take it for granted that it’s out. But for me, it was just another night on the calendar. But I’m gonna always try to play my best and thank goodness, it felt really good that night.
How do you look back at the Platinum album from 2011, with its very urban, Hip Hop component?
I’m so sorry the record company didn’t promote it, because it had all kinds of different things going on, which is a trademark of The Headhunters. We had Snoop Dog and George Clinton on there. We had a great tenor player named Rob Dixon on it, too. In fact, Rob really helped put the whole thing together for us. He had a lot of connections with this label called Owl in Indianapolis.
I thought it was a great effort, creatively, but the record company was small and didn’t have the money to work it. For them, it was just another record, but it could have been a breakthrough album because it was that good. When I look back, I can see there was the potential for something great to happen.
Going back a little further, in 1998, The Headhunters reunited with Hancock for the Return of The Headhunters album and tour. Reflect on how that came together, and what the experience was like for you.
I’ve been an acoustic jazz musician most of my life. It’s my natural thing. I grew up in jazz trios. I could be in a jazz trio for the rest of my life just grooving and swinging. My life revolves around the swing and ride cymbal. It’s what I think about all the time. At that point in my life, I was staying out in Los Angeles playing with a lot of jazz artists and was totally happy. Though I was actually living in New York, I was there because my mother had passed away, so I was staying with my cousin, and was doing gigs around the area.
I thought, “This isn’t so bad. I kind of like Los Angeles. I’m getting a lot of jazz gigs.” So, I decided to split my time between New York and Los Angeles during that period. During that time, I got a call from a management team that said, “Hey, you wanna go out with Herbie and do The Headhunters with him again? We have a tour for a year with a massive amount of money involved.”
How could I say no to that kind of money? I’m like, “Yeah.” And then when I got in the band, it was musically trying to repeat what we’d already done. The situation was also that the band was so loud, I felt I couldn’t play in it. It turned into a rock band. It didn’t used to be that way.
There were all kinds of wars going on inside the band about money, this and that, this guy, that guy, and so on. I thought, “I’m not going to argue with people about shit I don’t even care about. I don’t want to play ‘Palm Grease.’ We already did this. I’m fine doing what I’m doing.” One guy even absconded with a bunch of money. He swung a bunch of bread behind our backs. I mean, a lot of crazy shit went down.
In the end, I decided “I don’t wanna do this anymore.” Several guys were also really too stoned out of their minds to play well. I’m not saying that self-righteously, because I used to get really stoned, too. But you gotta be able to play the gig and nobody could. Cats were turning the beat around constantly and trying to blame me. If this sort of stuff happened with my bands in New York and I acted that way, they would fall apart.
I used to call home and tell my lady, “I’m not feeling this, you know?” I was happy with my jazz life, and I did this solely for money and it wasn’t even that big of a payday. All the money went to Hancock, which I knew was gonna happen. Had I been a better businessman, I could have eventually made some real money doing this kind of music, but at that point in my life, I wanted to play music that I like.
That group became a big sludge band. And we all wanted to violently kill each other. I used to carry weapons to rehearsals.
The good thing that came out of that situation is that Bill and I called each other after the smoke had cleared a couple of years later. We said, “Let’s put The Headhunters back together and have fun.” So, what we have now is a much better situation. Unlike that reunion, we’re not surrounded by people who aren’t musicians and are just in it for the money. I’m not comfortable in that kind of a situation.
Your latest solo album, Kosen Rufu, is an ambitious effort featuring Eddie Henderson, Henry Franklin, Wayne Horvitz, Skerik, and Bill Summers. Describe the vision for the record.
It’s kind of an avant-garde record and you’ll hear us stretching way out. We’re playing with time on some of it. Some it also swings really hard and some of it’s funky. And some of it’s completely free made of up just colors. There are a few beautiful ballads as well, but most of it is out.
The title comes from a Buddhist term that loosely translates into world peace. It’s communicating the idea that through inner reformation, one can change, then others can change.
The album was made with all these guys I go way back with. I really like this record because so much of it is about spontaneous creativity and letting loose. It was, “Hey man, let’s play this kind of a groove.” I’d give the musicians skeleton arrangements and we’d all fill it out from there.
Your previous solo record Mike Clark Plays Herbie Hancock finds you reinterpreting his classic material. Tell me how it relates to your time working with him.
Everything I’ve said about The Headhunters doesn’t mean I don’t love Herbie. Me and Leon Lee Dorsey, a great bass player and friend of mine, have made many records together, and this one is our seventh. It also has the great piano player Jon Davis on it. Together, we had played “Sorcerer” at some gigs. Also, sometimes I play in Eddie Henderson’s band, and we’d play “Toys,” which I love.
