Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bobbie Lee at the Hammond organ…

This is a promotional photo of my mother taken in the early 1960's from her days playing Hammond B3 organ professionally in Baltimore nightclubs. With her organ playing days now long past the memories I have from hearing her play and teaching me standards when I began playing saxophone remain formidable. Yet in some ways the trajectory from her musical upbringing leading to my own involvement in music is just now becoming more clear to me.

Sometimes I'm asked what kind of music my mother played and I reply that while she did not regard herself as a jazz musician she did play standards in a swinging fashion. There was little improvisation involved but over the years working in clubs she would come up with arrangements and "shout" choruses to these tunes, which I then grew up hearing (and playing) at the many house parties we had. But I was always at something of a loss trying to describe exactly what this was and where it came from.

I was aware that my mother learned to play in church. But by the time I came along she was playing in nightclubs full time. This was in the early '60s at a time when socially it was a big deal not only to be a woman in this field but to have also made that break from the church to the world of secular nightlife and entertainment. The little exposure I had to church services as a kid was to be honest, quite boring. Very reserved and staid affairs. We didn't even go much at all but I'm guessing that the adults in my family thought it was a good idea for me to get some kind of religious upbringing even as my mother had pretty much left the church. But I did realize that the divide between the kind of music I was hearing in church and the kind of music my mother played on the organ was rather enormous. I never thought much about church after that. Of course I recognized certain blues and gospel elements in her sound but I never really knew exactly where she got it from. I assumed that she had somehow learned to play standards like that on her own. But a year or so ago I was talking with her about her upbringing and was surprised to find out that her church experience was very different from what I had assumed. Turns out she was brought up playing piano and organ in the pentecostal church and in her words "the music had to make you move"! Well, that made much more sense to me given the way she played. Turns out her parents left the pentecostal church at some point before I was born and so I had no experience with the type of services she described.

But it really wasn't until more recently that I heard some online clips of church organists playing hymns in a style that I immediately recognized as being very close harmonically, rhythmically and emotionally to what I grew up hearing from my mother. Lots of dominant seventh and diminished chords with a strong beat and more than a hint of gospel tinge. So now my interest is piqued and I've been reading some background information on just how this all came to be. In the early days of the pentecostal movement congregations were racially mixed. The expressive (or even ecstatic) tradition of church services was already established in southern African American churches as well as in white Appalachian services (in which some congregations went so far as to handle deadly snakes as proof of their devotion to God). Over time, white congregations and African American congregations became divided. But the musical seeds had been planted and continued to develop in spite of societal restrictions. One story my mother tells took place when she was just a teenager. She was invited by one of the African American churches in Washington DC to fill in for one of their services. Up until that time she was used to playing a few choruses of the song and that was it. But as she played, the members of the congregation all got up and came over to the organ, encouraging her to continue playing the song over and over as everyone sang and contributed to the mounting energy. As she tells it, they wouldn't let her stop. She laughs about it now, but at the time that was a formidable experience for a young person unaccustomed to that degree of social and musical intensity. My father, Rodd Keith, a keyboardist (as well as occasional saxophonist) was also musically involved in the pentecostal church (which is how my parents met). As a kid I recall my mother playing an elaborate arrangement of "Stand Up for Jesus" that he wrote and taught her back when they were playing together. From what I recall, it certainly had all the ingredients of the kind of music that surely would have gotten people on their feet. But he too had left the church.

In reading about the history of gospel music there is a general sense that white gospel traditions intertwined with southern country music while African American traditions paved the way for R & B and jazz. But my mother's approach was more towards the later as there was really no love of country music in our household. Even my grandfather (an accomplished guitarist and director of music at the church where my mother and father first met) eschewed the type of roots music (or "hillbilly" music as he called it) that he knew from his rural West Virginia upbringing. He was much more into the "pretty chords" that he loved to play on guitar which also extended into the popular tunes he played in Baltimore clubs for a time in the '40s and '50s. My mother had some jazz and R & B records in her collection and ultimately it was the sound of the great R & B tenor stylings of the day that got me into playing. In fact I quickly became a young jazz-snob. I hated rock and roll as a kid. (post script: For the record, I'm proud to say that I've overcome that snobbery. Led Zeppelin rocks and I think Ralph Stanley is one of the most soulful singers I've ever heard in my life.)

