“Musicians are essential,” a proud sentence written on Mark Adams’s shirt set the tone for the two-hour invigorating conversation I had with him. I asked the pianist about everything from the quarantine, to his musical beginnings, teaching, his favourite records, Tarab, instruments, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock… in what felt like an actual studio visit with him sitting at the piano and treating my ears every now and then to something he just came up with or something he’s working on.
I set out to have an interview with Mark Adams, I ended up having one of the most interesting and refreshing conversations in a really long time, if not ever.
For those of you who don’t know the artist; Mark Adams is a soul-jazz pianist, author, and professor who in addition to his work has worked with musical greats like Roy Ayers, Ron Carter, Ronnie Laws, Hugh Masekela, Bobbi Humphrey, Dave Valentin, Wayne Henderson, and Tap-Dancer Savion Glover; R&B artists Erika Badu, Maysa, Bilal, Jocelyn Brown and DJ Pete Rock.
You’ll get to know more about him throughout this conversation which I kept verbatim and watch him perform in this video
How’s everything going in quarantine?
– It’s going fine, pretty slow. I’ve been doing some shows with my band in New York and I did one show with Roy Ayers in October and that was it. A lot of Jazz clubs are permanently closing due to the pandemic in New York. I spoke to Jazz artists around here and they are all disappointed in what’s happening and it’s hard. There’s nothing, especially in California, there’s definitely nothing out there. We can go to certain stores but for the most part, no clubs. We used to tour all over the world and now everything is closed.
Do you see things getting better?
– Yes! They are getting better. With the vaccination going on, so many clubs are gonna open but so many Jazz clubs have gone under. They’re out of business, all over the country and all over the world.
At what age did you start playing the piano?
– I started playing the piano when I was about 7. My mom started teaching me. Then I started taking lessons with a neighbour who lived next to my grandparents’ house and I got pretty good, so I kept taking lessons. But the funny thing is, music was not what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but when I was really young, I used to play songs like this (*plays a classical high tempo incredible tune*) and I was pretty good! But I didn’t want to play music, I wanted to help animals, but I found my way in high school.
Do you still like animals as much as you did?
*Laughs happily* Yes, I do! But not in the same way that I used to. My father used to tell me, what are you gonna do if you had to deal with this certain animal and I said but I don’t want to deal with this animal, so he said then you don’t want to be a vet. So, I thought about it and said okay, let me deal with the skill I have and I started playing music, and then, came the passion, yeah, it came later.
So, at first you started playing classical music, and then incorporated Jazz in it to create something different?
– Yes! All my life I’ve been playing something like this (*plays another amazing classical tune*). That was my thing, I was playing classical, but what I did, is a thing called Jazzical where I mixed Classical and Jazz. You ever heard “All Things You are,” kris?
Yes! Of course! -Alright check this version out.
(*proceeds to play insane version*)
What age is it too old to play piano?
– It’s never too old! I’ve had students in their 60’s and taking lessons from me, and they did great! It’s never too old, because it’s too important for the soul! I don’t care if you are playing the most complicated or the smallest/easiest song, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb!” It’s never about the level, it’s about the feeling. When you’re playing music, you get a feeling, and it’s a feeling that is unmatched. It’s how the music makes you feel to play it, create it, and make it.
I have two friends, who took lessons from me. At the time they were in their 40’s, one was a doctor and the other a police officer. Both of them used to come by my house to take lessons. The police officer was intimidating with his uniform and gun, but he used to come in, he was a friend of mine. We met in a concert where I was playing and he expressed his love for the piano so I started teaching him. Before his shift, he used to go and play the piano to relax and be in a good mood. While the doctor did the same thing before any major surgery. They played really basic songs but it gave them peace, it changed their whole vibe.
So, anyone can learn to play the piano, but what does it take to create music?
