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.
You had your own jazz festival in the 1970s. How was that experience as a jazz promoter?
Leonard Feather gave me a great write-up in the L.A. Times. I can still remember the review. He said, “Jazz scores with an assist from Jabbar.” I did it at the Ahmanson. I was lucky. … I didn't think it had to make sense financially. Fortunately for me, it was not a financial bust. At the end of it all, I think I made $2,000. People told me, “At least you finished in the black,” but as you can tell, I didn't do it again.
My dad played. The people in my office arranged that. My parents came out for the festival, but I was never of the opinion that my dad was someone who people might want to hear play. It was not my idea. I should have known when I saw [his] trombone case, but I didn't put it together. He didn't embarrass me. That's all I was worried about.
What are you listening to these days?
I'm really enjoying the ascendance of Robert Glasper. It's just wonderful to see someone from the young generation, who appreciates all the music that I have enjoyed. He's aware of it and made his own take on it. He's still loyal to the tradition without distorting it. I think that that's pretty great.