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James Spaulding: '60s Sideman Extraordinaire

By Published: February 11, 2004
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.

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