James Spaulding: An Emotion Of Notes
“ I think that I'm an emotional player, and I express myself to the people through my instrument. ”
James Spaulding's pedigree is an impressive one. He has been called upon to add his touch on both alto saxophone and flute for countless classic 1960s Blue Note albums. Now, as a leader and owner of the Speetones label he continues to add to his rich legacy.
AAJ contributor Maxwell Chandler spoke with Spaulding about his long and distinguished career, his work on some of the classic Blue Note releases of the 1960s, playing with Max Roach, Sun Ra and Randy Weston, his current activities and what's in store for the future.
- The Early Years/School Days
- First Gigs/Flute and Alto Sax
- Sun Ra
- The Blue Note Years
- Randy Weston and Max Roach
- Genres, Suites and an Emotion of Notes
- Leading, Teaching and Performing Song of Courage
- Speetones, Recent Happenings and the Future
All About Jazz: Your father was a professional touring musician. Did he encourage you to take up music?
James Spaulding: I was strongly influenced by my father but it was because of the recordings he brought home for me to listen to: Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie, and I wanted to play like Bird. Unfortunately, my dad's music career was interrupted by his responsibilities of supporting a family. I was the third sibling of seven children. I remember his selling insurance to pay the bills, but he also often played his guitar, while I listened. By the time I was born in 1937, my dad no longer traveled with his band. You could probably say that I was given a bugle to play by my dad at five years of age and from that first encounter, I knew that I would play a musical instrument. It was like a fish takes to water.
AAJ: In Indianapolis your father's band (The Original Brown Buddies) was the first integrated band. This was in the 1920s, a brave thing to do and I imagine not an easy road to travel. Did he ever discuss this with you? Had his actions affected your world view?
JS: I really have no vivid remembrances of my dad's band leading days. I'm sure it must have been rough because even to this day, it's not easy to be a fulltime musician and support a family. Just think about it, here my dad was, now a family man, with three children, living under segregation and the after effects of a recession. My father thought that I should try to seek a good education. To him, education was uppermost in importance. Another hindrance in being a musician was that my community thought jazz was the Devil's music.
AAJ: In grade school you played bugle. Did you formally study the instrument? How long did you play bugle?
JS: Most of my training is self-taught. I continued to play the bugle, added the trumpet, tonette, and alto saxophone (I was shown the saxophone fingering by a classmate, Albert Walton, recently deceased, 2007). What I did acquire in school was more skills in reading music, and in sight reading. If it were not for the band room at school, and being allowed to practice there and to borrow the instruments, my life would probably have taken a rather unfortunate turn. I was not very interested in sitting in the classrooms or studying academic subjects.
AAJ: Eventually you switched to clarinet. It seems that in jazz a lot of the great multi-instrumentalists learn clarinet early on. Is there something about that instrument that would allow one to more easily learn others?
JS: My playing the clarinet was due strictly to the music instructor's need for more clarinet players for the Crispus Attucks Marching Band. As a sophomore, I played the clarinet, led the marching band and played in the senior band, and the woodwind quintet and jazz combo. I also taught myself to play the flute. Fortunately, during that time students were able to check out instruments and take them home to practice.
AAJ: Your earliest gigs were in Indianapolis, with a rhythm and blues group. To a lot of jazz aficionados that genre would seem almost too populist. Had you ambitions to be playing this type of music or was it merely a first job to pay your dues?
JS: I began performing professionally at a very early age; I must have been around ten years old when my father escorted me around town to play with professional musicians, who played Swing, the style of the time, for dances. I also played with the Shriners' Organization, Marching Band.
The evolution of this music (commonly called jazz), comes out of the life experience of the Africans' introduction and indoctrination into the sociopolitical structure of American culture, and its traumatic effects upon our psychic being. There are quite a few texts that explain the progression of the musicEileen Southern [The Music of Black Americans: A History (W.W. Norton, 1997)] and Amiri Baraka [Blues People (Harper Perennial, 1999)], both are black scholars, Prof. Southern, a trained musicologist; and author. Amiri Baraka was concerned with the music's political connotation. I have no such elitist concepts about the music; it's an integral part in my development. I would not be the musician I am today, without having the actual experiencing of these invaluable music styles that are at the roots of the African American black life and culture
JS: Well, adding the flute was strictly by my choosing. I met musicians while out playing in jam sessions, and someone mentioned me to Jerry Butler's A & R man for the recording session.
AAJ: At what point did you decide to make flute and alto sax your main instruments?
