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Steve Turre: Still Searchin'

By Published: August 21, 2006
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 out—the 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 saxophone—he 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 amazing—free 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 was—it 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 up—it 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 mystery—but the music would ascend to new heights.

Steve Turre AAJ: What was his method of teaching, besides his actions?

ST: He had a little portable phonograph, which would accompany him on tour—he 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 Teagarden—we 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-climber—when 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, rock—just 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: Yeah—it'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.

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