One day, I was up at Leon’s place and said, “Let’s play ‘Toys.’” And then I said, “Let’s place ‘Sorcerer.’” They sounded great, so I said to Leon and Jon, “Let’s go through Herbie’s old stuff and see what we really like.” Remember, what attracted me about playing with Herbie wasn’t The Headhunters stuff, but his solo albums on Blue Note and his work with Miles Davis.
So, I eventually decided to go back and play some of Herbie’s stuff in a way that fits my sensibilities. I also thought that because people know me from working with Herbie that it would be a cool thing to do, and not focus on The Headhunters stuff. I have to say, it’s a pretty swinging record. It felt good when we played it. It was very natural. Everything was done in one or two takes. There isn’t a single edit on the whole record. We did it in seven hours and mixed it. I’m really proud of it.
Leon and I also did an album of Thelonious Monk material called Monktime. Right now, we’re working on a Bill Evans record, which also includes Michael Wolff. We’re all about honoring artists that we love.
I’d like to name some albums you’ve worked on and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, starting with Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (2012 edition).
I did a lot of recording with Vince. He’d simply look at me or Paul Jackson, or whoever was on the date, and say “Start playing some kind of a groove and I’ll tell you when to stop.” So, we’d play something for a certain amount of time, maybe a minute or so, until he said stop.
You’d just go in, hear his ideas, play them, and then you’d leave. They weren’t always full tunes. Sometimes it was just about the groove, in which he’d say “Don’t be too busy. Just play straight.” He might also say “I want some rim clicks.” We did a whole bunch of recording like that. And then he would put something over it later.
Sometimes we’d play jazz tunes and sometimes it would be swing and some funky stuff. I was never sure what I was doing was gonna be for Peanuts or not. He’d just call us to do sessions.
He could be a very relaxed guy, but he could also have a fierce temper. He would go from zero to 90 and completely explode sometimes. I did many tours with him, and he became a really good friend. I loved him. He was a great guy.
Guaraldi played with Charlie Parker, which a lot of people don’t know about him. He was a kind of Wynton Kelly-style swinger. That’s the way he’d play on stage. And then of course, somebody would request the Charlie Brown shit at a concert, and we’d have to go “Uh huh, yeah” and do it.
He was a West Coast guy with a New York feel on the groove. He was always experimental and open to new ideas. I miss the guy.
Betty Davis’ They Say I’m Different (1974).
A music industry promoter named Mario Medious called me from New York and said, “I want you to play on this date for Miles Davis’ wife Betty.” I’m like, “Sure.” So, I drove out to the Record Plant in Sausalito, California.
I smoked tons of weed in those days. When I got to the date, there was Buddy Miles, and he was gonna play guitar on the record. I knew Buddy a little bit and we smoked an abundance of weed during the sessions.
Betty was this really nice, jovial, fun, forward-thinking, crazy, wild person. They had some inexperienced young guys on the date who had never recorded in the studio before. So, that was a little funny. They hadn’t honed their skills yet. Even though I wasn’t much older than them, I had been playing for a very long time with guys like Vince Guaraldi, Woody Shaw, and Joe Henderson. So, I had a lot more experience, with the exception of Buddy.
We laid down some funk and it was cool and fun. I don’t think I even got to hear the tracks afterwards. They would just say “All right, do another one.” The whole thing went down really quickly. We played it all live in the studio.
I remember Mario and Betty taking us to a really expensive dinner, with 13 people at a big, long table at this upscale restaurant. It was a lot of fun. They were cool to work with and everybody just wanted to get funky and have a good time.
Eddie Henderson’s Heritage (1976).
Eddie and I are dear, dear close friends. I had done a lot of playing with Eddie all over the place before this album. He called me and another dear friend, Paul Jackson, to work on this. I was amazed when I walked into the date and there was Julien Priester, Patrice Rushen, and Mtume. There were also two great drummers on the record: “Transcending Sunship" Woody Theus and Billy Hart. It was so great to interact with those two cats that I love.
We all went into the session and pretty much played everything just as you hear it. I don’t think there was more than one or two takes. It was all really easy and natural.
Skip Drinkwater produced that record, and it was just really fun to do. Everybody had a good vibe and was in a good mood.
Eddie and I still play music from this record live to this day.
Brand X’s Product (1979) and Do They Hurt? (1980).
One day, this guy calls me. I’m living in San Francisco at the time. He says “We’d like to fly you to New York to audition for Brand X.” I had never heard of them. I didn’t know who Phil Collins was. I had just done a whole year playing five nights a week at Christo’s in San Francisco with The Eddie Henderson Quintet. That was amazing. Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Dave Liebman would sometimes play with us. There was no rehearsing and no reading. We’d show up and play. So, I was back to my jazz thing during that time.
