Steve Turre: Still Searchin'
“ Rahsaan Roland Kirk kept telling me that I will know where I ”
Steve Turre is widely considered to be the finest jazz trombonist in the world. In addition to his twenty-plus years of service in the Saturday Night Live Band, he has performed with a virtual who's who of legendary jazz musicians, both as a leader and a sideman. His music is always diverse, challenging, and passionate. His thirteenth studio album, Keep Searchin', will be released by High Note in late-September, and he will be performing with a stellar band at Dizzy's Club in August, celebrating the music of his chief inspiration, Roland Rahsaan Kirk.
This interview was conducted mostly at Steve's home in Montclair, New Jersey, while his miniature greyhound, Jazz, sat on his lap. After a delicious meal cooked by his wife and musical peer, Akua Dixon, we retired to the basement, which is set up as his music studio, and watched ancient black-and-white videos of classic Roland Kirk performances.
Subsequently, I spoke with Steve on several occasionsat the Manhattan School of Music, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, to discuss recent events. Finally, we put the interviews to bed with a long-distance phone discussion about his upcoming album, during the final game of the NBA championship. As the Miami Heat scored the final points to win the trophy, I looked at my notes and realized I had a major piece of jazz history to piece together.
All About Jasz: Steve, let's begin our musical journey with your upbringing.
Steve Turre: I was born on September 12th, 1948, in Omaha, Nebraska. The great drummer (for Cannonball Adderley, amongst others), Victor Lewis, was born in the same hospital that same yearI guess there was some good musical energy in that maternity ward. Before the year was up, my parents moved from Omaha to a town east of Oakland in the Bay AreaLafayette, California is the fertile land where my musical roots were sown. One of my earliest memories is that of our backyard, which had numerous pear and walnut trees, and was a nice, shady place to play and ramble. The beauty of nature would always affect my musical inclinations.
AAJ: Were your parents involved in music?
ST: They were big fans of music, and it was always played around the house. I was weaned on the music of Ellington and Armstrong, not to mention all of the major big bands of the day. My parents, James and Carmen, met at a public performance of Count Basie's Big Band, where they danced together for the first time. My mother was a professional dancer, and played the pianoyears later, she played castanets on my Sanctified Shells (Antilles, 1992) recording. Rumor has it that I started out playing the violin, which is not true. I may have shown an early interest in it, but my Dad talked me out of ithe thought the violin sounded like a cat in the alley. I began learning to play the trombone when I entered the fourth grade.
AAJ: What was the first song you learned to play?
ST: First song"Sweet Sue."
AAJ: Which musicians were your early influences?
ST: Oh, there were many I enjoyed listening to. I liked the full sound of the big bands, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan KentonSeeing them perform made me realize how exciting music is, and how vital it is to a fulfilled life. It brought me joyand I wanted to learn how to play the trombone, so that I could share my joy with others. Music can enrich your life in many ways. In my case, it became a way of life, and my sustenance.
AAJ: As proven by your numerous Down Beat awards, it is apparent that you kept your eyes on the prize until successfully reaching it. Tell me more about the formative years?
ST: In Middle School, I was in the jazz band, under the tutelage of a tough disciplinarian, Joseph Disch. He was tough, but good at developing the talents of his students. Around that time, bebop styles entered my musical libraryand the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had a powerful effect on me. It blew my mind, how cool their sound was. Next, I went to Acalanes High School, and studied with a wonderful instructor by the name of Elvo D'Amante. Also at that time, I took private lessons with Rogers Shoemaker, a very fine trombonisthe taught me the importance of scales. Another teacher was Phil Wilson, who introduced me to the plunger mute.
AAJ: Were you a good student in all subjects?
ST: I was not the school valedictorian, but I had a good grade point average. I liked most subjects, and paid attention in class, so I did well. Of course, music allured me the most. Then, I decided to attend college over VietnamI'm too peaceful to go to war. I enlisted in the music program at Sacramento State where I also played on the football team.
AAJ: As the Sixties unfolded, did you find yourself listening to rock and roll?