JS: The decision, I'm afraid was made for me; that I would be playing my alto saxophone and no longer performing with my tenor because I naively loaned my tenor to a fellow musician who neglected to bring it back, and I couldn't afford to buy another. My flute has always been a favorite second instrument, it's great not having to prepare a reed, and the flute has such a beautiful sound.
AAJ: In the late 1980s Bud Shank, who also plays alto and flute, put aside flute to concentrate solely on alto. Do you still play both? Is there a different way of thinking needed to construct solos on either instrument?
JS: I believe that I approach each instrument differently because I hear each sound differently.
AAJ: For both your instruments have you main brands? Did you go through much trial and error in determining which to use?
JS: If I had only been that fortunate; my King with silver bell was stolen from me when I first came to New York from Chicago. I had another alto stolen from me when I was playing in Max Roach's band and, as luck would have it, I purchased a Statler, made in East Germany and have been playing it now for the past thirty-five years. My flute is an Olds Professional model.
AAJ: 1954-1957 saw you in the army playing in service bands. During this time did you play only on base or had you a chance to play clubs too?
JS: Yes, I was seventeen when I joined the army and twenty when I was discharged. During this period I also played professionally with a group of young Indianapolis musicians which included Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridleywe called ourselves the Jazz Contemporaries.
AAJ: After leaving the army you moved to Chicago and became part of Sun Ra's Arkestra. What had made you choose Chicago over New York with its then vibrant 52nd Street scene?
JS: I moved to Chicago to go to school on my G.I. Bill (more than likely thinking of my father's advice) where I attended the Cosmopolitan School of Music, and also to test the waters of really being on my own. I lived with my cousin and her husband, went to school and gigged. I studied flute for about six months under the tutelage of Professor Emil Eck. I also led my own group playing in local clubs and freelanced.
JS: I would play at the jam sessionsand I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, who were both members of Sun Ra's Arkestra. I met Sun Ra when I was taken there by John and Pat.
AAJ: In later years Sun Ra would have his own personal mythos and imagery, some cosmic and Egyptian motifs. Was he already projecting a specific persona to the public in these early years?
JS: Sun Ra was a mystic , I think, clairvoyant. He would say to me, "Play," And I would respond, "Play what?" He would say, "Just play." At first I was rather resistant; it was totally strange from my previous music training. He encouraged me to play notes without structured time. This was my first excursion into the style known as free form. As a personality, Sun Ra was rather peculiar, I thought, especially when he spoke of space travel. He also predicted travel to the moon before the Russian Sputnik. I played with his band (musicians really had to be in tune and have simpatico) on and off during the period 1957-1958/59.
AAJ: Did Sun Ra have you playing both your instruments? Were there any recordings made while you were in his band?
JS: Yes, if anyone is interested they can check my discography on my website: speetones.com.
AAJ: Some of his band members seemed to stay with him forever (e.g. John Gilmore). Were any of his long term players in the band during your stint?
JS: I played in the band with both John and Pat [Patrick].
AAJ: You briefly moved back home before finally taking the plunge and heading to the then holy land of jazz, New York. What was the impetus behind this?
JS: I was only in my early twenties and I started to miss my family, so I went back home for some of my mother's home cooking and spirituality, which I needed to recharge my battery.
AAJ: Whenever one reads the biography of an artist, it is easy to read "so and so was with this band for these yearsâ"¦" but often overlooked is that those dates represent part of a person, the artist's life. Is it hard moving on to another band? I sometimes think it may be akin to breaking up with a girlfriend.
JS: Mostly, it's just great to be working. I guess you could miss certain band leaders more than others. The one good thing is that you're not married to the group.
AAJ: Although your later body of work is equally compelling and rewarding, you are perhaps best known for the large body of work you did under the Blue Note label. How had you initially come to the Blue Note roster?
JS: Duke Pearson was the A & R man for Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records. He liked my playing and called me for the sideman dates.
AAJ: Whose was the first session on which you appeared? Did Blue Note try to promote or emphasize one of your instruments over the other?
JS: My first recording session was as a sideman with Freddie Hubbard on an album called Hub-Tones (1962). I was what you'd call a musician that doubles. This way, sometimes the producer got two instruments while paying for only one. If a song called for flute or called for alto saxophone, I was your man.
From 1962 until 1964 I was playing hard bop/cool with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, and recorded with the band on several Blue Note dates. One recording in particular, The Night of the Cookers (1965), has now become one of the classics. I was the only saxophone on that date.
AAJ: You were on so many Blue Note albums in the sixties, to ask everyone their favorite would produce a diverse list of titles. Which is your personal favorite?
