Ted Curson: We Shall Not Soon Forget
By Ted Curson
Too many jazz folks have left us this year. But in my career I have had the pleasure of at least a brush with many of them.
During the '60s, all musicians worth their salt were worried about their sound and their soloing and how many choruses they planned to play. I called Robin Kenyatta for my last date on Atlantic Records - the album called Quicksand. I had Kenny Barron, Richard Davis, Bill Barron on tenor, Robin Kenyatta on alto and flute, Butch Curson (my brother) and Tootie Heath on drums. The sessions sounded pretty good to me, but the next day when I went to listen to the tapes, Michael Cuscuna (the producer) said, "Oh, did you know that Robin Kenyatta was here and he did all his solos over?" That's the way the artists were in those days - the Coltranes and the Dolphys and the rest.
Bent Jaedig and I go all the way back to 1964, when I first played in Copenhagen at the Montmartre. I was living in Dexter Gordon's house and Bent came over to see Dexter and that's when I met him. After Bill Barron and I finished our month gig in Copenhagen, I played a week at the Jazz House in Arhus, Denmark. It was Bent's gig and he reminded me a lot of Dexter. From that moment on, we managed to play at least one concert together in Denmark every year and when he came to New York, he sat in with me at my Blue Note jam session. He even came over to Jersey City and played a concert with the Spirit of Life at the famous Miller Branch Library. A very good friend and a VERY good musician - and sadly underrated.
James Williams was a very quiet guy. He was everywhere from Bradley's to the Pori Jazz parties in Greenwich Village to the Jazz Times conventions. His death broke me up because he was such a brilliant piano man, and he had finally achieved a major success as an educator. It was over almost like a flash.
Hans Koller from Berlin was one of the top tenor players in Europe. His playing was between Zoot Sims and Brew Moore in style. I first met him at the Prague Jazz Festival and from that moment on he arranged jobs for me in the jazz cellars of Frankfurt and other German cities. Later on, he became a painter of note, and then I didn't see him for many years. You really missed a lot if you didn't hear him.
I met Elvin Jones years ago when he was playing at the Five Spot with Pepper Adams. When I walked in with my trumpet, they invited me to play one, which was quite unusual in those days at that club. I went up on the stand and somebody said, "Let's play 'Stablemates'." This was a tune that I didn't know, but it didn't matter at first because I could play in all the keys and I had a pretty good ear plus I knew all the chords. Once we started playing, I took the first solo, and I must have soloed for one hour because I couldn't get out of the song. It was an uneven number of bars, and I didn't know it. I felt like I was in a maze and couldn't get out. All of a sudden, Elvin made one of his famous rolls and looked me dead in the eye and I knew it was time to stop. After that, many years later at the Blue Note, Elvin was working there with Frank Foster and Frank said out loud, "Why, Ted Curson could fix that for you." I walked over to see what they were talking about and they were talking about playing at the Pori Festival in Finland. I said I could check it out, but ten minutes later somebody told me to forget about it. I really wanted to arrange this for Elvin because it was such a good paying job and Elvin Jones was one of the world's favorites, but he never got to play in Pori and now it's too late.
Malachi Favors was the bassist in the Art Ensembleof Chicago. (My old drummer, Steve McCall, sort of invented that group with Muhal Richard Abrams.) When I first saw Malachi in France at the big communist festival, they had their faces painted and I didn't particularly like that because I thought it was sort of tomming or burlesquing the music, but when they started to play, I quickly got the message. These were some heavy dudes under that regalia. One of the tunes they played, "Even the Rats and Roaches Know What's Happening" - they completely won me over with that. I still have it on a record in the basement.
Arthur Harper, bassist, was from North Philadelphia, and he went to Mastbaum Voc/Tech with me. He played with Art Blakey and many others. Arthur and I worked many nights at the old Birdland - that was the Ted Curson/Bill Barron Quintet. We also played together at Ortlieb's Jazz House in Philadelphia where he worked with Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker. He had impeccable time, and he was very selective in the way he picked certain notes from the chords in his solos.