ST: You couldn't help it. The Beatles and Motown were all over the radio. I loved the tunes of the Beatles, but I thought the Rolling Stones were sloppy. James Brown was awesome, as were many of the soul acts of that era. We still play a lot of that stuff on SNL during the commercial breaks. Yet, I still listened to jazzThelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon found their way onto my turntable quite frequently. Ray Charles was exploring all types of music in those daysfrom soul to gospel to country; and when he played country songs, it introduced me to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, which I also liked.
AAJ: It's been said the more you like music, the more music you'll like.
ST: Absolutely. And I absorbed a lot of different sounds because I wanted to emulate them in my own musical ventures. I was doing well with my music in school, winning several judged competitions. It gave me confidence, and made me want to explore new sounds.
AAJ; Was there a jazz record at this time which became your burning bush?
ST: The first album of note was Proof Positive (Impulse!, 1964) by J.J. Johnson. It knocked me outthe sound of his trombone was so warm and melodic. The compositions were first-rate. That's the sound I was searching for. In later years, J.J. and I became friends, and he played on my Lotus Flower (Verve, 1999) record. My tribute to him was "Steve's Blues," which he performed on. That was an honor for me. J.J. Johnson did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophonehe shaped a new sound; set the rest of us on a new path. I still do one of his great compositions, "Lament," at many of my shows.
AAJ: Around this time, you met Rahsaan Roland Kirk?
ST: Well, I met him before Rahsaan was part of his name. I was a freshman in college in 1966, and my brother, Mike, got me interested in Kirk's album, We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961); I wore the vinyl off that one. It connected the dots between traditional and modern music, and I found that to be exciting and motivational. When I heard Kirk was coming to play at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, I went to a costume shop, and purchased a fake moustache. I put it on, and snuck in to the club. His performance was amazingfree and swinging, with a major dash of serious blues. After the second set, I walked up to the stage, and shook his hand, and told him how wonderful that performance wasit would make me a better musician. Kirk asked me what instrument I played, and when I told him the trombone, he invited me to come out to the club the next afternoon for the Sunday matinee performance for kids. I was honored, and a little nervous, but it went well; he liked my playing enough to invite me to play with him whenever he passed through town.
Eventually, I earned a gig with him at the Now/Then club, which paid $50 per week. I felt like I was sitting on top of the world. I began working regularly with Kirk, and set off on my musical journey, which I will never regret. Kirk taught me so much about the dynamics of jazz. I played with him right up until he died, and he was intense even after his kidney ailment and his stroke made him stumble physically. He would improvise to overcome his physical limitations. It was tremendously inspiring to be around him. His performances are legendary. He was the essence of the blues. He would summon the spirits up above when he played, and you never knew where his songs were going, but you tried to keep upit was so unpredictable. He was a captivating figure, in his bright jumpsuits and wraparound sunglasses. He would start a song traditionally, and would then go off on abstract tangents, building a tale of mysterybut the music would ascend to new heights.
AAJ: What was his method of teaching, besides his actions?
ST: He had a little portable phonograph, which would accompany him on tourhe would invite me up to his hotel room to listen to old LP's featuring great trombonists, like Dickie Wells, J.C. Higginbotham, and Trummy Young. Obscure names to me, but such sweet thunder! And then there was one of the great ones, Jack Teagardenwe spent a great deal of time learning the details and nuances of his style. Roland Kirk taught me to respect the tradition of this music; by learning the past, it will lead you into the future. For a man who was blind, he had a vast vision. He kept telling me that I will know where I'm going to if I know where I'm coming from, and that lesson was learned from those old records.
AAJ: That's similar to a mountain-climberwhen he gets to the top, he can see further, and in all directions.
ST: Yeeeeaahhh! Good analogy. Kirk's music explored in every direction. At his home in East Orange, New Jersey, he had a music room filled floor-to-ceiling with records; all kinds. Mostly jazz, but classical, country, rockjust about everything, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of each idiom. He would look deep into the music to get more out of it. He taught me that less is more, and how to focus and function better. His musical template was so wide-ranging., and he set the example through his actions to go beyond conventional styles.