JS: I think Wayne Shorter's albums were my favoritesThere was great energy and creativity: The Soothsayer (1965), The All Seeing Eye (1965), Schizophrenia (1967)I contributed one of the songs, "Kryptonite," to Schizophrenia.
AAJ: Randy Weston was your first New York job. How long where you with him? After the 1950s he often seemed to have larger ensembles, what was his band comprised of at this time?
JS: I think there were six of us. I was with Randy on and off for about two or three years, from 1963-1966. Randy Weston (Third Stream music) was my first encounter with polytonal and polymodal musical elements accompanied by African drums and instruments for an extended period of time. This was an extremely important and invaluable addition to my musical vocabulary.
AAJ: There was a European tour with Randy. Was this your first time in Europe? Do you recall where you played and the reception you received from the audience?
JS: I think the people in Europe have always been more receptive to our music. They would bring us flowers and show us so much appreciation and acceptance. My first trip was to the country of France.
AAJ: Both in his music and interviews there has always been a spiritual aspect to Randy Weston. I imagine there must have been some interesting conversations on the road.
JS: Randy was like a teacher to me, I admired him so tremendously for his music, rooted in our African heritage. It was my first time being accompanied by African drums and instruments for an extended period of time. My regret is that when Randy offered to take me to Africa to perform with the band, I missed the plane. We were going to Morocco.
AAJ: Was there ever any specific thing which dictated when you would leave a band?
JS: Jazz is experimental, sometimes you prefer playing another style or the leader hears a different instrument for his music. It's not like a day gig, as you can imagine.
Also, some bands are hired more than others, and this is great for the rent.
AAJ: A George Wein tour next brought you to Europe. You were part of Max Roach's band. Was this one of the Jazz at the Philharmonic package tours? You seem to have a deep appreciation of bop, building off of it, adding your own ingredients. It must have been exciting sharing the band stand with one of the genres main progenitors.
JS: Although I dreamed I would play with Max before I met him, it was probably one of the most important points in my career, being a member of Max's band. It was so hard to say goodbye when he passed this year. He was one of my heroes.
AAJ: The JATP tours have their detractors, the main criticism being that the large roster of great artists made it hard for anything except blowing sessions to be done on stage. What comprised an average set list? Were individual groups on stage, or was there a sort of house band backing star soloists?
JS: I think that certain artists are privileged to bring his/her own groups, some prefer to go as a single and pick up sidemen, others have already worked with the other musicians before and have no problem performing together. I think that the most versatile rhythm section is put together for just the purpose of the ability to accompany all the great artists.
I imagine that some tours might just be put together in a sloppy fashion; not for the music, but for the money.
AAJ: What were you listening to at this point and how did it affect your playing and artistic ambitions?
JS: In 1966, I was introduced by Bobby Hutcherson to higher harmoniesthe extensive use of ninth, eleventh, thirteenth chords and beyond. In the African tradition of oral learning, I continuously evolved. In 1967, I was recommended to Max Roach by Freddie Hubbard, and this is when I experienced playing hectic tempos and rapidly moving chords. It was very challenging and required that I acquire a thorough knowledge of harmony and had to practice technical skills.
Also, in 1967, I worked with Leon Thomas, the great musician that used his voice as an instrument. Leon had developed a unique vocal yodel sound, and sang the blues, jazz and African rhythms. It was fortunate that in my previous music encounters I had acquired musical idioms that were necessary to accompany Leon's unique vocal style.
From 1974-1975 I became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, under the leadership of Mercer Ellington, this was mostly swing arrangements and individual players taking improvised solos. I was hired to be a member of this legendary band because Mercer Ellington liked the way I played, "In a Sentimental Mood." During 19872000, I became a part of David Murray's Octet and Big Band. David's use of expanded harmonies came as a natural progression to add to my music vocabulary.
AAJ: There was a small subset ,within the larger group of Blue Note musicians in the sixties, whose playing and composing was progressive and forward-thinking. As an example, something like Wayne Shorter's The All Seeing Eye seems almost like a new form of modern classical, but using jazz instruments and leaving space for the soloist to improvise. Chamber music, but not using the traditional chamber instruments and not chamber jazz, which is a genre well exemplified by both Chico Hamilton and the Modern Jazz Quartet. On any of the more progressive dates did anyone theorize or discuss names for this new genre or was it not an issue?
<JS: I'm not sure the music was categorized. But it certainly can be defined as a work of enduring excellence. I loved doing the albums. I believe playing Wayne's music was the most creative and fulfilling that I've ever felt on recording dates.
