Piano Calling His Name

Legendary jazz pianist George Cables talks about Dexter Gordon, living music and Lady Gaga.

By Anita Lo '16

Before a Harvard Jazz Bands rehearsal earlier this month, celebrated jazz pianist and Learning From Performers guest artist George Cables sat down to dinner with student musicians to talk about music and careers, drawing on a rich line of jazz giants to help narrate his story.

Cables, who studied classical piano from a young age, spent two years at the Mannes College of Music before playing with Lenny White, Clint Houston and eventually Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1969. He later collaborated on recordings with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Art Pepper.

For the first half of dinner, Cables spoke about his start with jazz and the celebrated George Cables and (from left) Scott Roberts '19, Richard Feder-Staehle '18, John Miller '19musicians that he worked with along the way.

“Jazz wasn’t a part of my early life,” Cables explained. “When I was very little, there was a piano in my house, but I was happy playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, learning from the Thompson book method. The first time I heard jazz, it was like someone had put on a scratchy record. I said: What is that? Take it off! But I heard this little calypso, Wynton Kelly’s Little Tracy in a pizzeria later on, and I came around.”

When someone asked Cables to speak about turning points in his life, he nodded, as if to demonstrate that he understood the curiosity needed to contest the question itself. “I don’t know that I’ve had any turning points," he said. "I feel like I’ve lived about 10 lives. But I guess I could point to working with Blakey and Dexter. You know, people used to say that Salvador Dali is drugs? Well, Dexter Gordon is jazz.”

He continued: “He taught me: Shape your solos. If you heard a little voice in the back of you saying 'Get mad!'—then get mad! Kick it up a gear of energy.”

Whether simply because of Cables’ fortunate birth into an age rich with jazz titans, or because of his tendency to let other voices tell stories for him—or both—his memories of his career often turned into a dizzying lineage of bandmates, mentors and other musicians who redefined modern jazz.

“You know—Booker Ervin, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan—playing with them, I learned so much," he said. "It was a great learning experience for me, then, today, forever. And Lenny—you know Lenny? Lenny White, Art Tatum, Freddie Hubbard, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Dizzy—listening to them changed how I listened.”

The star-studded genealogies were punctuated with reflections that seemed to arrive in the voices of whomever Cables had gained the insight, or from whomever helped Cables come to that revelation.

He recounted a few of his first times playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, recalling that he had initially practiced and played to “earn” his seat at the piano. “And then, Blakey told me”—and here Cables dropped his voice to imitate Blakey—“you don’t have to prove anything now. You’re a Messenger now.”

“And it’s true,” he continued. “A living music invites anyone to be themselves when they play. As a player, you become a co-composer in every piece you play.”

Even as the conversation began to move outside of his career as a pianist, Cables continued to name important names.

“Who do you listen to now?” a student asked. 

“I’ve been listening to the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, number three. Gerald Clayton, Tony Bennett, Janelle Monae—what’s the song again? Electric Tightrope. Recently, Lady Gaga.”

“Have you ever thought of doing any Lady Gaga covers?” another student followed up.

“No,” Cables laughed, and then added, “I want to be influenced by other things, but I want to be reminded. I don’t want to be other people.”

Students also wondered what was next for Cables, whether he had experimented with any other instruments or planned to try anything else new. “I used to play viola, actually,” he said, nodding at me—I’d introduced myself as a violist at the beginning.

“But it wasn’t for me,” he said, smiling. “And piano was calling my name.”

George Cables will be in conversation with Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music Ingrid Monson 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 at Leverett House Theatre on Mill St. He will also perform in concert as a guest artist with the Harvard Jazz Bands at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 14 in Lowell Lecture Hall. The conversation is free; tickets for the concert are $10 for general admission, $8 for students and seniors, and are available through the Harvard Box Office, 617.496.2222, or online.

Mr. Cables' residency is supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund.