HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Jazz bassist Larry Ridley lives by many mantras, including one taught to him by his mother: “Once you stop learning, you’re dead.”
It’s a phrase that during his 50-plus years touring the world, Ridley has put into practice in his career. He also tells new generations of musicians that jazz is “the roots that has produced the fruits.”
Another lifelong student is Ridley’s longtime friend and fellow musician, Larry Willis. From jazz to rock — he had a seven-year gig with Blood, Sweat and Tears — Willis has dared anyone to pigeonhole him into one specific genre.
Willis is known as a go-to sideman on piano and as a reliable composer and arranger for orchestras and big bands. He also believes in knowing the past. “If you know more, you can do more,” he said.
Because of Ridley’s and Willis’ contributions to jazz, they will be recognized during the Don Redman Heritage Awards and Concert at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 25. The event is held at the Mather Training Center, campus of Storer College at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
What these two friends have in common is more than a love of music. It’s a love of life.
Just like a good jazz arrangement, Ridley, 73, likes to keep moving.
At the forefront of Ridley’s mission is education, having earned several degrees including a doctorate in performing arts.
He spent more than 30 years at Rutgers University, before retiring from teaching full time in 1999. While there, he was a founding member of the jazz faculty. He is the artist-in-resident at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and is executive director of the African American Jazz Caucus, an organization dedicated to the cultural heritage of jazz.
From his classrooms, Ridley is able to pass on the lessons he learned from the musicians he encountered over his career.
And for him, music started when he could barely speak, grabbing onto the couch in his childhood home of Indianapolis and and tapping his feet to Joe Garland’s “In the Mood.”
“I was always hearing music from the time I was a kid. I always loved music,” Ridley said during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home.
By age 5, Ridley was playing violin. At the age of about 12, he said he went to one of Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts in Indianapolis. There he heard jazz guitarist Herb Ellis perform with singer Ella Fitzgerald, and double bassist Ray Brown perform with pianist Oscar Peterson.
“They sounded so great that I knew that the bass was it,” he said. “I used to tease Ray about that all the time, saying that he was responsible for me playing the bass. But he would say, ‘But look what you’ve accomplished for yourself. Straight ahead.’”
By age 16, Ridley had a weekly engagement playing six nights a week with a matinee at a local club.
“I always loved playing music. It was always something I wanted to do,” he said.
However, education came first, and Ridley attended Indiana University where he majored in music education.
He didn’t always stay in the classroom, but continued to play. His biography on his website, www.larryridley.com, lists a who’s who of some of his musical collaborators. He said he started keeping lists of the musicians he played with to show he appreciated working with them.
“It’s been a wonderful ride because I’ve had the opportunity to play with so many great musicians, recording with them, performing with them and traveling (with them),” he said.
Willis’ first instrument wasn’t piano, it was his voice.
Yet, even though people at school, at home and at church were telling him to pursue music, Willis was hard to convince.
It wasn’t until his entrance exam for New York’s High School of Music and Arts did Willis think he might actually have some talent.
Piano would take some time. His brother introduced him to the piano in the home, but he didn’t take it seriously until high school.
“I friend of mine came over and played a Miles Davis record for me and it changed my life,” Willis, 70, said during a telephone interview from his Baltimore home. “I had never heard anyone play music like that before.”
He enjoys the piano, because it’s “an extension of the human voice, like any instrument can be.”
Before he graduated high school, Willis was already playing gigs in the area. After high school, he went to the Manhattan School of Music, where he continued to flourish. And jazz was calling. He said he was fascinated by the lifestyle of jazz.
“But I didn’t gravitate to it because I was still living at home and my parents wouldn’t tolerate such things,” he said with a laugh. “But I was very much intrigued by the beard wearing, sunglass wearing, stylish dressing and hip talking of jazz music.”
It was something, he said, that was different from his staunchly religious home in Harlem. But the antiestablishment attitude of jazz was aside from the music, he said, because “the music always came first.”
During his time at Manhattan School of Music, he met a student who would become another jazz legend — Herbie Hancock.
He said Hancock was “very encouraging and very influential.” He said Hancock helped him to shape the way he thought about jazz.
It might be one reason why Willis has played many kinds of music other than just jazz.
“To quote Duke Ellington, ‘There are only two kinds of music as far as I’m concerned: good and bad,’” Willis said.
He credits one of his former teachers, pianist John Mehegan, for helping him with his path.
“He introduced me with this word that I still keep at the forefront of my thinking for a lot of things, but music in particular,” Willis said, “and that word is ‘eclectic.’”
It’s a word he’s taken to heart about his other interests such as cooking (his specialty is cioppino), sports (he’s been an avid LA Dodgers fan since the team’s Brooklyn days) and writing (he’s getting help with his autobiography from another friend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
But music is a passion that can be counted in frequent flyer miles. He’s been spending a lot of time on the road, including two trips in March to South Africa. And he just returned from a 10-day tour in Spain. And he’s continuing to write new material and record.
Willis’ message to the next generation of musicians is simple: Learn about what life can teach.
“What I tell young musicians is that it’s music and life, period,” he said. “(Music) is about (music) and not about you. It was here before you got here. It’s here now. And it’s going to be here after you’re gone, so you might as well learn from it, because it might teach you something you didn’t know.”
If you go ...
WHAT: Don Redman Heritage Awards and Concert
WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 25
WHERE: Lawn behind the Mather Training Center, on the former Storer College campus in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
CONTACT: Call 304-535-6029