TM Stevens is a monster bassist who has also made his name as a composer, producer and singer. He also heads his own band Shocka Zooloo. A musician who is happy to play in wide range of musical genres including, funk, pop, jazz and rock, TM has played or recorded with many artists including, the late, great James Brown (he plays bass and sings on JB’s Living In America album), The Pretenders, Little Steven, Norman Connors, Tina Turner, Narada Michael Walden (TM co-wrote the international smash hit “I Shoulda Loved Ya”), Mahavishnu – and Miles.
On 2 March 1978, TM was a member of small group of musicians (including guitarist Larry Coryell, drummer Al Foster and keyboardists George Pavlis and Masabumi Kikuchi) that joined Miles in Columbia Record’s New York studio to record some music. In many ways, this was a historical session, because it was the last time Miles would record in a studio for almost three years and marks the end of a musical era that saw Miles embrace jazz-rock. So far, the music from those sessions remains unreleased, but thanks to this interview with TM, we get a good idea of how Miles was at the time and how the session went.
TM Stevens © and courtesy TM Stevens
TheLastMiles.com: TM, can you tell us when and where you were born?
TM Stevens: It was the Bronx, New York. You don’t ask a bassist his age! I’m a baby boomer.
TLM: How did you get the moniker TM?
TMS: My grandmother was called Thomasina and my name is Thomas, and so every time somebody would say “Tommy!” we’d both go “What?!” So what they said was that they were going to call me by my middle name – Michael – so everybody in my family calls me Mike. Later on, I started playing clubs – when I grew up there were plenty of clubs and a band could make a living playing clubs every night. I was in a band as part of an organisation called CTA (Creative Talent) and there were several bands in this thing. Anyhow, this organisation would have the band leaders pick up the cheque every night. They’d give you like 5-7 contracts a week and you’d bring the contract to gig and they’d give you a cheque. Well, they got confused because I’d signed a cheque ‘Michael’ and I had trouble cashing them. So the bank said ‘look, you’re going to have to do something about it. So a guy at CTA, Fred Bear, said ‘To stop the confusion, we’re going call you TM’ and from that point everyone called me TM!”
TLM: One of the band’s included future Kiss drummer Eric Carr (who sadly died in November 1991).
TMS: Back then, we had dreams and we’d sit in the basement and go: “One day, we’re not going to play Top 40 but write songs and be rock stars.’ And he went on to be the drummer for Kiss and I went on to The Pretenders et cetera, et cetera.
TLM: How did you get into music?
TMS: When I was eleven, I saw James Brown at Apollo and I said to him: “I want to play with you.” And he said, “don’t take drugs and go to school”.
TLM: Why the bass?
TMS: The bass took me up. At the time, I was living in a Bronx and was in the equivalent of the boy scouts, which was in Harlem. So I would take the train down to Harlem and go to the Friday evening meeting. The scout leader – his name was Leon Charlie – was into Wes Montgomery, George Benson and all these jazz guys – but he had no one to play with. He was the captain of our little scout group and he said “I’ll teach you how play guitar, so I’ve got someone to accompany me.” So after the meeting, I went over to his house and he put a guitar in my hands and started showing me chords and how the guitar goes. But I soon started gravitating towards the bass just out of thin air. And he said “yes, but that’s not the chord!” I said “I like what I’m hearing on that bass!” So he said “well, I guess you’ve chosen the bass.” Next door to ours was a junkie who needed some money, so I bought a cheesy Zimgar bass from him and that was my first bass. And from there I took off.
TLM: Any bassists inspire you?
TMS: At that time I was absolutely in love with all of James Brown’s bass players – “Sex Machine” and all that. One of them is now a good friend of mine today – Bootsy! [Collins]. I heard these funky lines and it just took me – I was just a bassoholic. As time went on, I discovered [Motown bassist] James Jamerson. I thought the Motown bass was the bee’s knee’s – absolutely unique. Then I started getting into Chuck Rainey, Willie Weeks. All these bass players were doing double-stops [bass riffs] and I just getting into them. I started discovering Ron Carter, Buster Williams -it just goes on and on. King Curtis “Memphis Soul Stew” I just loved the bass on it! Michael Henderson [Miles’s bassist 1970-1975] is another one.
TLM: What about Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius?
