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Interviews

Meet Oliver Lake

By Published: November 4, 2004

I used to accompany a poet, and that piqued my interest in wanting to write poetry. I wrote music for dancers, and I've continued that from time to time. That was the basis of my career.

St. Louis musical roots

My mother owned a restaurant with a juke box that had a lot of blues, rhythm and blues. That may have piqued my interest. When I was in high school I got interested in the drum and bugle corps. A lot of members of the corps were playing jazz. That really got me into wanting to play jazz. I met a lot of young musicians who were adept at their instruments at an early age. I gravitated toward them immediately. Later on in high school I started playing jazz, but I didn't get serious until I was nineteen and out of high school. I went to college and flunked out, majoring in biology. When I flunked out that's when I decided I wanted to be a serious musician. I began to study, and I started hanging out with a lot of St. Louis musicians.

Black Artists Group

We started a group called the Black Artists Group in 1967-68. It was a cooperative of about fifty people. We did a lot of exchanges with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. We had a building where we had lessons, and concerts, and so forth. That building was a focus point for a lot of the music that was happening at that particular time, especially the music that we were doing because that was our only outlet. We were presenting ourselves, doing creative things that hadn't been done before in that way. I used to accompany a poet, and that piqued my interest in wanting to write poetry. I wrote music for dancers, and I've continued that from time to time. That was the basis of my career—the things I did in the Black Artists Group. For instance in the Black Artists Group we had a big band, small groups, poets, dancers, and actors. In 1998 I did a multimedia piece here in Montclair [New Jersey] with six actors, a rapper, a dancer, and ten musicians including a string quartet. I'll be going to the University of Pennsylvania in a couple of weeks to do a solo theatre piece [The Matador of 1st and 1st] that involves my poetry and saxophone. I've continued to integrate words, dance, theatre, and composition in what I'm doing. Of the other people in the Black Artists Group Julius Hemphill, Hamiett Bluiett, and Philip Wilson are the names you'd know because they had recording careers in New York. Julius was doing the same kind of thing, too—he integrated all these elements into his career.

Influential musicians

I've been influenced by Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, but the two major influences on me on the alto saxophone have been Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy. I have recorded several tunes of Eric Dolphy and actually did a CD of his music about two years ago. I haven't recorded any of Jackie McLean's. Last week his son [altoist] Rene McLean was the featured artist with my big band. In terms of composers Duke Ellington and Julius Hemphill.

The "Loft Jazz Scene" of the 1970's

That was right around the time I moved to New York, 1974-1975. I had a loft and I played jazz. I wasn't getting hired by the major jazz clubs when I first got here. If I wanted to be heard I had to present myself. A lot of the spaces where jazz musicians could present themselves were loft spaces. All of a sudden there was a name "Loft Jazz" invented by the writers which I thought was absurd. It was used as a way to market what we were doing. I never considered myself a "loft musician."

The World Saxophone Quartet

We were brought together in New Orleans by saxophonist Ed Jordan in 1976. He's still teaching down there. He came to New York and heard the four of us in our individual bands and wanted to bring our bands to New Orleans. He realized he couldn't afford to bring out four bands so he brought out the four of us and put us with a rhythm section. The reaction to the concert was so incredible we said, "Hey, we have to keep this band together." The energy and the chemistry were too great for us not to continue to do it. So we came back to New York, came up with a name, and booked our first concert. We argued about who was going to play bass, drums, and piano. I think I mentioned, "Let's forget it. Let's just do it with the four of us." We did and the quartet was born. We started out as the New York Saxophone Quartet, but there was another group with that same name. They told us we couldn't do that so we went to the World Saxophone Quartet. I feel it's been one of the most creative and major contributors to jazz in terms of projecting a chamber sound and allowing the audience to feel and hear the rhythm, the bass, and everything. After Julius [Hemphill] left the group we did have several other players in that chair, but now we've settled with John [Purcell], and I think he's going to be there for a while. The chemistry seems to be working really well with him so I'm excited about the band. Justin Time, our label out of Canada, has been very supportive. We're doing tours now and then and recording twice a year. Our last big concert was at the Newark Symphony Hall, one of the newer concert spaces.

New CD Requiem for Julius (Justin Time Records)

I think it's one of our better CD's. Lately we have been putting out CD's that either involved a rhythm section or African drums. We hadn't put one out in two or three CD's that was just the World Saxophone Quartet, just the four of us. We chose this as a dedication to Julius, his spirit and his energy, as the main composer in the World Saxophone Quartet when he was in the group. We're playing our compositions that are dedicated to him. There are a lot of contemplative pieces, ballads, more than we would ordinarily put on a CD. That just kind of happened—it's not an attempt to get back to the way we played when Julius was in the band. We have a different sound now because John Purcell is playing soprano, and he's also bringing in some of his compositions. I hope people will listen to the CD and enjoy it.

