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.

August 8, 2015

Still the One

Cannonball Adderley
Everyone has a short list of memorable events, occurrences that make such an impression that we can recall exactly where we were when they happened. I was born in 1950, so my list includes the Kennedy assassination, the first landing on the moon, and the Beatles appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Also on my list is the date August 8, 1975. Forty years ago today, I was in my car outside Rome, New York when I heard the radio announce that Julian “Cannonball” Adderley had passed away.
I’ve written about Cannonball before, and he is still my all-time favorite jazz artist. As an up-and-coming saxophonist I was first influenced by the cool toned and somewhat dispassionate Paul Desmond, who became popular alongside Dave Brubeck. But Cannonball offered something else: a perfect balance of technique, tone, and passionate delivery. The fact that he was an engaging speaker and invited the listener into the music was a big plus.
I was so into Cannonball’s recordings that I noticed when he switched saxophones, from a King Super 20 to the more iconic Selmer. I was not the only fan who noticed. During my interview with Charles McPherson, a major player in the world of jazz saxophone, we discussed this change.
MR:   Can we get a shot of you holding your horn? I’m trying to recognize what kind of horn it is.
Charles McPherson
CM:   It’s a King. Most people play a Selmer, and this is a King Super 20.
MR:   Yeah. Cannonball used to play it.
CM:   Yeah Cannonball and Bird. Yeah. And it’s a very nice horn, it’s very human-like. Very much like the human voice.
MR:   It’s interesting you say that because when I hear your tone — actually the thing that attracts me to a player is the tone first. And I hear that in your sound. And I noticed when Cannonball switched from King to Selmer that I was disappointed.
CM:   Unbelievable. I mean I know that. But I’m surprised that — well you said you play saxophone.
MR:   Yeah, but I heard it.
CM:   Isn’t that something, because I did too. And so you really do know. Because that’s a subtle thing, but it is a difference. And I remember it as a CD or record, whatever, where he did play Selmer for a while. And it was great, and it’s still great ‘cause he’s great. And I remember that oh this is great, but it doesn’t have that pop or that warmth either. And the Selmer is a great horn, and he sounded great on it. But this King, it was just something about that that, I don’t know just Cannonball sounded great on this. And Charlie Parker sounded great on this horn. I’ve heard other people on this horn that don’t sound so great, and I hope I’m not one of them.
I’d like to take a brief look at three recordings that personified the Cannonball Adderley legacy.
Cannonball burst into the New York jazz scene in the mid-1950s and his 1957 recording of the uptempo “Spectacular” demonstrated his mastery of the demanding and sometimes frantic bop style. He had so absorbed the language of Charlie Parker that the critics jumped on the bandwagon and hailed him as the new Bird. “Spectacular” is an impressive display of technique and chordal-based improvisation.
Ten years later Cannonball and his quintet had progressed into a style that critics called “soul jazz.” From the album “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Sticks” provides a striking example of Cannonball in full blues/gospel/soul mode. “The Sticks” is a 12-bar blues with an ear-catching melody. Brother Nat plays three exciting choruses; near the end of his third he engages in some stuttering double-tonguing. Cannonball, always aware of his musical surroundings, jumps on Nat’s phrasing at 1:27, roaring into a solo that has the live audience completely in his corner.
One year later, again in a live situation, Cannonball displayed his masterful approach to a ballad. The song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” provided him with a highly expressive vehicle and his huge tone filled the room. If you listen to Cannon’s voice at the end of the song, it sounds like he actually choked himself up with the intensity of the song.
Drummer Roy McCurdy spent twelve years with Cannonball and spoke enthusiastically about his experience. Here he speaks of a unique method for keeping in sync with the brothers:
Roy McCurdy
RM:   Did you ever see Cannon and Nat live?
MR:   Oh, yeah.
RM:   They were really funny to me, because I was behind them all the time, looking at them. And this brother was short and Cannon was tall. And they had a way of snapping their fingers and moving, and their behinds were both in sync you know. And they would be snapping and the behinds would be in sync.
MR:   It’s almost as if you guys were creating a style as you went along.
RM:   Yeah. It was.
MR:   Did you have a name for it or did you let other people name it?
RM:   We just let other people name it. It was just music for us you know. We didn’t want to be in one particular slot all the time, like just straight ahead jazz or something. We wanted to be able to do all kinds of things and have some fun. And not only did we do funk and soul and Gospel and jazz, we also experimented with different time figures and things too at that time. Like 7/4 time, 5/4 time and things like that. We did “Seventy-four Miles Away.” That album was 7/4 time.
Vocalist Nancy Wilson credits Cannonball with jumpstarting her career, and during our interview I told her of my enthrallment with one of her early albums, “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley.” Oddly enough, the critics were not kind to this recording.
MR:   This particular album, I can’t imagine anybody saying anything bad about it.
Nancy Wilson
NW:   Oh it was the fact that Cannonball Adderley had kind of stepped out of the jazz thing, into the pop. Because this was a huge across the board album. It was not just a jazz album. “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Sleeping Bee,” these songs just popped out everywhere. And that was the good thing about radio in those days and music is that the focus wasn’t so narrow then. We were able to play concert venues, Carnegie Hall where we were also able to go into, the south side of Chicago and play The Southerland. So you could do so many more things then than you can today. The labels kind of keep you out of places. Whereas before we tried to broaden the scope. I believe that Cannonball Adderley took jazz out of the sawdust and he was one of the more commercial jazz artists. And he made his audience understand what he was doing.
It’s hard to say what Cannonball Adderley would be doing with his musical career if he had lived. Other artists, such as Benny Carter and Milt Hinton remained productive into their eighties and nineties. The avante garde saxophonist Kidd Jordan offered his opinion on what Cannonball’s music might have evolved into, and gave us a bit of insight into his personality:
Kidd Jordan
KJ:   Cannonball was one of my favorite players too. And look, changes didn’t mean nothing to him, you know that huh? Cannonball was playing by ear. I mean he could hear changes like that, and that’s why he went and locked in all them patterns that people was playing. Well you know Cannonball, and he sounded like a first alto player, that was another thing.
MR:   That’s for sure.
KJ:   That’s right. Cannonball could lead us saxes man. I listened to that Cannonball and they’re talking about first alto players, as a soloist he’s got the same thing that all those first alto players had. You know? And changes didn’t mean nothing. Believe me. Cannonball could play through ‘cause he could hear ‘em. Now that’s a case that that’s a complete musician. And look, before he died he told me he said, “Kidd, you know what? I’m going to play some of that crazy stuff, you see the next album I do? I’m gonna do some of the crazy stuff you’re doing.” But he died before that. Now that would have been something.
MR:   What kind of guy was he?
KJ:   Oh easy, happy-go-lucky, I mean one of the most beautiful cats I ever knew. And I got — he and Alvin Batiste was great friends. And me and Alvin was brother-in-laws you know, we’ve been brother-in-laws for 50 years now, so every time Cannon would come in they’d be cooking gumbo and all, and it would be party time when he’d come to town.

I know I’ll spend this weekend listening to some of my favorite Cannonball from the LPs that I saved my money for back in the early 60s. You can read our previous blog on Cannonball entitled, “Mercy Mercy” from May of 2009.