August 10, 2014
Via phone call from Shanghai, China to Austin, TX USA
Photograph of Robert Turner, jazz pianist
AUSTIN: You have such a sweet sound as a jazz pianist. People from the US all the way to China love your playing. I’m interested in your roots. How did you first come to start playing gospel piano in that Baptist church?
ROBERT: I think it was ’89, I believe I was in the 9th grade, and that was my first time of actually getting enrolled in a music class. I used to go to the concerts and watch the drums. I watched the orchestra play, and my favorite part was when the drums would have a drum solo. They used to have 2 drum sets. The junior high school kids would just be all into it. So I wanted to be like that because I was kind of a square, and I figured that that would be where I could have more friends. So I got into the class, and I learned how to play the snare drum and then I got into it and I started learning. They finally put me on the drum set the end of the semester. I did a drum solo, and people appreciated it. I think I did a drum solo and a snare drum solo. People appreciated it. So when I got into high school, I was in the jazz band, and I was learning how to play drums, you know. I just was in there, just practicing, and this guy comes out of nowhere. He’s a drummer. He looks like a rap guy. I was scared of him. I thought he was going to beat me up.
AUSTIN: That’s funny.
ROBERT: He got on the drums and played some shout music. He just played there like real fast, kind of like all of these new drummers that’s coming out now. He was just as bad as them on the gospel. Then, he told me to play something, and then he played some shout music on the piano. That’s what did it. I recorded it, too, on the cassette. We had a cassette player recording I think or something. I recorded it, and he played like 2 songs, and it was real bad. That’s when I listened to that tape about 500 times. I would call my friends and asked them to show me the chords, and that’s what it was. Then I went to a Baptist church, and a piano player was playing something kind of different. I would just ask the piano player at the end of the service to show me what they played, and that was kind of hard because they’ll always be in a hurry to leave.
ROBERT: So they were gracious enough to kind of show me that. I just practiced then. I was around, you know. I still wanted to play Jazz too. I liked Jazz chords. I’d record all the piano players -- go to the mall and record what they’re playing -- and I would always have my small tape recorder, and I would have it recorded, you know. I would go back at home, and that’s the pretty first time I did it. That’s how. That was me.
AUSTIN: That sounds like a really good foundation you had there. So you became a member of the church band then, I guess, or were you just playing on your own?
ROBERT: When I got to the Baptist church, I joined that church. Before I joined the church, I was Methodist. I would go to [my friend’s] church and play drums, and he would play the piano. I did that for about 8 years or so. I was around them. They were always you know showing me chords, and then I would take what this other piano player showed me and showed it to him, and we would put it together and write a song and get ideas and stuff. My father turned me on to the Baptist church. It was close to my house, and I started going in, and that was a whole dozen times. It was a completely different kind to [my friend’s] church. I just kept going there, and then what happened was after about a year, was the pianist quit, and it was graduation time from high school for me. That’s my time to graduate my high school. So I was playing. I was sitting in, but mainly I was playing a little bit of drums. Once the pianist quit, I was the only one there, so I was the one filling in until they got a new pianist too.
So that’s how that worked.
AUSTIN: What was the instrumentation of that church band?
ROBERT: At the time it was organ, piano and drums, and people probably played the tambourine at time. I remember a few who played guitars now and then.
AUSTIN: How receptive was the church community to jazz music?
ROBERT: A lot of people in church liked jazz. They don’t know the lyrics to the song. I bet you if they saw the lyrics they had with the song, they’d be like, “No, we can't do this and do that,” because “Since I Fell for You” talks about a husband and how they fall in love with their mistress. I still really liked playing that song, but one time I heard the lyrics -- the lyrics buried down in my mind. I was like, “man, how am I going to play ‘Oh, The Blood of Jesus’ on Sunday and then Saturday, I'm going to play ‘Since I Fell’, talking about this guy hooking up with another woman because I don’t like this other one anymore. You see what I'm saying?
ROBERT: So my point is if the church people knew the lyrics to some of those songs, they will be
like, “No, you can't play that.”
AUSTIN: So do you see that as being kind of an advantage of being a piano player versus being a vocalist is you know in that you can reach people that you might not necessarily have been able to reach with lyrics?
