Paul Motian, RIP


Yep, there goes another one.

Paul Motian was a fantastic drummer. Most famous for his role in the Bill Evans Trio, played with Keith Jarrett, and probably every other person under the sun.

Once at my first job after school, I was digitizing ancient cassettes for a jazz archive. Interviews with jazz legends, and other obscure characters – Mario Bauza, Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, all sorts. I would work strange hours whenever the studio was vacant, but on this day, I was working a rare daytime shift while the main engineer was out of town. A journalist was doing interviews in a separate studio, and the subjects would occasionally wait on the couch as I worked. I had heard Paul Motian was coming in, I was kind of psyched just to maybe give him a passing hi five.

About an hour before he was supposed to arrive, the doorbell rang. No one else was in the studio, I felt a little uneasy. I was 22, here’s one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Oh Hey! It was a terrible snow storm, late December, he came in wearing giant rainboots. “you never know how long the trains take, I wanted to be on time!” Well, from that moment on, he was kosher with me. Tell that to every friend I have gone to dinner with, if I am not there on time, call the search party.

He sat on the couch and just hung out. Casual as could be. Luckily, I had an easy conversation starter – He knew nearly all of the interview subjects on these rapidly decaying cassettes. He would just come right out with these fantastic stories…
“So Max Roach and Charlie Parker were sitting at Max’s house shooting up, Max’s mom suddenly comes in, so bird ditches the junk and picks up a bible! She goes ‘why can’t you be more like charlie!!”

I asked him about Elvin Jones, who had passed about a year before, they lived up in the same neighborhood. I had just acquired Elvin’s kick drum through his wife, but I was hesitant to say so, so I just mentioned I had met her….
“Keiko! Man, She used to break down his drum kit for him! One time I saw him over in europe and said ‘Elvin! Where can I get a girl like that!?’ ‘You can’t, Man! I got the last one!”

He talked about going to the Half Note one night to see Coltrane, and Elvin hadn’t shown up yet. Apparently, he was in Jail… “So I played with him. I really miss John, he was such a gentle guy” How many people on earth can say a sentence like that? How many could refer to Coltrane as John. Not many.

He saw there was a tape of an interview with Kenny Clarke, one of the originators of the jazz drumming style we all know today. “Hey Steve, how can I get a copy of that?? Kenny was a friend of mine. I’d love to hear him” I burnt an extra, he was so psyched. I have rarely felt cooler than I had that day. I went to see him at the Village Vanguard a few weeks later, and got to talk to him for a sec “Hey, I was just telling Sue Mingus about those interviews! Do you think I could get a copy of that one?? I said, sure, I could mail him one. He wrote his address down in a notebook. I never got to mail it to him, but the address is written in the last page of a rapidly crumpling moleskine. I’ll pull it out of a drawer in 20 years, and feel the jazz greatness emanate from that page.


There was a great piece on him in the NY Times a few years ago, painting a picture of this truly original character. He wouldn’t leave Manhattan in his later years, not even to go to Brooklyn.

The last show I saw Motian perform was at the Vanguard, with Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.  Motian seemed so relaxed behind the kit.  No need to show off, no need for the spotlight, just playing what was absolutely necessary.  One ballad they performed (I have no idea of the name) might have been one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.  So right now, in tribute to Motian, I’m going to imagine this nameless and mysterious ballad as a sendoff.  Let’s all go out and see some live music as a tribute.

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