AAJ: You paid a great compliment to him with your fine The Spirits Up Above (High Note, 2004) last year. It was gritty, bluesy, and full of warm and genuine energy. I recently attended one of your Kirk tributes at the Jazz Standard; I was struck by the variety of arrangements, from fast and furious barn burners like "Three for the Festival" to the sweet and tender arrangement of "Inflated Tear."
ST: Yeahit's a treasure trove. "Inflated Tear" is Kirk's very personal recollection of his blindness, when a nurse administered the wrong medication in his eyes, and he completely lost his eyesight. But like Ray Charles, the lack of sight heightened his other senses. He knew his surroundings, and had a great respect for the beauty of nature, even though he could not see it. It poured out of him through his wonderful compositions.
AAJ: One of the songs on The Spirits Up Above is "Dorthaan's Walk," in which Buster Williams' bass line emulates a person walking so effectively. Do you still keep in touch with Kirk's second wife?
ST: Yes, we're friends. She holds a vital position at Newark's jazz radio station, WBGO. I hope she attends one of my tribute shows in August at Dizzy's Club at Lincoln Center.
AAJ: How do you decide on the set list for these shows?
ST: There are plenty of songs to choose from, but I'll stick with about fifteen songs over the course of three sets each night, and I'll throw in a few surprises. My band is good at improvising, if necessary.
AAJ: Who will be accompanying you at the Roland Kirk tribute shows?
ST: Vincent Herring on alto and soprano sax, and flute, Billy Harper on tenor sax, Gerald Cannon on bass, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Dion Parson on drums. I hope to have Dave Valentin guest on the flute for "Serenade to a Cuckoo" and "Bright Moments." And I expect other guests to jump on board to play this challenging music.
AAJ: Sounds like a good time to be had. Steve, you have performed with such a large number of talented musiciansthe list is massive. I'll name of some of them, and I'd like you to give me a short phrase about each of them. Let's start with Dizzy Gillespie.
ST: Joyful. Enthusiastic. Made everyone smile with his funny horn
AAJ: Woody Shaw.
ST: A good friend and a top-notch musical genius. He influenced me to find my own voice, and opened me up to harmonic colors and the use of wider intervals
AAJ: McCoy Tyner.
ST: A consummate master of the piano. Ferocious! An integral part of the Coltrane sound.
AAJ: Yusef Lateef.
ST: A big early influence. Drenched in the blues. I love the way he plays the blues.
ST: I toured with him in the early '70's, but did not play on his recordings He was sensitive, caring, a little shya good songwriter. Also explored the roots of the music.
AAJ: Hugh Masekela.
ST: A musician is like a doctor; he should make you feel better. Hugh Masekela is a chief surgeon of the music!
AAJ: Roland Rahsaan Kirk.
AAJ: Tito Puente.
ST: Exciting and compelling.
AAJ: Herbie Hancock.
ST: He can make you a better musician. He's a good listener; in order to play well, you must first learn to listen.
AAJ: Britt Woodman.
ST: Duke Ellington's trombonistneed I say more?
AAJ: J.J. Johnson.
ST: The Grand Master of the Trombone! I played at his funeral in Indianapolis.
AAJ: Pharoah Sanders.
ST: A spiritual force. His playing was feeling transcending technique.
AAJ: Ray Charles.
ST: Pure genius in all styles of music. A smart businessman too.
AAJ: Cassandra Wilson.
ST: Offbeat. Takes the crooked road to uniquely interpret songs.
AAJ: Regina Carter.
ST: At the forefront of her instrument. Wraps traditional and modern styles together seamlessly.
AAJ: Vincent Herring.
ST: One of the fine young tenor titans. Hard-working, and knows the music. Keeps it alive.
AAJ: The list goes on and on and on. Anyone else you care to comment about?
ST: I've been blessed with such good company. I guess birds of a feather flock together. Jon Faddis is a dear friend and a wonderful composer. I played on a record with Carlos Santana a million years ago, called Caravanserai (Columbia/Legacy, 1972), which was fun. Mongo Santamaria showed great passion in his music. One of the biggest influences on my Latin style was Manny O'Quendo. I played in his band called Conjunto Libre, which had four trombones, and it was exciting, explosive music. He was a great mentor. He played the bongos, timbales, and anything else he could get his talented hands on. First-rate! I played with B.B.King at Japan's Mt. Fuji festivalthat was fun. There is a great camaraderie amongst us musicians.