So what I'm realizing now is that my mother's organ style when playing standards was not all that different from the way she played those hymns and gospel tunes that she learned in church. It was all about delivering the melody (with a jazz and blues harmonic inflection and an infectious swing feel). Had she taken the next steps of improvising with the right hand she would have been on her way to being a jazz player. But she was all about the songs. And for that I'm quite grateful as it provided me with my own musical roots of a type that are much harder to come by now. I remember making a poster for the elementary school band room that included the names of all the major jazz stars that I gleaned from Langston Hughes' "The First Book of Jazz". At the time I didn't understand just how a scrawny, introverted white kid like myself could have been so into jazz music in the late 1960s. None of the other kids my age knew or liked jazz. Most of my heros were African American. I loved the music of Gene Ammons. Now I can see more clearly why that music resonated with me so strongly. Having heard my mother play from the time I can first remember and later having her teach me many of the songs she played gave me that foundation. And now I understand much better just how she got it.

In writing this I'm suddenly reminded of another small but noteworthy moment from when I was a teenager. I was at home listening to a Horace Silver record (I think it was "Silver and Brass"). Again, my mother never considered herself a jazz musician and in some ways had a fair degree of difficulty with much of the "progressive jazz" (in her words) that I was listening to. As she came into the room she stopped and listened for a moment during one of the piano solos and remarked upon the fact that he was quoting an old obscure church hymn (wish I could remember the title) but superimposing it rather dissonantly over the changes of whatever tune it was they were playing. She was surprised and a little puzzled to hear that tune in that context. And I was impressed and puzzled myself over the fact that she knew whatever hymn that was and could pick it out since I had no clue that was even going on in the music.

Being in no way religious myself the significance of much of this had less of an impact on me growing up than it does in retrospect years later. At that time I was striving to get a hold on post-Coltrane saxophone playing which was going strong in the '70s. (By the way, Bob Berg played amazingly on that Horace Silver record!) But it all makes total sense now. Everything comes from somewhere.

"Bobbie Lee" played the Great American Songbook night after night in the clubs but with the advent of rock and roll that scene too came to a close. I still have some old cassettes from some of our house parties. I don't know that I'll ever have the courage to let anyone else hear what I sounded like in those first few years of learning the horn. My mother still sounded good even though these recordings were made about a decade after she stopped playing regularly. Here are a couple of exceprts:

Satin Doll

Oh, and one of the clips that I referred to earlier that got me thinking about all of this is a video of organist Eddie Howard explaining the difference between the Pentecostal style of organ playing and the style used in the "Church of God and Christ". It's rather short but as soon as I heard those chords they just knocked me over. It's the very style of playing that my mother comes from…

Friday, May 7, 2010


On Monday, May 17th I'll be hitting in midtown with a new configuration that I'm really looking forward to. Roberto Romeo (of Roberto's Winds) has been producing a Monday Night series at Rosie O'Grady's on 46th Street. He's been bringing in some great bands. I saw Donny McCaslin's trio, Loren Stillman's band, Greg Osby's sextette and a quartet led by drummer Jonathan Blake that featured Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw.

I'll be leading a trio featuring Gary Versace on organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Gary and I have been playing together in drummer John Hollenbeck's "Future Quest" band performing the music of Meredith Monk. Meredith Monk is a musical icon who has inspired me deeply over the years. I'll have to make a post on her soon. Suffice it to say that Future Quest's participation in her Whitney Museum retrospective last year was a peak musical experience for me. Another peak musical experience of late involved another new project I put together last November that involved Tyshawn Sorey along with guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist John H├ębert at the Cornelia Street Cafe. We did two completely improvised sets of music that I really wish had recorded.

So Gary, Tyshawn and myself will be hitting at 8 pm in a first time performance in this configuration. We look forward to seeing our NYC friends there. For you out of town folks I'll be sure to write up a post gig report. There's always a great vibe there plus Roberto always takes good photos. Check out his Facebook page.

The 10 pm set will be saxophonist Hayes Greenfield and his trio. Looking forward...

Monday, May 17th at 8 pm
Rosie O'Grady's
Limerick Bar (2nd Floor)
Times Square / 149 West 46th Street

Chamber Music America

In my opening post I mentioned a recent writing commission I received last year from Chamber Music America. This was a grant as part of their jazz commissioning and development program funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wrote an extended composition for the group "Different But the Same" a quartet that fellow saxophonist David Liebman instigated in which we explore the classic two tenor lineup. In this case the band includes bassist Tony Marino (who has played in David's band for many years) and drummer Jim Black (who has played in my band for many years). So it's a sort of combined forces approach in which each member of the group is contributing material.