– It doesn’t take anything, Kris. It just takes a heart and a pair of ears. That’s it, for me I hear the melody, I never sit at the piano and be like: now I wanna create a melody. A melody comes to my heart, then I go out there and play it. I never try to force it, you can be in the shower and hear a melody like parapaaaa parapapaa and then, if I sleep and wake up in the morning and still be hearing that melody in my head, it means I gotta write it. I’m gonna share with you two pieces that I composed. I haven’t recorded them yet, but I will and they will be on a future release. (*plays an amazing creation which I can’t wait for to be released*)
What genres are you interested in other than Jazz, disco, funk, soul?
– I like everything, I like everything, Kris. I like Jazz, Funk, Rock, my favourite rock band is Queen, and my other favourite is Black Sabbath. So, I like everything, because music is big. Only in the USA we categorize music so heavily and it’s kind of a shame, cause if the music was categorized back then like it is now, we would have never had Roy Ayers, we would have never had Earth Wind and Fire because the power within the record company would restrict it and be like no you need to sound like this person because this person made this much money, this person sold this many records. So, the industry was really good, then it became fucked up because they started over-categorizing. My friend Ron Carter told me back in the day when I gave them my records to listen to, “I don’t know what to call it, but I like it and we’ll put it out there,” and they just put it out. It was just called black music, they didn’t care about what to call it, it was just good music. As Duke Ellington used to say “it’s good music or bad music and 9 out of 10 times that sentence is subjective.”
Let’s talk Hip-Hop artists; who do you listen to? Who are your favourites?
– I would say The Roots are my first, Arrested Development second, especially their new record! Actually, on my latest record “I forgot to Remember to Forget” there is a hip-hop track called “Fight the Good Fight” featuring Young West and I’m most proud of that record.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Feelings? Sadness, happiness?
– It’s all of that Kris. Music is my relief; it’s how I express my feelings. God often gives me the melody, and if I’m feeling really sad, I draw from that and I title the song accordingly. If I’m happy, I draw from that. So, you’re always in a situation of pull and tug where you draw from your emotions, get inspired by events and you just have to let your mind go and feel whatever you feel. Music is an emotional outcome and that’s how most artists deal with it, they deal with the circumstances. Some artists say, I want to write a song and put shit together but you always draw from your own experiences, from the inside or outside; like an event or someone doing something great or something fucked up and you write about it just like you write a book but only with music.
It’s amazing how music connects people from across the world, it’s like an international language.
– It absolutely is. Between touring with Roy Ayers and touring with my band, I travelled the world and I’ve seen how people live everywhere and how people connect with other people, and how people don’t make skin colour a big deal, and how some people do make skin colour a big deal. I have been all over the world and I remember playing in Tel Aviv with Roy. We played there in the early 2000s and then I played there in the late 2000s and it was a totally different country. When I played there the first time, I had to have a bodyguard around me because you never knew what people would do. It was weird, they were not used to having black people there. However, when I played there later, it was like playing in NY. They loved the music and enjoyed it. Music brings people together; love brings people together. 9 out of 10 times it’s through music. Then I realized that we are brainwashed to think we don’t like people because of their colour, religion… but then when you meet that person, you’re like YOW! They’re cool! What’s wrong? Why did I not like them? Why did I prejudge them?
Do you think this kind of discrimination brought something beautiful to art? I mean we all agree that discrimination is not acceptable but what did it do to the arts?
– Yes, yes, I absolutely think that Kris, people started to realize that they have more in common than not. When we realize that, we feed on that energy, especially when we actually meet the person. Like if someone hears a musician play and say, damn I don’t like that, but an intelligent person would say let me wait and see what he did right. What I do like, lookat the half of the glass that is full, being optimistic, which is kinda trying to be objective as opposed to what we had as a president, Donald Trump. He was a very fucked up president, he was like another Hitler, he wanted things as he wanted or it was bad, and tried to convince people with that.
Do you listen to music in your free time?
– Yes, yes! I have people on Facebook sending me music and I always encourage them!
