Discussing Steve Grossman (3): Interview with Gene Perla

From the generation of Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman and Bob Berg, Steve Grossman is frequently thought of as the greatest; he is certainly the most forgotten. And yet his story continues to resonate among his surviving friends and contemporaries.

American bassist, composer and producer Gene Perla has enjoyed a successful career since he moved to New York in 1962, from an infamous musical partnership with Elvin Jones to work with Frank Sinatra, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. He is also the founder of PM Records and the only surviving founding-member of the fusion outfit Stone Alliance. Perla worked as Grossman’s unofficial manager and producer (as well as his go-to bassist) for the best part of a decade and there is perhaps no one who played a more influential role in his career during the ’70s.

This conversation is the third of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.

L: Gene Perla (photo by Richard Stopa) / R: Steve Grossman (photo by Alan Nahigian)

London Jazz News: How did you first meet Steve Grossman?

Gene Perla: I was thinking about that the other day and I don’t really remember, but something tells me that it was probably in a club somewhere. I don’t know if I was playing or he was playing, so I can’t really give you a definitive answer for that. I believe that I met him and we hadn’t played, and then Don Alias, who was my part-time roommate at the time, invited him to come to my loft; Don would stay with me when he was in town. And that’s where things started musically: at that loft. 

LJN: Do you recall your first impressions of him?

GP: Well, I was already impressed about him because he had gotten the gig with Miles Davis at such a young age. So I had to say to myself, what the hell, this kid’s gotta be able to play if he got a gig with Miles; so I was impressed with just that knowledge. I found him to be pleasant enough: He was self-insulated and I think that probably came because of his immense talent. In a way, because of a pressure coming from others, I sensed that he stepped back. But I never found him nasty in those days. He was always quiet and had a good, dry sense of humour, and he was pleasant enough to be around. That’s the beginning… (laughs)

LJN: You convinced Elvin Jones to hire Grossman (as well as Dave Liebman) for his quartet, so the story goes. How did you do that?

GP: When Elvin called me to join his group, the next time I saw Liebman I told him “I’m gonna get you in that band and then I’m gonna get Grossman in there”. That’s what I said to him because Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were good musicians in Elvin’s band at the time, but neither one of them to me was on the same par as Coltrane. I felt that Dave… well certainly he’s proved that, and Grossman had this capability, you know. And because I was close to them, getting them into the band was my goal.

I finally was able to get Elvin to agree. I didn’t have to push him; I just said “this guy Dave Liebman is fun”, and so he said one night, “tell him to come down to Slugs’ [Saloon]”. Dave came down and he got hired. Joe [Farrell] left and I don’t remember the transition exactly; It was probably the same kind of thing. Elvin knew about Steve already because you knew about who was playing with Miles in those days, and so he got in and Frank left. 

LJN: What was it like to be a part of that quartet?

GP: For me it was a thrill to have those two guys in a band with Elvin because they fit. We were all hitting on the same thing and it was just thrilling. It broke my heart to a certain degree when Miles came to the Village Vanguard while we were playing there and stole Liebman; I say stole but, you know, it was all straight above board. That was the end because Liebman went with Miles and Azar Lawrence came in. 

LJN: After Elvin, Grossman went on to release Some Shapes to Come on your label, PM Records. Aside from playing on the record, how involved were you in bringing it about to begin with?

GP: We had been playing with Don Alias almost daily during that time and Jan Hammer was my roommate. So I said “Steve, we should make a record and you be the leader”. But it came about because there was a school in Manhattan called the Institute of Audio Research. So I went there, and the very first night of class when it was done – it was upstairs in this building – on the first floor was a restaurant called Bradley’s, which was a famous place for jazz musicians. So I went downstairs for a drink and I met this fellow Mark “Moogy” Klingman, and we starting talking. He said, “you want a job at a recording studio?” ..I said yes, so for a bunch of months I was there six days a week for no money learning recording. You know who his partner was: Todd Rundgren. So I was there at the studio, and because I wasn’t getting paid I said “you’ve got to let me use the studio”. So that’s how that recording came together.

LJN: Had you been working on the music as a band prior to the record date?

GP: If I remember correctly, there are seven tunes on the album: “WBAI” ..I don’t know if we ever played that tune. Maybe he just made it up in the studio, I have no idea. “Haresah” we had played. I don’t know if we played that with Elvin or not. “Zulu Stomp” is a Don Alias song. And then there’s “Pressure Point”, and that’s Grossman’s tune. I’m sure we played that in jam sessions coz I knew that one. But the other three tunes – “Extemporaneous Combustion”, “Alodian Mode” and “The Sixth Sense” – were all made up right on the spot. That was total improvisation and all four of us were high on LSD for that recording…

Many years later Don Alias was working with David Sanborn and I think at that moment Christian McBride was playing bass with them. They were someplace backstage at a festival and Matthew Garrison was there, Jimmy Garrison’s son. Don Alias told me this story… McBride asks Matthew, “do you know what the bible is?” and Matthew answered him right away: “yeah, it’s Some Shapes to Come” ..Man, if that isn’t an endorsement I don’t know what is.

LJN: In many ways, that was the birth of Stone Alliance…

GP: Absolutely!

LJN: So how did the band actually come about and why did it end up being a chordless trio?

GP: Well, the most time spent in jam sessions at my loft were with Don and Steve. Hammer would be there sometimes, Liebman would come by, Mike Brecker, Randy [Brecker]; a lot of people would come by. But the real core, the most time spent, was just the three of us. And we spent a great deal of time not playing songs so much, but we wanted to really get the time in our blood. So I’d just start playing some tonal centre, and then I’d change it and Steve would hear me and he’d blow on that; you know, just to get the time going. So there was a real synergy between the three of us.

