An Interview with Kraig Greff
by Mat Edelson
Kraig Greff gets Yin-Yang. If it’s musical balance you’re seeking, his beefy butt sits squarely on the talented nexus of crotchety perfectionist and passionate mother-you-know-whater. Blame it all on another balance point: Nature vs. Nurture. Whatever gifts the compository gods gave him blossomed in a boy-in-the-bubble upbringing. Childhood asthma forced Greff to live in a specially air-conditioned room. Add one accordion--don’t laugh, it’s a Teutonic thing--and you’ve got a kid whose idea of fun and escape becomes 10 to 15 hours of daily practice. The asthma lessened. The love of music didn’t.
First paying gig at age 11 (the bar owner looked the other way). First musician’s local card at age 12 (the union looked the other way). A blue-collar mechanic dad who blearily raced across Illinois, delivering his underaged prodigy to all-night gigs (the cops looked the other way. Usually).
Chuck a piano into the kid’s repertoire, add 35 years, and whaddya got? Jazz gigs accompanying some of the genre’s greats, such as Joe Williams and Della Reese. National R & B touring with Barry White. Solo CD’s with top session and touring pros such as percussionist Ron Powell. 200 musical projects scored for TV and film.
Fronting one of Baltimore’s finest jazz trios. Headlining with the East Coast’s fastest rising Zydeco band.
So why isn’t this man happy? Could be because he’s a wise man. Not in the Solomonic sense. More Socratic, as in he knows that he knows not. At 48, Kraig Greff is coming face-to-face with the duality of every true craftsman’s existence: If he lives long enough he might, just might, combine enough practice, talent, knowledge and experience to justify calling himself a pretty good player. But great? Don’t make him laugh. “Don’t use the word ‘great’ around me,” says our favorite crankster. “I reserve it for a very few people. Art Tatum. Oscar Peterson. Ray Charles. All I’m trying to do is raise my standard, my bar a little bit. Let’s work a little harder and get something more out of this. Let’s not settle into the big easy chair of mediocrity and feel real comfortable there as we turn on yet another hour of Ally McBeal.”
You’re not your typical 1950’s midwestern white boy, are you?
No. Between learning classical accordion as a kid, and the gigs, here I was, going to an all-white high school, and I’m listening to classical, R & B and black music.
Where’d you get your hands on that in Rural Illinois? It certainly wasn’t on the radio.
In Springfield. We lived in Virden about 26 miles away. My mom and dad were always going to Springfield, taking me to the hospital to see docs for my asthma. There were tons of record stores. So here I am listening to James Brown and Ray Charles. Then the Monkees came out and everyone is listening to them in my high school and I’m like ‘This is disgusting! How in the world! I’m used to listening to Clyde Stubblefield play drums and now I’m supposed to like Peter Tork! Are you kidding!!’”
Hadn’t you already learned that the masses don’t always appreciate good musicianship?
Uh-huh. You think I’m hardened now? That bitterness started early (laughs). Illinois State Fair Accordion Championships. I’m playing the Pancordion. My teacher and I rehearsed ‘Beautiful Days.’ Very, very difficult piece. I got a 98.5 score. The girl that beat me out got a 99. She just played a real simple tune well. Gave me an insight into the music business real early. I REALLY wanted that trophy. I kept placing second every year with real difficult classical pieces. ‘Korsakoff’s Hungarian Dance Number 6.’ And I was ALWAYS beat out by some fucking idiot with a simple cute little ‘doot-doot-doot’ song which I could have played, but I always thought ‘Why you would you go to a competition and play THAT? And why would it win? Was simple and perfect really better than complex and ALMOST perfect?’ To the judges it was.
Sounds like you had to make a choice early...
You do. Every musician does. Do you want to just seek fame or do you want to woodshed -- that means practice -- and be good? There’s no substitute for woodshedding. I’m hard to bullshit when it comes to music because I know what it takes to do certain things. And when somebody says ‘oh, yeah, I practice all the time,’ and then I hear them play, I’m like ‘oh no you don’t. If you practiced all the time you’d sound like Segovia, who DID practice all the time.’ You don’t sound anything like that.”
When you were young did you think you were good, only to find out otherwise?
Yeah. I was about 20, had played all over the place, and just moved to Arizona to take a jazz gig with some great guys. Playing standards. I completely f---- it up. They said ‘you just DON’T know these tunes.’ They were right. They were much better at playing be-bop and jazz than I was. It was devastating.
How’d you handle it?
Like everyone else. You feel horrible. But that’s when you make your real choices in life. Every musician at one time or another--the real good guys-have had one of those experiences where they’ve had their ass chewed and been humiliated. You either decide, ‘am I going to cry and quit or am I going to go home and really make this my life’s work?’ The guys who really work, the Mike Campbell’s--sax player in Cincinnati who played with Buddy Rich -- don’t really get good, don’t really know how to play until they’ve have that one major humbling experience.
Or more than one...
Sure. But it can move you forward.
Once I decided I really wanted to know how to play jazz I needed a solid foundation. I wanted to study with the best. I’d become friends with Cannonball Adderly’s drummer, Roy McCurdy. McCurdy said the best jazz piano teacher was Hal Galper, who had played with Phil Woods. Roy said to me ‘you’re not going to get along with him, but he really knows his shit.’
He did. You really can’t play modern jazz on the piano unless you’ve got this foundation, this particular chord structure that Hal teaches. I’ve got to give him credit; I’ve seen this structure mentioned in books, but no besides Hal really teaches it.
You grew up on classical accordion, matured on jazz piano, yet you’ve also played in the realms of R&B, pop and Zydeco. Why?
No, not really. Well, maybe some. I just like to keep learning and trying new things. I’m a good jobbing piano player now and I’m proud of that. I pestered Barry White’s manager into giving me an audition.