TMS: When I heard Larry Graham playing with Sly, that just changed my entire life. That was some stuff I’d never heard before. And of course, he invented thumbing on a bass. I was playing with [keyboardist] David Sancious on tour and I had some raggedy rig and I set my rig up next to this giant stack of speakers – turned out to be Stanleys! I felt really intimidated. That was the first time I had met Stanley. Later on, I played with Mahavishnu One Truth Band. We opened a few gigs for Stanley. I was with [guitarist] John McLaughlin, [violinist] L. Shankar and a drummer called Transcending Sunship [real name Woodrow Theus]. That’s when I really got to know him. I’d be playing with Mahavishnu and he’d stick his head out and I’d go “Aggghhhhhhh! It’s Stanley!”
I saw Jaco when I was playing with Norman Connors – I took Michael Henderson’s place! Officially – that was my first band. That’s where I learnt to solo and stuff. We were playing once and Norman broke a snare drum and as he was changing the head, he said: “Go out and entertain the crowd!” So I stood in front of the crowd and I played two notes and there was deadly silence and I thought “Oh my God!” Played some things and I started getting a little reaction and then I got the crowd clapping and that was my first solo.
TLM: How did you meet [drummer/producer] Narada Michael Walden?
TMS: The second band I ever went on tour with was Narada’s, in two station wagons with the cases over our heads because they couldn’t fit in the back. We opened for Billy Cobham. We played all through the mid-west and central US. I’d say 1978 was a very pertinent year for me! We’re still good friends.
TLM: How did “I Shoulda Loved Ya” develop?
TMS: Narada and I would go in a basement in Queens, where there was a bass amp and a drum. How we did that was like this: he’d start up a beat and I’d play and at some point he’d go “change!” and so we’d switch to something else and then he’d go “change!” and we’d change again and then boom – we found that riff. I was like “oh, I love this riff!” And then we made it into a song. Allee Willis helped write the lyrics. Narada thought there was another song on the record [the album The Dance of Life] that was going to be a hit [“Tonight I’m Alright”] but I said “No, that’s going to be the one.” And sure enough it became an international hit.
TLM: Did Miles’s music have any impact on you?
I grew up on James Brown, but a friend of mine – Jeff Young – started turning me on to a lot of different music that’d never heard before – Sun Ra, Miles, Mahavishnu, Al Di Meola. And incidentally, everyone he turned me on to, I ended up playing with! I was playing bass with [trumpeter] Hannibal Marvin Peterson and Sun Ra walked in on a Friday night and didn’t have a bass player. I came back to see him the next night and he said “Can you play?” And I thought “Are you crazy?!” And I got up and hit.
I loved Miles’s music, his textures, his inventivenes – it was really unique to me. I loved all his stuff. Porgy & Bess was the first thing I heard. I loved that Bitches Brew stuff and the Michael Henderson stuff.
TLM: How did you get the Miles recording gig in 1978?
TMS: I was a session guy in New York – at the time, you could play fusion, pop, disco, soul – New York was buzzing. We’d do four or five sessions a day – we thought it would never end. I did some stuff with Al Foster (I did two albums with him) and I caught Al’s ear. He said “You have a jazz feel!” Back then, you played everything – jazz, classical, pop, whatever. Nowadays you get specialists – he’s a rock player or a pop player or a jazz player and even these categories get sub-divided. Al recommended me to Miles. Miles asked Al: “Do you know any young bass players?” and Al said: “Yes, there’s this guy I know.”
I was living in Chelsea [New York] I got this call from a Japanese lady, “would you be interested in doing a session?” And I said, “Yes, I do sessions all the time,” and then she said “it’s for Miles Davis,” and I almost dropped the phone! And she said: “fine, it will be next week.” And then I got real nervous. On the day of the session, I stuck my bass in its case, went downstairs and a great big black limo pulled up. When I sat down I seemed to sink right down and I felt even more intimidated. We drove right around the corner from 17th St to 18th St and we picked up [Japanese keyboardist] Masabumi Kikuchi . He had a loft and I had never seen so many keyboards in my life! Then we picked up Al and everybody else with the exception of Larry (Coryell) and drove up to Connecticut. We got up some house and I got out of the limo, Larry opened the door to say: “Hey, hello, welcome everybody!” and through the crack in the door I saw His Hidness! I went “Oh my God! That’s him!” That’s when I started getting really nervous.
