wax Poetics
Derf Reklaw, circa 2008. Photo by B+ (Brian Cross).

The Pinch Hitter

Multi-instrumentalist Derf Reklaw held a key position in the Chicago lineup

published online
Originally published in Issue 27, 2008
By John Kruth

The great Derf Reklaw has passed, his daughter announced via Facebook on Thursday, February 24, 2022. During the golden era of jazz and funk of the 1960s and 1970s in Chicago, Reklaw made his presence felt on both classic records and little-known jams—like the Intentions’ 1971 tune “Blowing with the Wind” (check his flute solo below). His contributions far outweighed the description of a “side player.” In the late ’90s and onward, he influenced a whole new generation with his participation in the Los Angeles scene, playing with Dwight Trible, B+’s Brasilintime, as well as the collective Build an Ark, to name a few. Wax Poetics writer—and a multi-instrumentalist musician himself—John Kruth chatted with the low-key legend in 2008 for our Issue 27. That article follows.

Derf Reklaw, the percussionist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist formerly known as Fred Walker, was employed as the secret weapon for Chicago-based jazz and funk musicians since the late ’60s—including Eddie Harris, Ramsey Lewis, Donny Hathaway, and the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Derf collaborated with Chaka Khan and Stanley Clarke, and was also a member of the legendary Pharaohs.

To describe him with words like “creative” and “inventive” only shows the weakness of our language. Not only did the man have a solid handle on the history of the music he lived and breathed, he was a great storyteller and joke-smith as well, spewing one hilarious tale after the next in a mad ramble of jazzspeak.

When did you first meet Eddie Harris?

I first met Eddie in 1968. He was a guest soloist with the Operation Breadbasket band that was led by Ben Branch. We talked briefly about a few things. Then, in 1972, I was playing in a group with Eddie, Richard Muhal Abrams, Rufus Reid, and Billy James. In ’73, I became permanent with him and played with Eddie until late 1974.

Being a multi-instrumentalist, what instrument did you mostly play in Eddie’s band?

I didn’t just play one instrument with Eddie. I played tablas, timbales, djembe, and conga drums. I also played flute and sang. And later on, I played saxophone too. I play all the saxophones, but when Eddie would play the reed trumpet, I’d go to the alto sax. That was a great band. I’ve played with several great musicians throughout the world, but Eddie Harris was the best. There was absolutely nothing that he couldn’t do, whether it was yodeling or playing the piano. He was one of the best piano players I ever saw. He would take newspaper and put it inside, between the strings, and then he’d play the piano and it would sound like drums. I never saw anybody else do that. And he’d played saxophone with a trombone mouthpiece and trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece, and later on he used a trumpet mouthpiece. Sometimes, he’d put bells on his fingers and just play the pads of the saxophone and hum through it with a wah-wah pedal and a phase shifter. Then he would sing through the saxophone like Billie Holiday.

When he was an MP in the service, he could take a gun away from somebody in three seconds. Whether it was playin’ basketball or shootin’ pool or crackin’ jokes, he was the best. He could crack jokes for a whole set and be funny. He loved to embarrass you. If you were in your room at the hotel with a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your doorknob, he would take it down and write “Smokin’ Herb,” and then put it back on the doorknob! [laughs] Eddie was funny like that.

I used to practice the flute in my hotel room; so, one night in Montreal, Eddie invited me to play a solo for the people. The whole band left the stage, and I played a couple little songs that I wrote. People liked it, and he came back up and said, “That wasn’t too bad. We’ll see if you do the same thing the next set and repeat yourself,” because he was the type of person that if you repeated yourself, he would write your whole solo out and hand it to you. He heard every note you played, and he could write it out. He said, “If you’re gonna play the same thing, then you might as well read the music.” [laughs]

But he was one of the few people I looked to as a mentor. He told me all kinds of things I needed to know to be a better musician, and I am a better musician from my association with him. Eddie would be playin’ some of the baddest saxophone in the world, really fast, and then he’d would walk up on you and give you that look in his eye, to see if you could play as fast as he could. He liked to change things up. Sometimes, you’d play thirty-five songs on one night. Then, the next night, we’d play three. You never knew what was goin’ on! He’d tell me to play the melody on the congas! He always had stuff to challenge you and trick you with. With Eddie, the whole thing was to play beyond the bar line. I started yodeling and he out-yodeled me. He could play the drums like Max Roach. There wasn’t nothin’ he couldn’t do.

