While at Pitt, some of my college buddies, Drake Smith, Kenny Powell, Jon Saxon and I, used to do a lot of listening. Drake was into arranging so we listened to a lot of big band tracks, mostly Count Basie and Thad Jones. I wasn’t listening much to Duke at that time, I liked the swing and feel of the Basie Orchestra. I was trying to play Lead Alto like Marshal Royal and Jerome Richardson. We were also listening to a lot of varied sides, Bird, Miles, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Sonny Stitt, Dexter, and Trane. I had begun to understand some Bebop and ii-V-I chord changes, and I even got an undergraduate’s teaching assistant award under Nathan Davis. I tried to show the other cats some ii-V’s and to hear the flat 9, like Bird played. I would say, “listen to Bird play this classic lick over the 8th bar of the blues, hear the flat 9??”
I remember sitting with Frank Mallah once during lunch, and I was asking him questions about what to blow over changes. That’s when he told me about using the harmonic minor scale of the ii chord that you were approaching on the iii-VI7 bar. That’s how I learned a lot of stuff in Pittsburgh, from other cats. There were some playing cats around town too, I remember Ned Gould(now with Harry Connick’s big band), who used to play alto, switched over to tenor and was practicing about 8 hours a day in Shadyside and man, he was playin’.
As I mentioned earlier, I had good technique, thanks to all the clarinet studies, but I still sometimes had trouble figuring out how to use it. While at Pitt, I would sometimes put in about 6 hours of practice a day. But after wandering aimlessly through the early 80’s trying to see if I could relive the high life style of those 40’s bebop days, I got a call from my friend, Drake Smith, he said he wanted me to play in his Final Music Recital up in Connecticut. I was down and out during that time, so Drake mailed me a bus ticket, and I packed up what little belongings I had and headed for the East Coast, fall of 1985.
When I left Pittsburgh, the local economy was at a standstill, the big steel corporations which had helped build and make America powerful, were now being shut down, one by one. Unemployment was rampant amongst Pittsburghers. I remember going into a 7-11, and the manager said he had 300 applications. I had buddies who worked in the mill, used to making good money, now trying to raise a family on minimum wage jobs. Sons and fathers had worked in these mills, and some of the greatest jazz musicians that world had ever seen came right out of this working town, and in my early 20’s, I watched it all come to a grinding halt.
It was a lot different in Connecticut though, where I was staying with my buddy. There was work everywhere. I soon had a job, and then got a gig in a Top 40 band playing tenor. I hadn’t played a lot of top 40, but the next few years really helped my playing. I delved into the tenor headfirst and started transcribing tenor solos. I was checking Trane, Stitt and Rollins around then, but I was also trying to learn the R & B thing, I picked off solos on records by Mike Brecker, Lenny Pickett, Gerald Albright, Grover Washington and that’s right, I’ll say it, Kenny G. ‘Course he was Kenneth Gorelick, and I had a Jeff Lorber Fusion record with him on it, and then I even had G’s first coupla recordings.
There were a lot of bad cats around the New York area, and it started slowly whipping me into shape. I still had a tendency to be aimless with some of my solos though, but I started taking lessons with the great George Coleman around 1990, and he really showed me what to practice. I credit George more than any other teacher I had in showing me that you have to understand what you’re playing, and how it relates to the chords, and how to connect your jazz lines. I had started learning some piano way back in college, and George reemphasized the importance of the piano. I can punch out some chords these days, but I still can’t really play the piano.
While in the ‘Burg, Leon Dorsey, who had left Pittsburgh and joined Lionel Hampton’s band, had given me Bill Titone’s number, Lionel’s manager. I had called him when I got to the New York area, and mentioned Leon gave me the number and that I played saxophone. Well thanks to Leon, I got a call at the end of 1990 from Titone, saying they needed a player for New Year’s Eve with Lionel and Nina Simone. Titone then said they needed a baritone sax player! Man, I had only played baritone once for Nathan on a Big Band gig, but I said, I’ll make it, when’s the rehearsal? I rented a baritone, and made the rehearsal and the gig, and then they asked me to join the band.
There were a lot of playing cats in that band, and playing with Hamp has been one of the most influential and memorable experiences of my life.