ROBERT: Yes, but at the same time, these are old songs, and I don’t think part of the intended goals are for me to do a change the lyrics of the song. I don’t think anybody would know that I changed the lyrics of the song, you know what I mean. So basically, the words and the lyrics of some of those songs I was telling you about, those songs are dialed in. Those songs are in fact a hit. So my job, if you narrow it, is just to sing that song on the piano, sing those lyrics on the piano even if it is my old piano. That’s my job as a pianist. So to me, “if I call Me And Mrs. Jones” -- if we got a thing going on -- talk about the culture we have. If I played that instrumentally, people know the lyrics to that song. On my part, let’s make those lyrics sing on the piano. So yeah, it’s the same as the songs singing, if you know what I mean.
AUSTIN: In a little bit of a different turn here, is home for you in LA?
ROBERT: Yes. Well, now I live in Sacramento.
AUSTIN: What was your experience like finding venues to play Jazz in LA and Sacramento? How was it for you getting into that scene starting to play Jazz as a style?
ROBERT: Well for me, I was taught that we had to play a whole style, and we liked to play funk and R&B and jazz since high school. I liked it all. I was interested in anything, even a little bit of classical. I guess it started with: people would ask me, “Hey, do you wanna jam in my business? You wanna play in my band?” I would go to rehearse, and maybe rehearse like once or twice a week, doing light gig here and there. That’s sort of the story of it. I’d gotten professional. I got to get professional with the ministry you know. I was on stand at the ministry and then I hooked up with a singer, a professional singer. And when she came to LA. I was her pianist. I sounded like Billy Preston. She loved it, so I was her pianist up to now. I was 18 years old. She had all these musicians, and I was the musician called in. And that’s how I became a full‐time musician in LA: because somebody always needed a pianist.
ROBERT: If there was jam, gig, R&B gig, or gigs like that, they left me packing.
AUSTIN: Would you say, overall, you had more success being called to play in other people’s bands versus going out and booking your own gigs with your own projects?
ROBERT: Yeah at that time, yeah. It was harder for me to get my own gig, my own solo gig. I still have a hard time doing that.
AUSTIN: Yeah, I feel you. I'm kind of the same way.
ROBERT: Yeah. It’s getting harder just like here [in Shanghai].
AUSTIN: Who stylistically affected your playing the most?
ROBERT: Gene Harris is my favorite piano player. I appreciated other musicians but Gene Harris was my favorite. So it furthered my style.
AUSTIN: I’d like to get into some more detail on your time living and performing in Shanghai in just a second, but for right now, how would you contrast your experience finding venues and gigs in China versus in Los Angeles?
ROBERT: I'm sure you know about you know all of your friends want to hear you play. They start calling you for gigs: “Hey, would you go do this on December 8th? Show up on time.” The bass player from that gig then calls you: “what are you doing tomorrow? Can you go down and play the piano?” I said, “Yeah, I ain’t doing nothing. I’ll come down and play.” I would take all his gigs, all these opportunities. So I'm getting called. I think I was 19 or 20; somebody hooked me up with a band that came through LA. They said, “Come with us.” They called me up and took me to Japan. They got me there. I started working there. So of course I, you know, that kind of thing was happening for about 5 years. Even with China, this gig came from LA because Dnotes and I played together for about 15 years since I was almost a kid. We played this gig with each other. So he came over here [to Shanghai] first. He came in and said, “Hey”. So I called him and talked with him and he invited me to come down here. So that’s how I came down here. So you see what I'm saying: it basically all comes from LA. All the gigs for the most part did come from LA. This being down here [in Shanghai] is kind of like an extension of an LA gig. You know what I'm saying?
AUSTIN: Yeah, man. I definitely understand that. That’s really cool. How did you first realize that you love jazz enough to focus on that?
ROBERT: Well to be honest, I was around Jazz. I was around Jazz then, and I was listening to a jazz station. This is before I left my family: I was listening to Jazz. I was around Jazz. I didn’t know if I could tell I was going to play piano back then. I was thinking of a man who played Gospel. He didn’t play any Jazz chords. He played Gospel chords. He had a blues scale run. He had a vague chords. He was “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” It was something he grabbed. I never heard that before, and it was so straight up. It was raw. So when I heard that, I was inspired to play the piano. Now, I liked some Jazz. I'm like one or the same. One of my first songs that I really liked was “My Little Suede Shoes” by Charlie Parker. I always got the chance to play that song. So I could jab a chord. I liked some of the jazz songs and when I heard Gene Harris, he put it together. Gene Harris is a solid player. He liked gospel. He liked his parents. They accepted blues. He would start with that, and he would go into a song like the Green Dolphin Street. He puts in the jazz, and he would play Jazz chords. He’ll put the Jazz right together with the Blues. That’s what I like about Gene Harris. So that I wanted to play like Gene Harris. So that was what I planned from the beginning. I wanted to do that. I ain’t like, “go into Gospel first.” Oh, jazz was perfect. I wanted the Jazz. No, no, that did not happen like that. I wanted to take the old style and tie it together and make it just like Gene. That was how I started.