Much of my compositional approach over the years has been about introducing composed elements into otherwise open improvisations. At least that's how I think of it. It's sort of the opposite of the more traditional approach of inserting improvisation (or solos) into a written composition. I'm interested in the effect of introducing these events into a process with inherent unknowns. And it creates a situation in which improvisors must be more compositionally minded than soloistically minded. Structure and balance become the overriding concerns for everyone. So with form itself being manipulated in real time performance we can arrive at musical points of interest that may not have been achievable in any more of a direct fashion. Subsequently I titled the piece "Non Sequiturs (for two tenor saxophones, bass and drums)". I love the idea of musical non sequiturs. In as much as there is no literal or narrative meaning involved in the arrangement of sounds in time the whole idea of structure (from individual phrasing to overall form) is really endlessly malleable and indestructible. The piece had it's premier in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe back in February of this year. We had a followup performance at the legendary "Blues Alley" club in Washington DC.

So in this case, I suppose that my blog functions as a self promotional vehicle, which gives me pause. Hopefully it's not seen as being only that. But the fact is, the fragmentation of the little infrastructure that may have once existed in this corner of the music business requires us to get the word out ourselves. And I'm happy to have the opportunity to provide what I feel is a necessary focus to my work. Commercial publications have their structural limitations and so it's nice not to have to depend totally upon them. Still, it was somewhat concerning to me that the little attention this grant program did receive was in a rather negative light, as in "should there even be such a thing as jazz grants?" And actually, much of that discussion took place in the blogosphere.

The short answer to that question is, YES! And I do think that most would agree. However I do understand some of the concerns that motivated those articles. I was able to take part in some of those on-line discussions and in the end I felt that the exchanges were thoughtful and positive. My purpose here is not to restart that conversation but to recognize that this is the world we live in. We cannot always depend upon traditional networks of publicity to recognize everything that may be taking place at any given time. Rather than complain about the situation (which is really no one's fault) I am free to pick up the slack and hopefully provide something worth reading in the process.

I'm very grateful to have received the support of CMA and I would hope that these types of programs will be able to expand past the idea of rewarding those of us fortunate enough to be recognized from time to time. I'm reminded that we would not be having much of a discussion at all if it were not for the support that so many American musicians have received by working abroad, particularly in Europe. This has been going on for many decades. There is a true network of support for the arts in general and jazz in particular that has resulted in opportunities for so many of us over the years as well as providing a comparatively more healthy environment for European musicians in which to work as compared to what most American musicians deal with here.

I'd actually like to see a shift in the US away from the emphasis on a handful of artists getting some type of recognition while the vast majority have many fewer opportunities. Perhaps due to the nature of our society there is something of a "winner take all" mentality that does not seem to serve us all that well. Personally, I feel fortunate to have received the degree of recognition that I have achieved over the years. But the health of the scene at large should concern us all. It takes the dedicated work of many people to create a scene or even make the most modest of productions happen, and most of those people will never get any real recognition. It's nice to get an award or win a poll but there is the risk that a "musician of the year" mentality risks portraying the scene as even smaller than it actually is and in some ways makes things more difficult for those many deserving musicians who for whatever reasons are not fortunate enough to have their work acknowledged.

Be that as it may, I am happy to have received the recognition from an organization that is working hard to support a music that gets far too little support in the US. And at the risk of blowing my own horn, I'm happy to have the opportunity to give my perspective on it. If I had to wait for someone else to talk about it I may be waiting a very long time. As an interesting side note, just this month I received my first ever live concert review (as a leader) in any NYC publication. I've been living here for twenty seven years now. Believe me when I say, that's not a complaint. For most of that time I've been touring and recording regularly and receiving much positive support for my work. I'm happy to be in the game. But like most things, you can't wait around for s**t to happen.

I guess that's why I took the time to write this down...

Wayne Shorter

I'm realizing that some of what I may write here from time to time will be background material or an attempt to catch up with and further develop loose ends that accumulate over time. Back in February I had the occasion to comment on another blog, Ethan Iverson's "Do the Math" in which he developed a critique the work of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Here was my response:

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February 11th, 2010
Completely side-stepping any of the larger issues raised here I feel compelled to state that all I need is one note from Wayne Shorter and it's game over. Nothing else matters. The sound in any one note he plays contains the complete DNA of his musical universe. I guess we can talk about the context or the fact that as listeners we may have our favorites but for me, the profundity of his sound and delivery make it hard to think about anything else. It changes my perception of the music being played around him.