So, here’s Brand X wanting me to audition. I’d never played any fusion in my life. That’s the sort of thing Billy Cobham did. I didn’t even like fusion, you know. I don’t like much rock either. I mean, I like Little Richard and Lloyd Price, but I’m not a fan of The Rolling Stones and all that kinda shit. It doesn’t swing hard enough and isn’t funky enough for me.
I told the Brand X guy, “Send me something I can listen to.” Somehow the music got to me, and I thought, “Wait a minute. These guys are doing something interesting. Okay, I’ll go. And if I don’t get the gig, I get a free trip to New York and get to hang out with my friends there.”
So, I get there and there’s all of these super-fusion drummers around. There are double bass drums and lots of tom toms. I’m like, “Man, I don’t have any of that kind of language in my vocabulary. My shit comes from Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones. What am I gonna do here?” But then my turn came around and Percy Jones and I really hit it off.
Something magical kind of happened and everybody dug what I did. The next thing you know, I’m on a plane going to England to play with these cats.
I really liked the music. It was really creative stuff. I thought, “Wow, this is different from the confines of The Headhunters. This is what art rock means.”
When I got to England, I went to Ringo Starr’s house, and I met Phil Collins. He was a nice cat and a pretty good drummer. I thought, “Hey, he’s okay. I like him.” I had to like him because there was gonna be two us playing together at times. I felt I could play with him.
Ringo’s house was this gigantic mansion which was also home to Startling Studios, which he bought from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The famous white piano was there. There were maids and chefs cooking amazing dinners. The parties were rock and roll style. It was crazy. I had seen some serious partying before, but this was even deeper than that.
I actually stayed in John and Yoko’s bedroom, which was wild with these automatic shutters, and this dinosaur looking in from the top window.
It was lots of fun to make those records with Brand X. It was really good music. I dug it. We also worked at a studio called The Farm. When they’d open the window of the studio, we were overlooking a swamp. They had a really good crew there. We made great music at the place.
Do They Hurt? Is exactly as you hear it on the record. Product had John Goodsall, bless his heart, come in and overdub a bunch of crazy solos on top of what we did. It didn’t quite layer together with the rhythms. But I loved making those records and playing with those guys.
Percy’s brilliant. His approach is a whole different universe and way of looking music. Brand X was a different part of the tree from the jazz, funk, and soul worlds I knew.
At the end, Percy wanted to go in a different direction from John, which you hear in the music toward the end. They were old friends but went their own ways. There was the usual bullshit with the management company and money problems about this, that, and the other. I’m not sure what happened. All I know is I was there for a while and then pretty soon, the whole thing was over.
The Funk Stops Here with Paul Jackson (1992).
Jim Payne is a great drummer and dear friend of mine. He said, “Why don’t you make a funk record? I’ll produce it. Enja will put it out.” I said okay and called in Paul, a keyboardist named Jeff Pittson, and Kenny Garrett. We all flew to some little swamp town in Florida.
We went to this amazing studio called Wolf's Head Productions in Altamonte Springs and laid it down. Again, what you hear is what came out. It was really natural. Paul and I hadn’t played together in a while, so it was a joyful occasion.
Enja didn’t know what to do with the record, because they were a jazz label, and this was a funk record. They didn’t get it and it didn’t get the love it deserved. It’s a hell of a record. It became a kind of underground classic, but the business end was screwed up.
Blueprints of Jazz Vol. 1 (2008).
These guys from Talking House Records in the Bay Area, including Steve Smith, got ahold of me and said, “We’re running this record label and we’d like you to make a record.” Linda Reynolds, my girlfriend at the time, who recently passed away, had written a song called “Past Lives” and wanted me to record it, so I said yes to Talking House and told them “I have a tune ready.” My friend, the sax player Jed Levy, had also written some tunes to include.
So, we went in with Jed, Donald Harrison, Christian McBride, Patrice Rushen, and Christian Scott and laid it down. It was an amazing time, and the music went down perfectly. Patrice pretty much nailed it right away. I love how Christian McBride swings.
We did some live shows and made another record for Talking House called Indigo Blue Live at the Iridium.
Mike Clark’s Prescription Renewal’s Live at The Fox Theatre (2009).
Ivory Daniel, who manages Tower of Power and Lettuce, called me up and said “I’d like to manage you. I have this idea to put you together with Fred Wesley, Charlie Hunter, Robert Walter, and Skerik.” I kind of shined him on and said “Okay, you give me some gigs and I’ll do them.” So, two months later, he had a tour for me.
I’d replace people in the band or guys would leave to do their own thing. We once had Paul Jackson and George Porter Jr. in it.
