James Spaulding: '60s Sideman Extraordinaire

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I think this music in particular will help us get through this mess; I believe in the human race -- black, green, white, there's only one race, the human race.
Born July 30th, 1937, alto saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding spent his formative years in Indianapolis, and moved to Chicago in the latter half of the '50s, appearing on early recordings by the Sun Ra Arkestra. Following a brief return to Indianapolis in 1962, he moved to New York and played with Freddie Hubbard, Randy Weston and Max Roach. His unique, unfettered and lyrical approach quickly became in demand, and he recorded as a sideman for Blue Note on dates with Hubbard, Duke Pearson, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and others on the inside-outside end of the spectrum. His first session as a leader came, surprisingly, in 1976 ( The Legacy of Duke Ellington , Storyville); he has since recorded as a leader for the Muse, High Note and his own Speetones label.

All about Jazz: You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis, right? What was the impetus for your moving to Chicago from Indianapolis (a place that I always considered to have such a strong scene)?

James Spaulding: I was in the Army for three years, so when I got out of the Army in '57, I went back to Indianapolis and there wasn't anything to do, and at this time I'd made up my mind that I was going to play music for the rest of my life. So I had a chance to get myself together with my parents, and when I left for Chicago, I lived with a cousin who took me in and got me a job during the day so I could have a little money in my pocket. I enrolled in school, the Cosmopolitan School of Music, on the GI Bill that I had received. I was pretty fortunate for having that happen, so while I was going to school and working the day job that my cousin had got me, I was able to run into Johnny Griffin's mother at my place of work. I said "you're Johnny Griffin's mother! I want to meet him." I wanted to come to Chicago to meet Johnny Griffin; that was really the motivation. I heard a record of his, Chicago Calling, and I thought I had to meet this guy, right? If I had heard Charlie Parker and I was old enough, I would have said the same thing — I don't care where he is, I'll take a bus! So his mother gave me his number and said I could go see him; he was playing at this place called the Flame in Chicago. So I went over and he was playing so much tenor saxophone, I was sitting there with my mouth open!

AAJ: Where exactly was that in Chicago?

JS: It was a nightclub — and this is pretty funny — it was a place called the Flame, and it burned down later on [laughing]! I think the owner had a little insurance scam or something; a lot of the clubs started closing down later on, around '57, '58. I was going to school down there and I by chance I ran into Sun Ra and met him, and I rehearsed and recorded with him. Actually my first recording was with Jerry Butler; I wasn't listed on it — it was on the Chess label, I think — that was really my first date, and I took a flute solo as a matter of fact.

AAJ: So were you playing more flute than alto at that point?

JS: Well, that was what the gig required. The guy told me "we need a flautist — can you read?" I was so happy my father taught me to read; he was my music teacher. Once you learn how to read, you can work all the time. You can work in anybody's band, as long as they've got charts and arrangements. I'm so happy I learned to read at home with my parents.

AAJ: So your dad was a music teacher?

JS: My father was a professional jazz musician; he was playing guitar and he was a bandleader. He had a band that called themselves "The Original Brown Buddies" back in the 1920s. I have some photographs of him in the band he was leading at the time, and it was the first integrated band in Indianapolis. He stopped playing as the children came onto the scene. There was my oldest sister Eleanor, then June, and then there's me, I'm the third oldest. At that time, gigs were very hard to come by, and he struggled through that and had to stop playing eventually. I was in grade school, going into high school, and he was always encouraging me to play. He brought home all these records: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and so I got all this straight from him. My music came from him and my mother, who was taking us to church every Sunday, getting us involved spiritually in the church, and I was happy to have that experience too. Between my father playing jazz music and my mother playing gospel music — what I'm doing now is researching this music, and it makes me realize that this music is so important in our everyday society.

I didn't realize that when I was a kid; nobody told me that. My father would just throw on a record and say "you like this record?" and he'd play along with his guitar, and he'd have me sit and listen to Charlie Parker. I'd say "dad, that's what I want to play, the alto sax." By this time I was old enough to work, so I saved a little money and bought a practice horn for ten bucks. This guy sold it to me and I took it on. I had this friend who played bassoon and piano, and he taught me the fingering for the saxophone. That got me started, and in high school I had a music teacher who was a jazz lover (he played all the instruments) and he taught us how to read — how to interpret syncopation, jazz rhythms, and different concepts — this guy was wonderful. He really wanted young kids to learn how to play jazz and how to read it.

AAJ: And today the public schools — at least the high schools — don't have anything like that.

