Lafayette Gilchrist was 17 years old when he touched a piano for the first time. He now realizes that this is rather late for someone who would go on to become a successful pianist, composer, bandleader and recording artist. But at the time, the mere thought of making music professionally, much less pursuing a life in it, hadn’t even entered his mind. He’d enlisted in an English class leading up to his freshman year at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (his mother and stepfather had to convince him to give college a one-year trial run in the first place), and the summer session was hosted in the fine arts building on campus.
“And so one day between classes, I wandered into the recital hall there, and on the stage, under a single stage light, it was a concert Steinway piano — grand piano, nine-footer — and it was left unattended,” he said. “And so I sat down at it, and I stepped on the sustain pedal and just began to play. And I remember liking what I was hearing. It sounded organized to me. I mean, the very first thing I play, I’m like, ‘I like this.’”
He’s told the story to enough journalists by now to realize it sounds like a founding myth. “I don’t know if anybody really believes me, man,” he said. “It really sounds fantastical.” But he also says he took his newfound fascination and free time, and parlayed that into countless hours teaching himself the instrument in UMBC practice rooms, auditing music theory classes and — by the time he graduated with a degree in Africana studies — the start of a long career as a performing artist.
Gilchrist, who will turn 52 next month, grew up in Washington, D.C., but has lived in Baltimore since college. He leads several bands, the most prominent being a nonet with horns called the New Volcanoes. He’s enjoyed a working relationship with the totemic saxophonist David Murray for many years. He’s recorded about 15 albums as a leader, and one of his tracks was used to score the closing sequence of HBO’s The Deuce. (On the presenting side, CapitalBop has booked him multiple times in recent years.) As a stylist, Gilchrist’s most distinctive maneuvers hail from the outer branches of jazz-piano history, whether boogie-woogie left-hand patterns, free improvisation, or asymmetric clusters reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, and they often come with strong rhythmic undercurrents of go-go and hip-hop — the popular musics of his youth in 1980s D.C.
Gilchrist’s new album Dark Matter, out last week, closes a symbolic loop with his career’s beginnings: It was recorded at a solo piano recital in a university concert hall in Baltimore. In advance of that release, we spoke on the phone and had the following conversation, edited and condensed here.
CapitalBop: On the album’s first track, “For the Go-Go,” I hear something that comes out like stride piano — but it strikes me that you might be doing something sneaky with it, maybe working some go-go rhythms into the composition itself. Was that something that you were aiming for at all?
Lafayette Gilchrist: You know, because the piano is the orchestra, as they say, I’m always trying to translate ensemble sounds through the keyboard. In fact, I think ensemble-ly through the keyboard. So yeah, I think it’s pretty much on base. My idea is that if a composition is good, then it should be able to stand up on its own at the piano.
CB: I want to ask you about the title of the song, too. I read that you’re born and raised in D.C. and Prince George’s County.
LG: Primarily Washington D.C. Northeast. We moved briefly, for a few months, to P.G. County, and then we moved back to D.C. I mean, we moved a bunch of places, but it seemed like it was always within D.C.
CB: It strikes me then that you’ve probably experienced go-go music in a way that is kind of dying out. I mean, in a way that a lot of people don’t experience it today.
LG: Well, I always tell people: I was lucky to be in D.C. And all of us that grew up in D.C. in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s were very, very lucky because it was the only, or one of the few, local dance musics where you actually dance to instruments playing in front of you live. That’s like an extinct phenomenon now.
CB: Can you tell me about the kinds of settings where you would see go-go music? Was it like you would go to a concert, maybe with your family, or your friends—
LG: Oh, no no no no. We’d sneak out with our friends. They used to have shows at the — I don’t know if the old Washington Coliseum is still there? [It’s now an REI store. —Ed.] It used to be at the Washington Coliseum, there was the Kaywood Theatre. I remember seeing Chuck Brown, E.U., Rare Essence, were all on the bill because it was a week after Sugar Ray Leonard fought Tommy “Hitman” Hearns. I remember Sugar made an appearance at that go-go. The main thing was the Chapter III, the Onyx Club — oh man, you’re taking me back, man.
