Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Jazz. What Else Would We Talk With Him About?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer. As both a Bruin and a Laker, he is a pillar of Los Angeles basketball. On Friday, Nov. 16, he will have his jersey number retired, and a statue of him will be unveiled outside Staples Center. That's fine and all, but we wanted to talk to him about jazz.
Your father was a musician. Were you always surrounded by jazz?
Absolutely. My mom and dad both sang in the Hall Johnson choral groups. They did the background work on the late-'40s film Cabin in the Sky. My dad started at Juilliard right after the war, class of 1952. He played trombone, tuba and baritone horn. In my household there was always music on the turntable. I started out on Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, my parents' favorites.
[Bassist] Ron Carter used to play basketball with us on Riverside Drive in Harlem. He'd come and play when I was in the ninth grade. At first I didn't know he was Ron Carter. He was just one of the guys who would come play with us. He wasn't that great [laughs]. When his son RJ was born, he missed taking his wife to the hospital. His wife couldn't find him because he was with us, playing basketball.
My dad took me the very first times I heard music live, but by the time I got to high school I was on my own. The Village Vanguard was just awesome. Mr. Gordon, who ran the place, would let me in for free because I was really good friends with the guys in Thelonious Monk's band. I saved a lot of money that way.
What was the jazz scene like when you arrived at UCLA in 1965?
I got a chance to hear some good music at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood. There was a club called Marty's on the Hill in Baldwin Hills at La Brea and Stocker. That was a great spot. I saw Miles' band play at the Orange County Fairgrounds in the spring of '66. UCLA had good jazz performances on campus too. I got to see Mingus, Ellington, John Handy, all those guys.