AAJ: You have been on Saturday Night Live for over twenty years, and still going strong. What has that meant to you?
ST: For me, it's been an economic stabilizer. Helped me buy my home in Montclair, and it looks great on my resume. The rehearsals are long and arduous, but we have fun. The band is a good group musicians; very soulful.
AAJ: Any favorite guests on the show?
ST: To be honest with you, we're so busy planning and executing our arrangements, we don't pay much attention to the skits and guests. But over the years, I've met some that I liked. Dolly Parton was so genuinely nice. I liked Willie Nelson, Patrick Stewart and the rock band, U2they are very talented.
AAJ: You work with SNL about half the year, and when that ends, you travel to various jazz festivals all over the world. Do you like the travel pace?
ST: I have gotten used to it. And mostly, I do enjoy different places, different culturesthe people overseas give us a warm reception, and are very knowledgeable about the music. I love the food in Italy! AAJ: Any favorite places?
ST: Last year, I visited Moscow for the first time, that was cool. One of my favorite places is Cuba; it is so exotic, the people are friendly, and it is so quaint. There are some wonderful musicians there. I am touring throughout Europe with McCoy Tyner this summer.
AAJ: Besides your instruments, do you always bring anything special on the road with you?
ST: I'm a Buddhist, and I bring a little portable altar for praying and meditating. And I am never seen without my conch shell necklace.
AAJ: You put the seashells in the jazz vernacular, especially with your Sanctified Shells (Antilles, 1992) recording. Did Roland Kirk get you interested in the conch shells as a musical instrument?
ST: Indirectly. He would play the shells as a way to hush up the audience and get them to pay attention to the music. I learned the shells mostly on my ownpractice, practice, practice. It is nature's ancient horn, and a remarkable thing to learn how to play.
AAJ: Do you find these shells on the beach?
ST: None are from the beach, I buy them. The ones on the beach are ravaged by nature; the force of the ocean, the heat of the sun,.and holes are bored in them to get the meat out. When I find a pristine shell at a souvenir shop, I have to take a hacksaw to the end to the end of it, and then I sand it down to create a smooth mouthpiece, otherwise, I would bruise my lips. In order to play the conch shells effectively, you must vibrate your lips, so the edges must be smooth. The pitch comes from moving your hand in and out of the opening. Timing and coordination is essential to create a melody. The conch shell is an organic instrument.
AAJ: How many shells do you own?
ST: There are hundreds at the house, but I use about twenty-five of them in my performances. When I play a song in concert, I generally play several conch shells within the framework of the song. They each have a different pitch.
AAJ: Tell me about the gigantic, colorful one you use?
ST: That one is from Australia. It was painted in 1998 by a muralist from Cuba named Salvador. His murals were all up and down the street, and I felt honored that he painted the conch shell. It's a beauty.
AAJ: Would you like to do another shell ensemble recording?
ST: SureRecently, I worked on a project with a famous environmental artist named Wyland. He paints giant ocean scenes on buildings, and they are called Whaling Walls. He has painted 94 walls, and plans to do 100. His art sends out a message to people to respect the oceans and waterways, so our future generations will survive! Last October, I met him and his crew in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was once the whaling capital of North America, and he was creating one of his famous walls. The whole idea was for my wife, Akua Dixon, and me to play music while he painted. Students came from the local schools, and we improvised a performance of Miles Davis' "All Blues" and Duke Ellington's "Echoes of Harlem.â??
The kids enjoyed the blending of music and art, and it was educating them about the importance of clean water! It was fun. Wyland took Akua and me up on the cherry-picker while he painted his rendition of the great white whale. He is like a musical improviser; he knows where he is going with his art, but no one else does until it's done.
That was a great experience, which led to another project, in which Vincent Herring put together a band to compose original songs to Wyland's art. His ocean art was set up in the studio, and the album starts off with the sound of my conch shell. Wyland put his art around the recording studio to inspire the compositions, and I think we put together a fine collaboration with an important message. When this CD sees the light of day, it should be a beautiful package of Wyland's ocean art and some very good music. Ultimately, we would like to perform in front of one his murals in progressthe crowd would love it.
