Since becoming a fulltime member of the Levon Helm Band and moving to Woodstock, singer/songwriter, saxophonist and flute player Jay Collins has become a familiar local artist. But the well-respected musician, who married Helm’s daughter Amy and is father to their two young boys, lived a colorful life before he arrived in the Hudson Valley, from his origins in Portland, Oregon to his years in New York City and touring the world with Gregg Allman. He still plays and tours with Allman, as well as with The Dukes of September (Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs.) Collins and his Kings County Band will play songs from their latest CD, Rivers, Blues and Other People, Collins’ previous records and a few that haven’t yet been recorded, at The Falcon on February 9. Recently Collins sat down to talk about life and music with ROLL’s Kay Cordtz.
When did you get interested in music?
The first musical thing I was into was street dancing. When I was 14 or 15, I was a break dancer for Pepsi-Cola in Portland. It was right about when those movies about break dancing in New York like Beat Street and Breakin’ came out. And there was a bunch of us on the west coast trying to do that too. I was in a group that did shows at shopping malls every Saturday and Sunday. We got paid and we had a DJ and uniforms that Pepsi gave us.
When did you first learn to play an instrument?
My first instrument was alto, then tenor sax when I was 12, but I didn’t care about that much at the time. It was just something I was doing in school. Then after about two years, the street dancing thing kind of petered out. At that point it was in every commercial — it was everywhere — and after a while nobody wanted to see it or do it anymore. So when that kind of ended, I still had the saxophone and I started getting into that. I couldn’t really read music too good so I used to play by ear a lot.
What kind of music did you like?
My stepdad had a record called Jazz at the Philharmonic: Bird and Pres – Charlie Parker and Lester Young — and I loved that. I went to the library and got every Bird and every Lester Young record I could find. I would tape them and listen to them all the time. Then I found a book of Charlie Parker solos written out called The Charlie Parker Omnibook. I didn’t know what I was doing but I would listen to the record and I’d look at the notes and figure out how it was supposed to sound and I would play along. So I learned all these bebop licks but I didn’t know where they went or what they were related to, I was just playing them.
How did you finally learn?
The City of Portland funded a summer youth jazz big band that was composed of kids from all the schools in the Portland area and you had to audition to be in it. In the summer of my junior year in high school, I went to the audition and they had us reading Ellington and Basie music charts and I just couldn’t read them. Within one bar, I would be lost. All the other kids had been doing this program for a while and they could all read. So I was getting really discouraged and then on a Basie tune, I think it was, they said ‘On this one, everybody’s going to stand up and take a solo.’ So I got up and started playing those Charlie Parker licks, probably in the wrong key and all over the place, but it impressed them. They were like ‘wow, this kid can’t read but he can really play the horn.’ The teachers were getting paid by the city to run the program but they taught at another high school across town from the one I went to. So in my senior year of high school, I switched to another school, which was really quite traumatic. But I wanted to play and I thought it was the right thing and it was. What those guys taught me is still the basis for most of what I know. I got a scholarship to a small college and I went for one year, but they were showing me stuff I already knew. So I dropped out. I wanted to stay out all night playing gigs and I wanted to stay home in the day and practice. I didn’t want to teach or anything like that, I just wanted to play.
How did you launch your career?
I was starting to do gigs as a professional already with older musicians in Portland. At that time, it was a really great scene for jazz and blues. There were tons of gigs and lots of musicians making a living. I was working four or five gigs a week as a 19-year-old kid. I had moved into a dilapidated old shack of a house with some other musicians and all we did was play morning noon and night, smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot and whatever, but I really worked out on music all the time. I got to play with a lot of great people in Portland – less well-known jazz figures like Leroy Vinnegar, who was on hundreds of records with people like Chet Baker, Ben Webster, and Hampton Hawes.
Did you have a mentor?
Ron Steen, a drummer who played with Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, hired me to play in his band. He was really strict with me. He made me learn a lot of songs, and learn ‘em right. He made me show up on time and if I messed up a melody he would actually dock my pay. He would fine me a few dollars for every note I missed or if I showed up late. At that time, everybody was wearing suits, so if I didn’t have on a suit, he would fine me. Sometimes he would come up after the gig and give me $25, saying ‘you did so many things wrong, that’s all that was left.’ So I learned quick.
What first brought you to New York?
