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James Spaulding: '60s Sideman Extraordinaire

By Published: February 11, 2004
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?

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