Prescription Renewal lasted three years and became a big funk band. We sold out all kinds of venues, including The Fillmore twice, and we recorded that Fox Theatre gig and put it out.
We were doing funk in a way I wasn’t hearing anymore. The money was also really good, and I loved all the guys. They were great to travel with and were forward-looking people. But at the end, I felt “I have to get back to New York and play jazz.” I thought it was going to just be a handful of gigs, but it went on a long time. I was living in a tour bus during that period and it was a fun time.
Charnett Moffett’s Music From Our Soul (2017).
I had done a tour for Brian Jackson during which we played the Gil Scott-Heron stuff. We played together at the Monterey Jazz Festival and during one tune we went into an up-tempo swing. It wasn’t really a jazz band. It had a lot of electric instruments, but Charnett was playing upright bass for it.
So, I was playing a Tony Williams kind of swing and used the hi-hat the way he used to. I came up with that to match the velocity of the tune we were playing. It felt good and I didn’t think anything of it.
Charnett called me after and said “Man, I love when you went into that Tony Williams thing. I never forgot that, and I’d like you to play on a few tracks on my record.” I said sure and we went over to Sear Sound in New York to do them.
Charnett is yet another gentleman we’ve lost. I miss him. A beautiful brother. A sweet and talented guy.
Dylan Taylor’s One in Mind with Larry Coryell (2017).
All three of us are Buddhist. We all chant. I had known Larry since the ‘70s. We’ve hung out forever. I’ve played in a thousand of his bands and done millions of gigs for him. He was a real character and a different kind of guy. I miss him. We’d have incredible conversations.
Dylan is also a hell of a great bassist. He called me up and said, “I just called Larry and I want to do a record and live dates to warm up a bit.” I said yes. We did a couple of shows, and we went in and recorded. Some of the music we read, right there on the date. Dylan wrote great stuff, and it was a great date. I’m proud of that record and everything I’ve done with those guys. Making records with good friends is a plus. I enjoyed it.
What’s your take on the current state of the music industry as it relates to musicians’ livelihoods?
Like a lot of things in America, the music industry has stripped a lot of rights away. We’re seeing them getting rid of unions. They’re always attacking us where we live. Landlords are raising rents to unaffordable levels. The record industry reflects the same sort of greed. They’ve made it so we can’t live off our royalties. I got a check from a record company the other day for $1.16.
I don’t see how younger musicians, if they’re not discovered right away, are going to make it. I got to play five nights a week for 50 years. They’re not gonna have that opportunity.
I’m not a victim-type person or a conspiracy head, but really this is about the one percent and what they’re doing. They’ve stacked the Supreme Court in their favor. What’s going on in the music industry is the same.
I used to make a good living as a jazz musician and now that’s questionable. But for me as an artist, I’ll be unstoppable until I die. I don’t give a shit what the music industry does. I’m gonna keep playing until I can no longer play. A lot of my friends have died. I’ve got nothing to lose. Nothing I do is going to stop the music industry people from doing what they do. They’re gonna do it all anyway.
We’ll see if there’s enough fairness in people’s hearts to counter the kind of bullshit that’s going on.
How do music and spirituality intersect for you?
Herbie Hancock told me a long time ago that changing is about devotion and returning one’s life to the law of cause and effect through sound or rhythms. By doing this, you can change any negativity in your heart and raise your life condition. When you chant, you can fly above your innermost weirdness. It all disappears for a while. And when it starts to return, you chant more. Eventually through these up and down motions, you start to rid yourself of your demons.
I was like, “Damn! This works.” And not only that, but you also get the benefit of synchronicity. Somehow, chanting puts you in the right place to get things done that you desire. Your dreams can be fulfilled through inner reformation. It’s not magic, but rather it’s about harnessing the sound of the universe that resides in all humans and all things.
It’s a sort of human revolution in which you slowly up your level of consciousness so you can live on a different plane to where you were before. And this affects my music when I go out and play. When I do, I know I’m 100 percent present and accounted for. I’m not tripping. I’m not thinking about this and that. Chanting puts you right where you need to be, and I know that from experience.
When you do this, you’re able to bring forward your highest nature and people will feel that in the music. They’re attracted to it. And for me, it allows me to be clear and clean inside. When I’m onstage, I don’t think about any of the daily negativity that I carry with me. Chanting puts me right on the beam and gives me the confidence to follow through as a musician.
I should also say that doing this isn’t about attaining a goal. It’s not like one day you get there. No. It’s a never-ending struggle to change, and to fight for your dreams and what you believe is justice.
Given the severity of problems the world is facing, what’s your perspective on the value of music at this moment?
I think people should listen to music, focus, and think some good thoughts. But music won’t take people away from those problems because they created them. Patience and love are probably the answers to the problems. You just gotta lay back. Don’t blow your horn. If someone cuts in front of you when you’re driving, don’t get angry. You might get shot.
