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Steve Turre: Still Searchin'

By Published: August 21, 2006
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 own—practice, 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?

Steve TurreST: 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: Sure—Recently, 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 progress—the 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 perfect—work 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.

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