Don Preston is a jazz bred multi-instrumentalist musician who is best known for his work with the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa. With his father being a jazz arranger and composer in residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Don to exposed to music at a very early age. This led him to taking piano lessons at the age of 5. The lessons didn't last long because Don felt he didn't have the right teachers. He learned enough to hold a tune and this came in handy when he enlisted in the Armed Services. While playing the piano in the recreation area on a base in Italy, the leader of the Army band took notice and invited him to an audition. He passed and learned how to work well with other musicians. When he was on leave, he would venture into town and sit in with the local groups, which led to learning how to play the bass. Don used the music tools he learned in the Army to his advantage when he settled back home in Detroit. He wound up playing with jazz greats Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan and many others. It didn't stop there, because when he relocated to Los Angeles, he played with the likes of Hal McIntyre, Nat King Cole, Emil Richards and other well known musicians. During this era, Don would experiment with the latest keyboard electronics and he had his own avant garde/contemporary music band. This band had a gig with many other bands, in a large hall, and that's where Don met Frank Zappa. After exchanging cards and contact information, Frank wound up inviting Don into the Mothers of Invention and he appeared on the classic early album "Absolutely Free". During his tenure with The Mothers, Don saw the 1st European tour... 3 different band line-ups... and participated on the seminal early Mothers albums "We're Only In It For The Money" through "Roxy and Elsewhere". After his work with the Mothers, Don continued to create groundbreaking music throughout his career. At one point he was working with Downtown New York choreographer/composer Meredith Monk. Today, Don stays active performing with the Zappa tribute bands - The Grandmothers and Project/Object, and regularly appears at the Zappanale Festival in Germany. I recently chatted with Don about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Don... this is Robert von Bernewitz. How are you today?
D.P. - I'm fine.
R.V.B. - So you're still at it and still enjoying your musical career. I guess you can't get enough?
D.P. - (Haha) Why not? It's more fun than not doing it.
R.V.B. - That's true. It's a blessing to be able to play music. You're currently on tour in the Cleveland area with Project/Object. How's the tour going so far?
D.P. - It's been very good... very successful. We've had great audiences and ton's of fans.
R.V.B. - What kind of preparation do you have to do for a tour like this, if maybe you had some off for a while? I know the music is kind of complicated.
D.P. - We'll I just worked the Zappanali Festival a couple of months ago, so it hasn't been very long. The thing about coming on the road with Project Object... I had to learn a bunch of material and I had to go over material that I hadn't played for a couple of years. In that sense, I did have to work on a lot of stuff.
R.V.B. - Through your career, I see a who's who of musicians that you have worked with... it's quite a variety. Do you like to try different things and go in different directions?
D.P. - I don't think it's a matter of choice. It's more of a matter of circumstance. I have been very lucky in my life to have been able to work with a lot of great people. In the case of Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan, I took it upon myself to go where they were. It got acquainted with them and eventually started working with them.
D.P. - Well my father was a musician and a composer, so I was pretty much around music all the time. When I was at school age he worked at home. He worked for NBC in Detroit as a staff arranger. I never thought of having a career as a musician because I was never encouraged. My father thought I'd be much better off doing something else.
R.V.B. - It's not the most stable field in the world.
D.P. - Exactly. For the most part I made enough income to make a living, stay alive, and pay my bills. I didn't amass a fortune at all, (Haha) but I enjoyed myself tremendously. In that sense it was a really good thing.
R.V.B. - You've been in many creative projects. Did you want to play the piano at first or was it decided by your parents?
D.P. - I started taking piano lessons when I was around 5 and along the way, I never really had a great teacher. I never took it seriously because I didn't have a teacher say to me "Hey this is really important. You have to do this, this, and this". Paul Bley practiced 6 to 7 hours a day, because he had a great teacher. Even my brother-in-law (Alan DiCenzo) practiced 6 to 7 hours a day. He was a concert pianist. He was raised to go on a world tour with orchestras and he got tendinitis. He was so worried about what he was doing that he over practiced. He got a serious case of tendinitis and he couldn't go on the tour... he couldn't play. He went and got a Doctorate Degree in Math instead. He programmed the 1st Venus Fly by while working at JPL.