AUSTIN: How did you initially get turned on to Gene Harris?
ROBERT: I was listening to the jazz radio. He was still “in” at that time in LA. I heard the pianist. I heard cool piano stuff. It looked like playing jazz makes you better. It was raw and loose, and I would record it on my cassette recorder. That was the first time I heard him. I don’t know what happened to that tape but if I find it still, I would be so happy but that’s how I got turned on to Gene Harris. Man, I started going to the record store, started buying that. I got a couple of records, my first CD that I bought of James Black, and all. On day the TV broke down: so I had to go to the store. I mean, once you hear it, any of Gene Harris’, you will be hooked.
AUSTIN: Is there anyone in China that is a jazz musician that you have enjoyed listening to the recordings of?
ROBERT: No. I hate to say it man. They don’t really have first‐class jazz singing market here. They have a Chinese festival once a year. They try to push out Jazz again. Most of these are from abroad. I don’t really hear a lot Chinese Jazz musicians here. They don’t really care a lot about that. I actually heard a couple of key musicians that were really good, you know what I'm saying. I sure did, but I’ve never seen them or played for them. Jazz here in China? They have a certain change on special occasions. On special occasions, you have Jazz or something. That’s what I noticed.
AUSTIN: So why would you say that you originally moved to Shanghai? Because of the gig offer itself?
ROBERT: Well, the recession there back in 2011, so I was told that there by Dnotes: he told me about this China new gig that he had. At first, I didn’t take it. I didn’t take it when he first offered, but then I called him back and said, “Okay, I’ll take it” because that recession came. So basically, I was trying to get a break all that by doing my Gene Harris tribute record called “Blues for Gene.” I was trying to work on that. I had been writing and putting it together. So I remembered when he called up. So I remembered how it was then. Basically, I didn’t have money. It’s just not the same offer as to go and buy whatever I want whenever I want. So I said, “Hey I need this much.” It was supposed to be: I wasn’t to be coming to China for 3 years, I'm thinking 3 months. But when I got down here, I saw a lot of opportunities. So I said well I’ll do a Chinese record real quick, you know, but the Chinese saw through my old style. So we did my album “Chinese Piano” and that record just took time and money. It took time, more time, and that’s what made me take so long. I wasn’t supposed to be here that long. I got the opportunity and had a distribution company. They put it in the store and everything. It got up their way. It’s an opportunity. I got to take this opportunity. That’s why I had to stay in China for 3 years.
AUSTIN: I met you in Shanghai in 2011. How many years have you been there?
ROBERT: 3 years.
AUSTIN: So I must have met you not long after you moved there.
AUSTIN: How is your Chinese, or do you speak Mandarin?
ROBERT: No. I speak a little Japanese but not Chinese.
AUSTIN: I had the pleasure of meeting your bassist friend of 15 years: Dnotes Harris. I remember him. How did you all originally meet?
ROBERT: Me and Dnotes?
ROBERT: A saxophone player. I remember that Yeah, so here’s what I'm saying. Dnotes and me is like a whole music scene. So when I met [this sax player], then I met Dnotes. He introduced me to Dnotes. I’ve been playing with Dnotes for a long time.
AUSTIN: The Melting Pot seemed like a really great Jazz and pop music hangout when we were there for that month in Shanghai. Was that the first place that you started playing at or how did your relationship with that venue start?
ROBERT: That was it right there.
AUSTIN: Cool. And that, I remember, I loved meeting the vocalist and drummer you had at the Melting Pot. How did you meet the two of them?
ROBERT: Well, they were already working with Dnotes before I got there. So once I got there, I started working with them.
AUSTIN: Have you performed in any other countries other than China and United States?
ROBERT: Bali, Indonesia Jazz Festival. I was a featured artist for that.
AUSTIN: How did you end up there?