Gene Page’s string writing. He did all the groups who came out of Philadelphia. Teddy Pendergrass. He was Stevie Wonder’s musical director at the time he died. Page did beautiful string arrangements (for Barry White); a lush sound and a great groove. They gave me an audition in L.A. with five other keyboardists who’d brought their own equipment. I flew in and to use an out of tune Rhodes that was in the corner. But Barry heard me and hired me.
You’ve toured with plenty of stars. Barry White, Diana Ross. A few others. Big deal or not?
You’re not so impressed with their ‘stardom’ after a while. You’re more impressed with their ability. Looking back, some people I played with for the check. Some I would have done it for free: It was a complete learning experience from the way they tied their shoes to the way they approached the microphone. The real fun comes from what Phil Woods, one of the greatest jazz sax players ever to walk to the planet, calls ‘The Hang.’
The hang is all about the time you spend with people before and after the concert. You play the music but that’s quickly fleeting. It’s all about the friendships you make, the travels you take. Having dinner in Paris with someone you like. And all the road stories. Phil’s now 71; he’s probably played more one nighters than anyone alive, so he probably knows what he’s talking about it.
You’ve also spent a lot of time studying composition and music theory. How come?
Practical and personal reasons. If you can write the riffs in your head down on paper, when you come back to read them in a session or practice, you can read that much more effectively. That applies to other people’s charts, too. You see something and you can just snap it right out there. But, if you have to take the time to figure it out, you’re a little slow. None of this is mysterious stuff; it’s just part of the love you have for the craft.
And the personal reason?
I learned early, as a classical pianist, that you’re always playing other people’s work. What if I wanted to play my stuff?
You’ve turned out to be a pretty prolific composer in several genres...
Yeah. I’ve done quite a few CD’s: jazz, holiday music, funk.
Have a favorite?
The one I did with Ron Powell. I met him playing with Barry White. We’ve known each other coming up on twenty-five years. He’s played with everybody and done about every TV show known to man. We did a CD together in 1986. He still lists it at the top of his credentials, above his stuff with Kenny G and Santana, which is really, really nice of him to do.
What about non-CD compositions?
I’ve scored dozens of shows, mostly for the Discovery Channel. I’m working on a score to an indie horror film right now.
Don’t you feel that’s slumming, or selling out, or something like that, given your other credentials?
No. Not in the least. If you’re going to make a living as a musician, you can’t be a luddite. The music business is about change. Piano trios aren’t always going to be popular. Next year, music for films may be in. Or music for computer games. They’re now bigger sellers than film and pop combined. You have to be able to jump into new things. No, it’s not playing with Barry White up on a concert stage, but it’s still music that needs to be done well and sometimes I get to travel to do it. I love travel. I’m going to Yosemite to record some music for a nature photography DVD, which my wife, Jacquie, is creating as part of our video production business. I’ve never been to Yosemite before, so that’s great.
Sounds like variety is the spice of an old man’s life...
I’m 48 now, 49, and this, playing music, is what I do. And I’m good enough now that even if I’m paid a low wage, I can trick other musicians into thinking I’m REALLY good and have fun with them. There is something to the ‘old age and treachery outwits youth and spontaneity’ thing.
It’s hard to grow old when you’re playing Zydeco...
And WHO can be pissed off what they’re listening to the wailings of an accordion! (laughs)
Or opening for Buckwheat Zydeco...
Yeah. As he was going on I told him in the dressing room he looked just like James Brown. Buckwheat liked that...
Is it tough or frustrating playing Zydeco-style accordion in The Crawdaddies after being raised on classical accordion?
No. First off, where else are you going to get good playing accordion gigs at my age? You look at an accordion normally and think ‘what am I going to do with this shit?’ Zydeco has really save accordion in this country. Secondly, don’t ever underestimate any instrument or how it’s played. I did that once with a steel guitar player in Phoenix and he whipped my ass. I went into the session, thinking of myself as an acoustic piano playing nut, and there’s this steel guitar player and I’m making fun of it. Boy, did he give me a lesson. He played a jazz standard, ‘Here’s That Rainy Day,’ on that steel guitar and came up with better changes that I’ll ever, EVER come up with.
Sounds like this is where we came in. Will there ever come a day when you sit at the piano or accordion and say ‘I’ve got this down cold?’
Never. When you say ‘boy, I’ve got this really together,’ that’s when the book closes. It snaps shut. You have to keep your mind open and say ‘I wonder what I’m going to pick up tonight.’ You have to be like a child, keeping your eyes and ears open and constantly fresh. My piano teacher in Phoenix, Keith Greko, said ‘there’s nobody that plays a good solo under the age of forty.’ At the time I was like ‘ya gotta be kidding!’ I later came to find out, listening to guys under forty, you’re not even scratching the surface. Mike Campbell, who I mentioned before, he’s been doing it ten years longer than me. Things that I struggle with now, at 48, he’s 58 and he’s figured them out. He’s smoother. Miles Davis said that (as you get older) you may give up certain raw technical ability, but you get better at the placement of notes. You effectively know where to play and where NOT to play, which is just as important.
So where will you play?
I’d like to do more jazz, composition, and film. I’ve turned into a sounds effect nut. The Crawdaddies -- the band is now a lot more focused than ever before. Everyone is putting what they have into it. That’s what it’s all about. You only grow as a musician when you realize how special the greats are and then you really try to do what you do as well as they do it. You emulate. If you’re a composer, you want to make your lines as fluid and musical as Mozart’s. You don’t want to make your lines as musical as Yanni. That’s nonsense. Emulate the best that’s ever been.
Thank God that he created them to give you something to shoot for.