‘All of us that grew up in D.C. in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s were very, very lucky because [go-go] was … one of the few local dance musics where you actually dance to instruments playing in front of you live. That’s like an extinct phenomenon now.’
CB: So you’d go to these places with your friends — it sounds incredible that you didn’t really touch a piano until you were 17.
LG: Correct. You know, it was strictly a social, party-type scene. I didn’t have any thoughts of playing. But the players, the go-go players, you know, were local heroes. Like Chuck Brown, of course, but then there was Little Benny and the Masters, there was Redds and the Boys. And then, oh man, I remember a drummer [likely Quentin Davidson of Rare Essence], they used to call him Footz. He had, like, a heavy foot on the bass drum. That music was omnipresent, man. If you’d grown up in D.C., it was unavoidable. I don’t know how it is now, because I haven’t lived in D.C. in more than 20 years. In fact, more than 30 years.
CB: It’s a little bit different now.… But back to the first time you touched a piano. That seemed to have started you down a path that you made into a career. When you think back to your experience at UMBC, what stands out about it? I’ve read that you were a junkie for the practice room.
LG: Yeah, that’s the thing that stands out most about UMBC! The practice rooms, and the cleaning staff, and the security staff — because they all had keys to the piano room! I was friends with everybody.
CB: Did you audit classes? Or take them?
LG: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t have enough music background to be a music major. So I audited a couple of composition classes, and I audited the theory classes and kept up as best I could. The main thing with the theory classes was to have an excuse to get the books. So even if I couldn’t keep up with the class, it wasn’t going to cost me, grade-wise, in terms of credits. And I had the books, so I could always follow up. So that was really, really important to me. And by having access to the cleaning staff, whenever somebody would call security on me — you know, black man wandering around in the room — the people that would be called on me was always people I knew! So yeah, that’s how I got over, man. I mean, I would go into the various piano professors’ offices, and I would play their pianos.
CB: You know, it’s unusual these days to have musicians operating at such a high level who are self-taught. Do you feel like that gives you a different point of view, or maybe a different sound, than other folks who you might consider peers?
LG: Yes. Because I didn’t have lessons, and I wasn’t a “childhood prodigy” and that kind of thing, and I didn’t have a musical family. Most of the guys, you know, they started lessons when they were very young, they had musical families — they had families that were, you know, musically interested and supportive. I really didn’t have that going for me so much, although my family — they were encouraging and supportive once they saw that there was something to it. Like, my mother: Once others came to her and said, “Oh, your son’s really talented,” then she started to slowly buy into it. But they were all pretty negative about it when I started.
I had to push uphill. I mean, that’s the short of it. And you know, when you gotta push upstream, that’s automatically gonna make you a little different, ’cause you came by it in a different way. You came by it, quite frankly, in a little bit rougher way, a more painful way. You had episodes of tremendous embarrassment where you get knocked down; you gotta see if you can get back up and try it again. There’s a bunch of that trial and error, loss and gain, getting yelled at, getting shunned not because of anything socially — just ’cause, “Eh, this cat just ain’t good enough.” So I went through a long period of just not being good enough.
CB: Why did you stay in Baltimore after school?
LG: Because I had already started to write and find unique players. And so I took a chance to stay here and try to shape something that would be unique, and that would be personal, and that would be, most important, honest.
CB: One of the musicians who you’re most known for working with — certainly one of the biggest associations — is David Murray. Are you still working in his bands?
LG: Um-hmm. David and I still work together. In fact, we’re going to do a duet next month at this new club in Baltimore, the Keystone Korner.
CB: What do you feel like you learned the most from David Murray?
