from Ptolemaic Terrascope issues 12 and 13 (1992/3)
1. Don Preston
2. Bunk Gardner
Don Preston - a man whose career with Frank Zappa spanned the period 1966 to 1974 all told, with time off for good behaviour in between, effectively from the LPs 'Absolutely Free' through to 'Roxy & Elsewhere'. Add to that stints with artists as varied as Carla Bley and Nat King Cole, Leo Sayer and Jack Bruce, the Fraternity of Man and The Residents and you have one prime target for the Terrascopic treatment: so without further ado, we'll skip to sunny Los Angeles for the Don Preston interview...
THE AFTER-HOURS BENZEDRINE ARMY (WITHOUT BLISTERS)
I grew up in Detroit, my father was a musician who started out playing saxophone and then switched to trumpet. He was offered the lead trumpet part in the Tommy Dorsey band, settled in Detroit and became the staff arranger for NBC. I had sporadic lessons on the piano from the age of about five, although not from my father. When I joined the Army I was posted over to Trieste in Italy and was stationed in an Army band there along with Herbie Mann and a bunch of other people. I also shared a room with Buzz Gardner, who later became a Mother - he was Bunk Gardner's brother. Still is, as a matter of fact. I suppose it was about 1951 when I started playing bass; I was over in Italy and I had these Benzedrine inhalers - I'll never forget it, they were extremely strong and I sort of did one of those and walked the eight miles into town. Went into this club where a group was playing... there was a bass stood in the corner with nobody playing it so I jumped up on the stand and started to play, which I'd never done before in my life. I played for, like, six hours and then walked the eight miles back to my barracks. Never did get a blister. So I suppose my first band was the 98th Army Band, within which we formed small groups so we could jam and play jobs around Trieste. Herbie Mann was very helpful when I first started playing; I didn't even know what a bridge was, and after I learned what a bridge was I promptly forgot them a number of times... When I went back to Detroit I started playing with people like Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones, played with Elvin for about a year in an after-hours club and then moved to Los Angeles and started playing bass around here.
FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MICROSCOPIC IMPROVISATION REHEARSAL
One day around 1962 or '63, I don't remember exactly when, I received a call from Frank Zappa. He had an audition at a club in Santa Anna and he needed a keyboard player - it was typical of the organ/tenor sax/guitar trios that were popular at the time. So I went over to Zappa's house and we played the audition and... didn't get the job. We actually played 'Oh No' at the audition, which I thought was kind of bizarre because it wasn't that kind of a club. During the rehearsals though I happened to browse through Zappa's record collection and saw that he liked a lot of the same composers as I did, that we had similar musical tastes. Several months after that I was having these open free sessions where we would improvise to films of microscopic life and other art films that I would get out of the library. I invited Zappa to come and play in this band, and we jammed for a while. Zappa liked a lot of it and was actually in the process of starting to make films himself, so we would use some of his films to improvise on. During about late 1965, I hadn't seen Zappa for year and a half or so and he suddenly turned up at my house looking just the way he did on those early Mothers albums, which was kind of shocking to me because I hadn't seen a lot of long hair at that time. I didn't know who it was at first. He started telling me about this band he had, telling me that they were touring a little bit, and I asked if I could audition for them - which I did, but he just said "sorry, Don - but you don't know anything about rock & roll so you can't be in the band right now..." - which was true. Right after that I started getting work in rock bands though, even went to Hawaii with one band called The Forerunners and so a year or so later I asked again to audition for Zappa's band, went down and did it and got the job.
THE $200 MANNEQUIN VEGETABLE DRESSES
I remember that we recorded 'Absolutely Free' at TTG Studios on a four-track, I'm pretty sure that's what it was. I certainly remember that it took an unbelievable amount of takes - every eight bars we would do about 28 takes, because there would always be something wrong. Sure, the whole band was playing live and since about half the band couldn't read music and we were playing rom memory, there would be a lot of mistakes made. We would just keep going over and over stuff. Since you only have four tracks, you have to kind of play it live. 'We're Only In It For The Money' - I think that was done at Apostolic Studios in New York, and one of the interesting things I remember about that is doing the album cover. We all had to wear dresses; my dress was I think $200 which at the time was quite a large amount of money for a dress. They were all like that, and the set itself was quite incredible, all these mannequins and vegetables that you can see on the sleeve - it was really amazing. I don't remember much about the recording of that album, but... it came out and sounded pretty good.