R.V.B. - That had to be interesting.
D.P. - Yeah. He went on to win some awards for his skills.
D.P. - I toyed with the idea of being a magician. I worked pretty hard at it, practicing the various techniques. I learned a lot about how magic worked. I found out at the time that my skin had a tendency to be very dry, and in close up magic, that doesn't work. Unless you have some kind of lubricant on your hands, you can't do things. When you try to do something with cards, they just slip. When your hands are dry, there's nothing to grip the cards with. You can't do things like make things disappear... fake passes... or cutting the cards without anyone seeing you do it.
R.V.B. - So you went into the army, and you were stationed overseas.
D.P. Yes, I was stationed in Trieste, Italy.
R.V.B. - You got more involved with music at that point?
D.P. I was working with heavy equipment, which is where they put me after my aptitude test. I would go over to the PX, where they had a piano there, and play it. This guy came over to me and said "You play pretty good. Why don't you come down and audition for the Army band?". So I did. I went down there and they had a big band set up. The Chief Warrant Officer was in charge of the band, and he asked me to play this piece on piano, along with the band. They had whole band arrangements back in those days, that you could buy. A lot of big bands used these. Especially the ones that weren't on top. So we played "Slow Boat to China". It was in G flat, which is one of the hardest keys there is on the piano.
R.V.B. - You have to play a lot of black keys.
D.P. Yes, a lot of black keys. When that was over the Warrant Officer came up to me and said "Well Don, I can tell that you were not exactly reading the music but you did such a good job faking it, I'm gonna have you join the band". (Haha) When I joined that band, I had never played with anyone before... since I was 17. I really didn't know much about playing with other people. I didn't even know what a group was. I didn't even know what a bridge was in a song. I knew more about classical music than I did about jazz. I did listened to some of my favorites like Stan Kenton and George Shearing, and people like that.
While I was there, I got a hold of an inhaler in town... which was three times stronger than an American inhaler. What you did is you took the thing apart and chewed it. It was like cotton. You chewed it along with some chewing gum until the contents were dissolved and went into your system. I proceeded to walk 8 miles. We lived behind this white marble castle, which is still there, right on the Adriatic Sea. So I walked 8 miles to town and I saw a bar there. There was a group playing and I saw a bass leaning up against the wall. I walked up to them and asked if I could sit in on bass. They said "Oh yeah... come on up". I did and I played with them for like 4 hours straight. They were playing some standards and Italian stuff. (haha) I had a pretty good ear and I could follow along. I got through that evening and walked all the way back, and from that moment on, I was a bass player. (Haha) I didn't even get callus's on my fingers, from never playing bass in my life... playing that long.
R.V.B. - That's interesting because it takes some effort to press double bass strings down.
D.P. - In those days nobody had an amplifier. The strings were a little higher than normal. Today you could play all day because the strings are so low.
R.V.B. - Did that incident in town allow you to play bass in the services band also?
D.P. - Yeah... absolutely. We had three bass's there, so I just took one up to my room and practiced with it. I figured out how everything worked on it. Of course there were one or two bass players there and they showed me a lot of stuff. By the time I got out of the army I could actually play quite well. After I got into Detroit, I would go down to the West End Cafe. They had after hour sessions where they would start at 2 am and go on until 5 or 6 in the morning. When I got there, the bass player was Alvin Jackson... who was Milt Jackson's brother. They played a set and after it was over I asked them if I could sit in. They said "Sure... go ahead". I sat in with them and nobody complained. It was Elvin Jones playing drums and Tommy Flanagan playing piano. Yusef Lateef would play, and other people would sit in. I could actually keep up with them and play the right notes, and make it sound pretty damn good.
R.V.B. - That's some big name jazz company.
D.P. - No kidding. That was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
R.V.B. - You stayed in the jazz realm for a while because you had a stint with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra. You toured with Nat King Cole.
D.P. - Hal had worked all over the east coast and then moved out to the west coast. He had two guys in the band from Detroit that I knew. Somehow they got my number and they called me to ask me if I wanted to be part of the band. I said "Sure". I wasn't doing anything else. I joined the band and we toured all over the west coast.
