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Artist Profiles

Carlos Ward: A Tough and Lyrical Journey

By Published: September 22, 2007
When Coltrane came through Seattle in 1965 with Pharoah Sanders and Donald Raphael Garrett, Ward had another prophetic meeting. "I asked him if I could sit in and he accepted. He let me come on stage, and immediately he could decipher what I was trying to do, by making motions with his hand how my ideas were going. He was going up and down, to the sides, and this is how we started. I would come and sit in with him a couple of nights, and one time Joe Brazil was sitting in... I would go to the hotel and meet with Pharoah and Raphael, and they were talking about vegetarianism. Trane told me I should go to New York, and so in about fall of 1965, I took the Trailways bus there."

Soon he met other musicians of the new music, including Rashied Ali, Henry Grimes, Marzette Watts, Sunny Murray, Roger Blank and Arthur Jones. Ward's most notable gig at the time was with Coltrane's expanded unit, with Ali, Pharoah, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner: "I remember this moment with Trane after the Village Gate, and he said 'what do you think this music needs?' I was thinking about flutes at the time, and so I mentioned that. Later, I saw he was holding a flute on the cover of his record, Expression [Impulse!, 1967]."

Ward frequently hung out with Sunny Murray at his loft, later joining one variant of Murray's Swing Unit. The group played Toronto in 1967, with Grachan Moncur III, Alan Shorter and Alan Silva: "somebody got us a room with mattresses on the floor and that's how we did that week. The cats would argue all day, but at night the music was sublime! You couldn't touch this stuff!" At the Both/And Club in San Francisco, the Swing Unit with Shorter, Ward, Mark Whitecage and Pharoah Sanders made an infamous 'appearance' later in the year: "Sunny says 'yeah, I got us a gig in San Francisco and we're gonna travel by car and take this new music out there.' The club owner apparently saw Sunny in New York and told him to call him if he was ever in town. Sunny took it to mean 'oh, I can go to San Francisco and he'll give me a gig,' which means he didn't have a gig."

"We're on the road in this car, all five of us, and we stopped at one of these pancake houses one morning. We had a little storage closet on top of the car, and I had the key. Me and Alan were washing up and nobody else wanted to—they wanted to eat. Sunny says 'we already ate,' I was just getting to the table and wanted to eat. Sunny says 'gimme the key, we're gonna leave you. We have to get to San Francisco 'cause they're waiting for us!' I ate something and I wasn't gonna give up that key. Next thing you know, we move from inside to outside arguing, and I was amazed that nobody was trying to look out for me... this is the time of universal brotherhood, and there's some strange shit going on! Everybody in the pancake house was getting angry, and so they called the sheriff to get us into the car and move on! Here I am in the car having to talk Sunny out of stranding me, and so I said 'damn, how come nobody's trying to tell him how wrong he is? Pharoah says, 'well, you're not doing any good!' Finally I talked him out of it, though."

Despite acceptance from important figures in the New Music, people like Coltrane and Sunny Murray, Ward's approach to the saxophone did encounter some antipathy. Arranger Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, who Ward met in Germany, encouraged the altoist to seek out Max Roach, known as a champion of young and diverse talents. "I decided to go to the Five Spot and introduce myself to Max and sit in. Max shakes my hand and almost breaks it... Max says 'okay, it's a 64-bar tune' and I got up and started playing. I'm up there, and he tells the musicians to stop playing. Everybody stops playing, he stops, and I'm out there by myself and I'm still playing. After a while I stop and everybody in the audience is quiet. He says 'I've played with Bird, Diz, and I ain't never heard no shit like that!' Mel Lewis happened to be in the audience, and in later years he told me 'yeah, I was there and you were cool, but you weren't playing what Max wanted to hear.'"

After a late '60s stint on the West Coast, following the Sunny Murray fiasco, Ward returned East and worked with figures like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Eddie Jefferson and Roy Brooks, as well as Rashied Ali's band (they recorded New Directions with pianist Fred Simmons and bassist Stafford James for Survival in 1972). In addition to weekend gigs with West Indian bands, he was with the funk group BT Express at the time: "this guy was looking for an arranger for these songs he had written the words for but hadn't composed any music to, and he wanted to pitch it to Holiday Inn and a rum company. This band he had, they didn't know how to write, so I came in and wrote music for these two songs. After we did that, they asked me to join them—it was first the King Davis House Rockers, and they went from that name to the Madison Street Express, and then to BT Express."

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