If you’re doing anything really worthwhile—any of God’s work, whatever that is—the devil is sitting on your shoulder. You gotta remember that. Everything that’s going on now has been going on for decades. It’s the same situations warmed over again and again.
So, my advice to people is to withdraw from problems and get their own houses together. Stop pointing the finger and point it at yourself because the problems are partly your fault.
There’s a thin line between confidence and ego. Ego is built on bullshit. Confidence is built from hard work. Some people don’t know the difference. On stage with The Headhunters, the number one thing I say is “Is there a roofer in the house?” And everybody looks around and says, “What is he talking about?” Then I say, “You didn’t hire a roofer? I told you to. Because we’re fixing to blow the roof off this place.” During the show, I’ll also say, emphatically, “We’re not musicians. We’re physicians.” We are delivering healing energy.
So, if the parakeet shits on your birthday cake, let it go and move forward. I know one thing for sure, I love everyone we play for. That love is more powerful than all the bullets in the world. It’s really simple. It’s an idea that’s not hard to grasp.
What does The Headhunters hitting the 50th anniversary milestone mean to you?
It means I hope I got 50 more years ahead. [laughs]
Look, I struggled for many years trying to figure out what I was born into. This whole state of affairs we’re in that you’re talking about is nothing different than what came before. It’s people killing people. That’s nothing new.
I’m a Black man. I’m really Black. And I’m so happy to be Black. It’s wonderful to be Black. Black people weren’t in the Enola Gay when it bombed Hiroshima. Black people weren’t bombing Nagasaki. Black people don’t carry that karma.
And think about this: people didn’t want us to jump high. They didn’t want us to fly on airplanes. They didn’t want us to do any of that shit. It’s a fact.
Now, go look at Soul Train and then look at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. There was a big difference. Some stereotypes are true. Black people can dance. And the most popular music in the world is ghetto music. They said it wouldn’t last. They said Hip Hop wasn’t here to stay. Look at the reality, though. The Black community has always been an innovative force in music, from Negro spirituals to stride piano to bebop to Hip Hop. Every category of instrument was invented in a place called Africa. That’s not a racial thing, it’s a fact. It has nothing to do with race.
Now, The Headhunters' music? That’s timeless, too. I remember writing some parts for a new rendition of “Watermelon Man” for a Herbie Hancock tour and that arrangement helped the song become very popular. When you’re working with someone like him, you’re always reaching out. You’re ready to jump into the abyss. You’re encouraged to do that because if you’re a conformist, you cannot innovate. Period. In our 50 years, we’ve never conformed. We’ve always looked for something new.
You know how we do that? It’s because we’re not musical snobs and we don’t say dumb shit. You know, like when people say, “I don’t like Hip Hop.” That’s ridiculous. Hip Hop is traditional African music. It’s the music of griots. It’s that old. It’s not something new.
We’ve had to endure a lot as The Headhunters. When we were with Herbie at the beginning, there were no Headhunters. That name got spawned from the first recording we did, which featured Paul Jackson, Bennie Maupin, Harvey Mason, and me. Herbie looked high and low for the right people when he put The Headhunters together.
Herbie was really intelligent. I first met him at UC Berkeley. My band opened for him at Zellerbach Auditorium in 1971. He invited me to come sit in with his band called Mwandishi, but there was some kinda conflict going on within the band.
I’m gonna tell you something very few people know about the history of The Headhunters. Herbie was someone who was about endurance. We once went to England with the band. Mike Clark was the drummer by this point, having replaced Harvey Mason. Harvey was making too much money as a session musician, and you couldn’t drag him on the road to tour. Mike is a giant among players, so that change was fine.
We played the first set. People appreciated it. We stuck to what people knew during that part. Then for the second set, Herbie debuted as a singer. He had his vocoder and was ready to roll. He put the microphone up to his face and as soon as he started singing, he was ducking tomatoes and lettuce. [laughs]
Every city in Europe we went to, they did this. I had to scratch my head. I was wondering why Herbie didn’t change things. But that was a testament to his commitment as an artist. I mean, it was like people across England and Germany were going to the grocery store to buy a bunch of fruit and vegetables before the gig to throw at Herbie. But he stuck to his guns and believed in it. I admired that conviction.
We’ve done a lot of things with The Headhunters. We’ve done Hip Hop with Snoog Dogg. We did a song called “God Made Me Funky” on Survival of the Fittest which is one of the most sampled Hip Hop beats ever.
Our counterparts were Return to Forever, Weather Report, and Miles Davis. That was our era. That’s when we were together on stages. We opened for Miles once on an extensive tour. Same with Weather Report. But things are different now. There was a lot more camaraderie back then.