R.V.B. - Hal's lineage goes back to Glenn Millers Band.
D.P. - That's right.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up going to LA from Detroit?
D.P. - My mother had moved to LA. She was living with this guy as they were married. They were both alcoholics and she was having marital problems. She had asked me to come out there to give her moral support and I did. I was having a lot of fun in Detroit. I was in a great place to play music. There was no shortage of work ever. When I moved to LA, I spent a couple of months living in their house. Then I moved into town and started going into after hour places there. That was a great way of networking. You could go sit in... people could hear you play... and then they call you for a job... that paid money. I moved there in 1957. I started working with Hal McIntyre in 58. I worked with him for about a year and a half. Then he didn't have any work for a while. He had the unfortunate accident where he exploded. He fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and his body caught on fire. He literally burned up within a matter of 3 or 4 minutes.
R.V.B. - Oh my God!
D.P. - It's not a common thing for there have been instances where people burn up in a flash... because their body was filled with alcohol.
R.V.B. - That's a horrible way to go.
D.P. - I guess???
R.V.B. - So you networked yourself around and found work as a musician. What led to your meeting with Frank Zappa?
D.P - I was playing in this big huge room and there were like 6 other bands playing. There were 2 or 3 bandstands around the peripheral of the room, and there was a bandstand in the center of the room. It was really quite a large space. I found myself in the center stage, and I met Frank there. He was playing in a band that was on that stage as well. We talked... exchanged cards... and about 3 weeks later he called me. He wanted me to do an audition. So I came over to his house and went over some of his music. The group was organ, guitar, and drums. I can't remember who the drummer was. We went to play at this dance club, and Frank wanted us to play "Oh No", which was a beautiful piece but it's in 7/4. People can't dance to 7/4... it's very difficult. We didn't get that job. Meanwhile, I had an experimental music band, that was kind of a garage band. We did play in a garage. Frank used to come there and we would improvise to films of microscopic life and other things. He would bring films down. I had a Super 8 projector and a 16MM projector. We would improvise to his films. It was a lot of fun. Bunk was in the band and his brother Buzz... and a few other people. Putter Smith was there. He went on to play with a lot of jazz greats. Putter's brother Carson Smith played with all the guys on the west coast. Chet Baker... Paul Desmond... people like that.
R.V.B. - West coast jazz is a whole different way of playing jazz. You mentioned electronic music. I know the time period of 1966, when you hooked up with Frank, there was a lot of experimental electronic music being born... because of the technology of the synthesizer. I know you appreciated the works of Berio, Nono, and Stockhausen.
D.P. - They were actually in the 50's. They started doing that stuff way before the synthesizers were conceived. It was a way for them to present their music. Even though they were great orchestral composers, nobody would play their music, because nobody knew who they were. It's still true today. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and people like that, did these chamber works because they couldn't get their orchestral pieces played. It was all a stepping stone. Both Berio and Nono started writing for orchestra's after a certain point. They had great stuff too.
D.P. - We were both listening to those types of composers... Stockhausen... Takemitsu... Ligeti... and Xenakis... we were seeing what people were doing during that period. It was just a natural step. I understood what Zappa was doing. I could relate to it. I was in a group before I joined the Mothers, where that's all we did... play in odd times.
R.V.B. - On the west coast... was that unusual? Did most of the other bands play standard pop songs? Did you know right away that it was an unusual outfit that you were in?
D.P. - Well I didn't find it unusual. I saw his record collection, and it was almost identical to what I was listening to. I had a great appreciation for his knowledge of music. When I started learning some of his songs, my appreciation got stronger because I could see where he was going and I just understood what he was doing.
R.V.B. - During your tenure... as with most of his bands... people came and people went. You were in the relatively early stages, starting from "Absolutely Free"... what it a natural progression in the way that the music went up to "Roxy and Elsewhere" in that you have creative input in the music that was born?