I was like a kid in a candy factory when I started with Hamp, it was so exciting. On my first tour to Sweden with Hamp, Nat King Cole’s brothers were staying at the same hotel we were at, The Castle Hotel in Stockholm, and we had a impromptu jam session. During my years with Lionel I played and met some of the most legendary cats in the music world, Benny Carter, Benny Golson, Hank Jones, Eddie Harris, Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Elvin Jones amongst others. We played with Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Bill Waltrous, George Benson and Ronnie Cuber just to name a few. There were bad cats in the band, and I was trying to practice and learn as much as I could.
In the 90’s, in addition to Lionel Hampton’s band, I was blessed to play with Paquito D’Rivera and the United Nation Orchestra, Charli Persip Big Band, Illinois Jaquet Big Band, and the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. I went back into a deep shed in 1992, practicing mostly tenor, and transcribing solos-John Coltrane, Steve Grossman, Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt and Michael Brecker. A good friend of mine and a great tenor player, Michael Leventhal turned me on to Bob Berg and Jerry Bergonzi. My playing went through some changes, I wanted to modernize my playing, although sometimes it was a struggle.
My studies with George Coleman in the late 80’s and early 90’s were probably some of the most enligtening moments of my music career. George showed me the importance of connecting my jazz lines and understanding how each note relates to the chord. He emphasized a practice method and wanted me to be able to hear each chord and note aurally, and to understand why I was choosing to play certain notes. George really turned my playing around, and still 10 years later, his influence is felt in my playing and I’ve really just scratched the surface of the concepts that he discussed.
I was on the gig with Lionel Hampton in Paris, France when he had his major stroke in 1992. We knew something was wrong, even at the rehearsal, he seemed to be favoring one hand while he was playing. Lionel went on to start the show anyway, and on about the 4 tune, he was only playing with one hand, and his knees were beginning to buckle, and I was frightened that he was quite ill. Amazingly, even while he was starting to crumble, he kept trying to play the vibes with one hand and perform. Finally, the music director, Andres Boiarsky came up behind him and caught him, and gently led him off stage. But it was amazing though, he started shouting back to the band to start playing Hamp’s Boogie Woogie. We took a break, and backstage, there were medics tending to him, and one had an oyxgen mask and was holding it to Lionel’s face. But Lionel kept pulling the mask off, and shouting to the straw boss, which tunes we should play next– “Air Mail Special!!….and How High The Moon, boys!!!” I’ve never seen anything like it, here I thought the man might die, and he was concerned that the show must go on. Now that’s a lesson of show business that I never forgot.
One of my greatest thrills was when Frank Foster asked me to fill in as a sub in the Count Basie Orchestra in 1994 playing tenor for the great Kenny Hing. Whew. What a time that was. I admit, some of the solo spots were over my head, because I never played in a big band that played with such confindence and swagger. Sometimes I made the mistake of trying to keep up with Frank Foster and Doug Miller on tenor, both of whom possess admirable technique and endless ideas. But Frank asked me back 2 times in the future, once to fill in for Doug Miller, and then to play 3rd Alto, while Danny Turner was in the hospital.
I learned more than I can describe during those tours, especially the 3-4 months I spent with the band touring Japan and the United States. Playing with Basie gave me great pride, and also inspired me to go home and continue to work and transcribe those solos. I played 3rd alto under Manny Boyd, whom had played tenor with Woody Shaw in his younger days. The band’s heart was broken, while we were in Japan at the Blue Note, to learn that long time altoist (whom I was subbing for), Danny Turner had passed away due to complications of his surgery.
I had the pleasure of playing twice on tour with Danny, and he was always such a great inspiration and guide. He always had something positive to say, and he was a gentle, guiding spirit. I loved the way he bent the notes while he played Lead, he told me that Marshal Royal had passed the style down to Bobby Plater, and Bobby passed the same nuances on to Danny when he moved over to Lead. Yet Danny continued to humbly search for new music ideas. I’ll never forget how one day I was warming up on a minor scale pattern that I had picked off of Trane’s solo Bebop, and Danny came over and said, ‘What is that you’re playing, man?’ After all of the stuff that I had picked off of Danny’s playing, I humbly showed him the Trane lick. I’m honored now to play the ballad, Eric Dixon’s arrangement of ‘Easy Livin’ with the Basie Orchestra, as it was once a favorite feature of the great Danny Turner.