AAJ: How much of what was going on in the mid-sixties socially and politically influenced the more cerebral albums you were on?
JS: I think that Max Roach and Leon Thomas' music was quite politically influenced by the rhythms of unrest and upheaval. I also wrote my Song of Courage suite. Many musicians were influenced by the volatile and restless energies permeating the atmosphere. James Brown wrote several songs to encourage black people to embrace themselves. One in particular, which you may know: "Say It Loud, (I'm Black and I'm Proud.)"
I think we all know the tragedies that occurred during the â"Ëœ60s. President J.F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the four little girls in Birmingham and many more atrocities.
AAJ: Whether you were doing one of the more forward-thinking sessions or a more straight-out hard bop date, I have always noticed a cerebral aspect to your playing. Cerebral but with a fire which is what I think attracts people. Do you have any particular process for your playing or writing?
JS: I think that I'm an emotional player, and I express myself to the people through my instrument. Everything seems to swell inside of me and explode through my instrument. I'm very intense when I play and I can feel the energy in the room, and that's what motivates my creative nature. When I write, I just choose an instrument and wait for the melody that comes out.
AAJ: It seems like by the mid-sixties, anyone who was trying to stretch the form of jazz, but not incorporating rock influences, was just labeled avant-garde. For these people and the more outright traditionalists, live and studio work was hard to come by. The so called avant-garde seemed to have it worse, not even being able or willing to land television jobs as some had to. People like Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron and Archie Shepp emigrated to Europe. Did you ever consider that an option during this time?
<JS: Maybe they met someone that invited them to stay and that offered them work? I didn't seem to run into anyone like that. I got married in 1963, and both my daughters were born in the sixties. I wonder if these guys had someone in the States that interested them? I think that many variables have a lot to do with your choices, not so much that we were traditionalist and weren't able to find work here.
We lived in a segregated society and it's still very largely that way. Black musicians still are in the minority in being hired for studio work or able to live by playing music alone.
Have you asked Archie Shepp why he still lives in Europe, even today?
AAJ: Surprisingly, it was not until after you left Blue Note in 1975 that you made your first recording as a leader, Plays the Legacy of Duke Ellington (Storyville, 1976). Why so long a wait?
JS: I think I was waiting for an offer. Alfred Lion thought I should record for Blue Note but he wanted me to play commercial music, like boogaloo, and I was not interested in playing that kind of music. I was perfecting, or trying to perfect, my jazz progressions and vocabulary. I thought it was like telling an opera singer, or Frank Sinatra to sing rock and roll. Fortunately, a fellow came along named Howard Gabriel, while I was still at Livingston College, and asked me to do a record date of my choosing, thus my first recording date was on a very small label called Storyville, which probably no longer exists. [The label is still exists and can be found at www.storyvillerecords.com]
AAJ: This was also the year you received a bachelor's degree in music from Livingston College. You were also teaching flute there at the same time. How long had you been teaching and what made you first get into the educational aspect of music?
JS: I returned to school on the G.I. Bill because Larry Ridley had structured and become the chairman for Livingston College, Rutgers University's first Jazz Department. I was hired as an adjunct professor for about two years. I enjoyed teaching the students and often taught them by performing songs with them, as opposed to just teaching theory.
AAJ: The National Endowment for the Arts honored you with an award. You used the funds to finance the performance of your suite, A Song of Courageinspired by Dr. Martin Luther Kingwith full orchestra and choir at the Voorhees Chapel at Rutgers University. You have in your oeuvre several other pieces also inspired by other civil rights leaders.
JS: I was very pleased to receive this grant, and was able to have a performance of the suite as you mentioned, at Voorhees Chapel, at Rutgers. It was not recorded but I did get a write-up by the Livingston College Newspaper. I think of that presentation as a trial run. There was just not enough money to do justice to the presentation, although there were some inspired moments. A Song of Courage is dedicated to our heroes and sheroes, but particularly mentions Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This suite tells the story of the sixties, as I felt the vibrations.
AAJ: How long did it take to rehearse and get the various components, voice, and orchestra up to speed?
JS: I spent quite a bit of quality time working with an arranger/musician friend, Sam Brown. I would go over to his housemy wife Jean and Iand we would work together for hours on end. He did his best with the resources we had, but it simply was not enough. I have recorded several songs from the suite: "Time to Go," "Oracle," "Gotstabe A Better Way," "Give It Up," "New World Comin'," and more. There were about ten songs written for the suite. It was never recorded on one album, but songs were played individually, with different musicians and on different labels.
AAJ: Will we get to hear your suites now, via release through your label?