TLM: What happened then?
.TMS: As I walked in I thought “What’s going happen here?” And I saw Larry’s wife [Julie]. I knew Larry from The Eleventh House [band] with [drummer] Alphonse Mouzon. I walked in and Miles didn’t say very much. And then we started rehearsing. I remember him saying [adopts Miles’ raspy voice]: “Al – open high hat”! I thought “What is this, a jazz Godfather movie?” Because in movies they talk like that. Then we played a song. We had two days of rehearsals. The first day I was really trying to go at it and wanted to impress the man.
TLM: You had that famous exchange with Miles, when he was play boxing with you after the session. You asked him how you had played and he said: “It was cool.” And when you responded that you’d played perfectly, Miles said: “That’s the problem. The brilliance comes in your mistakes – that how you discover new things. And the only way to make mistakes is to stretch and take chances.”
TMS: He was saying “Open for the moment and play what you feel at the moment” rather than “I’ll play lick number fifty or I think I’ll impress with him lick number two.” He didn’t want that. He said a mistake is a window to progress. That doesn’t mean you should go to a gig and make mistakes, because you’re not going to work very long doing that. But when you try things, when you’re playing from your heart and not your head, you may go for something and hit something else and that can lead you to another way. You go through a door you normally wouldn’t go through and you get fresher results. Then you start to discover and progress rather than staying stagnant. That was pretty profound for me. It used to be the music business but now it’s the business of music. The emphasis is more on business and not the art and that’s a shame. So it’s more predictable, but I still try and experiment and try things and when you find something that’s exciting. And I attribute that to MD.
TM Stevens © and courtesy TM Stevens
TLM: Your grandfather used to say “If you make a mistake make it loud!”
TMS: My grandfather was a stoic type. He wasn’t the type to say “I love you”, but he’d say “You’re alright”, which meant he loved you. He said: “If you make a mistake, make it LOUD. And then do it again!” But he’s right – don’t be timid about that stuff. Someone was playing the D minor chord, then somebody invented the Flat Five. I imagine that must have sounded ghastly when they first hit it. But now, that so-called mistake is cool. That’s how it progressed and that’s how it should be. That’s the funk law according to TM Stevens!
TLM: During the rehearsals, who was directing, Miles or Larry?
TMS: I’d say it was Miles more.
TLM: Did it take you long to come up with the bass ostinato part that Miles wanted?
TMS: He had a motif that he wrote. It reminded me a little bit like African music. It was a bass ostinato, but that was only the beginning. When you’ve learnt the notes what he wants, where are you going to go? What are you going to do with it? Therein lies the challenge. To say that you caught something of his really quickly is not really the end of it. Where do you go – that’s where the artistry lies, that’s what he was looking for.
TLM: What was Miles like physically at the time?
TMS: I wouldn’t say that he was acting sickly at all. If you’re not feeling too well and you have friends come over for dinner, you’re going to try and show your best face to them. I would imagine that he wasn’t in for showing us that he was in pain, but you could tell. When he sat down, you could tell.
TLM: How long was the rehearsal?
TMS: It lasted a few hours. Miles had taped the rehearsal and gave me a cassette. I’ll never forget what he said when he gave it to me: “Y’all go home tonight and I don’t want to you to listen to nothing else – no music at all.” I thought that’s pretty demanding, that’s a bit cheeky. Then he explained himself and I got it. “If you go home and listen to other things – any other kind of music – it’s going to influence what you do here – I don’t want here. I want the influence that we have in here.” Nobody had ever said that to me before.
Afterwards, we sat on the couch but I didn’t approach him – I was talking to Al and asking him whether he thought Miles liked my playing. And he said: “I think so, but he’ll let you know if he don’t like something – quick.” My indication that Miles liked my playing was when he sat on the couch next to me. He was eating a tuna fish sandwich and then he pushed it over to me – he held it in front of my face. Normally, I don’t be biting into somebody else’s sandwich if they’re eating off it, but with him, you do. I took a bite of it and I think that was a little bit of acceptance.
TLM: Is Miles a one-off?