JS: Oh man, it's really changed. I could go into the band room and check out everything, check out any instrument. I checked out a flute; that's how I got started on the flute, because I could go in there and check it out, take it home and practice. I would take it home and practice at the kitchen table while my mom cooked dinner for us.

AAJ: So you were a doubler early on, then?

JS: I was right in it at the grade school level; when my father put on those Charlie Parker records that impressed me, I believe I was ten. I was very young, but the music dominated our house, with my father being in the scene.

AAJ: You're learning by osmosis, and when you come out of it, you've already got the chops—

JS: Being in the army for three years, that really helped me, and then going to Chicago and meeting Sun Ra, Jerry Butler — After a while I had to stop working [there] and travel on the road with Sun Ra and Sonny Thompson's rhythm and blues band. That was a great experience; we traveled in cars, and a lot of the time when we got there we'd have to stay in one room. One of the gigs we got paid $25 to go out of town, down to Tennessee and New Orleans and back [laughing]!

I was just thinking about the first gig I had in Chicago; it paid ten dollars and it was in Cicero, Illinois. I played for this guy who had us all playing behind this curtain. We had this striptease dancer; she was white and all the musicians were black. They couldn't see us, but we could see her from the curtains. The guitarist got us the gig, and we were back there playing while she was dancing with the music. That was my first gig in Chicago in '57. At the time, you had to be escorted through there, because if you were black you couldn't just walk into town; it was like "what are you doing here." The segregation was strong in '57. It's still with us, unfortunately, and I'm just trying to figure out a way to steel myself and get through this life on this planet.

I think this music in particular will help us get through this mess; I believe in the human race — black, green, white, there's only one race, the human race. Look at the world — it's like Louis Armstrong said, "What a Wonderful World." It's not the world, but what you're doing to the world. It's waiting to be taken care of. Sun Ra was a phenomenon, and this music is a phenomenon. They called it African-American Classical Music at the school I was teaching at, Livingston College. They trace it back to Africa, the roots of it, all the way back to Ethiopia, as we're all one people. You look at those signs, those connections — I think we could really have a new world order. It's scary when you think about how man has dominated things, has ruled and conquered. This is one of the things I play for with my music, to heal through my music, to have a message in my music, and to bring people together with these lifelines. I want to try to bring an understanding of why we're here. We've got to move on from these war games so people can thrive and we've got to figure out a way to render [the warmongers] helpless.

I'm going to register some young people to vote. I'm going to get out there on a registration campaign. We can figure out how to do this; it can be done through the papers, through the media, I see solutions. Hopefully this will shed some light on how to get together with the human race, get through all this madness, empty out the jail cells — we shouldn't have jails today in this society! There's a lot of work to be done, and I'll try to find myself, try to read Trane's writings and listen to his music, and try to find out how to continue on and balance my energy. It's very difficult sometimes, not working and not getting the recognition that you need to work with. Right now as I'm telling you these things, I haven't worked since I worked with David Murray. I was with David Murray for fifteen years, and after that, things started to drop off. All that's faded and I'm out here on my own, so I have to figure out a way to think about some continuity, to have a direct and positive path to follow and make my dreams come true. This is world music; the word "jazz" used to be a nasty word, and now it's respected all over the world.

AAJ: And musicians from all over the world are playing it.

JS: You've got Indians playing it, Hawaiians playing jazz; people hear the word "jazz" and they think it's something else that they don't really know about. They haven't had the time to really analyze and break down the different styles of jazz. We're going to have to open it up; these young people are trying to figure out what's going on, but they're standing back because it's not taught early. [Jazz should be taught] in kindergarten, putting on records while they have their cookies and milk'

I'm so happy I was able to start to understand at my age — I'm 66 — my father, if he hadn't introduced me to this music, I would've been in jail, an alcoholic, or dead. It's stimulated me, and I've always wanted to improve upon it — that's the magic of finding your own voice within that sound, like Trane. I can hear Trane, I can hear Charlie Parker; the first two notes you hear on the stereo, — that's Trane, that's Miles.

AAJ: And Trane never got the chance to finish; he was exploring 'til the very end.

