|Joe Temperley, in 1997|
May 24, 2016
Joe Temperley, 1929-2016
We’ve learned of the passing of another stellar jazz artist. Joe Temperley was a master of the big horn — the baritone saxophone. He was one of the numerous musicians from around the world who responded to the spell of jazz and the desire to come to the country of its birth.
Joe was born in Scotland and experienced practical schooling with Scottish bands, including the well-known ensemble of Humphrey Lyttelton. Visits by American jazz musicians were rare, but Joe took advantage when they happened, and was able to see Harry Carney, his baritone saxophone idol. In our 1997 interview he related the story of a visit to Scotland by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra:
MR: How did you meet Harry?
JT: I met him in England when the band used to come. When the Ellington band used to come to England, Humphrey used to buy tickets for everybody in the band. And we used to go, the first time the Ellington band came to England, they did maybe 26 concerts. And we probably saw maybe 21 or 22 of them. We just used to follow them around, all over the place. And every night we’d walk in and see everybody, and they’d say, “Oh you guys are here again.” You know they couldn’t figure out why we were at the concerts all the time. But Duke Ellington, that was such a thing, to go and watch that band and see all those people that were in the band.
MR: That was the prime: [Johnny] Hodges and Harry—
JT: Harry [Carney] and Paul [Gonsalves] and Jimmy Hamilton. It was amazing.
MR: Were they on every night, from one night to the next? Can you remember that?
JT: Well yeah. No, no they weren’t on every night. I mean sometimes they sounded like a high school band. And then they could be sounding terrible and 10 or 15 minutes later, they sounded like something you’ve never heard in your life before. They were just absolute — the way they could turn it on — maybe if they saw somebody walking in or if somebody came in to see them — all of a sudden the band would be transformed into something entirely different. Because you know that band traveled all the time. They were tired.
MR: Years and years on the road.
JT: It was an amazing band. And it still is, it’s still the premier jazz orchestra of all times, in my opinion.
Joe immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, his destination was New York City, the jazz capital of the world. He had to “pay some dues” before he was able to enter the music world.
MR: Did you have to wait to get into the union?
JT: Yes. It took six months to get into the union, Local 802. It doesn’t take that, it takes six minutes now, or even six seconds. They’re dying to get people in the union.
MR: They need the dues.
JT: Oh, yes. But at that time it was like a six month wait. So I waited it out.
MR: What did you do during those six months?
JT: I worked in Corvettes, selling audio equipment. And that was an experience too of course. All of a sudden you know I went from playing every night, playing my saxophone and all that, all of a sudden I’m working in a retail store. But it served its purpose.
MR: That’s right. It puts things in perspective for you.
JT: Yes, absolutely, yes. And living in New York I started going out to hear people and became friendly with people like Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne and different people. And then I spent maybe 18 months with Woody’s band. But it was very hard then. It was very rigorous. I couldn’t deal with all those bus trips.
The most creative big band of the late 60s was led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. When their baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams needed a sub, Joe Temperley got the call. He was in awe of the musicians with whom he shared the stage:
JT: I must tell you this. When I actually played with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Band, I was so over-awed by the feeling of playing in that band and I couldn’t play for looking at everybody. You know looking at Snooky Young and Jimmy Nottingham, and Mel Lewis and Richard Davis and Jerome Richardson and Joe Farrell and all these people that were in the band. It was just a humbling experience for me. I would like to do it now you know. I would like to really do that again now.
MR: That was quite a roster. Everyone was a soloist.
JT: The saxophone section was Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels and myself. It was amazing.
Joe became a founding member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis, holding down the baritone saxophone chair until his death this month. Like Wynton, he agreed that paying tribute to jazz icons does not include trying to reproduce their sound note for note:
JT: I’ve played the soprano a long time. But you know I play the tenor quite a bit. I like to play the tenor. But I don’t play the tenor as much as I would like to but I play in school. I have two or three tenor students in school so I get to play the tenor. And then I do some gigs and things, odd things, and sometimes with the Lincoln Center band sometimes I play the tenor in different situations, sometimes I play the soprano, and at first I played the baritone and bass clarinet. So I’m kind of a utility man there as well as being the baritone player there. Like in this upcoming Sidney Bechet concert I’m going to be playing the soprano, which I’m looking forward to.
MR: In that situation, are you trying to emulate him as close as possible?
JT: No. Not at all. Wynton doesn’t encourage that. Like we play Ellington music. He likes you to play your own idea of what you think it should be, rather than just play the solos note for note. Then I don’t think it’s a fair reproduction because you can’t play like that. I can’t sound like Harry Carney. And somebody else can’t sound like Cootie Williams, and somebody else can’t sound like Paul Gonzalves. You can’t do it.
MR: We can listen to their records if we want to hear them.
JT: Of course. Yeah. And you can play your own way in that particular feeling but you can’t impersonate them. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Joe handled the baritone saxophone in a muscular yet delicate way. Some of my favorite recordings of him occurred in the company of pianist Junior Mance. Here’s a link to Junior and Joe playing one of Duke Ellington’s iconic recordings, “In a Sentimental Mood.”