THE SIGHT READERS WHO DIDN'T GET LAID
[In late 1970, a 'personnel shake-up' led to the departure of Ray Collins, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Art Tripp]. To explain how that original band broke up is really hard. There are many, many reasons... I think Zappa was dissatisfied with some of the performances of the band, the limited nature of some of the people like Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black who couldn't read music - they did play some very complicated stuff, but it just wasn't complicated enough. Zappa wanted the very best sight-readers in the world to read his music, and unfortunately when he got these great sight readers they had absolutely no personality, which is why the band sounded the way it did after that. That's certainly why it looked the way it did, anyhow. But, who knows what the real reason was in the end? Maybe some of the band were getting laid more than Zappa - I really don't know. But, it was a big shock to all of us, it was like when you've been married ten years and all of a sudden your wife leaves you. It was the same feeling, because we were all of us very close and we'd been doing this for quite a while and... it was just a big shock. Some of the guys in the band were so hurt that they never spoke to Zappa again, other than legally anyway. Myself and Ian Underwood appeared in the next two bands, although after a certain point I just couldn't take any more and I left.
EQUIPMENT FIRES AND FIRED AGAIN
The 1971 band was of course put together with Aynsley Dunbar [drums], George Duke [keyboards] and Jeff Simmons [bass] plus a couple of Turtles [Mark Volman and Howard Kavlan, who together recorded 'Chunga's Revenge']. I was asked by Zappa to be in the band after 'Live At The Fillmore East', because some of the guys in the band didn't like the then-current piano player [Bob Harris]. So I joined the band and we did a lot of touring and everything for about a year, then at Montreaux there was a fire and all our equipment got burned and a week later [December 1971] Zappa got thrown into the orchestra pit at the London Rainbow and that was the end of that band. But for some reason, and I'm not sure what it was, Zappa never contacted anyone. He never really said "you're fired" or anything, he just never got in touch. He then got another band together with George Duke, the Fowler Brothers [Tom and Bruce] and Ruth and Ian Underwood - and I went on tour with them throughout the United States, also did the album 'Live At The Roxy' with that band. That was the last time I was in the band, I finally had a falling out with Zappa and couldn't do any more.
THE RAW BLACK MILK GERONIMO GRANDMOTHER
I don't know that I ever worked with Geronimo Black [the 1972 band put together by Jimmy Carl Black with Tjay Cantrelli, Bunk Gardner and Ray Collins amongst others], I recorded with them and might have appeared once or twice but that was just about all I did, until I started this band The Grandmothers that is with Jimmy and Bunk. We did several tours of Europe and I don't know if it was successful or not, but we sure had a lot of fun and it was really good to see that there were still fans over in Europe who wanted to see that band. I thought we played some good music. I formed a number of bands after that which were all kind of jazz-rock groups - Raw Milk, Loose Connection and Ogo Moto for example. I still had ties with Zappa in those bands, they were all sort of offshoots of what Zappa was into. Eventually I finally got it all out of my system and went back to my own roots which were jazz of course, and started recording with John Carter, Carla Bley ['Escalator Over The Hill'], Gil Evans ['Where Flamingoes Fly'], the Residents ['Eskimo'] and a whole bunch of people. I also toured with Al Jarreau and with Lou Rawles, and somewhere between there I toured with Leo Sayer for three years as his musical director. The thing with John Carter was the most exciting for me, I recorded four albums and he was one of the most phenomenal musicians I've ever worked for - totally brilliant, and a great person too. Over the last few years I've been performing with my own group, either a trio or a quartet, mostly playing the West Coast although I also did a jazz festival in Finland. I've yet to get a recording deal - but I'm working on it. Playing with Ant Bee is very exciting and I look forward to doing more stuff, I think we could do real well together and if it happens it would be great. You should ask me some questions about my philosophy about music, like I think you have to push the limits of any artform and music is one of the major elements that progresses humanity. Art is the impetus for all the other technologies of life...
Written, produced and directed by Phil McMullen, Autumn 1992
Woodwind player John Leon 'Bunk' Gardner blew his way through such accepted late 60s works of art as 'Absolutely Free', 'We're Only In It For The Money', 'Uncle Meat', 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' and went on to work with the likes of Tim Buckley, Little Richard, Van Morrison and dozens more besides. A charming and fascinating man as you'll see, and we are indebted to him for taking the time to talk to us.