When I think about The Headhunters, it’s about something I live every day. It’s this thing we created that no-one else has done, but I don’t sit around thinking about what The Headhunters did or didn’t do. I just live every moment and try to extract some happiness from this chaos we’re living through. But I know one thing. The Headhunters have always brought joy to people.
The current band with Mike, Donald Harrison, Kyle Roussel, and Chris Severen is smoking. I just turned 75 a few months ago. I’m happy to be alive and kicking with The Headhunters.
That’s it, man. I’m just happy The Headhunters exist and we’re able to touch people through the music. And the music is endless. It never gets old to me. I’ll listen to our own recordings and go, “Who’s the percussionist on it? He’s pretty cool.” [laughs]
Working with The Headhunters also led to so many other opportunities. I got to work with Quincy Jones, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin.
The big lesson? Never let anyone interrupt your happiness. But know you’ll also need to really change sometimes to achieve it.
Speakers in the House has an intriguing backstory. What’s your view on how it came together?
The record started in Saint-Nazaire, France, where we recorded the initial tracks seven years ago.
At that time, we were in and out of record deals. There was one company called Owl that we worked with, but they folded. But we were determined not to disappear. We’ve got past the age of worrying about being a pretty boy or girl. We’re not commodities in that sense. We have talent for real.
We got an offer to come do a concert in Saint-Nazaire, but the offer wasn’t as strong as it should have been. Then the promoter said, “I own a nice studio. It’s state of the art. We also have a wonderful engineer. Why don’t you guys come to our studio for a week. We have in-house residences and a cook. So, do one show for me on my boat and you can use it.” We said, “That sounds like a good deal.”
The band came in, which included Reggie Washington on bass and Jerry Z. on keyboards at the time. We agreed to each bring in an idea and share each song. We decided everyone would get writing credits, so we’re paying the karmic bill right away. It was outta love that we did it that way.
So, we did the gig on the boat, did the tracks, took them back home, and sat on them for a while. Then we hatched eggs from them. Some more recording happened in New Orleans and New York. We finally finished it, but we probably have nine more tunes from those sessions still in the can.
A version of the album came out independently in 2018, which goes back to the “Outta sight, outta mind” thing. It’s important to keep a presence. We had a deal with a small label and Mike and I decided to put it out that way for a while. But the deal also let us get out of it if necessary. At a certain point, the Ropeadope opportunity came along, and we asked to get out of the deal, and they allowed us to.
Ropeadope represents a new day and age in terms of The Headhunters recording music and selling it. It’s a specific type of deal that includes streaming and all the ways people listen to music, now. It lets the band stay alive.
What do you feel Live From Brooklyn Bowl uniquely captures about the group?
When you listen to the first track, “Kongo Square,” you hear how innovative the band can be. That’s pretty deep music there, bro’. “Rocking at the Mole House” is another great track. The album is one more course on The Headhunters’ table. We just keep going and going. The album is an effort to be present and say, “Hey, we’re still here. This is who we are, today.”
In 1998, The Headhunters reunited with Herbie Hancock for the Return of The Headhunters album and tour. What was that period like for you?
To be very honest with you, and to cut to the chase, we got ripped off.
I can take credit for this reunion because I was working at the time for Herbie. In some ways, we had a tumultuous relationship, but we mutually respected one another. I still love him.
I was doing some studio sessions at the time and I asked Herbie if he’d come and play on the tracks. He did and it blossomed into reuniting The Headhunters with him. That was a dream for me and probably some of the other band members to get together and do it again. And we did. We put it together and had Paul Jackson, Mike Clark, and Bennie Maupin in the band.
We hit the road, but the eye-opening thing is that I got a $50 per diem per day. These were for huge shows. So, the band got $250 a day total. Now, every night they were buying Dom Pérignon and Cristal to put in Herbie’s dressing room. How much does that cost? More than the per diem money for the whole band.
And the accounting? It’s not Herbie’s fault, but it’s a systemic problem that goes back decades, where Black people couldn’t sleep in the same hotels as Benny Goodman and Woody Herman. This systemic discrimination is still in existence working against the interests of Black artists and Black managers, as well as people of other ethnicities. It just happens over and over again. Many Hip Hop artists and producers have got ripped off, too.
With Return of The Headhunters, we were disappointed and fighting amongst ourselves. The devil had got into the camp. Sometimes you’re looking at a star and the light is bright, but the star eventually burns out. You know what I’m sayin’? Sometimes you just have to roll with it, be happy, and help other people. That’s how I look back at it. I learned a lot from that situation.
Your 1977 solo album Feel the Heat and the Summers Heat releases were just reissued. How do you look back at that era of your career?