Business aspects

The system only chooses a few jazz musicians to become really rich. Most of us do it for the love of it. Of course we make our living at it as well. If you want to survive you have to know how to take care of the business aspects of music. Whether it's making your own CD, putting a brochure together, sending out a press release, or returning someone's mail on time. It's 90% business 10% creativity (laughs). Ever since I stopped teaching school many years ago I've survived from playing music. I feel very fortunate to do that.

Passin' Thru Records

I started my own record company, Passin' Thru. I have four CD's out now. I think it's important that musicians take control of their destinies. Especially now that everybody has a recording studio in their home and can hand you a CD at a moment's notice. The big companies have a tendency to go with trends. There was a trend to just hire the young saxophonist twenty years old in a three-piece suit copying music that had happened exactly twenty years before that. Those were the guys that were in with the labels.

Consequently that knocked out a lot of guys like myself who were older and not regurgitating the music exactly like it had gone down before without creating anything particularly new. We were doing creative things, playing our own pieces. You know—in the same spirit as Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. Rather than being at the mercy of some record company executives the playing field has gotten a lot more level in terms of being able to do business. Also in this business you have to market yourself, you have to get your work out to more people. I have been active in doing that in my career. This record label I'm quite excited about. I have a partner, Richard Franklin, who is not a musician. We have a CD and a video available of the theatre piece. We have planned to put out four more CD's this year. One will be a quintet featuring Geri Allen on Piano. Another one is the first solo CD by my son Gene Lake, a drummer. He's the regular drummer now with David Sanborn. Jay Hoggard, a wonderful vibes player—his quartet will be releasing one. Trio Three is another group I'm part of—Reggie Workman on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums, and myself. Trio Three will be releasing a CD on Passin' Thru this year as well. So it's quite ambitious for a small, independent label to put out 4 CD's in a year.

Oliver Lake Big band

It's rare that I get a chance to perform with my big band, but we've been at Sweet Basil for a month of Mondays in March. I haven't actually recorded this band, but I've got a great group of improvisers. I've been revising the piece you heard at the IAJE Convention in January, 1999. I want to record the band on my label so I have to raise funds to pay 17 musicians and go into the studio for a couple of days. It's going to be a challenge. Hopefully I'll be able to do it next year.

Oliver Lake Steel Quartet

I'll be touring in May with my Steel Quartet where I'm using a steel drummer, electric bass, drums, and saxophone. We'll be going to Europe for a couple of weeks. We're doing things that are Caribbean influenced, things with a straight jazz edge—originals, pieces by Mingus and Coltrane—and things that can't be categorized. I'm using the steel pan in a way I haven't heard it used. I've been doing a lot of work around the tri-state area with that band. Our CD Kinda' Up came out on Justin Time the same week as Requiem for Julius.

Bloomfield College

I just recently got a composer-in-residence at Bloomfield College, which is the next town from Montclair, about ten minutes away. It's sponsored by New Residences/Meet the Composer and just started in January. This is just the beginning of a three-year residency. I will teach some classes in composition, and I'm taking some classes there as well. I use a notation program when I write my music that's "mini'd" to a synthesizer. I can further those skills at Bloomfield. I'm going to write a lot of music as a result of this composer-in-residency. I'll be doing concerts at Bloomfield College with my big band, bringing my small group in. I'll even check out the possibility of bringing in World Sax, but the logistics of that are difficult.

Russian Composer Symposium (1987)

I think we were there about seven or eight days. It was in St. Petersburg around the time of the Russian political change. Several American composers were chosen to do an exchange with Russian composers. They wanted some improvising composers so I went along with David VanTieghem who is a percussionist. The two of us were the improvisers/performers/composers. The others were strictly teaching and composing. We went there and had our pieces played. I had one of my string pieces played, I did some solo pieces, and I improvised over my string quartet that was played by Russian musicians. That was quite interesting.

Writing for strings

I've always been attracted to the high sound of the violin. It's similar to the sound you get with the alto saxophone. One of my first records was with a string trio: three violins and a saxophone. I used some of the players out of the St. Louis Symphony. Later when I came to New York Leroy Jenkins and I played duo concerts together—just violin and saxophone. Over the years I've written pieces for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Wheeling Symphony, and others. I was just commissioned by a pro musica out of Columbus, Ohio to do a piece for the World Saxophone Quartet and their chamber orchestra that will premier in 2001. I've been commissioned for several pieces for string quartet and my Steel Quartet. I feel fortunate. Even though I've been all over the place I've continued to do pretty much what I like.

Visit Oliver Lake on the web at www.oliverlake.net .



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