I always intended to come to New York. I got a job pumping gas a few days a week because playing gigs, I could make enough money to live but I could never seem to save anything. I had some relatives here, so when I finally saved enough, I came and started couch surfing. After about four months in NY, I was in a cold-water flat up on 99th and Lexington with broken glass everywhere and crack vials in the street. I was down to no money and I was living off peanut butter sandwiches and potatoes and one egg a day. Sometimes I would get a good meal from my grandmother or an aunt or uncle and they might slip me $20 and I’d make that last for four days. I’d walk across Central Park at night so I could go to Augie’s Jazz Bar (now Smoke), where the late Junior Cook, Horace Silver’s incredible saxophone player, was playing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I would save enough money for a beer and I’d sit there and listen. They would have a jam session afterwards and I would play. But I was losing a lot of weight and I had to go back to Portland. So I went home on a fucking Greyhound bus. When I got back, I weighed about 136 pounds. (I weigh 180 right now.) My mom took one look at me and nearly started crying.
How long did it take you to get back?
I decided I was going to stay in Portland. I got back to playing gigs, fattened up again, kind of got my bones out of hock. A couple of years went by and the late jazz pianist Andrew Hill came out to Portland State University to teach improvisation and composition. They reached out to some professionals in the area to audit the class to make it more attractive to students and make it more functional with more instruments. I became friends with Andrew and he was really the guy who convinced me to move back to New York. He would tell me: ‘You know, you’re gonna get old here and you’re gonna wish that you had gone to New York. You’re young, it’s time for you to go there. You can’t do what you want to do here. You can be comfortable, but that’s not where it’s at. You gotta go.’ So I decided to come back again and that time it worked and I was able to stay.
How were you making a living at that point?
The first thing I did was play on the street. I came in the summer and I hooked up with some guys who were busking on Pier 9 at the Seaport, then tried to get a gig somewhere at night. We played in the subway when the weather got colder. I was horrified to find out that these days, New York City is charging musicians $40 a day to have a permit to busk. That’s a really low blow. But I played any gig I could get. I played at a dingy, dirty after-hours place where the gig started at 4 in the morning and went until 9 and paid $25. The place was full of drugs and at the time, I didn’t care. I wasn’t way into it, but I was definitely not out of it.
What kind of music were you playing then?
One of the problems that has plagued me commercially is that while I’ve enjoyed my journey, I’ve been into many different things. The first two albums I did as a leader were basically straight-up jazz records. By the third one, Cross Culture, I was way into Indian flute, Irish and Middle Eastern music. I put together a band with Amos Hoffman, a guy from Jerusalem who played jazz guitar and the Oud, a Middle Eastern guitar. I went back and forth between saxophone and bansuri, an Indian flute, and we would do these tunes that blended Middle Eastern and Indian music with jazz. And at that time in New York nobody was doing that. But we did it every Monday at the St. Mark’s bar in the East Village. On Wednesday nights, I played with a Latin jazz group there and I started really getting heavily into that music — Cuban, Afro-Cuban and Nuyorican like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto. I was into so many things that I never could really pick one. That made me very employable, because I could play flute and saxophone and I knew how to play Latin music and the blues and jazz and I was into all kinds of stuff but it made it hard for me to commercially have an identity and keep getting better and more contacts in that direction. And I didn’t sing at all then. I didn’t sing until I was 30, I just played.
What made you start singing?
During this time I got hooked on heroin, just from playing on the Lower East Side. There were people selling heroin on every other block in the East Village in the 90s. Everybody was sniffing it and I had friends who were doing it. I played with older musicians that were banging it, but I wasn’t doing that so I thought I wasn’t an addict. Meanwhile there were guys dying from sniffing dope. I kept doing it, thinking I didn’t have a problem and it slowly took over my life and started to make me have problems being dependable. I got fired from a few bands, went to jail a couple of times – just for the night, little misdemeanor charges. Finally I went to rehab and got clean. And when I came out, I was suddenly seized by wanting to sing. I had things I wanted to say and they didn’t have to do with music, they had to do with words. I wanted to tell stories and I guess I just felt that some of those stories didn’t involve playing jazz. I had always liked writing poetry and I used to try to write songs but not for ME to sing. I would try to get somebody else to sing or record them. But I had these ideas in my head. So when I got out of rehab, they started to come pouring out of me. And I realized that I was going to have to sing them and I thought I could do it. So I started taking vocal lessons and I put together a band where the focus was that I would sing and then I would play some jazz instrumentals. At first it was kind of half and half.
How did you hook up with Gregg Allman?
