August 31, 2015

Harold Ousley, 1929-2015

Harold Ousley, in 2001

Sadly, we are all too familiar with reading obituaries of jazz artists we had the pleasure of interviewing for the Fillius Jazz Archive. The oral history project has now completed its twentieth year, and the list of deceased musicians continues to grow. Most recently I read of the passing of Harold Ousley, who died on August 13, 2015.
Harold has a special significance for us. At the time of his death we were just completing work on a book to be released in October entitled Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends. The book features poignant and informative excerpts from our interviews (over 325 in number), and Harold provided a unique reflection on music and life. His inspiring words are the last excerpt in the book and brought it to what we feel is a thoughtful conclusion.
Harold was born in Chicago in 1929 and had the advantage of passing through DuSable High School. DuSable’s now-famous music instructor was Captain Walter Dyett, and his track record in producing future musical stars is impressive. Harold spoke about his experience with Captain Dyett, who managed to inspire his young musicians while running a very tight ship.
HO: I started music in high school. What happened, I went to the high school, DuSable. And so I got into band because prior to that, when I was in grammar school, I used to take piano, my grandmother gave me piano lessons. Because at that time people had pianos in their home it was just the thing to play piano. And I had people in my family who were in there — I had my uncle who was a tap dancer and my mother was interested in show business for a while. So there was a love for the music. And so by me taking piano and even though I didn’t stay with it, because at that time I had more of an interest in going out playing football and pump pump pullaway with it, with the fellas in the neighborhood. And my uncle, I had an uncle who didn’t play music, he was into sports, but he loved jazz. So he used to play all the big band things, the records, for me at the time. And so that’s when I first heard the saxophone. Of course I fell in love with it. So going to high school I wanted to get in the band and learn how to play saxophone. And Walter Dyett, was a very wonderful teacher who taught Gene Ammons and Nat King Cole and people like this. First if you were going to play saxophone you had to play clarinet. And the reason for this is that a clarinet has three registers. And within it it has a saxophone register. So if you play clarinet you automatically know how to finger the saxophone, you got a head start. Whereas if you play saxophone, you know, playing the clarinet is another situation. So in first and second, in beginner’s band and first and second band, we played clarinet. And then we had a concert band, I was in the clarinet section there. But we had what he called a booster band. It was a swing band. And in there was the preparation for being able to go into a professional band. And so the reading ability and everything, in fact Johnny Griffin joined Lionel Hampton’s band when he was in school. He was 16 at that time, but he was ready because Cap prepared him.
MR: This was really then kind of serious preparation for a career, is that right?
HO: Yes it was. You know I didn’t realize until years later, just how much knowledge and ability that Captain Dyett had. He used to tell us, “when you play, play to the back of the audience.” In other words then we’re projecting our sound all the way, so everybody in the middle was going to hear it, but the person in back could hear it as well. And I didn’t realize until I started reading metaphysical material just what that was, you know, positive thinking and projecting the mind and things like this. And the things that he taught was just even though we might not have realized it then, and the thing about it, you weren’t officially in the band until you got thrown out at some time. Because everybody in the band got thrown out at some time. I remember on one occasion, this was during the wartime, and I had a clarinet and during this time some of the shops where you would go to have your instrument fixed, they didn’t have what they needed. I went and the repairman had put some glue because the bottom, the bell, was broken and he had to fix that. So what happened, I’m in the band playing, and when you play it the saliva comes out of your horn and loosened that up. And I managed to catch it. Because I knew if it hit the floor, out the door. So I just put it down on the floor. So I’m playing with no bell. But Cap could see everybody in the band and it was almost, it was about 50, 60 musicians in the band, and he looked over there, and so now he came over to me and took my clarinet and said what the so-and-so is this? And everybody fell— he said, “get out of here.” I was trying to keep from getting thrown out. But when you come back to him he would always let you get back in the band because he knew you were serious about wanting to be in the music.
MR: Were the students, did they have a love-hate relationship with him because he was so strict?
HO: Well no, because most of the students were really like this, I mean they are trying to keep on his good side. Not everybody — everybody gets a different impression and responds to the situation differently. But everybody had respect for him. And so they wanted to be in the band, so if you got thrown out for not paying attention or just fooling around, you would go back to make sure you got in the band.
Like many of his contemporaries, Harold eventually made the move to New York and fashioned a career through perseverance and versatility. He accompanied singers including Billie Holiday and Diana Washington, recorded albums in both the jazz and soul vein, and played with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. His eloquence and thoughtful reflections can be glimpsed in this excerpt from our 2001 interview.
MR: In the late 50s, rock & roll was kind of rearing its head. Did you get into that?
HO: Yeah, I got into that. Well you know I had to play a variety of music a lot of times in order to work. But I’ve always enjoyed different kinds of music. You know, a variety of music. Because I think all music is good when it’s played well, if it has good feeling, and even in performances I do now, I like to do a variety of things, like swing, play pretty, play funky, uptempo. Because people, everybody likes something different. And I think, my belief, in the things that I’ve studied, I found out that music is a very essential part of life. That life was created to musical principles. Because life has tempo, it has cycles. And everything vibrates, like vibration is tempo. Every atom vibrates. You know we’re constantly — there’s movement in everything. And the planets, the same way with the planets. And everything is in harmony and in sync with each other. And so everything is really music. When we talk to each other and we get along, music is harmony. When people get along together, that’s harmony and it’s music. And when people don’t get along it’s no longer music and harmony. I think even now, even to a greater degree in solving situations in the world — music is going to play a major part in that as people come together through the music. Even like here. People are coming together because they love the music. Whether they’re teaching it in school or playing it in clubs or whatever they’re doing, what brings us together is the music. And we come together in friendship and in love and harmony. So music is an essential thing. And when people get involved in it, they begin to develop a greater harmony. You know like in jazz you find people of all races, of all ages coming together, and enjoying the music and sharing ideas. And usually, people who like jazz have gotten to a level where they want to communicate and get along with people. You never see people going to jazz concert hitting each other in the mouth. You know, it’s always about loving the music. You see somebody next to you saying hello, so right away you’ve got something to talk about and you comment on the music and people have met and fell in love and married. So the music is going to play essential — and not only jazz but all, you know concert music, all music that is serious and the people who are involved in it approach it from a very positive level and a level of love and concern. It happens.
Harold is one of the countless jazz artists who were known mostly to fellow musicians and serious fans of the music. I started a conversation with him at a jazz educators’ event before I knew who he was. He handed me his business card, and the name jumped out at me, thanks to the LP liner notes I studied as a teenager.
Soon we will announce the release of Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends. If you enjoy this blog you will love the book.

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