The vibraphone is a relatively young musical instrument, invented in 1916 when Indianapolis instrument maker Hermann Winterhoff added an electric motor to a steel-barred marimba, producing a pulsing, vibrato effect. The unusual sound caught the ear of several musicians, and in 1930, Lionel Hampton was featured on Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Memories of You,” believed to be the first recorded vibraphone solo.
The instrument’s name was shortened to “vibes” in the common parlance of the music world, and its use, particularly in jazz, grew in the post-World War II era. But it’s still an unusual instrument for a budding young musician to play. So I asked Joe Locke, one of the best of today’s jazz vibists, how he got started.
“I started playing the drums when I was a little boy about seven or eight years old,” he said from his home in New York. “We had a piano in our house and I gravitated to the piano as well. So I was playing rock’n’roll drums and picking melodies out on the piano. I wanted to play melodies but I still thought of myself as a drummer.
“There was an ad in the newspaper for a set of vibes for $200.00, and my mother bought me the vibes. They were just what I was looking for---something I could beat on, but that could make melodies.
“When I got the vibes, I was twelve, and they sat in my room for a year. I didn’t know what to do with them, they just sat there and collected dust. A year later, I was thirteen, I took the dirty clothes off ‘em and the books, and I just started playing them. And I never stopped. It was like that day I fell in love with this instrument that had been sitting in my room for a year!”
Locke, a man filled with enthusiasm for the vibes, jazz, and music in general, is at Old Dominion University for a weeklong residency that culminates in a concert next Monday night with the John Toomey Trio. Born in 1959, he’s like most musicians of his generation, hooked as a youngster on the pop and rock sounds of the day.
“It was funny for me,” he remembers. “I was the baby in the family. I had an older brother and two older sisters, and when I was a little, little kid, I was listening to the Electric Flag and Cream. There was a band called Seatrain, they were all friends of my brother. Harvey Brooks of the Electric Flag and Miles’ band, he used to live on my brother’s farm. And The Band, I used to listen to, and all the stuff that was influential at that time. I was about ten, but I was really entrenched in that music, listening to all that stuff that my older brother and sisters were listening to---Procul Harum, Shine on Brightly.
“I was playing in a rock’n’roll band from the time I was eleven until I was about fourteen, playing drums, and those cats were listening to the advent of metal music, things like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. And David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But what changed it for me was, I was practicing the vibes and studying jazz improvisation, and I remember one Christmas getting a stack of records like John Coltrane, the album Coltrane; Wayne Shorter’s Juju and Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage. Listening to those records and taking this jazz improvisation class and really practicing a lot.
“I brought the vibes to a rehearsal of the rock’n’roll band I was playing with at the time. And I said, ‘Man, I want to play vibes on this one song, and I wrote this tune.’ I tried to play vibes with that band, and no matter how soft they tried to play, it wasn’t soft enough to be able to hear the vibes. And that was kind of a turning point for me. I realized that I was getting deeper into jazz and further away from the rock’n’roll thing.”
Immediately after graduating from high school in Rochester, New York, where his father was a Classics professor at the University of Rochester, he went on the road with local saxophone player Spider Martin, and through that association played concerts with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams and Mongo Santamaria. He moved to New York City in 1981.
“You know what,” he says of that move, “you’re seven hours from New York, and even though you’re in the same state, philosophically it’s lightyears away. Looking back, I guess I possessed the fearlessness of youth. I was young and dumb and just wanted to play, and moved to New York with just a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket.”
Success was hardly instantaneous, but he eventually began racking up credits with folks like Freddy Cole, Kenny Barron, Grover Washington, Jr., Cecil Taylor and Eddie Henderson. And he began recording his own albums, most notably 1994’s Moment to Moment, a tribute to Henry Mancini, and Slander (and Other Love Songs), a powerhouse 1998 outing. The title suite of his 2003 album, 4 Walls of Freedom, was inspired by the writings of the Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton.
“It’s a really interesting thing,” he reflects. “Just like life itself, it’s a slow process of unfolding. One day I realized that I wasn’t looking at the music scene from the outside anymore because I was looking at it from the inside out. That was an interesting realization, and it happened gradually. I certainly didn’t have any master plan. I’m just very fortunate that things opened up and I was able to continue to step deeper into this life of music.”
He’s excited about his week in Norfolk:
“If you look at my schedule, luckily, most of it is performing. I guess, for me, that’s why when I get a chance to do something like this it’s really exciting for me. It’s not business as usual. It’s a breath of fresh air for me, and it’s a treat to work with students. I come to the party with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
“Doing a weeklong residency in one place is an unusual thing for me. I’m a fan of John Toomey’s piano playing. And to go down to a nice area of the country…I’m really looking forward to it.”
copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.