AUSTIN: Nice – Dnotes. What a great guy.
ROBERT: Yeah. He’s amazing.
AUSTIN: I loved checking out that new Chinese film “Just in Shanghai” which features both you and Dnotes preparing for and then performing a concert. That must have been lots of fun.
ROBERT: Damn right. Yeah, it was.
AUSTIN: How did you decide what tunes to play for that concert?
ROBERT: Well, I don’t know. I just find my feel when I do a concert or you want a program. [Chinese audiences] want it in order so I just try to think -- kind of put a show together. You know that’s how I did it. I go by how I feel and then hone it wherever, go over all those songs. I think about the oldest songs, and I started to think of Gene’s songs and anybody else, and yeah, just trying to keep it simple, but we rehearsed a lot. [We had] 20 songs.
AUSTIN: Yeah. Well, how’d you meet the filmmaker and of getting to do that documentary?
ROBERT: Oh, they came to the Melting Pot. I think maybe the oldest things will groove people.
AUSTIN: Cool. How would you compare the appreciation of Jazz standards by your Chinese audiences versus American audiences?
ROBERT: Well, you know if I can say it all, you know, I barely have a good audience. I think the audience that I have [in the documentary] is the first audience that I had that was good. I can hear a pin drop. I can drop a coin on the ground across the room. The Shanghai Symphony [gig] was a good audience. Same thing. I could drop a quarter on the stage and then you can hear it all the way to the back in the room. Melting Pot, unless I did was a Chinese song or a fast song or a loud song, they want an end to it. It was hard. They came to us and asked us to shut [a jazz song] down. They did not like us. It was even the climax in the song. Now, it was worth it of course.
ROBERT: So, I would say overall, I would say that [Shanghai] isn’t a concert city. They don’t actually love music. They don’t ever listen to us, so I can play anything. I can play a Chinese song or a Jazz song. So whenever I want to play soft music, they now pay attention to the one I'm playing, but if I go to an R&B song, I would have to play something that they knew, either some Chinese song or a pop song, whatever song I want, just as long as they know the song, and I would have to do a breakdown performance. They never listen to us. I hate to say it but I don’t think that it [because of] playing in China and even in Bali, Indonesia. I played some really heavy stuff and I was fortunate that our band did pay attention, but I don’t think I have 100% of their attention, you know what I'm saying? When I say all over the world, the Jazz is gone. The true jazz appreciator is gone. So to do it is to do all these [hits], you know. If they’re kind of bored, you got to change up if you want them to pay attention to you. To answer your question, it’s the same all over the world. I believe so. You know, it’s the same in Indonesia, it’s the same, I believe it’s the same in Japan, same in America, same in China. I think that’s pretty fair.
AUSTIN: Talking about classical music versus Jazz music, do you find that people in China usually are able to appreciate both styles or usually does an audience only like classical music or only like jazz?
ROBERT: I know that China is a classical market so I like the classical keys. They don’t know the jazz standards. When you go out, people are interested in it. They want to try to go check it out, but at the same time, they don’t know it and it’s like you have to require a change to jazz. So the Jazz audience is slowly coming up in China but the classical audience is now. China is definitely a classical market.
AUSTIN: I remember when I was in Shanghai that you were teaching a masterclass, but I was unable to attend it because we’re doing some performances with Tapestry Dance Company. I remember you showing me some great voicings. How did you start teaching in the first place?
ROBERT: Well, it’s been their call. I got a called to teach private lessons. You get these calls [after] you do an exhibition. You get it the first time. When I went to Sacramento, I started playing this church song. I had a few people that wanted to learn gospel music and talked to me about that. I said, “If you ever want to come, just come down and take a music class.” So at that time, we did it for a couple of years like on a Tuesday. Every Tuesday, they’d come down, probably Wednesday they’d come down, you know, and learn how to play and stuff. I did choose that for a change. That was fun too. I liked teaching a big class. In that way, I can play it out to everybody.
AUSTIN: So are you just doing master’s classes or what types of teaching are you doing currently?
ROBERT: I kind of did a masterclass [in Shanghai]. It was cool. We had 100 students. I wanted to get the video on, but you saw it probably on Facebook. It was a really big class. We got some information out there. These are high school students. They’re very good by the way. They’re very talented musicians as well, and so yes, it was a fun class. That was a fun class. I mean if someone comes up to me and said, “I wanna learn,” I’ll teach it.