The release of "Footprints Live" by his current quartet got me listening to jazz again (and more specifically to saxophonists) after many years during which I was in that phase of having to avoid certain influences while developing my own music. I'm now experiencing a great deal of joy in listening and reconnecting with the entire history of the music. I've tried very hard to figure out just how he makes that sound and it's a total mystery to me. And I'm very happy to be in that position as it has reaffirmed the endlessness in front of us.

So what am I saying, why am I writing this? Maybe just to say that it's great when the joy from the music outweighs the arguments that often surround it. Not trying to put down the conversation, there are points well worth considering. I'm just realizing (and happily so) that there is so much to do!

And thanks for your articles about Lester Young which I enjoyed. I'm finally at a place where I feel I'm able to hear past "style" and really connect with many early players who's sound I did not connect with as strongly with when I was younger, due mainly to issues of style. As with Wayne Shorter and Lester Young, there is an essence that transcends style. That quality can be elusive when we are distracted by so many other considerations (in life and music). But what's really beautiful is that it is a timeless quality. And that means that there is always some new music to be made.

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Some subsequent posters commented on my response. I think there was a feeling that I may have been saying Wayne Shorter's sound and work should outweigh any criticism. That's not quite accurate. It's just that I find myself much less interested in such criticisms as they really don't provide me with much of anything. Whereas the music itself and those qualities I elaborated upon, very much do. And so I mention this more as a matter of context as I have the feeling that I'll be writing even more about sound in the coming weeks and months. Working through some of this in word form may actually help as it relates to my practice.

And I might also point out that I feel as if I learn something from every saxophonist I hear. And there are certainly many players worth listening to here in NYC as well as all over the world. One fellow saxophonist who has my attention is Tony Malaby. I'll just drop his name here as a suggestion for any readers who might not already be familiar with Tony's work. Tony has developed a very unique sound on the horn. Look him up! And of course, there are many others who's names I will share from time to time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bill Singer

The Master. My 1941 Buescher "Big B" tenor saxophone gets restored to playing condition by repair technician Bill Singer in Manhattan. Witness the first sounds out of this instrument (which as Bill points out had been "sitting in a basement, rotting") since 1972!

Here's the video...

And for you true saxophone obsessives my visit with Bill is followed by a very geeky comparative demonstration of three vintage tenor be the judge...

Please note: This is the followup to my previous post "Shut Up and Practice". See below for the backstory...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lester Young

From Ebony Magazine, sometime in the '40's. Lester Young demonstrates how he made his trademark porkpie hat. On page two he describes his set-up. A number 3 plastic reed on a number 7 mouthpiece..."very hard on the chops" in his words. This kind of stuff never fails to fascinate me...

Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black

Back in 1994 I decided to start a band. Saxophone, accordion and drums. In the process I got much more than I bargained for. I thought we'd make a couple/few recordings, maybe a tour or two and then move on. Well, it's 2010 and we just did our...I've lost count of how many...well, we just got back from a European tour that's given me a lot to think about.

One of the criteria I had in mind when forming the band was that I wanted each member of the group to be the type of musician who could play an improvised solo concert on their instrument. And I wanted the band as a whole to be able to perform completely improvised concerts. Ironically however, we never did that. We could have, but I had ideas about the nexus between composition and improvisation that I wanted to explore. And that kept me busy with this band. Each tour we did opened up some new musical territory that I wanted to concentrate upon before recording and taking the next step. I had thought about doing an improvised tour from time to time but there was something about the way the band played when compositional elements were involved that just wouldn't let go.

But with this recent tour we finally took the plunge. Two weeks of concerts, two sets a night completely improvised music. So...I guess it's taken me sixteen years to get to the starting point. Let's see where we go now...

Mickey Fields

Talk about saxophone playing in Baltimore and before long you're going to be talking about Mickey Fields. I was recently interviewed by some folks from the Baltimore Jazz Alliance who are putting together a book about the history of jazz in Baltimore (or "Charm City" as it is sometimes referred to), my home town. So I got to speak about Mickey and in doing so he's been on my mind lately.

Mickey (who passed in 1995) was emblematic of a special type of musician, the home town hero who could have gone on to fame in the music but decided to remain at home. I regret that the the history of jazz does not do better service to local scenes and players who while not well known outside of their hometowns played a great role in the development of the music. Often we read interviews with one or another of the greats who will reference a name or two of someone who greatly influenced them. Often that player was someone who did not record much if at all and not much is usually found out beyond these informal anecdotes.

