july 2008

(Old) Schooled in the Fundamentals

Wayman Tisdale Rebounds from Cancer with Faith and Rebound

By David McGee


Wayman Tisdale, hale and hearty: ‘It’s important that you give back to God for getting you to the place you’re at. I always thought that. To retire from the NBA at 33 and go right into a music career and to end up where I am, that is an awesome thing.’

It was a February day in 2007, pretty much like any other February day in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of three-time college All-American, Olympic gold medalist, former NBA star and respected jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale. He had been feeling some soreness in one of his knees. Being an athlete most of his life, Tisdale knew his body was telling him something.

“I thought I had tendinitis,” Tisdale recalls. “Just a little nagging thing. That’s really all I thought.”

But on a routine trip downstairs, one knee gave way, and he took a tumble to the bottom, and couldn’t get up. After being examined at a hospital, he got some bad news: his leg had literally snapped in two. Then more bad news: it had snapped in two because a cyst had eaten through it. And then a little more bad news: he had bone cancer. Knee replacement surgery ensued, followed by a grueling chemotherapy regimen that laid him flat on his back for months on end, “at home in bed, for 18 hours a day, looking at the ceiling.”

But Wayman Tisdale had a few things going for him as he endured the ravages of chemo. First and foremost was family. He and his wife Regina have four children, the oldest being 24-year-old daughter Danielle, the youngest another daughter, 13-year-old Gabrielle, with daughter Tiffany (20) and son Wayman (17) in between. When the crisis hit, the family circled the wagons to get dad through the dark times (“the kids really had to grow up under this whole situation”). But when you talk about the Tisdale family, the other element you must deal with is the matter of faith, which runs strong and deep here. Wayman’s late father, the Rev. Louis Tisdale, who died in 1997 at age 74, was prominent enough in Tulsa’s religious community to have a stretch of the downtown expressway named after him (he had served in the pulpit of the Friendship Baptist Church for more than 20 years at the time of his passing). The Reverend Tisdale’s lessons and life example, which have always been a source of strength for his son, came in handy when disease attacked him.

“Oh, man, if I didn’t have faith I wouldn’t be here today,” Tisdale asserts. “There were many nights I wanted to give up, but it was faith that kept me going, kept me strong. Chemo is a rough ordeal, and if you don’t have a faith to know that there’s something waiting for you on the other side, you’ll give up. A lot of people do.”


Besides, he had other work to do. On the musical front. In 1995, two years after retiring from the NBA with a 15 points/six rebounds per game average, he was signed to Motown and released his first solo album, Power Forward, a smooth jazz effort that was greeted with mostly positive appraisals of the artist’s songwriting and for his lyrical lead bass lines. Six more albums followed, along with increasingly positive reviews, and in 2002 came a Legacy Tribute Award by the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

Believing in his ultimate recovery, Tisdale got healthy again, then began writing his eighth album, Rebound, which was released by Rendezvous Entertainment on June 3. Although he admits “I can do music in my sleep,” he purposely waited until he had been given a clean bill of health before moving ahead with Rebound, “because I wanted to start the record and write it from a point of reflection and a point of thankfulness and a point of gratefulness. Some of the moods of the record take you there. I didn’t want it to be a sad record—hey, it’s a celebration.”

Indeed it is. Working with four different producers in multiple studios across the country, Tisdale co-wrote 10 of the 12 tracks on the album. One of the two covers reflects his responsibilities as a “self-appointed ambassador of old school,” in a faithful cover of Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up,” featuring the most unlikely of former Oklahoma University varsity athletes on lead vocal, none other than former Sooner gridiron stalwart and current country music superstar Toby Keith. The record is abundant in life-affirming music, whether it be of the horn-driven funk variety (“Throwin’ It Down”) or dreamy romantic interludes such as “In Love,” withTisdale’s evocative lead bass lines complemented by standout performances by other soloists such as saxophonist Dave Koz, whose wailing solo takes the title track to a higher level; pianist Brian Simpson with expressive right hand riffing on the pastoral “I’ll Do The Driving”; and gospel shouter Marvin Sapp delivering a house wrecking hallelujah on the tellingly titled album closer, “Grateful.” Although there is a low-key, hip-hop rhythm percolating at the outset of “Grateful,” Rebound is otherwise true to Tisdale’s passion for old school in all its elements.

“Most of this record was done old school,” Tisdale says. “Not like they’re doing today, sending stuff across the Internet. Even though there was some little bit of stuff done like that. But for the majority of the songs I was sitting in the actual room with the producers and we were talking it out, because we knew it was important that we did the right record. We had to make sure that we got the right record, to nail it. I got the best producers in the world to come and help write with me. It’s a gift from God that He’s put people in my life for a reason, and they’re willing to help me out.”

Old school and fundamentals—that was the heart of Tisdale’s game on the court, and most certainly defines his approach to songwriting. Rely on the basics, erect a proper foundation and everything else falls into place. For instance: “I tried to write the old school way of intro, body and conclusion. I’ve always remembered what my teachers at Booker T. Washington High School taught. Their whole concept was it has to have an intro, it has to have a body, it has to have a conclusion. When I write songs, if I don’t have those elements it doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not the kind of musician who can just go out and play music and not have a purpose to what I’m doing. There are songwriters I admire. I love James Taylor, Babyface. I’ve tried to pattern my music along the lines of very easygoing and meaningful. Not a lot of screaming, not a lot of yelling when those guys sing, and in the same way I don’t do a lot of licks or a lot of chord progressions. Just the meat and potatoes.”