AUSTIN: Do you see yourself doing more teaching as the years progress?
ROBERT: I’m interested in doing a masterclass. They are just there for me that kind of collaborate with all of this talent -- you know, the need for energy, skill, more energy – and just get these persons again out there. I'm proud if I die, I put a lot here -- and all that crowd. Yeah, that’s kind of fun. So that’s kind of what I want to do right now. That’s why I do masterclass.. I kind of want a video of the audience above all that. That’s a lot of talent.
AUSTIN: Do you have any goals you are hoping to achieve as a performer?
ROBERT: Well, my goal is to conquer it all. My life is all of piano. I really want to have solo keys at a concert. I like playing in the concert hall, you know, a truly the gift of a little artist, you know. I enjoy it more when I really play and the audience would uplift me or appreciate anything, and they will repeat this for 5 sets. [At the bar] they’re not really there for art. They’re there for this and all. So I was like, my goal is just to carry these songs. I mean I would like to play any song from my records, my own composition or song.
AUSTIN: Having spent 3 years in China, why have you finally decided to return home?
ROBERT: Well, you know I'm married and I got [kids], just that. So I get to go home and be a dad. You know what I mean. I see that I don’t get the same opportunity with my kids in America.
AUSTIN: What are you going to do when you first get there?
ROBERT: Spend some time with the family and then you know cook beans and some fried chicken and gravy, pancakes, relax, watch some movies, maybe go to the beach. So, I’ll kind of enjoy LA a little bit. That’s what I would like to do.
AUSTIN: Well, you ought to come to Austin, Texas some time. We will show you around and take you to jazz clubs.
ROBERT: Yeah, man, that would be great. That would be wonderful, man. You call me.
AUSTIN: Cool. So how about musically? What are you going to do first when you get back?
ROBERT: Well, I'm working on a concert hall. I haven’t told a lot of people about it but it’s kind of a long shot. I always put it in my craft, you know, ever since I’ve started but I encourage it in my albums. When I started to do a concert, I'm trying to focus up a bit on a big hall [that] holds about 700 people. I'm thinking about trying to set that up, you know, pull that, and I believe that would help get more opportunities because there’s much jumping up too. My name is not strong enough to like stand out. It’s one of the places I really want to play. So I'm planning to set it up by playing at other venues. I’ll play it to perform it to many. That will keep my thing going. It’s flowing down into my vein as an artist. That’s one of my plans. I just want to do something about that. I can relax and do my thing.
AUSTIN: I'm sure you’ll let us all know about that via your mailing list. I have to ask, how did you get to play with Stevie Wonder and with the Temptations? I saw that on your website.
[Visit Robert Turner’s website at http://www.robertturnerpiano.com]
ROBERT: Temptations -- I was working with a friend of mine named Dennis Nelson. He’s a jazz player, and he was working on his record called “Back on Track.” You should check that out. He did a track with the Temptations. He sang as a backup, for I think anyone. So, yeah, that’s how I met The Temptations. I talked to the guy.
AUSTIN: How about Stevie?
ROBERT: Oh, Stevie? Well, while we were doing a soul show, I mean this was back in 2003
or something [2002, actually]. Neo-soul came out. Stevie was very popular. I got called to play in somebody’s home with a house band – I thought it was maybe a birthday party for Stevie. First set we played some of his songs, stretching out. It was a really good band. Stevie came up. He started singing a whole set of all his songs. Very nice too. It’s on YouTube. You can watch him in action. He can play everything, very nice too. He can do very challenging stuff. He can play Giant Steps, He can play in A the same way I play in B flat.
[Subscribe to Robert Turner’s YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/cccvictorychoir]
AUSTIN: Is there anything else that you would like to say to whoever will be reading this interview?
ROBERT: Yeah. Like my man Jesse Jackson said: “Keep Hope Alive!”
Robert Turner currently has three jazz albums available for purchase, with a fourth in the works.
Robert Turner - "China Piano" Turner Music Ent./CSCAV (Beijing Conpnay)
Robert Turner - "Soul Piano" Turner Music Ent.
Robert Turner - "Silent Night" Seedless Records/Turner Music
Connect with Robert Turner on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/robert.turner.18041
If you have a question for Robert, please leave a comment.
Austin Kimble is a professional jazz pianist, music director, educator, and composer based in Austin, Texas.
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