JS: I hope so.
AAJ: You have your own record label now, Speetones. Artistic freedom has to be one of the main appeals for you. How do you approach recording now?
JS: I recorded live at a club in Brooklyn owned by Bob Myers. It had such great vibes at the space but it really didn't have enough space for the engineer to listen to the sound, so that basically it was what you'd call au natural. I am the owner, producer (along with my family) and the artists. But who knows, it's a start!
AAJ: How involved in the various aspects of the record label are you?
AAJ: In 2006 you went to France to do a trio recording with the Pierre Christophe Trio. How did that date come about? The album is fantastic, and for anybody not familiar with your post-Blue Note work, it is the perfect place to start. Your tone is nice and tart, like a good calvados, without ever being shrill. Underlying that is a certain muscularity, without the usual accompanying discordance. The album has a lot of familiar covers, who chose the program?
JS: In July, 2006, which is also the month of my birthday, I was booked by Alain Dupuy-Raufaste of Jazz Friends Productions, in France to perform at several venues. Alain recommended the Pierre Christophe Trio as my rhythm section. This turned out to be a great collaboration. I felt very much in tune with all of the musicians. Gerard Terrones, of Disques Futura et Marge, contacted me through Alain to make a live recording of us while we performed at SUNSiDE Jazz Club in Paris, and the rest is the history of the Down With It! Disques Futura & Marge, 2007) recording.
AAJ: You recently did a three night stint in April at the Iridium, in New York, with Freddie Hubbard which garnered some good reviews. How did the reunion come about? How long had it been since the two of you had played together?
JS: David Weiss is working with Freddie, and he asked me to be a part of this. It's a little different now, we're both older and the vicissitudes of life obviously have played their part. I don't think we'll be playing together again in the near future...but one never knows, does one?
AAJ: You just did a tour of Russia, what did you do over there?
JS: I was booked by a man named Arkadi Owrutski for events in Kiev and Ukraine. It wasn't really for me because it was not really about the music as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, it was an experience and I had the opportunity to see another (not so familiar) part of Russia.
AAJ: AAJ: Where can fans keep track of your touring schedule and new releases?
AAJ: Well, this is my one stock question. I always ask because it always interests me. Do you have any dream project which you have yet to do?
JS: I would like to get the funding to have my suite, A Song of Courage, perfected and performed at Lincoln Center. I hope to fulfill all my aspirations I've been distracted from doing previously, and to live up to the fans' belief in my musicianship qualities.
James Spaulding/Pierre Christophe Trio, Down With It! Live at The Sunside (Disques Futura & Marge, 2007)
James Spaulding, Round To It! (Speetones, 2005)
Sun Ra, Spaceship LullabyChicago 1954-60 (Unheard Music Series, 2003)
Alvin Queen, Ashanti (Nilva Records Stereo NQ-34,2002)
James Spaulding Quintet, Blues Up and Over (Speetones, 2001)
James Spaulding, Escapade (HighNote, 1999)
James Spaulding, The Smile of the Snake (HighNote, 1996)
James Spaulding, Blues Nexus (Muse, 1993)
David Murray, David Murray Big Band Conducted by Lawrence "Butch" Morris (Columbia, 1991)
James Spaulding, Songs of Courage (Muse, 1991)
James Spaulding, Gotstabe A Better Way! (Muse, 1988)
James Spaulding, Brilliant Corners (Muse, 1988)
James Spaulding, Plays the Legacy of Duke Ellington (Storyville, 1976)
Charles Tolliver, Impact (Strata-East, 1975)
The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Continuum (Fantasy, 1975)
Archie Shepp, For Losers (Impulse, 1971)
Pharoah Sanders, Karma (Impulse, 1969)
Freddie Hubbard, The Black Angel (Atlantic, 1969)
Lee Morgan, Standards (Blue Note, 1967)
Freddie Hubbard, High Blues Pressure (Atlantic, 1967)
Larry Young,Of Love and Peace (Blue Note, 1966)
Freddie Hubbard, Blue Spirits (Blue Note, 1965)
Wayne Shorter, The Soothsayer (Blue Note, 1965)
Bobby Hutcherson, Components (Blue Note, 1965)
Wayne Shorter, The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note, 1965)
Max Roach, Drums Unlimited (Atlantic, 1965)
Freddie Hubbard, Hub-Tones (Blue Note, 1962)
Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra, The Nubians of Plutonia (Evidence, 1959)
Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra, Visits Planet Earth (Evidence, 1958)
Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra, Sound Sun Pleasure!! (Evidence, 1953)