A Fireside Chat with Charles Lloyd
“ I know the winds of grace are always blowing. I must raise my sails high enough to catch the breeze. ”
Spirituality is often feigned and frequently copied for its cache value. The figure most commonly associated with spirituality is John Coltrane. And his divinity is authenticated by his associations (Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell) and the indisputable gospel of the Church of St. John Coltrane. A commanding presence, Charles Lloyd (unedited and in his own words), an erstwhile disciple, has matured to emerge as a messenger of the music. Paralleling Trane, the company Lloyd has kept (Billy Higgins) ultimately validates his spirituality.
All About Jazz: What is the legacy of Billy Higgins?
Charles Lloyd: Billy's legacy was his undaunted love for all of humanity, right to the end. He expressed that love with every drum beat, every brush stroke, and every breath in his song. Master Higgins and I met in 1956 when I was student at USC. We were both still teenagers. I had a group that would gig around town and Billy was in that group, as well as Bobby Hutcherson, Don Cherry, Terry Trotter, Scotty LaFaro. The bond of friendship between Billy and myself was equal to the bond in the music, there was never a false move in either area - only love. I remember the first concert Billy and I did after his transplant was at the Warner Theater in Long Beach. After we finished playing, Billy said to me, "I didn't know you felt that way about it. We're going to have to stop dating and go steady." He opened up all the floodgates of creativity.
AAJ: Which Way Is East is an intimate duo recording with Higgins. Was it initially meant to be a record?
CL: Although neither of us approached it as such, it turned out to be our last conversation in music. The fact that it took place at home in a relaxed and comfortable environment is a major factor to the degree of intimacy you hear. For a long time I thought it was too personal. But as I shared it with different musician friends, I became more encouraged to give it a public life. Geri Allen helped me a lot when she said, "The world needs this." But as an idea, we had been exploring it for years. In 1997, we did three duo concerts; Seattle at the Museum of Natural History, Healdsburg at the Raven Theater and the Masonic Hall in San Francisco. I thank the forward vision of John Galbraith in Seattle, Jessica Felix in Healdsburg and Randal Kline in San Francisco for believing in us so strongly.
Unfortunately, as much as Billy and I wanted to explore that further from the bandstand, no other promoter accepted the idea. The patent response was "maybe next year." But we were in the now, so we knew that if we were going to develop this further, it would have to be in private and for ourselves. Billy had intended to come up and spend some time with me in Santa Barbara so we could do that, but touring schedules and other obligations always got in the way. Time has a way of moving ahead, regardless. All of a sudden it was the fall of 2000 and his health was starting to decline. Billy and Bharati were very tight, and he kept telling her, "I'm coming up. There's something I need to do with Charles." So he and I began to discuss what we might do to capture our meeting. At first, I thought of setting up in a church that has great acoustics, but canceled that idea as it was cold and damp there and it would not have been comfortable for Billy. Finally, he arrived in the dark of January downpour. He had brought with him every instrument he owned, which was many - drum kit, hand drums, guimbris, Syrian instruments, guitar. In preparation for his arrival, I had taken out my alto saxophone. That was the instrument I was playing when we had met 45 years earlier and I wanted to revisit the experience with him. He called it my secret weapon. We were really thinking of the recording aspect more as a reference for us. Getting together in my living room was like being in a laboratory. We were in an exploration mode, the idea was to get together again, and keep the development going.
AAJ:< Is Eric Harland the drummer for your quartet?
CL: Eric is a special guy. I feel that Billy sent him to me. After Higgins left town, we were in NY to open at the Blue Note on 9/11. We finally did play and when we finished our two sets, there was a midnight jam band. On my way out of the club each night, I would stop and listen. My focus always went to Eric because something in his playing and spirit reminded me of Higgins. We didn't play together until over a year later when Billy Hart missed a date. So Eric has been with me now since November 2002. His growth has been quantum.
AAJ: Later in the year, you will play solo at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.