At the end of the session, Wyland gave each of the musicians a framed piece of his artwork. I understand the retail value of these pieces was about $100,000! That was mighty generous of him. Now that Wyland has his own record company, I would consider using the shells as a centerpiece for the next recording; we'll have to work it into our busy schedules.
AAJ: You earned your Masters Degree at the Manhattan School of Music. As a member of their faculty, do you teach students the trombone?
ST: I teach many students from all over the world. My good reputation apparently has traveled far and wide. Generally, I tutor the students at my home, in my basement, which is set up as my music studio. It's equipped with a piano, recording equipment, and all sorts of musical memorabilia.
AAJ: What advice do you give your students?
ST: First of all, I try to convey that they need to learn the lineage of the music. This was what I learned from people like Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw. Respect the past, and you will progress into the future. Nowadays, too many people hear music with their eyes; not with their ears. The MTV generation has made many musicians lazy.
AAJ: What else?
ST: Practice until it's perfectwork hard. I worked with some of the best musicians in the world. Ray Charles was immensely talented, and successful. He had his own private jet to take him to the gigs. He also had a manager who was depicted in the movie Ray. He was a crook, and I'd like you to put this in the interview. His name was Joe Adams, and he ripped off many musicians. Protect your work. I try to teach my students this.
Also, you don't have to play louder, higher and faster to be good. Sometimes, softer, lower, and slower works just as well.
AAJ: Any great artists, living or dead, you would like to have had the chance to play with, but didn't?
ST: Miles Davis, one of the great jazz innovators. I met him once, but did not get the chance to perform with him. Sonny Rollins is one of our living national treasures. It would be an honor to perform a song with him.
AAJ: You come from a musical family, don't you?
ST: I have two brothers, and two sisters. My brothers play musicMike lives in California, he's a saxophonist. Peter was Ray Charles' drummer for many years; right now, he's living in a FEMA trailer next to his house in New Orleans. The levees broke after Katrina, and his home took in about six feet of water on the lower level. He evacuated to Tennessee for awhile, but now he's rebuilding. Unfortunately, he lost of lot of his music equipment and musical memories, but he's a survivor, and will land on his feet.
My wife of twenty-seven years, Akua Dixon, is an extraordinary musician, arranger, and music teacher. I met her at a place called Ali's Alley, in the Village. Believe it or not, I was playing bass with Chico Hamilton's band; his bassist was sick, and I filled in for awhile. I didn't want to stick with the bass, though, I was more interested in the brass. Akua was a Broadway show musician when I met her. We ended up living together for about a year before I popped the question. The late Hilton Ruiz was the best man at our wedding.
AAJ: It's a tragic shame about his death recently in New Orleans.
ST: Yes, such a great talent. Hopefully, some people will come forward with the truth, so that the people who beat him up will be arrested. I recently wrote a song in tribute to Hilton Ruiz. We played in Roland Kirk's band together.
AAJ: Does Akua play on your projects?
ST: Yes, she plays on three songs on my upcoming CD. And she has worked with me on numerous past projects. She has a group called Quartette Indigo, which balances jazz and classical sounds. She owns a cello which will be 200 years old this year. It's a fragile and beautiful instrument.
ST: Two kidsmy daughter is Andromeda, and she sings and composes music. She was the last Raelette hired in Ray Charles' band. And my son is Orion.
AAJ: Interesting names.
ST: Yesthe next galaxy and the brightest constellation. and I have a miniature greyhound named Jazz.
AAJ: You performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year with a young trombonist named Troy Andrews. Do you think that city will make a cultural comeback?
ST: I toured some devastated areas, and it's unreal how much damage there is. It will take a massive undertaking to rebuild this city. I think the culture will remain intact, but it will not be easy for many of the musicians from that city to survive. One can only hope the politicians are truly determined to help the city. I am a bit skeptical.
AAJ: You have said that nature plays an important role in your music. How so?