I did four records for Fantasy/Prestige and Orin Keepnews, starting in 1977 with my first solo album. I eventually moved on to MCA, where some financial magic happened, and I got a decent recording budget. I also achieved chart success because MCA was able to promote the albums properly. In fact, the Summers Heat albums did better than Herbie Hancock’s albums at the time. I was still in his band during many of those years. I understood the value of being in it, which was enormous. There’s also no pianist on Earth that can play like Herbie, period.
The Summers Heat days were better for me. I said to Herbie’s manager David Rubin in 1981, “My record Call It What You Want is higher on the charts than any of Herbie’s stuff. I don't wanna raise, but can we just play 30 seconds from it during the show, and have Herbie introduce me?” I knew the audience would have been rocking if we had done that. On that 1981 tour, I was promised it would happen, but it didn’t. Once the tour got to the Bottom Line in New York City, I went up to Herbie and said “I can’t do this anymore. I’m being abused. I’d rather go and sink.” I felt that I hit a point where caution ended, and cowardice was beginning. I had to stand up for myself. And I did. I quit the band at the club.
Now, no-one agreed with what I did. High-profile artists came up to me and said, “No, that was the wrong thing to do.” I had mixed emotions about it, but I thought it was important to end the abuse. Sometimes you have to pay the price for freedom. And if you’re doing good, you’ll get rewarded. If you’re not, you don’t have to wait to go to hell. You are hell. But I thank Herbie for teaching me so much. And thankfully, I was also able to go on to play with Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tuner, Patrice Rushen, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, and so many other people.
I had some great success with Summers Heat. The single “Straight to the Bank” was a big hit in the UK and a moderate one in the States. We were on Soul Train several times and whipped ass. I had a really great band. It was all choreographed. We had great wardrobes and toured with Chic; Earth, Wind and Fire; and Kool and the Gang. We were a funk band at that level, and let me tell you, you can’t fake the funk.
My solo work is really about diversity. My first album had seven languages on it. I’m a world music person. I’m described as an ethnomusicologist, but I don’t have a degree in that. But people say that’s what I am. My dream is to build a multi-ethnic city of the arts that represents every culture on the planet. Summers Heat represented that whole world of music.
How did your work with Los Hombres Calientes further manifest that multi-ethnic concept?
I moved to New Orleans because it’s where my family is from, and I have a plot of land there. I thought I could use that land as a microcosm of my multi-ethnic concept. Jonathan Bloom, an educator who was based there, is someone I became friends with, and he introduced me to a lot of people. His family knew my family 100 years ago, so we had a connection. I met many musicians through him.
I used to hold music classes at my home as part of this community, which were free. We’d play all kinds of rhythms. It’s how I met Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. He wanted to take some lessons. So, I shared some information with him. He said, “I need to bring this guy over to your house to play.” And it happened to be Irvin Mayfield. So, Jason, Irvin, and I played together, did a gig, and a few weeks later we signed a recording contract with Basin Street Records. It didn’t take long. Our 2001 album New Congo Square was even nominated for a Grammy.
I loved the band, but let me tell you something, you can build a pyramid, and the wind can blow it down. Unfortunately, one of the members went to prison for fraud, and that was it for the band.
Looking back, we were extremely good. We made really good, smoking music. We did a lot of great stuff, but unfortunately, one bad apple can spoil a bunch.
I’d like to name some important recordings from your history, and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, starting with Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus (1974).
Fantastic. Groundbreaking. The jewel in the lotus is the heart of the plant, which you have to develop and help along. It’s a symbol of our journey.
The most dynamic instrument I played on that album was a garbage can filled with water. [laughs] Bennie is a sound man and he’s very mystical. We decided to go into the abyss and the question became “Who’s gonna play a garbage can?” That’s what I remember about making that album more than anything.
Kimiko Kasai and Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly (1979).
That brings back a lot of memories because my wife had just passed away in an automobile accident. Kimiko was a Japanese singer who was very popular in Japan. I had never heard her sing. I remember questioning why we were even going in the studio with her at the time. But then when I experienced her voice, artistry, professionalism, and vibe, I was very impressed. They were off the chain.
Pete & Sheila Escovedo’s Solo Two (1977).
Pete was a very important person in my development. When I lived in the Bay Area, I took lessons from him. I remember at the time that Sheila wasn’t old enough to play in the clubs. Eventually, Sheila became of age and could whip his ass. [laughs] Man, could this girl play. So, she wound up being featured in Pete’s band.
Billy Cobham produced that record and played on it, too. So that was another highlight for me. That was a good record.
McCoy Tyner’s Together (1979).
Orin Keepnews, who gave me my first record deal at Prestige, put me on this record with McCoy. The lineup included Stanley Clarke, Jack DeJohnette, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Bennie Maupin, and Eddie Henderson. Damn!