JS: He didn't get the chance to write any method books or anything; we've got some scholars who are doing it, but we should have it from the master, right? It would've been a special treat. He was so beautiful. I met him a couple of times, and the first time was in Chicago. He had Elvin [Jones], and Jimmy Garrison was on bass; the place was so packed you couldn't even get in! It was this place called the Keys Lounge, and it had balloons on the ceiling or something. [Also in Chicago] I got the chance to see Ahmad Jamal with Israel Crosby on bass and the drummer Vernel Fournier. Vernel lived right down the street from me on the South Side of Chicago, down on Lafayette Avenue. He lived two doors down from me. Our birthdays are a day apart; mine's on the thirtieth of July and his is on the thirty-first of July. We played together later on when I came to Brooklyn when he was playing with [trumpeter and composer] Cal Massey.

AAJ: So you toured with Sun Ra, then.

JS: Yeah, we went down south and we played my hometown, Indianapolis, in the YMCA.

AAJ: How did that go over in Indianapolis?

JS: At that time it was great. The place was packed, they were ready for it and they're still ready for it; it's just how it's presented. I think the understanding of the music, the formula for identifying individuals and people into one race, to find out where this thing is coming from — its roots. We're all Africans really, and we're all standing on the shoulders of all these great people from the roots all the way up, standing tall with technology. The information age is getting so fast, we're finding out so many things that could solve this madness. I just hope to find some way to penetrate it, to stop it so we can live like human beings. This music is the center, though; this music we call jazz is right in the middle and if we can figure out a way to get our children involved in it—

I'm constantly thinking about these things, you know, every day I wake up and ask the creator to show me a better way, a new day and an opportunity to correct these mistakes and change things for the better with myself, and then I can share them with others. It's inside of us — all of us have the answer. When I think about music while I'm playing, I start getting into free improvisation — I hear Trane, man, the energy is high and it just feels so good traveling through the universe. Like Sun Ra would say, "Next stop Jupiter!" We can really do some phenomenal things with this music. I'm just finding out now about colors and music. For every note, there's a different color, and for twelve tones there are twelve colors.

AAJ: There are so many different tones that aren't on the Western scale, just like there are so many colors that are combinations and inflections in between those twelve colors. The possibilities are infinite.

JS: Right, I'm learning how to take those colors and combine them with what I play in free improvisation (what they used to call avant-garde); freedom is like the different colors on a canvas. You've got visualization and you've got audio with the music, you've got dance and rhythms — what a wonderful world we've got!

AAJ: When you were with Ra, was there a lot of multimedia stuff going on in his band then?

JS: Oh, well later on he brought in dancers, but it was just the band when I did those recordings in 1958-59. I did about four of them I think.

AAJ: What made you leave Ra's band?

JS: I didn't really leave; I wanted to keep on doing it but I was working this day job and I'd get out and go to night school, hang out in clubs, go to jam sessions all around Chicago. Sun Ra called me and wanted me to go work with him, and then it was just that I wanted to do other things, and I felt indentured (like I still am!). I wanted to keep moving. I stayed with David Murray's band as long as anyone [else], almost as long as my marriage [laughing]. I've been married now for forty years, and my wife has been my backbone; she's kept me together through all these years. I couldn't have been where I am now without her and my daughters. Family is right up at the top within the structure of our humanity and our morality.

AAJ: It's great that they're so supportive of your work.

JS: They were always at my concerts encouraging me, being there when I get depressed. It's always good to have your family because you can come and talk to them. You have your family?

AAJ: I live with my girlfriend; who knows how that's going to go, but you know, she's rather supportive of me and I try to be so of her.

JS: But you have your arguments too, right?

AAJ: Yeah, but unfortunately the main thing we disagree about is that she's not really into jazz. I've been trying...

JS: Oh man! I say what would really bring her into the part of the music that I'm into, from John Coltrane on down, would be Khalil Gibran's writings, and Trane wrote some beautiful poetry on his A Love Supreme record. If you can begin to relate to those spiritualities, I think that she might begin to feel that love, because it's about feeling and understanding the history. A lot of people don't understand the history, and when they find out the origins of the music, they're like "I didn't know that; nobody ever told me!"

AAJ: People don't make the connection between spirituality and art; that's a big step, but they're obviously so intertwined.

JS: Intertwined — it's the weave in the fabric, but the fabric is strong and it's together. I'm writing some music now that relates to the Bible and man, the story of the Common Man. I'm trying to open up things to where people feel elevated and inspired to do something creative in their lives and share that with others. That's basically where I'm coming from; I'm still learning and I'll still be making mistakes, but...

AAJ: So how did you move to New York from Chicago?

