Ralph Lalama: Steppin' Out, Steppin' Forward
About rock music, he explains, "James Brown was so swinging to me. I liked The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. That was about it. All of that other music, I couldn't use. Cream and all that stuff, The Whothat didn't make any sense. So I got deeper into jazz then because I wasn't diggin' what was happening with my colleagues. My friends and what they listened toI didn't like it. It wasn't swinging. James Brown was killin.' The other stuff was too oom-pah, oom-pah for me," he says with a chortle.
"As I got older, I heard Trane: 'What the hell is this?' Sonny Rollins too. I remember this guy turned me onto A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957), Sonny Rollins playing trio. I was mesmerized. The saxophone's supposed to sound like this? That was it. Forget it, I'm done," he says with respect, adding gleefully, "Life's over as I know it."
At Youngstown State, a jazz program was about to be born, spearheaded by another student and mentor to Lalama, Anthony Leonardi. "He was about 12 years older than me. He was a bassist. He used to play with Woody Herman. He played with Woody with Sal Nitisco. He's the one that turned me on to Sonny Rollins and Coltranethat kind of stuff. Bird, even. He was a bassist, so he knew about harmony and stuff. He started a one-hour elective [course] at Youngstown. There was no jazz at Youngstown. I was a clarinet major. There wasn't even a saxophone major when I was there. He started this and formed a band. It caught on with the administration. Now you can get a Master's and a Bachelor's at Youngstown in performance and education and arranging, I think. But it started out with that. It led up to what it is now. Tony started it, but I was a big part of it, because I was kind of like the star. We would pack the place. We'd play a concert, there'd be 700 people there. I was also in the wind ensemble and the symphony, except there'd be about 150 people there. The administration started seeing dollar signs. I think that's one of the reasons they made a major out of it. Tony did it. He was my man."
Leonardi also invited Thad Jones to the school for teaching and performing sessions. That proved to be fortuitous for the young Lalama. "One night we did a concert and Thad was out front. I got to play, and I played things in the afternoon with him. He let me play. That was a trip and a half for me. I was talking to Thad, and he said, 'If you want to play, do it seriously; you ought to move to New York.' So I did."
Three months later, Lalama was in New York. "Thad, being the beautiful guy that he was, I would start subbing in the band [Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band]. My first gig in town was in New Jersey. Thad and Mel used to have something to do with William Patterson College. We did three gigs in a little club on campus. They asked me if I wanted to do it. This wasn't with the big band. This was a quintet with George Mraz [bass], Walter Norris [piano] and Mel and Thad. That was my first gig, man. I couldn't believe it. I'm sitting there shaking. I was lucky they played a tune I heard of, let alone knew. It was a dream come true."
In the Jones-Lewis big bad, "Frank Foster and Gregory Herbert were in the band at the time, on tenor. So I would sub for them. This was off on the road, doing stints with the big bands of Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. When I came back, I was subbing a lot with Mel's band. It was Mel's band then. [Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Jones had departed.] Gary Pribek quit and I got the chair. I've been there ever since [through its permutation into the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra]. Lovano was in the band at the time. It was Ted Nash, Gary Smulyan, Dick Oatts, Lovano and me. That's the saxophone section that I joined when I finally got the gig."
"The big band experience was extremely valuable. In those organizations, Lalama was able to develop "tone and intonation. Your technique and your blending. It's still very important. I've been doing it a long time, but you learn every day. You get to hear everybody, too. Especially in Mel's band there were great players, soloists. I've been sitting next to Dick Oatts for 27 years. Smulyan, Rich Perry now, and Billy Drewes."
Some wild stories exist about being on the road with Buddy Rich, who had a mercurial temper. But for Lalama, it was just part of the deal. No worries. "I like Buddy Rich. He was crazy. He was a spoiled brat, but he was a real musician. When you sat down and talked with him, he was great. He was one of the catslike hanging with the cats. He had so many great stories about Bird and Sinatra, just to name a few. He would get in a mood: 'You guys suck. I'm gonna get an L.A. band.' Blah, blah. You had to be cool. We'd sit down and play. Two days later we're hanging on the bus.