So I am very pleased that Mickey Fields will get some of his "due" in this upcoming publication. More on that when it comes out. Suffice it to say that Mickey was a warm and generous man who provided much encouragement to us younger musicians coming up and demonstrated night after night in just about every club in town just how it's done. The fact that he could hold his own with Sonny Stitt was a matter of strong local pride. The fact that he did not record much is lamentable. He had a gutsy sound and delivery and possessed a sophisticated knowledge of blues and bebop. I once recall hearing Mickey at a neighborhood club filling the room with an enormously raw sound while romping through the changes of some uptempo tune. It was as if I was hearing Albert Ayler play bebop.

The only recording I have of Mickey was done considerably earlier than that and evidences the quintessential type of Mickey Fields experience enjoyed by so many in Baltimore back in the day. It's a 1969 LP called "The Astonishing Mickey Fields" that is beyond rare and hard to find. Here's a track, "Lover Man"...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shut Up and Go Practice...

That's an all purpose insult often hurled at gear-heads. You know, folks who seem to have an endless fascination with musical gear, often to the exclusion of music. And often to the detriment of practicing. Personally I've stayed almost deliberately ignorant of much of what goes into making a saxophone work. But as I mentioned in my opening post I've had my ears opened to a few things with the switch to a vintage saxophone. In addition to edifying awareness in my occupation it's gotten me very curious about a horn that's been sitting in my closet. It was my first saxophone, rented in Baltimore in 1969 from the music store where my grandfather taught guitar. It was the only tenor they had (and I insisted on a tenor) but it looked as if it had been buried in the ground for quite a long time. And it kinda had a musty odor. All the other kids in the school band had shiny horns. I couldn't wait for the day when I could "graduate" up to a Selmer. That day came a few years later and that was pretty much the last I thought about my first horn.

I had retrieved it from my mother's house (where it had been sitting for the last thirty-five years or so) more out of a sense of sentimentality than anything else. I never thought it was a great horn but I was twelve so what did I know? The finish was so corroded that it was difficult to even make out the engraving. I showed it to Bill Singer (my repair-man here in NYC) who informed me that it would take some doing to get it playing again and that the cost would likely exceed the value. So it sat in my closet for some more years.

That is, until I started researching the saxophone in earnest, reading up on the history of the instrument and the technical advances (or I should say technical changes) that brought us to where we are now, in 2010. In short, seems a lot has been lost over the decades. Granted, modern saxophones are easier to play and have more consistent intonation than older horns, in general. But I'm finding that older horns often have a certain character that seems to have gotten lost with the continual refinements that today's players have come to expect from an instrument.

I decided to pull that old horn out of the closet and see what I could find out about it. I knew it was a Buescher. I assumed it was a "True Tone" model since that's what the emblem on the case said. (The case, by the way, stunk so bad I had to discard it). It was hard to read but the saxophone itself had the word "Aristocrat" engraved on the bell. That was a surprise, as I came to find out that this was a "pro" model and considered one of their best (if not the best). I still couldn't read the serial number so I had to scratch away a bit of the crud in order to find out that this was a 1941 "Big B" model (so named because of the large letter B on the bell). Along with a few other technical clues I came to find out that this horn was actually a contender back in the day. Apparently Sonny Rollins used this model on a number of his early recordings.

Seems that sometime around the 1950's the French Selmer company became ascendent and eclipsed the prevailing American made horns of the day (such as Conn and Buescher). To be sure, the Selmer was and is a fantastic instrument. With their innovations the saxophone became easier to play (key placement) and the prevailing sound changed from a more bottom heavy to a somewhat lighter sound with more complex overtones. This is a generalization, but from my perspective those are the major differences. In the 1970's the overall sound of the saxophone changed even more dramatically due largely to mouthpiece design. In order to accommodate playing in heavily amplified electric bands the horn had to become louder and the sound had to cut through the increased volume on stage. This meant that the older horns and mouthpieces were often abandoned and along with them a certain way of making sound on the instrument, that fuller, rounder, darker sound that one hears in players from the 30's and 40's.

To my surprise I have come to find out that this was not the first time this happened in the history of the instrument. Seems the ascendancy of the saxophone in popular music and especially it's role in the rise of big bands provoked Sigurd Rascher (one of the first classical saxophonists) to express his concerns that recent changes in the instrument (the bore taper) and the "newer" mouthpieces being used (designed to make the horn louder) meant that the saxophone was no longer the same instrument that Adolph Sax invented in 1841. These observations by Rascher came in the 1930's.