He’s a “meat and potatoes” bass player, too, although he doesn’t give himself enough credit for how resourceful his playing has become. It’s impossible not to see his musicianship as an extension of his basketball style, which was not flashy but economical and productive. The influences of Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller are evident, but if they’re Sinatra, he’s at least Mel Torme, an instrumental “Velvet Fog.”


Sharing a stage with bass titan Marcus Miller: ‘When you listen to me play, and you hear all the stuff I do, I’m not coming from theory. I’m coming strictly from anointing. I feel it’s something God has given me.’

“I think I’m not the fanciest bass player out there, and by no means am I the best bass player in the world, but I’m probably one of the most disciplined” is Tisdale’s self-assessment. “I know what I am, I realize what I am and I realize the difficulty in making the bass sing. I play from a melodic standpoint. I have to drive melody first. I can fill up a record with a bunch of fancy licks, but I look at licks as like being able to dribble two basketballs behind your back and spin ‘em on your fingers at the same time. You don’t see that in a game.”

As for Toby Keith’s presence on the album, it turns out to have been Toby’s idea all along, after the Barry White song had come up on his iPod while he was lifting weights. He called Wayman with the idea of them cutting the song together, and in no time was standing in Wayman’s home studio laying down the vocal, with Wayman and producer Darren Rahn looking on in amazement.

“I was right there with my jaw hanging open like everybody else. Could not believe it. He nailed it to pieces. We were just so pleased that he would want to step outside the box with me. He could have chosen anybody, but he stepped out of the box with his homeboy; we’re Oklahoma Sooner boys to our last strand of hair. When he started singing the song, we were going, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute.’ I had to look in there and make sure it was actually Toby singing it. We had printed out lyric sheets and he said, ‘I don’t need ‘em.’ He knew the song when he came in. We were floored. We could not believe it. He’s a professional, but you know you can get a singer in there and you may have to give them some direction, cue them on the nuance or something. We didn’t have to say a word to Toby.

“When he left we sat around and played the track over and over for about an hour. We couldn’t believe what had just happened. I was honored to have Toby in my place, but to have him go out on a limb to nail it like that, it’s all worth it.”

One song that is where it was always designed to be in the sequence is “Grateful.” As the album sign-off it features not only Warren Sapp’s rafters shaking vocal but also a heartfelt benediction from Tisdale praising God’s grace in his life. A gospel number has closed all of Tisdale’s albums, but this one had special import in light of the artist’s recent tribulations. “We end with a spiritual message, and on this record the message was ‘Grateful,’ for obvious reasons and no doubt in my mind, no doubt in anyone else’s mind, that you can hear the gratefulness in my voice. It’s important that you give back to God for getting you to the place you’re at. I always thought that. To go from the NBA at an early age to retire at 33 and go right into a music career and to end up where I am, that is an awesome thing.”

Back when more than 200 schools were recruiting him, Wayman was blessed by an invaluable bit of advice from his father, specifically, “God has blessed you and you don’t have to follow tradition. Tradition will follow you, wherever you go. You’re the one that’s going to carve your own way because you’re gifted in so many areas. Tradition will follow you. That’s what gave me the encouragement to go to Oklahoma and become the leader. Same musically. Everybody says no way the bass can be a lead instrument, and there’s no way you can make a living, especially in jazz, playing lead bass. Once again, I took the lesson of my father—tradition will follow me—and there he goes again. You have to believe in yourself, and you have to know that everybody is not going to see your vision for what you have and for what life has given you. You have to show ‘em. At the end of the day it’s been a lesson I’ve lived by, all my life.”

The lesson in question infuses his playing, too, which he sees as a gift from God to be honored and nurtured. “When you listen to me play, and you hear all the stuff I do, I’m not coming from theory. You can tell that. I’m coming strictly from anointing. I feel it’s something God has given me. I’ve never had a lesson. I don’t read music. In the studio, trying to tell musicians what I’m playing, I have to show them. That’s a sign right there that it has to be something strong spiritually that’s leading me.”

The term “old school” can be used pejoratively to denote someone who’s out of step with the times. In Wayman Tisdale’s case, it’s possible he’s ahead of the times, having placed a priority on cultivating his spiritual life while keeping the material world in proper balance with the more enriching but intangible elements in his personal life. It’s all there in his music, with expressions of faith, sensuality and romance meshing in a seamless entity.

Even though he’s just starting to promote Rebound and take it on the road, he’s already looking ahead to the next album. What’s it gonna be? Old school anyone?

“Man, I’ve already finished the next record,” he announces. “It’s a funk album, all vocal, a throwback, old school ‘70s record that you’re gonna love. It’s just called The Funk Record.

“So get ready.”

The man is a juggernaut. He’s scoring at will.


Read the Rebound review here.

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