ST: I am very moved by the natural beauty in the world, and it weaves its way into my music> One of my hobbies is tending the garden, and I don't mind getting my hands dirty with soil, it's organic.
AAJ: What do you hope your music does for people?
ST: I hope my music can bring people to a higher level of peace and serenity. The sensationalism of TV projects a negative forcemany political leaders are selfish. I want my music to provide an escape from harsh realities. If it makes you dance, that's great.
AAJ: How would you like to be remembered?
ST: That's not for me to decide.
AAJ: Any regrets in your musical journey?
ST: Not really. I once got an "F" in jazz improvisation when I was in school, but I quickly got over it. This was at the school in Denton, Texas. There was a bit of a racial problem with the curriculum. They had a Stan Kenton library, but no Louis Armstrong. You could learn about Phil Woods and Chet Baker, but not Billie Holiday. I finished my musical education in Massachusetts, where the teaching was more well-rounded., and the roots of the music were part of the study program. I had one scary moment, but it turned out okay.
AAJ: What was that?
ST: In 1978, I was in Harlem, I lived there. It was pretty dangerous back then. I was walking home from a gig, with my trombone case in hand. There was a riot going on in the streets, and a cop chased me. He put a gun to my head, and said I was stealing. He could've shot me right then and there, and that would be all, luckily, he let me go. The next day I decided to move, and ended up in Montclair. So, it turned out well.
AAJ: Let's finish this interview with a discussion of your new album. Tell me about it.
ST: The street date for Keep Searchin' is September 26th. I wrote some of the material, and some of the songs are standards with my arrangements. The band is great. We rehearsed for two days, and recorded it at Rudy Van Gelder's studio. We did ten tunes in six hours.
AAJ: Who comprises the band?
ST: I play trombone and some shells, Stefon Harris is on vibes, and he is an essential part of the overall tone of the recording. Trombone and vibes is not necessarily a natural combination, but I think it works beautifully. We have Xavier Davis on drums, Gerald Cannon and Peter Washington playing bass, and Dion Parson on the drums. Akua Dixon plays a rare instrument. It is a baritone violin she purchased from a woman who custom-made it in 1967. Her name is Carleen Maley Hutchins, and she is a luthier, someone who builds instruments. Some of her work is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is now in her 90's, and living in Massachusetts. Anyway, Akua plays beautifully on the CD. She solos on two songs, and plays a notated part on another song.
AAJ: Tell me about some of the tunes. What is the flavor of the music?
ST: It's diverseit merges traditional and modern sounds. It's very eclectic in styles. There is a confidence in the music, with rich, full textures, and it swings. "Sanyas" is an original composition I wrote long ago, and used to perform with Woody Shaw in the '70's. There is a straightforward blues called "Da' Blues," and it's straight from the heart. "Faded Beauty" is one of Stefon Harris' tunes, and it showcases the vibes. "Time Off" is a classic Curtis Fuller tune, done at a fast tempo. The title track, "Keep Searchin'" is also an original composition of mine. One of the more experimental tunes is "Reconciliation." It's a new harmony piece, twenty-one bars to the form. It's a song about the importance of working through your problems. "Thandiwa" is a song by Grachan Moncur III. I also do a tender version of "My Funny Valentine." I am very pleased with the overall sound of this recording.
AAJ: This is your thirteenth album as a leader. Is that a lucky number for you.?
ST: I'm not very conventional, so I suppose it is.
Woody Shaw, Live Vol. 4, (High Note, 2005)
Steve Turre, The Spirits Up Above (HighNote, 2004)
Woody Shaw, Live Vol. 3, (High Note, 2002)
Woody Shaw, Live Vol. 2, (High Note, 2001)
Steve Turre, Rhythm Within (Verve, 1995)
Steve Turre, Viewpoint and Vibrations (Stash, 1987)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real (Warner Bros, 1977)
Woody Shaw, The Moontrane (Muse, 1974)
Steve Turre Honors Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Concert Review, 2006)
Steve Turre Celebrates the Music of Rahsaan Roldand Kirk (Concert Review, 2004)
Steve Turre's Sanctified Shell's Band (Concert Review, 2003)
Photo Credits Courtesy of Steve Turre