TMS: I’m sure there’s another Miles or Coltrane out there somewhere. I don’t mean playing-wise but in style. But the reality is that the commerciality of the music business doesn’t cause them to come out and that’s a shame, because when you’ve got people like Trane, Miles, [blind saxophonist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk, it’s special. I was playing with Norman Connors at a place called Pooh’s Pub in Boston – it’s gone now. We were in the backroom, the main room. I was staying at the Lennox hotel and late for my gig, so I got to the Pooh’s and I was running down the stairs with my bass and I knocked a man over. He fell about two stairs – it wasn’t serious. I yelled “Are you blind?!” And he said: “As a matter of fact, I am!” I said: “Oh my God, I’m sorry.” I put my bass down and helped him up – that was Rahsaan. He said: “Come and see my show later.” So after our show I went in and he was doing his two-horn thing [playing two saxophones in his mouth simultaneously] and saying things like: “When the electric goes out, who’s still gonna be playin’?!” I didn’t know who he was, but I thought he was amazing. That sense of art and loving artists will let these people emerge again.
TLM: Tell us about the 2 March 1978 session. Teo Macero was there.
TMS: It was the first time I met Teo. With Teo, he was more there to support Miles. I asked Miles, “how do get such great bands and you’re such a great leader?” He said it’s not so much the leadership but you gotta pick the right people. Sometimes the best leader is no leader at all – you let it develop when you got the right people. He said: “It’s in the people I pick and if it starts going off in a direction I don’t want, I nudge it. It’s only a nudge because I have the right people.”
TLM: Miles just played keyboards?
TMS: I remember Miles was in the booth with his horn, but he never played it..
TLM: What about the other musicians?
TMS: I knew Al and Masabumi Kikuchi. George Pavlis was a synthesiser player from Connecticut, but I didn’t know him prior to the date.
TLM: Wasn’t Bobby Scott present? He was supposed to do the horn charts.
TMS: To be quite honest with you, I was so nervous that Pope John the 21st could have been present and I wouldn’t have known! All I can remember was the band, Teo and Miles, plus some Japanese assistant. I was just focused.
TLM: How was the session set-up?
TMS: It was a standard studio setting and I was sitting there. There was Gobo [sound shield] around my amp. I could see Miles – we could all see him. Whenever he wanted to make us stop he would make a gesture and we would all stop on a dime because we could all see him.
TLM: Peter Losin’s website Miles Ahead lists the takes on the session and there are many breakdowns.
TMS: I guess he was looking for something in the take. If somebody was playing something he didn’t want, he’d make a comment. But you’d know pretty well if he didn’t like something.
TLM: Did Miles ever hint about there being other sessions or touring or joining his band?
TMS: I had no idea. I heard from Larry that he wasn’t feel well enough to do a band, but then there was some talk about having some kind of a band go out, which I would have jumped on.
TM Stevens © and courtesy TM Stevens
TLM: What’s your take on Miles’s 1980s music?
TMS: I thought he was very progressive in the fact that a lot of people were saying: “Why aren’t you playing the music like the 40s man? Dizzy and all that.” He said: “The music I played ten minutes ago is old. Let’s move on.” He wasn’t into looking back. And that’s my take – he moved on. I love that stuff and I especially adored Tutu. I agree with him – we should always try to move forward and better ourselves.
TLM: What’s your take on Miles as a musician and person?
TMS: I think he was of the last of a dynasty of when the art was in the hands of the artist. That was when an artist could be an influence on the business. It should be [that] the artist dictates the art; the business learns how to sell it. So when Picasso or Gauguin creates what he creates, somebody has to learn how to sell it. Nowadays, it’s the business that’s the dynasty and we’re trying to make the music the opposite – we’re making music for them to sell. That’s a far cry from the artist dictating what the art is. I would like to see those days come back, where the art and the artist is the main focus.
To me, he’s is one of the last of when the artist was the centre and not just the business part, where we’re just trying to make the hits and follow the bouncing ball. You have to sell. Commerce is about trading goods for something else, in this case, music for the money. When you have to kowtow to what you think is going to sell compared to what you feeling artistically, you’ve sold it short. I’m not blaming artists – you have to make a living. But now, it’s gotten to a mundane level. Can you imagine if Miles had to work to a hit formula? Would have any of those records be possible?
Many thanks to TM and Gerry van Essen
TM’s website is at: www.tmstevens.com