It might be easy to write that off as being reactionary in the face of progress. But I've gone back and listened to recordings made by Rascher (and the saxophone quartet that bears his name, who endeavor to play the instrument the way it was designed) and in their hands the saxophone really does sound like another instrument. It's a hybrid sound, sometimes stringlike other times a bit more like low brass. While I'm totally into the idea of taking the horn into whatever sonic realms possible (a process which has historically been more or less fully exploited by now) I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I may have unknowingly been missing out on a very large part of what the horn is capable of.

None of this is news. It's just that making a "discovery" like this for oneself at such a late date can throw one's mental state into disarray. In a good way. Wouldn't want things to get too pat.

So back to this Buescher Aristocrat that got me started. Apparently the taper of the bore design is supposed to be closer to the original design of the saxophone by it's inventor. So that's got me curious. And given how much I love playing my vintage Conn I really have to find out what the Buescher is all about. It seems to represent another branch of the history of the horn. So I took it over to Bill Singer a couple of weeks ago for restoration and it's due back any day now. Don't know whether I'll even like it or not but I'm sure I'll find out something more about saxophones in the process.

More on this soon...

(photo is the "before" version)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mel Ellison

I met Mel Ellison in 1979. I was 19 and still living in Baltimore and Mel came through town with trumpeter Ted Curson's band to play for a few nights at "The Bandstand", a jazz club in Fells Point. It was a festival of sorts and saxophonists Sonny Stitt and David Schnitter were also in town to play. In fact, I recall playing on one of the afternoon jams and Sonny and David walked in while I was playing and came right up to the stage in front of me. It was a little nerve-racking but I think Sonny said something complimentary which made me feel good. That night Ted Curson's band played. They sounded great. Mel played saxophones, Armen Donelian was on piano, Ratzo Harris on bass, Tom Rainey played drums and Montego Joe was on percussion. At that time the prevailing trend on saxophone was toward a brighter more cutting sound. But Mel had a distinctively full dark sound and an intervallic melodic style that was his own. I was so knocked out I asked him for a lesson. It was a catalyzing experience which I still remember quite clearly.

About a month later I had a free weekend and decided to visit NYC for the first time. I looked up Mel who was living in midtown on 46th street. A bed, a TV, a stereo, his horns and a big cappuccino maker were all that was in the room. He had his horns out and was practicing. We chatted for awhile and then he played me a recording of a group that he had. I remember thinking that I had never heard anything quite like it. Mel explained how he had done every kind of gig one could do as a saxophone player and now he wanted to simply play the music he loved. So he drove a limo in order to make some money while hitting the NYC jazz scene. He was the first musician I had met who was actually living the life, doing what I aspired to do. I remember pulling my horn out (without being asked) and trying to get him to play with me. I only played a phrase or two, but just being in the same room with him made me play better than I had ever played before. That night he had a gig with Jackie Byard's Apollo Stompers and invited me along.

It wasn't until 1983 that I moved to NYC. By that time Mel had left town and gone back to the Bay Area. I would ask around and those who remembered spoke very highly of him. But he had otherwise vanished from the scene. Finally, sometime in the mid '90s I tracked Mel down on a trip out west. We spoke on the phone and met briefly at one of my gigs. Mel explained that he had since been in and out of music over the years due to his feelings about the music business in general and how he wanted to live his life. We stayed in touch over the years and I asked him if he would send me any recordings of himself made from his time in NYC as commercial recordings were few.

One very nice session is available though. It's by bassist Saheb Sarbib from 1980 entitled "Seasons" (on the Soul Note label). Mark Whitecage plays alto and Paul Motion is on drums. It's a great indication of Mel's sound and approach at that time. You can get it on iTunes

I'm still trying to track down the recordings of those gigs in Baltimore with Ted Curson. I pretty sure they exist.

Mel recently informed me that he was coming to town for a visit. In fact, it would be Mel's first time back in NYC since he left in the early 80's. Being an important musical figure in my development, I was thrilled to be able to organize a jam session inviting Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey. And I don't think Mel had seen Ratzo or Tom since those early days. In spite of the fact that Mel does not play with the same regularity he did in his NYC days, his spirit and sound are quite intact. It was a real thrill to actually play together and renew the inspiration from those many years ago. Thanks Mel!

(photo: Mel, Tom, Ratzo, EE)