We recorded live for three days in the studio, like it was a club. Pretty amazing, man. That’s one of the most awesome records I’ve ever been on.
I remember Hubert and Freddie arguing about Freddie’s tuning during the sessions. Hubert would say “Yo, Freddie. Pull out. You’re sharp.” Hubert had perfect pitch. I also saw how McCoy and Orin would never let their feathers get ruffled by any antics the musicians got up to. They never let any of that enter their psyche, which was a very important lesson for me.
Wayne Shorter’s Phantom Navigator (1987).
There was a trumpet player in Summers Heat named Scott Roberts, who’s now known as One Drop Scott, one of the most prolific Hip Hop beatmakers on the planet. I taught him how to play percussion. He got the gig with Wayne and then he asked me to play on the record.
Wayne was writing music for that record like he was writing a letter. He could write music that fast. It just blew my mind. And the things he would say—you know, those Wayne Shorter things—you would have to be a Martian to understand them. [laughs] Wayne was not of this Earth. He was from another planet.
The Zawinul Syndicate’s Lost Tribes (1992).
Joe was from Austria. He asked me to join his band and he was one of the most beautiful people I ever met in my entire life. He had two sons and lived in Malibu, California. I used to go to his house because he was a serious boxer. We’d watch boxing matches. He had such a beautiful family. He liked his slivovitz. I got into that with him one night, and I’ll never drink that again. [laughs]
Joe was so meticulous about recording. He had a studio in his house. His son Ivan was the engineer, and he really knew how to produce. Joe had such a unique way of approaching music.
We covered Joe’s tune “Birdland” on Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block to ensure lots of people understood who Joe Zawinul is.
Well, that’s an obvious transition into the next album: Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block (1989).
If Quincy calls, even the roaches are coming, you know what I’m sayin’? [laughs] The man is the pied piper. If he calls, you’re gonna have a spiritual experience. You’re gonna be well paid. You’re gonna get your credit. You’re gonna get your publishing in writing. That says volumes. He’s trustworthy.
As for the music? Siedah Garrett. Tevin Campbell. Kool Moe Dee. Ice-T. Barry White. Ella Fitzgerald. Miles Davis. Joe Zawinul. Sarah Vaughn. They’re all on there. I mean, what can you say, man? There’s nothing you can say. There it is. I’ll say that my credits in terms of people I got to play with bumped up a lot after that album.
Salif Keita’s Amen (1991).
Joe Zawinul produced that record. I was at his house when we did that record at his studio. Salif is a heavyweight. He’s a cultural icon. He’s also a very nice person and easy to work with. It was also humbling because a lot of the percussion I play originates from West Africa. You can’t fake the funk. You can’t fool someone like Salif. His people helped create jazz and funk in their own way. They contributed heavily to them coming into existence. So, playing with Salif was like playing with a higher being that God specifically created to do what he does. Working with him was like being part of a prayer. A very spiritual person.
The Essence of Kwanzaa (1997).
I don’t like to say Black people were enslaved in America. I hate that term. Some people don’t get it, but we were prisoners. Part of Kwanzaa is about creating awareness and reflecting on that. Kwanzaa is extremely special. It has become a national holiday and it’s an alternative for Black people who want to celebrate but can’t embrace the traditional aspects of Christmas. It started with Maulana Karenga and it’s based on traditions from West and Southeast Africa.
That record had special significance for me. We did it here in New Orleans and most of the musicians were from the area, with the exception of a very gifted German guitarist named Michael Koschorreck.
The record has a tune on it called “Imani,” which is a slow funk, with some really hip lyrics. I didn’t want to preach to people. I wanted them to learn about Kwanzaa. I’m trying to communicate tradition and diversity here.
Unfortunately, there was some bad business with this record. Somebody ran away with the masters. It gets sold, but I don’t get anything. I can’t find the people selling it. But I won’t cry over spilt milk. I keep moving. Stress kills.
Tell me how spirituality and rhythm combine to inform what you do.
They’re synonymous. Without rhythm, there would be no life as we know it. It would be impossible. The definition of rhythm is you have to have two events: something that starts it and the rhythm itself. A rhythm can’t just be one note. It has to be the start of another note. Then you have a rhythm. If you take a single step, that ain’t a rhythm. It’s about math and science. Water isn’t water. It’s a force. It’s an entity. The same with rhythm. That’s how I look at things.
We’re just scratching the surface here. The civil rights movement hasn’t even begun yet. That’s a rhythm right there. So, is life.
I’m not gonna be here forever. But while I’m here, I’m gonna have fun with The Headhunters and bring some enlightenment, happiness, and intelligence to the people.