JS: It's so crazy; I had to move back to Indianapolis and I stayed at home with my parents for a while and recharged my batteries. The first time I stayed in New York, I stayed for about a week and then came back. I stayed with Freddie Hubbard; he was about to get married at the time. We stuck it out together, as we had met at a jam session [in Indianapolis] and we thought "hey, we ought to get together and learn some Charlie Parker tunes."

AAJ: Freddie has a brother who is a pianist, right?

JS: Right, Ervin Hubbard. He's a fantastic pianist; he could play by ear and by memory. He could play like Bud Powell, but he didn't want to leave his family in Indianapolis. Freddie wanted him to come to New York, but he wanted to stay and raise his family.

AAJ: I've heard about him, but he never recorded. I have a friend from Indianapolis who told me about Ervin, but I've never heard his music.

JS: He may have some recordings, but I doubt it. David Young, who played tenor saxophone, lived there and so did David Baker, who is at the University of Indiana in the Jazz Department. He used to come to my high school and bring his trombone and play for us, give us advice — he'd tell us there are great things ahead if we stick with this music.

AAJ: When he broke his jaw, he didn't give it up — he just switched to a different instrument.

JS: He had a steel plate in his head and couldn't play trombone anymore.

AAJ: But he switched to cello and became great on that, did some composing...

JS: In fact, he used to be sweet on my older sister Eleanor. He came by our house one evening and knocked on the door. I was standing there, "what do you want with my sister!" [laughs]

AAJ: Did you play with him some?

JS: Yeah, we got together years later; he's going to have me come down to Bloomington to do a workshop. He's a wonderful educator and musician.

AAJ: So the relationship with Freddie Hubbard was your second most longstanding musical relationship, after David Murray?

JS: We got together after he was with Art Blakey, and we had Clifford Jarvis on drums, and maybe Larry Ridley on bass [Hub-Tones , Blue Note, 1962]. But it was Sun Ra that gave me my first real experience of the music how it should really be played, with free improvisation. He was an amazing man; he would talk for hours and we would sit there and listen to him like we were in a classroom. He was talking about things we had never heard before, interstellar connections and everything. I wanted to move on, but John Glimore and Pat [Patrick], they'd stay there forever. I wanted to get to New York and meet John Coltrane.

Randy Weston was my first gig in New York; he taught me about Africa and African rhythms, how they are connected to the cosmos and to people. I met Randy in 1962, right after I moved, and he hired me. He took me to Europe with him, and I was working with Max Roach after that.

AAJ: So you went to Europe pretty early on in your career?

JS: First with Randy; then I went with Max a second time, doing a few tours with George Wein's jazz festival. Sonny Rollins was on that tour with Max. Then it was our group with Freddie, [bassist] Jymie Merritt and [pianist] Ronnie Mathews.

I was so blessed; I didn't realize how blessed I'd been. I didn't realize that all these things could happen from just doing the best that you can do. I had to try and be serious even though I had some problems there. I married a wonderful woman who kept my feet on the ground, and I have to give her a lot of credit too.

AAJ: You made so many appearances as a sideman on Blue Note. Did they ever ask you to do a record as a leader during that time?

JS: Well, Alfred Lion took me out to dinner and he asked me if I would like to record for Blue Note, if I would like a contract. I said sure, and he said [Spaulding does his best German accent] "well, you know you have a family (I had just had my first daughter) and you want to write some music for the jukebox!" He said "you want to write some 'Watermelon Man.'?" At the time he wanted something like Lou Donaldson's "Alligator Boogaloo," and as I was eating I said "okay Alfred, I'll be talking to you later." I never got back with him; I had all this stuff I'd written up, and that just killed all of that.

AAJ: What kind of stuff had you written?

JS: Well, some bebop, some swing, some traditional kinds of things. Hopefully it would've introduced me on the label; it was around '65. He told me that, and I love Lou Donaldson, but I didn't want to play that stuff all night long. I wanted to play free and I wanted to play bebop all night. If I did play something with a backbeat, it would be at the end of the set where people would get up and dance. I'd go to the club and people would say "play that fatback, man!" One guy told me "play some Herbie Mann" and I thought, well... Another guy told me to play "Swing Shepherd Blues" and I thought "okay, I'll play "Swing Shepherd Blue..." and the guy handed me a ten-dollar bill [laughs].

AAJ: It seems like Blue Note was trying to do the boogaloo thing and the avant-garde thing at the same time, and they weren't sure what they wanted to do.