Alias and I were talking one time and I said “maybe we should try and form a group here”. I’ve always been ‘the business guy’ so I come up with the ideas; I came up with the name Stone Alliance also. And so we met at Don’s mother’s apartment in the Bronx and we sat down around the table and, when it was clear that the three of us wanted to do it, at that point Alias said: “Steve, you play the saxophone,” – (laughs) that was his job, that was it – “Gene, you take care of the business” and he says “and I’ll be the leader”. And he was a great leader: He knew how to talk to people, he’d run the show. If we were supposed to start at eight o’clock we’d start at eight o’clock. It was a serious band; serious music, serious business.

Stone Alliance. Photo courtesy of Gene Perla

There are certain things that come by, and sometimes they take hold and other times they don’t: For instance, I was asked to play with Bill Evans and I turned him down. Did I make a mistake? I don’t know; circumstances… Jimi Hendrix heard the record Don and Jan and myself made with flautist Jeremy Steig, and said to the engineer Eddie Kramer “I’m going to England. When I come back I want to make a record with these guys”, and he never came back. Can you imagine that?

LJN: Did Grossman’s drug addiction ever cause you issues?

GP: The deal with Steve was his penchant for drugs and it was always a thorn in both Don’s and my side. I mean, we liked to get high, Don and I, but not to the point where drugs overtake you

So I’m working at the Vanguard with Elvin in 1971, and during the break this fellow comes up to me and he says “would you like to put a group together and come to Chile?” and I said “yes, I’d love to do it”. He said “do you think Elvin would go?” and I said “we can ask him”. One thing led to another and we went to Chile, Steve and Dave and myself. So I had a connection there.

Now it’s 1976 and we form Stone Alliance. I get in touch with the guy, next thing I know is he sets up a fifteen-day tour of Chile. So the three of us go to South America… We left in October of ’76 and we didn’t come home until April of ’77. We made a record in Brazil, we made a record in Argentina, and it was a complete blast. But Grossman, these drugs they cause issues, you know, tension. We came back after he met a woman in Buenos Aires, and I had gigs booked in Central America and I had to cancel them all because he said “I’m not leaving until I marry this girl and bring her back to New York” (laughs).

Finally he comes back and I set up a tour of Europe. At the end of the tour Ronnie Scott’s gave us two weeks, six nights a week. The first week was opposite Joe Henderson, and the second week was opposite Stan Getz, and Grossman didn’t show up. I got in touch with him, he was at this well-known pharmacy in Belgium getting high. He said he didn’t have any money to get to London. Something just went off in my head. I’d just had enough. At that point Don’s girlfriend was Joni Mitchell and she was in London waiting to hear us play. And Joni, she’s got a little money, she says “I’ll rent a jet and we’ll go over and get him”. But I’d had enough and I cancelled the two weeks. It was a long time before I saw Steve again.

I think we were just on the edge, we probably could have signed a major label deal. I think we were just about ready.

LJN: You never considered replacing Grossman?

GP: No, no. We had the music, it was our shit. Nobody was playing any stuff like this.

LJN: How were the drugs affecting him?

GP: It was detrimental. I certainly saw, any of us who were paying attention saw, what it was doing to him over time: He became a nasty son-of-a-bitch to people. I don’t know….he went over the edge.

LJN: Did you have much to do with him after his no-show at Ronnie Scott’s?

GP: I got a call from George Garzone, and he said “there’s this group of jazz whackos in Rome, Italy, and they’re wondering if you and Steve would come and play along with Fransisco Mela”. He said “would you call Grossman?”, so I got in touch with Steve and he said “yeah, okay, I’ll be there”. So I show up in Rome, get into my hotel room. Then the phone rings and it’s him; “hey, come up to my room”. So I go up there….this guy was ridiculously fat, he looked like hell, the bed was broken, there were broken beer bottles on the floor and he’s walking around with nothing on his feet. I said “what the hell’s going on with you?” ..“I’m dying”, that’s what he said. He was so not in control of his body that someone had to help him up on stage. He was drunk. Just a complete mess. He did not play well at all. It was a two-night gig; I fired him for the second night.

Steve Grossman in concert at Jazz en Baies in 2014. Screenshot from Video by Télénantes. Permission sought.

I found out later Steve, on his own volition, checked himself into the hospital the day after. And that was a turning point because a year later I was in Italy and I went by Bologna to see him. He was still a little overweight but there was a tremendous loss of weight and he said “I quit drinking, I haven’t had a drink. I’m done with all these drugs; I am taking methadone because I’m an addict”. He turned his life around.

A year later we did a gig in Switzerland and then I didn’t see him until he came back to the US (in the 2010s). I took him out to lunch one day and he couldn’t have any solid food because he had no teeth; heroine does that shit to you. So I hooked him up with Miles Davis’s dentist and he was having work done. But then he went downhill and they put him in a home somewhere and that was the end.

LJN: What is Steve Grossman’s ultimate legacy in your opinion?

GP: He’s the greatest sax player after John Coltrane. You know I have a recording of Elvin saying that.

Everybody was impressed by him. But I think there was a tremendous amount of jealousy over skin colour: That book The Lighthouse Omnibook; I published that. When I got around to putting it together I called everybody up for a line or something that I could use for promo….not one black guy contributed. To me that’s a sad thing because you just have to look at the great ones. I understand where it’s coming from and they’re not wrong with that. But when it comes to music, man, come on!


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