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James Spaulding: '60s Sideman Extraordinaire

By Published: February 11, 2004
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?"

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