Bunk, how did it all start for you? We're always intrigued about how people first came to be involved in music, and since your story is almost bound to be different from the usual "I discovered Elvis and then the Beatles happened", I'd really like to take you right back...
Let's see, now. I started piano lessons when I was five or six years old. The lessons were right down the same block, West 95th Street in Cleveland, Ohio and my piano teacher's name was Elmira Snodgrass [savours the name for a few moments...] - she was cute. She used to give me little stickers when I played a good lesson. I took lessons from Elmira for at least two or three years, and then went on and took lessons from a couple more teachers - I guess in all I had five or six years of piano lessons, right up until I started junior high school. Incidentally, I still play the piano here at home, and I'm currently giving both my daughters lessons. As for my earliest musical influences, well I guess having an older brother certainly helped, for at a very early age I was listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis and all the young jazz greats. At the same time I loved classical music so I was hearing Stravinsky, Bartok, Beethoven and a lot of contemporary classical music. It all had a slight influence on me. Rock and Roll didn't have too much appeal at all.
When I was in elementary school, at the age of around seven or eight, they came round the class and asked what instrument you wanted to play. My brother [Charles 'Buzz' Gardner] was already playing trumpet so I said I'd play clarinet - I remember taking lessons while I was still learning piano. At that time, everyone who played clarinet eventually played saxophone, and later on when I went to high school I too started playing tenor saxophone. I had my own band in high school, my brother was on trumpet - we played Stan Kenton arrangements as I remember. I started playing bassoon as well, whilst still in high school I played professionally in the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. Right after school the Korean war was on and I went straight into Army service by taking an audition on bassoon and going down to Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Did you meet Don Preston in the Army?
No, Don and my brother were in the Army together in Trieste, Italy in 1950. When I got out in 1955 or '56 my brother and I went to music school and in the late 1950s we decided to move to Los Angeles and start our own careers there. We met Don again in 1960 or so and we started to do some musical things together.
Had you done any recordings prior to this time?
Yeah, sometime in the late 1950s - a thing called 'Themes From The Hip' on the Roulette label, it was kind of jazzy versions of TV themes of the day; the theme from 'Gunsmoke', 'Wagon Train', 'Lone Ranger', 'Colt 45' - that kind of thing. I was featured on quite a few numbers, playing flute and tenor saxophone.
How did you come to meet Frank Zappa?
Don Preston had a projector set up in his garage and we would improvise on our instruments to the various collages he flashed up there. Frank made an appearance at one of those sessions. He brought his own music of course - it was a no-holds-barred, do whatever you want to kind of set up, and from those sessions quite a few things evolved. I remember Don showing Frank how you could get quite a lot of different tones out of a bicycle wheel by putting differing tensions on the spokes and playing it with drumsticks. And I can vividly remember going down to one of the TV stations to audition for a talent contest - my brother and myself, Don, Frank and a couple of other guys, we auditioned down there doing all these weird things for the people. They couldn't believe our band, I can remember seeing them calling everyone in to watch and hear us. Certainly we were dressed a little bizarre... Frank was blowing through bicycle handlebars, getting all these weird harmonies and banging on bicycle spokes... that was one of our first encounters with the public. We did quite a few other things together, but then Frank moved to Cucamonga and started his own little band with Ray Collins and Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada - it wasn't long after that that he started The Mothers and recorded 'Freak Out'.
So you and Don weren't in the band for that first album?
No, right after that I can remember going to Frank's house and spending just about the whole day taking an audition for him. He kept hauling out music for me to play..."play this", "how fast can you play this?" - I played my saxophone and soprano, I played my clarinet, I played my flute, my alto flute, my bass clarinet and I played piano, it was just one thing after another. At one point he said well, we've got some dates coming up and might be touring, do you want to join the band? This would be late 1965, early 1966. We started right away by recording 'Absolutely Free'.
And it was soon afterwards that 'Lumpy Gravy' was recorded - what was the idea behind that? I've read somewhere that it was a collection of outtakes from 'Freak Out', which I assume is wrong?
It certainly wasn't that. I think Frank wanted something classical, almost a ballet or something because it was very difficult music to play. All the great studio jazz players were on that date, along with a lot of the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and believe me, they were on the edge of their chairs trying to play the stuff that Frank had written. It was in the Capitol Records studio right on Vine Street. Soon afterwards we all moved to New York, because it was easier to work out of New York than Los Angeles. As for 'Cruisin' With Ruben And The Jets' - I remember that while we were recording that we were putting together some parts of 'Uncle Meat' at the same time, and just finishing 'We're Only In It For The Money'. 'Uncle Meat' took at least 6 months, whereas 'Ruben' only took 2 to 3 weeks.