What was the first record you bought?
– Ohhh okay okay, it was a Joe Sample record “U turn” and then I was at the Berks Jazz festival with my band, that was my first time meeting Joe Sample in person before he passed away. He was such an inspiration and an amazing person, he inspired me. And my inspiration for using the white keyboard I use in the videos (the Roland) was George Duke, check him out and you’ll find some stuff you want to sample. Those were my first two inspirations. I was about 18, and both of my parents were musicians. My father was a classical musician and did not want me to play Jazz, because he didn’t think I can make a living out of it, and I proved this theory wrong. You gotta follow your dreams, I’d rather swing and miss than not to swing at all.
What’s your favorite record?
– Earth, Wind, and Fire, I like everything they did, also not necessarily Jazz; I liked George Clinton, and I was able to do shows with them because I was playing with Roy Ayers, so I got to meet these artists and I was at a very young age. And then, of course, Roy Ayers when he offered that I play with him, I didn’t know who he was but then after I started playing with him for years, I saw his brilliance, and I loved his music! That’s why he loved me and he was like a dad to me, and what he did is draw me to African music. He was impressed that I played classical music, but he wanted me to understand the blackness of the music, the African influence of music.
If you had to choose a record to listen to for the rest of your life. What would it be?
– That’s a hard question Kris! Hmm, it would probably be “That’s The Way the World” by Earth Wind and Fire or a Stevie Wonder song, or “Sweet Tears” by Roy Ayers.
Is there a track out there you wish you had produced?
– Nah because if I tried doing it, it would be different, not as good.
Do you see that the way jazz is being played is evolving?
– Yeah, people like myself, are evolving music. People like Robert Glasper and there are few others, adding the beats of house music, hip-hop music. The only thing that I keep in play is the improvisational aspect of it because that’s black music. As long as u have this aspect, it’s gonna be Jazz or whatever it is but this is the most important aspect that will build new music, improvisation. All music has improvisation in it, Rock and Roll, House has improvisation, there’s a song for Earth Wind and Fire called “Sun Goddess“, DJs have remixed those tracks all the time, and it has improvisation in it. I have a track called “Feel the Groove“, and there’s a house version of it that was remixed by Pao Chohan. It’s very important how genres are being mixed and incorporated for us to evolve.
What’s your opinion on technology in the music industry?
– I am enjoying it! Because now everyone who has some kind of creativity can be involved in it, can express their feelings in music. Creativity is not restricted to music; creativity is when a doctor finds a new way of operating on a patient. With technology, everyone now with creativity has the facilities to create something beautiful. My creativity was music, not veterinarian though that’s what I wanted to do first, and I found my passion then. Finding your passion is the hardest thing on the planet but once you find your passion you have to commit to it, and stay true to yourself. When u find it, you go in and deal with your passion and it doesn’t change, it only evolves. When you listen to music, I feel that all artists have inspiration. Some of it is positive, some of it is negative just like every genre of music. But the one thing that everybody does is music and 90% of them are authentic, but the fact that technology opened up chances to anybody in the world. You don’t have to stay home and wait for a record deal now; I did most of my records with record labels except the last one (“I Forgot to Remember to Forget”), which I released on my own and I’m so proud of it and it was played all over the world. –Yes, in Lebanon as well – Hahahaha, Kris I appreciate that, that’s awesome!
Some DJs say that technology is killing creativity and authenticity as it’s making things easier.
– I played with Pete Rock, and he’s a Dj. He’s a creative person, but the only thing I had to get straight with him is that Djs don’t always get the “Keys,” they have great ears to match the tracks and match samples, because that’s art in itself! Listen to a record from this person and another record for another person and put sh*t together, that’s art, that’s creativity but some Djs don’t hear the Key. If they sample a song on key C and they try to mix it with a track on the key E flat, they won’t sound good together. When I’m playing with a Dj and he’s playing a track on A flat and my music on E I’d tell him to change it so we can match and it’s very easy with the technology. All he has to do is transpose a few steps and we do something beautiful together! So, technology is cool, nothing wrong in the use of technology, if we don’t use it in music, music will go away, it will disappear. We need young people like you all over the world to keep music relevant and alive in the world.