LG: Man. Now we need a whole ‘nother interview to tell you what I learned from David, man. To make it short, I mean, David already heard what I was doing. He was the one that scooped me up. And you know, I later found out he scooped me up simply because it’s like, “This motherfucker don’t sound like nobody.” And he liked it. And I was trying my best to sound like the rest of the guys so I could get the work, you know, but it just would never come out like that. But he liked the way it came out. And so he took me on.
And I guess the biggest thing he did for me was show me how he did what he did.… Murray has a few standards that he plays, you know, and the standards that he likes is right up my alley, because he likes Ellington, he likes Monk, so that was like my grits and gravy, you know. So we would play stuff like “Chelsea Bridge” or “Let’s Cool One.” But the rest were original compositions of his and original concepts. And so I learned a lot through participating on his various projects and also just watching how he handled music as a leader — you know, how he thought about music. He once told me, he said, “Look, it’s not enough just to have a hip tune. You’ve got to have a hip arrangement.” So he made me think about music both in a personal way, and he made me think about music in an ensemble way.
And I think most importantly, man, he gave me confirmation and encouragement that what I was doing was important. And he made me feel important, you know. That means a lot. Because you can’t do much in this world without confidence and belief.
‘I was trying my best to sound like the rest of the guys so I could get the work, you know, but it just would never come out like that. But [David Murray] liked the way it came out. And so he took me on.’
CB: There’s another guy named David. This guy lives in Baltimore. David Simon [creator of TV series like The Wire and The Deuce, both of which have featured Gilchrist’s music]. You ever met him?
LG: Yeah, I know David! I know David pretty good. I used to teach his son. I’ve known David for years — David gave me a lot of breaks, man.
CB: How did your music end up on The Wire in the first place?
LG: Oh man, that’s a funny story. And I didn’t find out until David told me. But apparently his girlfriend, she heard a spot on NPR that they had done on me, and she was like: “Hey, this guy’s not in The Wire. He got all the honors and stuff.” So it was David’s girlfriend that pulled his coattails and said, “Hey! You need to get this guy.” So David pulled me in. And David would come to the concerts after he found out about me. He’d come to all the New Volcanoes concerts — I’d always see David there.
CB: Did he ask you to remake the song that was on The Wire soundtrack [“Assume The Position”] for The Deuce?
LG: No, he just liked it. He liked it, and decided he wanted to use it. In fact, they just told me they were going to use it again for the third season. … It was a very, very lucky break. I’m very thankful to David. He’s been nothing but a good friend.
CB: Let’s talk about the new record. What was your intention with songs like “Child’s Play,” or “Spontaneous Combustion”? These are songs that you previously recorded. What did you think of in trying to arrange them for solo piano?
LG: Well, I just thought — one, I just enjoy playing them, and two, I thought programmatically, when I was making the record, I thought they probably fit pretty nicely. I mean, with “Child’s Play,” I had already recorded that with lyrics for New Urban World Blues, but I had actually recorded that and released that before the solo [album]. So when the solo came, it was just — I felt like I had something else to say on it, instrumentally, that I didn’t get to pull across on the vocal record. I thought it was worth recording.
CB: And a lot of the rest of this material is new compositions. Why were you inspired to give such a solo show?
LG: Well, every now and then, I just want to strip it all down and present it in its purest form — its purest and most organic form. So I wanted to share with people, if I could, just to get to the inside, if you will, of the compositions. Sometimes you don’t get to open it up quite the same way with an ensemble as you do with just yourself. …
I hope people will enjoy the record. And I hope people will experience the record as a trip. Because that’s really my intention, is to take the listener on a sonic trip that would be interesting and inspiring and pleasant. I hope.
CB: When was this recorded? Was this a concert? I hear an audience.
LG: It was a small little concert at the University of Baltimore, the newly built fine arts facility there. Looks like a small chamber concert. I had a small but enthusiastic audience. So I said well, let’s record this.
CB: It strikes me that it sort of takes you back to your very beginnings, with a fine arts center and a grand piano.
LG: You know, I hadn’t thought about that. Yeah, I guess you’re right.