JS: It was a strange time, different musicians trying to figure it out. During the loft period of the '70s, I was out in Jersey going to school with Larry Ridley and his jazz program at Livingston College. All the musicians were adjunct professors; I was teaching flute and jazz improvisation. I brought my family out there, too. I think the school is still there, but they don't have the curriculum like they used to. It was becoming so beautiful out there; everybody was looking at each other, nobody looked down and nobody looked up.

AAJ: There were a bunch of people getting teaching gigs during that period, like Cecil Taylor at Antioch.

JS: Paul Jeffrey is at Duke University; he's the jazz director there.

AAJ: I wanted to talk about the orchestral suite you wrote recently for Rutgers ["A Song of Courage"].

JS: Yeah, that was my suite I wrote for Dr. Martin Luther King. They gave me a NEA grant and I took the money and got an arranger to arrange all those pieces I had written, he got the choir together and got the band together and we put it on in Voorhees Chapel on campus. We had Avery Brooks singing some of the leads; I only had so much money, though, the money was very little. I couldn't even pay the choir! [laughs] Everybody was looking at me smiling, and I said "oh no! I'll make it up to you!"

AAJ: How long had you been working on the piece?

JS: Ever since 1965 or so; when Malcolm X was killed I wrote a piece for that, then when Dr. King was killed in '68 I wrote the music from that.

AAJ: So it basically started with "A Time to Go?"

JS: Yeah, that was the piece that Joe Lee Wilson wrote the lyrics to.

AAJ: Oh, I'm just familiar with the instrumental version you did with Bobby Hutcherson [on Patterns, Blue Note, 1968].

JS: Oh, that wasn't the best version, but it was okay. I thank Bobby for recording it and using it on his date. He liked it, so I said "okay, man, you got it." Of course, there were those dates with Wayne Shorter, which were my favorite dates. McCoy Tyner's Tender Moments, that kind of stuff just moves me, the spiritual compositions.

AAJ: So had you always thought about doing something in a larger context, like an orchestra, even though you were recording with small groups?

JS: Yeah, that's what I'm doing right now, working it out on my computer. I'm just doing it myself. Plus, I have my own record label now, Speetones. I make up about a thousand copies of the records.

AAJ: So how did you go about starting your label?

JS: Well, everybody's saying "shoot, man, get your own label." You can do what you want to do, get the musicians you want, you don't have the record companies telling you who to use or what to play. It's like Alfred Lion telling me what to play. The money wasn't that great anyway for a sideman. For me, it was $250; at 12:00 they'd pick us up at the Empire Hotel and take us out to Rudy van Gelder's studio in a taxi, and we'd be out there from noon to sunset. We'd be doing all these takes and he'd give each of us a check and we'd have to rush back to Manhattan before the check-cashing place closed (it was on the corner of 50th and Broadway), try to cash our little check and have enough money to get home and buy some groceries. I began to record a lot, my phone was ringing and I was thankful. I got married in '63 and after that we did Hub-Tones, and Duke Pearson (he was the A&R man), he liked me and started calling me for other dates, and I am thankful for that. But I wish I had recorded for Blue Note with the music I wanted to play!

If people call me "underappreciated," in terms of having more gigs, being able to present my music more, I think I'd rather just do this music the way I've always done it. If anybody wants to invest in you, invest some money in your dreams, then that's another story. But when you do your work because someone tells you how to do it, or the way to do it, after a while you lose interest in it. You want to have the freedom to do your own thing, like when I started my own record label — I go into the studio and record whatever I want; I've got the money to pay for it.

AAJ: So will the new orchestra piece come out on Speetones, then?

JS: Of course, unless somebody comes along and makes an offer I can't refuse. I'm still working on it; it's a work in progress anyway.

AAJ: It's all a work in progress'

JS: It never stops; I put on a piece, "Shaw'nuff" by Charlie Parker, I get the same feeling and inspiration when I hear Bird and Diz do that thing. It's almost like they stopped time. That's the magic of this music, when you can make time stand still like that... I think there are two things of importance — remembering and creating. All this negative stuff, all the wars and the greed, we just have to pray. I'm so glad for this music; aren't you?


Recommended Listening:

  • Sun Ra - Jazz in Silhouette (El Saturn-Evidence, 1958)
  • Freddie Hubbard - Hub-Tones (Blue Note, 1962)
  • Grant Green - Solid (Blue Note, 1964)
  • Duke Pearson - Wahoo! (Blue Note, 1964)
  • Bobby Hutcherson - Components (Blue Note, 1965)
  • James Spaulding - Brilliant Corners (Muse-32 Jazz, 1988)

Visit James Spaulding on the web at www.speetones.com .


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