So then why did you leave Eddie for Ramsey’s band?

Well, Eddie was real thrifty, and I had kids and a wife and bills. After he moved to Los Angeles in October of ’74, I knew he wasn’t gonna be flyin’ me back and forth from Chicago to wherever he had to play. So I wound up playin’ with Ramsey after that. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. You got your clothes, hotel, and a per diem. Charles Stepney, who I did a lot of work with, told me, “Eddie is never gonna forgive you for leavin’ his band.”

I had to tell Eddie that I was leavin’ ’cause I was gonna get my own band together. I knew he’d understand that. I couldn’t tell him I was leavin’ to play with Ramsey. He said, “Well, okay, but I was gonna make you a star.” I said, “Huh?” Eddie never made nobody a star. Then, one of the first jobs I had playin’ with Ramsey, Eddie and Donald Byrd were also on the show. Some friends came backstage and asked Eddie, “Derf’s not playin’ with you?” He said, “No, Derf is with Ramsey. We can play without Derf, but Ramsey needs all the help he can get!” [laughs] I wrote a song called “Get On Down” that Eddie had a little hit with. Then he went on Soul Train doin’ the moves that I had choreographed for the band. They were up there doin’ my song and my moves, and it was funny, ’cause I wasn’t nowhere in sight.

Didn’t you used to play in the Pharaohs?

Yeah, the Pharaohs, as a collective unit, was the best group I ever worked with. They had all the potential in the world but blew it. When I joined in 1968, I was asked by Ki [Charles Handy], who was the leader of the Pharaohs. 

Some of that stuff was really out there, approaching Sun Ra’s dimension.

Very few of the real Pharaoh songs ever got recorded. Of the two records that were released by Ubiquity, only two of those songs made the Pharaohs famous. We recorded some songs at a studio in Chicago that nobody’s found—the masters just disappeared. We had one song that I wrote with Chaka Khan singing before she was famous. That’s over forty years now! [laughs] Unless you saw them live, the world never really heard the real true Pharaoh music. It’s funny, everybody’s makin’ a big thing about the Pharaohs now, but where were they when we were performing? They never saw us. 

What was it like working with Donny Hathaway?

When I first met Donny, he was the happiest person on earth. We were really good friends, and he’d show me stuff he was comin’ up with at his studio on 77th and Halstead. I worked with him on several projects, like Come Back Charleston Blue, and we did some Afro Sheen commercials. I worked with him when [conga player] Master Henry [Gibson] couldn’t make it. But Donny was a brilliant arranger and great singer and a funky piano player. When he did “The Ghetto,” he didn’t know it was gonna hit. When it did, he wasn’t used to bein’ in the public life. Bein’ a star messed him up a little bit, and he didn’t recover from that.

Did you cut anything with Donny on Atlantic?

No, but I recorded with Eddie on Atlantic—Bad Luck Is All I Have and I Need Some Money, which I wrote [the title track for].

Comin’ from Chicago, you were in with the AACM—Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, started by Muhal Richard Abrams in 1965.

Yeah, I played with Muhal Abrams’s AACM Big Band with Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, and Malachi Favors. When I saw Joseph Jarman, he was playing the things that I’d been thinking about playing. I first played flute, oboe, and clarinet, and became a drummer after my instrument got stolen. I never had a teacher. I taught myself how to play drums in two weeks, and then I formed my own band.

Rest in peace, Derf Reklaw.

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