Illinois Jacquet was a phenomenon - one of those people who are just special. He created a style with "Flying Home" with Lionel Hampton that made him very famous and saxophone players used to use his style to walk the bar in Philadelphia and Baltimore and all across the country. I don't think he ever walked the bar, but his style of playing was perfect for that. I even heard Coltrane use it in Philadelphia. When his band was at the Blue Note one time, Illinois would warm the band up by having them play scales just the way you do in a high school band, which is very unusual - and he had some of the finest musicians in New York City in his band. One night during my jam session I saw him sitting at the bar, so I went down and spoke to him. He told me he had just finished an album playing bassoon. This is not typical of tenor sax players, because you need jaws like an alligator to play that instrument. He sat there all night at the bar, just listening to everybody play. The next day when I was getting on an airplane, going to Finland, Illinois was on the same plane and he had hired 35 musicians from the jam session! That's why I loved that jam session - because such crazy things happened.
Steve Lacy was an old friend from the East Village, one of the first young guys I heard playing the soprano sax - way before Coltrane. He had a beautiful sound on it and he played Monk tunes all the time. When my French record company (Gerard Terrones, owner) was arranging a tour for me in Spain, going from Bilbau to Deseri, I asked them to get Steve Lacy and Oliver Johnson on drums. I wrote some very hard music for the festival. Right before the festival, we played in Bilbau for the bullfight. The matador invited us to a party he was having before the fight and my musicians had a lot food and a lot of wine to drink. After the bullfight we played at the festival - of course, everyone was too drunk to play the music I gave them, so we played some other music that turned out to be free jazz and the people loved it!
Saxophonist Frank Strozier came to town with the MJT Plus 3. I played opposite to them in Birdland and Walter Perkins, the drummer, was their musical director. My good friend Bob Cranshaw played bass with them. Walter was a great drummer who played Art Blakey style and it was a swinging group. Then all of a sudden Frank Strozier stopped playing his brilliant alto and started playing piano. He gave his first concert on piano at Carnegie Hall. One of those multi-talented musicians!
Claude "Fiddler" Williams
I played a few gigs with Claude Williams at a very popular club (not a jazz club) on the West Side in Greenwich Village. I remember Calvin Hill played bass with us. It was funny because Claude was a senior citizen musician and my first thought was I hope I'm not doing this when I'm that age, but then after I heard him play, I was very impressed. I also admired the guy who was fixing gigs for him and I thought it was so nice to have someone take care of you that way. (This man turned out to be very famous for looking after the welfare of older artists.)
I once lived on 137th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. Nearby was Connie's where Steve Pulliam had one of the best jam sessions in New York. When I left there, I moved to Brooklyn. They had some wonderful jam sessions, too - at the Blue Coronet. I played with people like Chris White on bass, Bobby Hamilton and Andrew Cyrille on drums, Harold Cumberback on baritone, Roland Alexander on tenor, Gilly Coggins on piano, Buddishein on conga drums and Webster Young on trumpet. At this particular jam session, when I finished playing I sat down next to Webster Young. I didn't know Webster Young at this time. I think he had just moved to Brooklyn from Washington. So the first thing he said to me was, "I see you like Miles." I said, "Do you like Miles?" and he said, "That's my old lady." I didn't understand what he was talking about, but then he went up and played. Then I really understood him. He had all the Miles Davis things down - all the clichés, all the nuances, all the mistakes - and it was some great playing. He told me that the next day he was going to make a record with Jackie McLean and Ray Draper. That had to be 40 years ago. I hadn't seen or heard from him since.
2004's Jazz Passings
Claude "Fiddler" Williams
Coleridge-Taylor Colin Smith
Ellis Marsalis Sr.
Joel E. Siegel
John "Buddy" Connor
Joseph Kennedy Jr.
Noble "Thin Man" Watts
Paul "Boogie" Gaudet
Ruth Ellington Boatwright