Interview by: Sammy Stein | Photo’s courtesy of Dawid Laskowski & Asha Davis
‘What is your background?’, I asked. Knoel says,
“I have what one might call a multi-faceted cultural background. I was the second son of a South Carolina couple. My father is listed as dead before I was born. I was taken from my mother and placed in foster care at the age of three, unable to speak because of a stutter. I was raised with my younger brother in the loving home of Robert V. Nero Snr. and Edith O. Nero. Mrs Nero was born in Panama and emigrated with her Barbadian father to the USA aged 12. Robert was former bassist with Max Roach’s first band in Brooklyn, which he joined when he was 19. He gave up professional music to work for MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) as a master mechanic to support his family but he and my mother were considered part of the jazz community in Queens. They were close friends with Count and Katherine Basie and legendary bassist Milt Hinton.
One of my earliest memories is being chastised by my mother for throwing rocks in Count Basie’s pool. In my neighborhood, Count Basie was ‘God’ and the grandest invitation of all was to attend one of Katherine Basie’s pool parties, given by the wives of Club 50 (Club 50 was the social association of the Count Basie Band).
The Neros cared for several youths over the years but I and my younger brother were totally integrated into their family which included their natural son Bobby Jr, 15 years older than myself, who became as a brother to me. The music I heard in this household- which embraced, loved and supported me well into adulthood- was primarily that of Bobby Jr’s record collection which included Wes Montgomery, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith, Harry Belafonte and, most importantly, Johnny Hodges.
On Saturdays, my parents and younger brother, Mike, would go to Kosciusko Street in Brooklyn where my aunt Evelyn lived with her husband Norman and their three boys Ricardo, Carlos and Junior (a little older than me) in the heart of this West Indian community. There, only Spanish was spoken, as merengue based groups and bandleaders like Rafael Petiton Guzman and Afro Cuban music was the order of the day. Merengue is an afro Cuban idiom which means a mixture of African rhythms and Spanish/Indian traditional melodies which has a different rhythmic emphasis than Samba and is characterised by a repetitive melodic ‘loop’ you could say. It is actually quite similar to the music of Senegal and Mali where it originated but it is also played in Cuba, Panama, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The food was superb and the music, dancing, drinking and laughing are still part of my dearest memories. In fact much of my life people would think I was West Indian as my mother’s influence was so great.
As a result of this background I am at home in any genre of African- American music, having experienced everything from Gospel church to Duke (Ellington), Arthur Prysock and Nat King Cole to Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, Ray Charles, Machito and Tito Puente all as a young child.
I had been labelled ‘hyperactive’ but my mother saw something in me that made her insist on me getting some musical training. I was given piano and accordion lessons at the age of 10 and when I was 11 I attended a summer school where I was given a clarinet. My first year in secondary school I was assigned the alto saxophone but when I saw and heard a baritone sax – an old silver beat up horn which the other kids called the ‘granddaddy sax’- it was love at first sight.
The crippling stutter which made conversation impossible for me forced me to find other communicative outlets. I read veraciously and by age of 12 had an above 11th grade reading level and I was always in the top 3 of my class.
The baritone sax I had my heart set on was already assigned to an older boy in school so I had to wait for a year. As I waited I practiced alto diligently. I listened to my brother’s ‘Blue Hodge’ album (a 1962 album with alto sax player Johnny Hodges, organist Wild Bill Davis, with Les Spann on guitar and flute) and learned every Johnny Hodges solo, playing the entire album note for note. Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Benny Carter and Charlie Parker are universally considered the pantheon of the alto saxophone. Next to them Jimmy Dorsey, Earl Bostic, Cannon ball Adderly, Art Pepper and Eric Dolphy and at the farthest end- Marshall Allen.”
By this point my stutter had receded and I found I was capable of holding a conversation. Years later I realized that it was playing the saxophone which enabled me to speak in sentences.”
So, I asked, how did you decide that music was where your strength lay?
“One day” explains Knoel, the district Music Superintendent, Mr Fallon, came to our school and listened to our band class. The next Saturday the door-bell rang at home. Who was there? Mr Fallon – asking to speak with my mother.
“Mrs. Nero” he said, “Your son Knoel is a natural on the baritone saxophone. Please encourage him any way you can- and get him a clarinet.”
My mother encouraged my music all of her remaining years. ‘til she was 90 and was my dearest friend and my greatest fan, God bless her immortal soul.”
So where, I wondered, did you first perform? He comments:
“My first performance was Lemuel Haynes Congregational church. I attended every Sunday and one day the deaconess told me, “Knoel, you play the alto sax and Lisette Wilson plays the piano so the two of you will perform for us the third Sunday of this month.”
So at 12 years old I started practicing with Lissette (the daughter of two music teachers ) who was at 10 way more advanced then me musically. She told me, “you want to play jazz? Well, you know nothing if you don’t have ‘Milestones’”.
Needless to say, I ran out and immediately got hip to the music of Miles Davis – and in the process discovered Charlie Parker as record companies had started releasing Bird with Miles. (Charlie Parker pulled 17 year old Miles out of Julliard, the prestigious music and drama school in New York to replace Dizzy Gillespie as his trumpet player in 1947).
That was my first public performance as well as my first collaboration with another musician. Today, Lissette Wilson is an accomplished pianist and vocalist and was musical director for the pop singer Melissa Morgan. Her younger sister is Debra Wilson of Saturday Night Live.
By the time I reached 14 I was playing alto and baritone saxophone and a little clarinet. I was accepted into the Queens Boro-Wide band which was composed of the best music students in the borough of Queens. Years later, playing with the rock group NRBQ, I found that guitarist Johnny Spampanato was in the Boro-Wide band at the same time though we didn’t connect till 20 years later.”
More of this Interview in Part 2 to be published tomorrow.
If you wish to catch Knoel Live, he’s at the 100 club in London on 5th November 2015 – Details here: