Marc Cary: Life Lessons on the Go-Go


Keyboardist/composer Marc Cary pays tribute to those he learned from.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

In the liner notes to Life Lessons, Marc Cary’s recently released trio recording with bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Diego Joaquin Ramirez, Cary writes: “The songs that have come together on this album serve to describe how we feel about life, the lessons we have gained, and the types of emotions and situations we navigate through as we remain on our journey.”

For Cary, those “life lessons” include growing up in an extended family with a rich musical background, playing his first gigs with bands in Washington, D.C.’s high-energy go-go music scene; moving to New York to play piano with Arthur Taylor, Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove and Abbey Lincoln; recording more than a dozen albums as leader; and, teaching at both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard.

Recently, DownBeat caught up with Cary for an extended interview to discuss the background of his new trio and the Life Lessons recording process — as well as some of the crucial real-life lessons he learned growing up and throughout his musical career.

“The words in the titles of the songs on this album have probably been part of almost every deep conversation I’ve had about music and life,” Cary explained. “I’m still learning life lessons, but there’s a point when you can share them, you know? And say, ‘Hey, man, these songs are 12 of those lessons.’”

The lessons began at home and with other family members. Cary’s mother played cello and violin, and his great-grandmother, Mae York Smith, played piano to accompany silent films.

“She also played four-hand piano with Eubie Blake, but not in concert,” Cary recalled. “A friend of her family was friends with Eubie, and when she came to New York City to study, he was at the house quite often. She was a great pianist, and we were close when I was growing up.

“I can’t remember not being in music back then. I played cello first because of my mother, then my great-grandmother would have me try out other instruments to see what I was best at. I went to trumpet next, then to drums, then to piano.”

As a teenager, Cary became involved in D.C.’s go-go scene as a member of the High Integrity Band and Show, where some of his instrumental choices were made through intense competition for spots in the band.

“In go-go, you climbed the ladder,” he said. “There was always an opening band before the main band took the stage, and the goal was to get in the main band. I remember there was a better trumpet player, so I went to drums. Then there was a better drummer in the band, so I went to keyboards. That’s how I got to the piano.”

By the time he was 16, Cary, caught up in the party lifestyle of the scene, dropped out of high school. But after a decision to focus on piano through studying with Eleanor Oxendine and the influential guidance of fellow musician Daniel Whitt, Cary applied to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Within that program he played with the Dizzy Gillespie Youth Orchestra.

“That was really the conduit into jazz for me,” Cary said. “Being in the Youth Orchestra hooked me up with just about everybody living in jazz. When we celebrated Dizzy Gillespie’s 70th anniversary at Wolf Trap, I got to play with Dizzy and meet a whole list of jazz greats. After that, I began to follow them, and I became really attached to the history of the music.”

But Cary didn’t want to focus solely on playing acoustic piano. In go-go, he became fascinated by the variety and sounds of electronic keyboards, and that interest grew.

“I was listening to Les McCann and George Duke, and they used every keyboard they could [find],” he said. “And Stevie Wonder, of course. So, I was into Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, you name it. I’ve always been into sound textures and the various wave shapes produced by different synthesizers that create them. I remember when I got a sequencer card and put it in a DX7II. That really opened up a new world for me.”

In 1989, Cary moved to New York to try to make his mark on the jazz scene. He sat in at jam sessions, and eventually got gigs subbing for other pianists. One of those gigs led to playing in drummer Art Taylor’s Wailers.

“Someone heard me with the Clifford Jordan Big Band when I was sitting in for Ronnie Matthews,” he said. “He came up and asked me, ‘Has Arthur Taylor heard you?’ I told him I didn’t know, since I’d never had the pleasure of meeting him. He said he was going to call Arthur about me that night. And sure enough, I got a call from Arthur later that same night.

“He asked where I lived, and I said Harlem. I happened to be two blocks from him, so he summoned me to come to his house now. I didn’t have time to prepare and try to figure out what he might call for me to play. I walked in the door and he didn’t say much, and we walked down a long hallway to the drum room. He sat at the drums, I sat at the piano. He called ‘Gingerbread Boy’ and we played one chorus. He stopped and said, ‘You’re in the band.’”

Cary toured with Taylor, played on the album Mr. A.T. and was instructed on how to handle himself as a professional musician. But the most important lesson he learned was how to make his piano style fit seamlessly into the rhythm section.

“Arthur taught me how to be part of a proper rhythm section, which is the foundation of what I do,” Cary said. “Nobody cares about my solos until they find out I’m a good rhythm player. Piano harmony is all about empathy. You’ve got to know what chord to put where. A chord has character and personality, and has a sound that moves the room a certain way. When I realized that, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is one of the biggest parts of the music!’”

When gigs with the Wailers began to drop off, Cary decided it was time to head back home. But on the drive back, he got a call from Tarus Mateen, who was playing bass with Betty Carter at the time.