In the fall of 2001, I was playing a jazz gig at Cleopatra’s Needle and a saxophone player named Kris Jensen came in who I knew from way back but hadn’t seen in a long time. I invited him to play with us and and he heard me doing my songs, heard the direction I was going in. He called me up a few days later and said, ‘I got offered a gig but I can’t do it because Dickie Betts has been thrown out of the Allman Brothers and I’m playing with Dickie. Gregg Allman’s people contacted me about playing with Gregg but if I do it, Dickie will fire me because they’re not even speaking. I think you’d be perfect, do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Does a bear shit in the woods? Yeah I want to do it!’ So I went down to Jones Beach and I met Gregg. I guess he figured that if people said I could play, then I could. He just wanted to make sure that I was personable, I guess. So they flew us down to Georgia, supposedly for an audition, but everybody kind of knew that unless we couldn’t play at all, it was a done deal because there was a tour coming up.
How did playing with Gregg influence your musical direction?
It catapulted me further into the singing and back towards roots music, blues, American soul, and rock and roll because I was starting to perform with a singer who was one of the best at that. I mean, he’s a classic, one of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time and arguably the greatest white blues singer alive, at this point. So I was playing with him, watching what he was doing, listening, trying to pick it up and that inspired me. So my music started to go more towards that direction – Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Dr. John.
When did you first meet Levon Helm?
I met Levon through Amy, who I had met through Vicki Bell and Ray Grappone, who owned a record label in Brooklyn. I was doing my first vocal record for them, Poem for You Today. Amy came and sang on a song, that was how we initially met. A few months later, we were all part of a benefit concert for a fire department in Brooklyn and Levon came down to play. Amy and I hit it off and I started going up with her and sitting in on the Ramble if I wasn’t doing a gig in the city and eventually became part of that scene. And now I was working with another classic Americana, blues, rock and roll veteran, another great singer who was starting to get his voice back. So I was being influenced by both of them, learning to sing by playing with them and also working at it myself, so slowly I started getting better at singing. It hasn’t been easy, trying to get my voice to the point where it’s as good as my horn playing. So I’ve had to play catch-up, but always in the service of being able to sing my songs. And then finally I felt like I was a good enough singer to do other people’s songs too and not mess them up too bad and put my own stamp on them.
Tell me about the King’s County Band. Who are they?
It’s Diego Voglino on drums, Moses Patrou on percussion and backing vocals, Scott Sharrard on guitar and vocals, Jeff Hanley on bass and until recently, Dred Scott on piano. When the band got started, we were all living in Brooklyn, which is in King’s County, so that’s where the name comes from. Diego and Dred have been in the band since the beginning, but Dred recently got another gig doing solo piano at an Italian restaurant where they pay him very well so he’s taking a break for a bit and Dave Keyes has been playing with us, sometimes Bruce Katz when I can get him. The next piece I added was Moses. He was moving to New York from Madison, Wisconsin and he needed a place and I needed a roommate. So we started writing a little together and playing in the apartment and he started performing with us. We went through a couple of bass players before settling on Jeff Hanley. At first there was no guitar but since I was going further in the rock/blues direction, Diego said I needed a guy who could sing backup, who could play tricky rhythmic parts, who also knew enough about jazz to play some of my songs that had a lot of chords in them that a typical rock thing may not have. And Scott was perfect because he has everything in his toolbox. He can play slide like Duane Allman and licks like George Benson, play the blues like Albert King, sing like Donny Hathaway and play rhythm guitar like Cornell Dupree. So when we added him, now we really got the thing.
What progress do you see between your three vocal records?
The first one, Poem for You Today, was recorded at Vicki and Ray’s studio in Red Hook and we all lost money on it. The second one, The Songbird and the Pigeon, I paid for myself when I had a little money. I found a cheap studio where we could go in and try to cut everything in two or three days. I spent maybe a day on mixing, so I spent $3,000 or $4,000 on it. I felt that was somewhat of an uneven record. There were some good moments in it and there were some moments when we didn’t hit what we were aiming for. I had several different guitar players on that record. Scott only joined the band towards the end, so Ed Cherry, Chris Bergson, and Scott all played guitar. So it was a sort of piecemeal thing.