How was it like when I approached you for an interview, from Lebanon?
– I was honoured, I have done interviews all over the world but never Lebanon! To have someone in Lebanon to check me out, that’s an honour.
What are your thoughts on Arabic music like Tarab?
– I love it. Because, you have to understand that though it’s a little bit different, but what got me into it is when I left Roy Ayers for a few years, back in 98, and I toured with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and it was a big band and a very diverse one. We toured with musicians from all over the world, so we got to play together and we had a concert in Turkey and there were all Turkish musicians and they played with their native instruments, it was the most awesome experience I have had, and it got me to check Turkish music and Arabic music and the different instruments and scales! They got the semitone, in Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt… They got a SEMI TONE, they got a note that’s in between the half step (we call it quarter here in Lebanon) – wow! It makes so much sense! John Coltrane, was very much into African, Indian and Arabic music. When you listen closely, you’ll notice that he tried playing those “quarters,” and he was bothered that he couldn’t find it, like the genius he is was not able to find that “quarter.” Western instruments were not built to play those notes, he was the only one to try but he couldn’t find it. I definitely can’t find it on the Piano, it’s hard and it changes the vibe. (Those quarters came from small errors, like the loose strings and stuff like that, it’s amazing how small errors could lead to beautiful things.)
– And that’s what Miles Davis always said. If you listen to any of my records, I do my records live, and my solos live on the spot and I never do a second take, because I believe in what Miles Davis said: “play the spirit of the moment.” So, whatever you play, that’s what you were meant to play, leave it alone. I don’t believe in going back and trying to find that perfect solo, there’s no such thing. Just play the spirit of the moment and the spirit of the music. (Every Solo is a perfect solo). So you gotta live with it and die with it, because that’s what you were feeling. Like if I play and people would be like man what the fuck is Mark Adams playing, what’s wrong with him? The answer should be: I don’t know what is he going through and what he was feeling, but he put it out there on the table. So it’s all about playing your emotions, playing how you feeling at the moment, Hell yeah!*
Can you give us some advice on composing music?
– Let me give you one of the key components to composing music, play your melody, develop your melody. You harmonize your melody or you don’t harmonize your melody, it ain’t no law. It ain’t no rule that says your melody gotta have a chord. Play your melody, put a beat to it, and there you have it. You have everything you need right there. It’s like when you write music, you gotta shut your brain off, you can’t write music, play music, and then contradict yourself and challenge yourself. You can do that but it’s counterproductive! If every 5 mins you’re not happy with what you’re playing, we’re always gonna be our ourselves our own biggest critic. On my various records, I have had records that I’ve done where I didn’t even like the song but I recorded it. Because that’s what I was listening to in my head, and I put it out there. So, when the record comes out, I always skipped these songs when listening to the record. However, I was shocked that some of the tracks that I didn’t necessarily like, people love! And got me radio interviews and some of the tracks were called for during the shows, so I was like awh man! I did a show in New York and played my record “Love and Dance” and there was a song, a funky song, real funky and someone did a remix for this song and I agreed to put it on vinyl and it wasn’t my favourite but it came out cool. So even if you’re not 100% sure of the music you wrote, you wrote it. God put it in your ears, he put it in your soul. You just have to go with it, go with your feeling. It’s so important not to deny your own spirituality, if the melody is in your head, then it’s in your soul, and if it’s in your soul and something that can be displayed, display it! Whether it’s music or any kind of art. We all have it, creativity, we all have it, we just gotta tap into where is it.
Which keyboards do you like to use?