“Tarus told me, ‘Betty wants to meet you,’” Cary said. “So I dropped the load in my U-Haul at my mom’s house, went to Tower Records and bought as many Betty Carter records as I could find. I put them in the Walkman, came back up the road, did the audition and next thing I knew I was on tour for six weeks of one-nighters with her trio.

“Playing for Betty was demanding. She was about the pureness, the intent of the music and the musicians being 100% involved. You couldn’t sleep on the beat, because she could feel it immediately. She had that kind of vibe.”

In addition to musical lessons, Cary also learned major life lessons from Carter.

“Betty Carter had her own label — BetCar Records,” he said. “So she owned and leased her own music, she booked her own gigs and put out her own press releases. She owned the narrative.

“And that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing now — myself and my wife, Tinku Bhattacharyya. She teaches music entrepreneurship at Manhattan School of Music, and has been working to help older cats like Reggie Workman and Roy Ayers get connected to their royalties and publishing. So that’s a lesson to me, to control your own music, and teach that to young musicians coming up.”

After leaving Carter’s trio, Cary joined Roy Hargrove’s quintet, playing on the group’s albums The Vibe and Of Kindred Souls.

“We had a great sound — a sound that we really developed as a group,” said Cary. “It was such a benefit to be part of that band, and especially to know Roy while he was with us. It’s a great loss for me — and the music. That song of his, “Trust,” is on Life Lessons, and it’s a song I’ll always play.”

After recording several albums as a leader, Cary became the pianist and musical arranger for Abbey Lincoln, and worked with her for 12 years. Like Taylor and Carter, Lincoln had a major impact on Cary. He recorded a solo piano album, For The Love Of Abbey, in 2013 after she passed away in 2010.

“Abbey Lincoln decided she didn’t want to be used, changed her name, cut her hair to wear an afro and talked about society and how to make it better,” Cary said. “Like A.T. and Betty, she left an impression on me. That’s why I included her songs ‘Learning How To Listen’ and ‘And It’s Supposed To Be Love’ on the new album.”

In 2015, with the help of his wife, Cary started the Harlem Sessions project at the Gin Fizz club with the goal of encouraging an ensemble approach to improvisation rather than a focus on solo after solo. In 2018, Harlem Sessions moved to Smoke, where performances were scheduled every Saturday evening. It was during these sessions that Cary put together his new trio with bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Diego Joaquin Ramirez — both young musicians who had studied with Cary.

Ramirez came to the U.S. from Ireland in 2009 to study at Berklee, and met Cary at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in D.C.

“Marc was one of my teachers there,” Ramirez said. “We really connected and wanted to stay in touch. I moved to New York City and started going to the Harlem Sessions, and went to say hello to him after a show with Terri Lyne Carrington. When we met again, he said, ‘Hey, man, you’ve been on my mind. Let’s play.’ And we’ve been playing together ever since.”

Chmielinski was attending Juilliard when he found out that Cary would be teaching a course on improvisation.

“Through the class, Marc would invite students to his jam sessions, and I started going,” he said. “One day he called and said, ‘I’m starting a new trio. We’re going to be at Smoke every Saturday night. Do you want to be part of it with Diego and me?’ And I told him I was so in! I remember from the first time we played, we clicked immediately. And after playing for almost three years at Smoke together, we’ve really honed in on the sound and the repertoire.”

Recognizing the bond the trio built so quickly, Cary knew they would eventually record together.

“I’d been thinking about it for a while,” he said. “After the first six months playing, I knew I wanted to record with them. In fact, we’ve done other recordings, but under the banner of the Harlem Sessions. I finally decided to record as a trio in January 2020. It turned out to be a great decision because of the pandemic.”

The two days of sessions went quickly, and most of the resulting tracks were first takes. Cary also had Rivera and Chmielinski each contribute a song.

“There’s a lot of trust I have with them,” Cary said. “I met each of them in a circumstance where I was the teacher. So there’s that dynamic. But that turned into friendship. Now they’ve become peers — very quickly.”

“Marc is all about an honest approach to the music and being honest to how you feel,” Ramirez said. “Even though we may play a song several times, there’s a different vibe each time. That’s real improvisation.”

“From the first moment we were in the studio, it felt like a beautiful combination of being free and being an individual in a group situation,” Chmielinski added. “It turned out to be a perfect reflection of the vibe we created as a trio at Smoke.”

All three musicians are looking forward to getting back and playing together in person, something they haven’t been able to do since the recording session. And Cary is already thinking of upcoming recording projects.

“I’m cycling through the possibilities, Cary said. “I’m going to start another solo piano recording any day now. This trio needs to record again soon, and the Focus Trio needs a reunion. But my dream is to work on a go-go big band for the spring. I’m doing all the curating now. I keep thinking about playing bebop over the go-go rhythm — because of that go-go tempo. It’s not uptempo, it’s half speed and it’s got that whip on it from the beat, so it would really pop. Oh, my goodness! And the solos would be meaningful — not somebody trying to go through as fast can they can hitting a couple changes. This is going to be grown-up stuff. I’m looking forward to that.” DB

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