That original band broke up completely in 1970 - what happened?
I believe Frank decided that he wanted to go in another direction. I think he was just tired of the band, certainly we were criticised many, many times about how badly we played his music. He was very unhappy with certain members of the band. He probably thought it would be less of a drain financially as well, because at that point we were making a salary of $250 a week and I think that was just too much of a drain on him. But, it was his doing and there wasn't much we could do about it. Everybody went their own way - I certainly played with a lot of different bands around that time.
Soon afterwards though, you joined Jimmy Carl Black in his band Geronimo Black.
That's right, we had got a recording contract with Universal to make our first album, but they wouldn't subsidise us to go out on the road - so we had to do it ourselves, and it was very difficult. It only lasted a couple of years, and we all went in different directions again. Jimmy moved back to Texas.
Who was Domenic Troiano, who came into the story around this point?
Ah, Domenic. Domenic was a very, very fine guitar player from Canada who I met while I was recording the Geronimo Black album here in Los Angeles. He was at that time recording his own album. We played together quite a bit, and he asked me to get a horn section together and write the arrangements for his album. Which I did. I got my brother on trumpet, I got Tjay Cantrelli [of Love] and a few other friends and we recorded his album, which I liked very much. Domenic later went on to become the lead guitarist of the James Gang, but I think he liked having his own group most of the time. He certainly was a great guitar player.
How did you come to meet up with Tim Buckley?
I had a friend, John Balkin, who had been playing bass with Tim Buckley. We had our own band, Menage A Trois, that Tim had heard tapes of and he liked what we were doing - so we started playing with Tim. It lasted a couple of years and was really enjoyable. Tim had a tremendous voice I thought. He'd always loved jazz, admired Miles Davis, and he wanted to get a little more jazz into his folksy approach but at the same time remain contemporary and maybe even a little avant garde. I thought we filled that very well, and it was a great shame that Tim died at such an early age.
A completely different character to Frank Zappa...
Working with Frank and working with Tim was like night and day. I could relate on a personal level with Tim Buckley, I have a very warm spot in my heart for Tim, but with Frank it was a completely different story. He was never interested in you personally, everything focused on him. He was a difficult taskmaster - nobody's perfect, so it was difficult for some people to meet his demands. Since I was musically trained I had an easier time than some of the other members. He could never find it in himself to say 'good job' or express some warmth, because his normal reaction would be to criticise something first and if there was anything left he might just admit that we had played well. So it was difficult to like Frank.
You've continued working with Don Preston and other members of the former Mothers though, right up to the present day. Well, on and off anyway.
That's right, for a couple of years Don and I did a lot of private parties as 'Bunk & Don' - when we weren't doing that we played contemporary avant garde jazz at local theatres and art galleries as well as a bit of recording for movie soundtracks. Right now I'm still playing jazz with my brother in The Hollywood Allstars at a club called 'Legends Of Hollywood' - Don was also part of that for a while. There was also a kids' TV series that Flo & Eddie wrote called 'Strawberry Shortcake', I did most of the woodwinds for that. Then there was the Grandmothers band: Don Preston on keyboards, myself on woodwinds, Tom Fowler on bass, Jim Black on drums, Walt Fohekr on trumpet and keyboards, Tony Duran and later Denny Walleye on guitar. A natural progression of Mothers of Invention to Grandmothers was brought about by Don and myself and Jim deciding to play some of Frank Zappa's music and mostly recording and playing our own music in 1980. We toured California and Europe playing contemporary and avant-garde, plus satire and humour that was very offensive to Frank Zappa, but we didn't care if he liked what we were doing or not...
You've also worked with some very, very famous rock musicians along the way...
I played with Little Richard, did the Dick Clark show with him at a 20th Anniversary show. And Del Shannon, and Van Morrison in New York...
And now you're recording with Billy James in Ant Bee, which is about as contemporary as you can get - how do you feel about that?
I've really enjoyed working with Billy James, I'm not that familiar with his music but I'm certainly excited about it, and I'd love to tour Europe again. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.
Written, produced & directed by Phil McMullen, August 1992. Many thanks to Billy James.