D.P. - Well, I'm sure I did. I was one of the few people that Zappa ever played a couple of my compositions. Zappa liked what I was doing as a composer... myself. I saw a progression in his writing skills. Obviously, the stuff on "Roxy" is way more complicated than "We're Only In It For The Money" and "Absolutely Free".
R.V.B. - So it was a go along as you go, and improve as you go scenario.
D.P. - Yeah... absolutely. Now when I'm playing with Project Object, I'm playing stuff up to the early the 80's. I see that as progressing... in a different way but I could see the development through his whole career.
R.V.B. - What do you feel that you personally added to his music?
D.P. - There's tons of stuff. All the Stravinsky stuff on the records are basically my idea... except maybe for "Call Any Vegetable"... at the end there's an excerpt from "History of a Soldier"... by Stravinsky. I'm having trouble remembering but like the intro to "American Drinks & Goes Home"... even though it's not my music, I brought that in. I used to hear it as a kid all the time. One of these New Years Orchestras played that on every intro that they played. (Haha) It's just little things like that. I would say "Well, how about we trying this?". Basically in the 1st band, he was open to suggestions. In the 2nd and 3rd bands... No!!! It was like a done deal. Not only that but those other two bands were a lot more rigid in their performance. With the first band, we never had a set list. We didn't know what we were going to play. I don't think Zappa did either. Sometimes he would jump up in the air, and when he landed, we were supposed to start playing a new song. Nobody knew what it was.
D.P. - There were a few that I liked more than others... mainly for personal reasons. When I was a young boy, I had a recording of "The Rite of Spring" on 78 records. It was recorded in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I was real familiar with that recording. It was extremely beautiful. When I got to the Concertgebouw to play... which was the 1st European tour... I was blown away by it. The sound in there was spectacular... even with a rock band. It was incredible. I think the same thing could be said for Albert Hall. The place was magnificent. I was looking at the organ and this guy comes up and says "You want to play that?". The he turns it on with a key. I sat there for like 3 hours playing that organ. It was a big - huge pipe organ. It's the largest pipe organ in the world.
R.V.B. - Too bad nobody recorded that!
D.P. - Yeah, that would of been nice. I did all kinds of weird things with it. Frank had me play "Louie, Louie" on it... during the concert.
R.V.B. - I want to ask you about your association with Meredith Monk. How did you meet her?
D.P. - We were playing at the Garrick Theater and I was reading the paper... the "East Village Other". I saw a picture of her and she was like bent in half. She was looking at the camera with her head near her feet. It said "Meredith Monk Dance Concert". This was the 1st dance concert she ever did... other than in college. I got Roy (Estrada) to come with me to this dance concert. She did 2 pieces... one was called "16 Millimeter Earrings", and the other piece was called "Yellow Piece". I was totally blown away at her. I couldn't believe it. When it was over, I went over and talked to her and told her who I was. She gave me her phone number and we started going out a little bit. Eventually we started living together. We stayed together for about 8 months.
R.V.B. - Did you collaborate musically with her?
D.P. - Indirectly. We all know now... but at the time... nobody knew her as a musician at all. She was known as a choreographer and dancer. I was her music director for approximately 2 years. We toured all over Upstate New York. We played at the Guggenheim Museum. She did a great piece there. I played violin in that piece.
R.V.B. - How many instruments can you pay?
D.P. - I couldn't play violin and I still can't. I only had to ply 2 notes. From playing bass, I knew what the mechanics of it would be.
R.V.B. - Looking back on your career up to this point... what are you proud of in your place in music?
D.P. - Gee wiz. It's really hard to answer because I've been involved in so many areas. I'm proud of all of them. I think some of the most important music that I've done is my electronic music. The work that I did on "Apocalypse Now"... I'm very proud of. I worked with Gil Evans for over a year. I recorded an album with him. He's an amazing person.
D.P. - Oh yeah, but his biggest complaint was "You don't get paid royalties to be an arranger". That's what he did for the most part. He hired me because of my electronic music and he wanted me in his group.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time with me. Congratulations on your career up to this point. You've produced some great music. You've collaborated with a lot of great musicians. Like I mentioned earlier, you made things happen.
D.P. - Thanks for the interview... I appreciated it.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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