Updated: Apr 17, 2021
Jalen Baker – remember that name. Jalen is a young vibraphonist, he’s in fact still in school earning his master’s in music at Florida State University. He is also out and about gigging. I caught him at The Jazz Corner in February with the Ulysses Owens, Jr. Quartet. Owens himself is someone you want to know. The two-time Grammy winner is a percussionist Critical Jazz has called “a legitimate jazz triple threat,” who was a member of Christian McBride’s Trio, Big Band, played with Kurt Elling and other luminaries and whose involvement in special projects and community engagement has brought out the composer, musical director, educator and producer in him. The other members of the band were Liston Gregory III on piano, Philip Norris on bass, with special guest vocalist Kaiya Cash, all remarkable soloists and team players.
We had made reservations for six that night knowing Owens would be fronting his band. We’d seen/heard him on a jazz cruise a few years earlier with McBride and were so impressed with him that we were anxious to hear him again and introduce our friends to him. But when we got to the club and saw the vibraphone set up on stage, I was even more enthused.
So it was Baker I focused on, a fiery and passionate vibraphonist who so much resembles a youthful Hamp that I couldn’t help but call him a “young lion…el.” Whether it was the music of Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington or Grover Washington Jr., Baker was on it, playing the vibes like he was boxing with the instrument. At times it was a playful sparring session, each feeling the other out. At other times it was a full-on match of equals, that is, until Baker declared his dominance and the vibes knew to surrender. For a Valentine’s themed performance with the final tune “My Funny Valentine,” love conquered.
I’m excited to be writing something for my dear friend Gloria and her new website! We have something in common and that’s we both love the vibraphone. I’ve been playing it for about 40 plus years now and have my dedicated my life to it. I’ve practiced most days during those 40 years. I thought it might be nice to write a sort of vibe primer to get us all on the same page with the instrument. Here are some things to keep in mind about the vibraphone. First of all it’s a vibraphone, not a xylophone! So many people have come up and said to me, “nice xylophone.” For a vibe player it’s pretty upsetting. We always have to bite our tongues and not start yelling. I used to correct people but at my age now I don’t say anything. But I do think of a couple choice words and just say thank you. Just so you know, the vibraphone has metal bars, the marimba and xylophone have wooden bars. Check the bars, if they’re metal then it’s a vibraphone! My instrument is made by a company called Malletech, the first in about 40 years to make significant improvements in its sound, portability and look. The instrument will be celebrating its 100th birthday in 2021, so it’s relatively new when you think about the piano and guitar! The balifon is a much older instrument that has been played in Africa since the 12th century. From it the marimba evolved. The earliest vibraphones were called steel marimbaphones and didn’t have a pedal to sustain or shorten notes. All vibraphones have pedals now. The early name for the true vibraphone was Vibraharp. However, it was trademarked by one of the early manufacturers of the instrument, Deagan, and therefore, the name couldn’t be used by other manufacturers. Vibraphone became the accepted name for the instrument. Everyone credits Lionel Hampton for being the first to play the instrument but he was not. The first to play and record with the vibraphone is credited to Louis Frank Chiha. Lionel certainly brought the instrument into the limelight! Another early player was Adrian Rollini. He was a fabulous musician and played several instruments. Listen to him here. https://youtu.be/wdNzCNQmGG0. Although most people give Gary Burton credit for being an early player holding four mallets, here is Adrian holding four in around 1948. There were plenty of people holding four mallets on marimbas and vibraphones in the early days. Gary Burton, however, really developed four-mallet playing in a way that is pretty much unmatched today. He has paved the way for us but he was far ahead (he’s retired now). Check out this video: https://youtu.be/rHR3F7vp1uc. I consider it the finest four-mallet playing ever and IMHO no one has matched this level of four-mallet playing since. This was recorded in the ‘60s! If you’re a jazz fan then you know of Charlie Parker, that he was a leading figure in the development of bebop. Well, Milt took Charlie Parker’s sax playing and moved it to the vibraphone and became a jazz vibraphone legend. Here’s a great video of Milt playing Thelonious Monk’s composition “Round Midnight.” Milt was a singer so he brought a sort of vocal approach to the instrument. Milt is definitely a vibe player you should know about! Another great bebop player is Terry Gibbs. He followed Lionel Hampton in the Benny Goodman Big Band. Terry is a ball of fire and an incredible player. Here is my favorite Terry Gibbs video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8z6fwq4ZSE. He’s playing with an incredible piano player, Terry Pollard. If you watch the whole video you’ll hear Pollard get on the vibraphone and you most likely will be floored. Unfortunately she got out of the music business early on. I imagine it had something to do with being a black woman in the ‘40s surrounded by white men. Bobby Hutcherson came about a little after Milt Jackson and was more of a contemporary with Gary Burton. They were born two years apart. Bobby was a two-mallet player with incredible speed. Here’s a great Bobby Hutcherson video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSPJ96pRTI0. He’s actually playing with Milt Jackson. Listen to Bobby’s solo. Bobby was a really incredible player taking all of Milt Jackson’s contributions and bringing them to the next level. We can’t forget about Cal Tjader. A white American vibe player who got into the whole Latin world! Here’s a video of the song he is most famous for. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rSNqhEWH9M Consider this a simple and incomplete overview of the vibraphone. However, as with all things on the internet, one thing leads to another and if you do a little Googling and Youtube searches all this should lead you to a lot of information on the vibraphone. And don’t forget Gloria Krolak’s radio show where you can listen to a lot of vibe players and build a good list of your favorites!
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
The first annual Jazz Vibes Showcase at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina went off like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Forget that it was January and the weather was spring-like. Rich Speer, my co-producer, and I expected four vibes players that Sunday afternoon. We ended up with five. Here’s what happened. Headliners Joe Locke, Tony Miceli, Warren Wolf and David Friedman were signed, sealed and almost delivered when Friedman, at the last minute, realized he couldn’t make the trip from Berlin, his home. The three remaining vibesmen decided they could play the gig as a threesome so we went with it. Meanwhile Anthony Smith, a player from the West Coast and author of Masters of the Vibes, was coming and would give what would have been the fifth workshop on Saturday. Turned out it was the fourth of the day, without David, and a good one it was with Junior Jazz Foundation camper 12-year-old Duncan Ward taking a duo with Smith on “Take On Me.” By then we were set for Sunday with Tony, Warren and Joe. Tony, who is always full of ideas, thought, “Anthony and I play together a lot.” (They’ve even made a CD together, California Here We Come.) “Why don’t I invite him to share my set with me?” We were back up to four.
Saturday night we all went to dinner at the Jazz Corner and were happily surprised to see and hear Chuck Redd, another renowned vibraphone player, playing that weekend, with the Kevin Bales Quartet. An idea percolated upwards, let’s invite Redd to play in the finale, “Bags’ Groove” written by none other than legendary vibist Milt Jackson whose nickname was Bags. Redd was more than happy to share the finale spotlight with his colleagues. And then there were five. To the enjoyment of a very enthusiastic audience.
Photo by Lauren Vogel Weiss for Rhythm! Scene