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For about three decades, Malcolm Pinson has been a fixture on Houston's jazz scene, a keeper of the bebop flame.
"I won't play anything psychedelic," Pinson says. "If it's not straight-ahead, I don't want to hear it. They've been playing [bebop] for 50 years, and how long has classical music been here? They keep playing Beethoven. They keep playing Mozart's music. A lot of guys shy away from it because they can't really feel that. They experiment with something else. Well, if you can't play this here, how are you going to play this other thing?"
For almost a decade he has defended the faith with the Jazz Warriors, the hard-bop sextet he formed with Houston standouts Claudia Burson, David Craig, Algie Jones, Woody Witt and Dennis Dotson. The dangerous unit, given to awesome displays of power, won the '99 Press Critic's Choice Music Award for best jazz group. The horn section may be the best in Houston, and the rhythm section is tight, propelled by Pinson's splashy style.
But Pinson is quick to point out that below his flash lies a grounding in the fundamentals -- a grounding too many young turks lack. "John Coltrane fooled a lot of people," he explains. "He came out of blues and everything else. You listen to Trane's music, he was always telling a story. Even when he was playing outside, he always had a format to what he was playing. That fooled a lot of cats who thought they could just play anything. Some guys are playing fusion -- or 'confusion,' as Jimmy Smith called it -- and other types of music because they lack musical skills. They'll play a vamp all night with no changes in it."
Born and raised in Houston, Pinson started playing alto sax in elementary school but switched to drums because of his asthma. He rapidly absorbed the styles of various drummers, beginning with the ones who performed with the big bands on TV.
In junior high Pinson formed a friendship with saxophonist Billy Harper. The two worked together in rhythm and blues bands but spent their spare time listening to Art Blakey, Charlie Parker and Coltrane records. Both looked to jazz as a future. When Pinson turned 18 he attended Texas Southern University and started playing with saxophonist Arnett Cobb. But Pinson eventually felt he couldn't pursue music, go to school and support his wife, so he dropped out of college and started working at Hughes Tool Company in the mid-'60s. Two years later he was drafted.
His musical skills should have earned him a position with a military band. In fact, he passed the band's audition but was nonetheless assigned to artillery. After arriving in Vietnam, he passed a music test to join the Red Cross Band but was told he was too valuable a gunner to be assigned elsewhere.
Worse, while gunning in Vietnam, Pinson received a letter from his wife telling him that his friends Harper and Lawrence Evans were playing with Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. At that point Pinson knew if he made it out of Vietnam, he would play jazz for a living. When he returned to the States in the late '60s, he gigged with Cobb and Jimmy Ford, slowly building his reputation around Houston.
In 1975 he got one of his biggest breaks when he was reunited with Harper. "Billy Harper came through here with the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones Orchestra," he says. "He said to me, 'Malcolm, if I get a gig going to Europe, do you think you'd be able to make it?' I said, 'Sure.' But I didn't expect anything because guys say something like that and it never materializes. About two months later he told me to get my passport together and be in New York for rehearsal."
A semi-regular member of Harper's band ever since, Pinson has appeared on four of Harper's recordings and has toured Europe, Japan, Australia and the States (usually New York City and L.A.). Like many musicians, Pinson quickly discovered jazz is more accepted and respected outside of the United States. In Japan he was even asked to autograph T-shirts.
Europe is especially good to Pinson. He tours the continent regularly with Harper and Jewell Brown, and already has five festivals lined up for next summer. "Other countries know this is the only art form that Americans have to offer," he says. "They know more about the art form than we do. They study the music just like people over here study the classics. They treat us like they treat the classical players when they come to town here. The hotel we were staying at the last time, the cheapest room was $700."
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