But on Rivers, Blues and Other People, I had the good fortune to be able to use Levon Helm’s studio. Since I was part of the family, Levon was very generous with studio time. It was close to home, and I could go in on a weeknight and work with Justin Guip or Brendan McDonough, or Charlie Martinez. I could come in after hours and work until midnight and I had never had that. Before, I would have to get all the vocals hit on the spot. For a guy like me, who’s not the greatest singer — I have some character, I hope, and some style but I’m not a one-take guy — it was tough to get a great vocal performance doing it like that. With this record, I was able to take a lot more time. And by this time, everybody was integrated. The band had been playing live a lot so we were knocking them right out. Also, I was able to call upon all of my Woodstock friends that I had met playing with Levon and Gregg and now Donald Fagen, who I had started playing with in the Dukes of September with more great singers – Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs. So on this record, I’ve got Donald Fagen playing on a tune, Levon Helm playing on a tune, Larry Campbell playing on a few, also Jimmy Weider, Bruce Katz, and Tony Leone from Ollabelle came and played. So I had so much more freedom making this record, and so much more time. And what a great studio! The sound in there is beautiful. Also, by that time my singing had gotten exponentially better.
You are justifiably proud of this latest effort.
I finally made a record where I can give it to someone and wherever they start it — if they go to track 7 and hit play — every moment of that CD I can 100 percent stand next to and say, ‘That’s my best work. If you don’t like that, It’s because you don’t like what I do. It’s not because I didn’t have enough money or time or I didn’t have the right players or I didn’t have time to get the vocals right. I got it ALL right. And I couldn’t say that in the past because on those records, I was always thinking, ‘I hope they listen to track 2 and 6 and don’t listen to 3, because 3 was too slow and we didn’t have the chance to redo it. I think every musician wants to make one recording that they can hold up 20 years from now and say, ‘This is my best album. This represents all the work I was doing.’ I may never make another album as good as this but that’s ok with me because I finally made the CD I thought I was capable of making and for me, that’s a big thing. I’ll be really happy about that forever.
So what’s your next move?
I’m still writing songs, I got a few cool new ones I’ve been working on. “Top of the Town” [played at a recent gig at Small’s in New York City] has been kicking around for a little while. I also wrote a song about John Brown, the famous slavery insurrectionist. But I’m not on a label, probably because I was too busy playing gigs to go looking for one, and now, raising two kids, I don’t have the time. I want to just get the music done. And then when it’s done, I need to get it out. Because I could sit there and hold onto it and hope somebody comes along with a label who likes it. But life’s too short. I could get hit by a bus. So I got to take my shots where I can get ‘em, try to keep my band together come hell or high water. I try to get a gig where I can get a few people to come out and hear it. And other than that, just be the musician I am. Luckily I get hired to play with great people —Chris Bergson, Donald Fagen, Boz Skaggs, Gregg Allman, Connor Kennedy, who I’m starting to play with upstate, and can also do my own thing.
Will you talk a bit about Levon Helm and what you learned from him?
Levon was very specific about what he wanted. He didn’t like a lot of notes. He liked you to pare it down, keep it simple, play a strong melody and get out of the way and let the vocals come back in. So it really forced me to hone it down, tighten it up, get back to basics with the sound because there wasn’t the time for anything else. It was like ‘you’ve got 12 bars, there’s 3,000 people out here, put ‘em on their ass.’ That was one thing I learned from him.
Levon was very comfortable with who he was and he never would reach for something that wasn’t him. He was like a painter who only uses three colors because he knows exactly what he wants to do, almost like he already had it worked out before he started —the simplicity of eliminating everything that’s unnecessary. That’s a very powerful lesson for a musician to learn because it allows you to connect with people viscerally. Levon could connect. He had a few things that he did and he did them all night, beautifully and with conviction. So that even if you heard him do that drum lick for the 20th time, he did it like it was the first time EVERY time. So you believed it every time. When he sang a song, you believed him. That’s the most important thing a singer can do to make somebody believe it. So I learned that from him too. All the chops in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t make the person listening believe you. You can do that with one note if you do it right.
Sometimes he would take us to task for things that maybe weren’t always real, he would say, ‘You horn players aren’t locking in with the rhythm section tonight.’ He was saying that to me one night and I said to him, ‘Man, I’m doing the best I can for you, boss.’ And he said, ‘Don’t do it for ME, do it for YOU.’ It didn’t feel good at the time because he could get salty on you for sure, but it kept you on your toes because you’d know that if you were dragging, he’d get on you.
Are your boys showing an interest in music?
My littlest one walks around blowing on a harmonica and he likes to play the keyboard and likes to hit the little drum set. Lee likes to hit the drum set and he likes to sing. Now that he’s almost 5, he’s really into school and doing a little less of that. But we used to put on music in the car and he would sing along with it. He’d remember the lyrics to things and sing along. Yeah, I think he’s gonna be a singer. And I think the little guy will either be a horn player or a harp player or a drummer, something like that.
Featured image by Clark Gayton
Rivers, Blues and Other People is available at Amazon.com