– I have an acoustic-electric piano at home, I like the Nords, Roland keyboards. (Juno?) I used to own a Juno 106, (I love how it sounds!) yow me too! And the thing is, a long time ago, I had a financial problem so I sold it, and they didn’t even give me what it was worth, but I had to sell it. I had one, it was my first synth and I was heartbroken to do it but you do what you have to do especially in societies where there’s discrimination and stuff like that. Hopefully love will bring us back together Kris.
If people from Lebanon are reaching to people from the USA to talk about Jazz; music and love can bring back people together.
– Kris, you know I’m a college professor too, I teach at York College, the most diverse college in New York. We have people from Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel. I have a class where I teach Western/European music. Towards the end of the class, there is a world music section and I love teaching this class especially this section because every student has to do a presentation and come up to the front of the class and talk about their country. They gotta pick an artist and play their music and enlighten everybody about their country, and everyone loves their country and has pride in it. Everyone loved that section because everybody got to appreciate and respect each other. We are not different, we have different beliefs, but we are no different. It ain’t like we’re trying to go to Saturn, we’re all on one earth, we eat, drink, play music… And I had a Palestinian student who had anger in his heart, and students from Israel, and they didn’t know each other’s origins, but at the end of the class, they appreciated each other as humans and each other’s cultures and were like, oh they are not that bad. It’s too bad that we can’t unite because that’s the only way we can defeat global warming.
Please tell everybody, all your listeners this tip. When you’re jamming with someone, make sure they are better than you. Always jam with someone better than you and more experienced than you, because you’re gonna learn more from that than jamming with people on your level. No matter what style, this is not about jazz or a specific genre, it’s about music.
– You wanna hear a story that happened with me and Herbie Hancock? I was touring with Roy Ayers, we had a concert in Switzerland and Germany, and Herbie had concerts there too!
So, I used to have this briefcase that looks like a piano and I loved it and thought I was original with it. So, we saw Herbie in the hotel and he had the same exact bag! We were checking out to move to another city and they were checking in. Roy introduced me to him and I started talking to him, then our car came to take us to the next city and they said that we needed to move, so I grabbed Herbie Hancock’s bag thinking it was mine and left! And when we were on our way to Germany, Herbie’s manager called Roy’s manager and said: Mark Adams has Herbie Hancock’s bag. And then we checked the bag and found some fancy earphones and Herbie Hancock’s stuff! So, Herbie said ‘we’ll go to Germany anyway so I’ll go to your show and catch up there’ and Roy said ‘I’ll have you sit in so he [Herbie] came to the show, we played a couple of songs. He was there and it was great, then Herbie came up on stage to play one particular song, and I felt horrible, I felt like the biggest motherfucker in the world because when he came up on stage, I said ‘Herbie, let me show you the changes.’ He didn’t need me telling him the chords, I’m a lot younger than him! And he said: ‘young boy, pay attention.’ And he was playing the most wicked sh*t on the planet. On Roy’s solo, Herbie was coping his ass off. And when Herbie’s solo came up, I was sitting behind him, he turned his head and he looked at me his entire solo! He played the most amazing shit on earth! When he finished, he looked at me and said: ‘I hope lesson learned.’ And I said ‘Yes sir! Yes sir!’. And we’ve been friends since. I hung out with him in California. After his concert there, I told him I have a question on the diminished scale and he invited me to his hotel room. I went and he gave me the lesson of my life showing me how to formally deal with this scale, and that’s the difference between having a professor who only reads books and a professor who is in the business and can apply.
Herbie and Roy worked together for 4 years, it’s really amazing how previously the scene was small and everybody had mutual respect for each other and loved working with each other.
– And that’s the spirit of the music Kris. If you see Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, they were really good friends, listen to each, compare them. Art Tatum never felt superior to Thelonious Monk. They were both amazing and respected each other. And that’s the spirit of music.
Things will get better, and when they do, I would love to come to Lebanon and play, make it happen Kris.