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Wayne Escoffery: Past And Future

By Published: October 1, 2007
The Impact Of J-Mac

Wayne AAJ: So now we come to the Jackie McLean connection, which is through the Artist Collective.

WE: How I ended up knowing about Jackie was that there were a lot of jam sessions in New Haven. At one of these jam sessions, which was on our birthday, I met saxophonist Jimmy Greene. We share a birthday—he's a day younger than me. We met at midnight on February 23 and his birthday is February 24. He introduced me to Jackie McLean's music and told me all about what he was doing with J-Mac. He's known J-Mac since he was a kid and been working with him. He was like, "Oh man, you've got to come up and check out the Artists Collective and check out Jackie McLean." I went up there and joined the Artists Collective and was in the big band there, which was run by Jackie McLean's band—[pianist] Alan Palmer, [bassist] Nat Reeves, [trombonist] Steve Davis. I met all these guys and got to play all this great music like [Duke] Ellington and Thad Jones and Tad Dameron and all this great stuff.

Then J-Mac offered me a full scholarship to go to [The] Hartt [School].

AAJ: Was the Artists Collective like the Jazzmobile?

WE: It was like that, but it wasn't just jazz. They had African drumming, martial arts—it was really an artistic environment dealing with a lot of African-American culture and trying to help inner-city kids. It was a great environment to be in. The jazz part of it was a big band. And they would teach private lessons. Once I went to Hartt for college, I taught private lessons at the Artists Collective.

AAJ: Was Jackie McLean the founder of the Artists Collective?

WE: Yes, along with his wife. He would teach lessons there and train all of his students to do the same.

AAJ: And he also founded the jazz program at Hartt, right?

WE: That's right.

AAJ: When you went to Hartt, were you studying all the time with Jackie McLean?

WE: The way it works with J-Mac is that he didn't give private saxophone lessons that often. He did to a select few, and I was fortunate enough to get some of those lessons. But in general, what he did was have a sax class with him in front of the class with all the saxophone players. It was on Wednesday mornings. There would be ten-to-twenty saxophone players, and he would go through exercises with us. He'd show us little lines or patterns to play in twelve keys. He'd tell us tunes we needed to learn and we'd go over songs with him. It was a very organic thing. He was really into that. There's a video called Jackie McLean On Mars (Kenneth Levis, 1980) and it shows that saxophone class back in the 1970s. It's the same vibe. He's standing up there and talking about so many aspects of the music. Who to check out, what's hip and what's not, philosophies about music.

I did take some private lessons with him and I was fortunate that he dug what I was doing. Jimmy and I were a duo up there. Everyone called us "the twin towers." We had a group that J-Mac put together called Twin Towers. He really took both of us under his wing and gave us private lessons. We went over to his house a couple of times. We got to have some extra time with him. Honestly, anyone who really requested it, he would try to accommodate. But there were so many cats up there that he would just stick to the master class format. It was a great way to get close to him for everyone.

AAJ: What was the vibe like between the different horn players in the larger class? I've seen some of those where it's like a cutting contest, but it doesn't sound like that was the environment at Hartt.

WE: It was and it wasn't. Everyone always talks about it as baptism by fire. J-Mac didn't hold his words. He would tell you what he thought. I remember him telling one guy, "The stuff you're playing is baby talk. We need to be making sentences here, using real words." He didn't have a problem telling people how he felt about what they were doing. So there was that aspect of it. There was a family aspect of it where we were all brothers and sisters, listening to what our father figure was saying.

Master class started at ten on Wednesday mornings. I had a gig at Rudy's [in New Haven] on Tuesday night, and I wouldn't get home sometimes until 2:00 AM, because I would have to drive back to Hartford, which is about 35 minutes away. I would still get up Wednesday morning to do my long tones an hour before the class, because I wanted to get in there and I knew that Jimmy was going to sound great, and I knew [saxophonist] Julius Tolentino was going to sound good, and so-and-so was going to sound good. There was that aspect of it.

Really, those two people that I mentioned, Jimmy, Julius and another saxophonist Chris Allen, We all lived together. There was a very healthy amount of competition there. We were all pushing each other, much like a family, much like brothers and sisters. You have the older ones and the younger ones. At different points in our development, maybe all of us were a step ahead of the other one in different areas. That was definitely a healthy type of competition to be involved in.

AAJ: Sounds like an episode of America's Next Top Saxophonist.

WE: It was a lot hipper than that, trust me. [laughs]

AAJ: While you were at Hartt, were you getting a chance to play gigs with people who were in J-Mac's orbit?

MingusWE: I got to play some gigs with Steve Davis from time to time. One of the great things is that there were different ensembles in the college. I was in the advanced ensemble with Jimmy Greene. When we were freshman and sophomores, it was Jimmy, myself and another great alto player named Teddy Brubaker, and our rhythm section was actually J-Mac's band. It was Eric McPherson on drums, Alan Palmer on piano and a great bassist who lives in New York now named Peter Hartman, who did some gigs with those guys every now and again. There were no excuses—we were playing with one of the best rhythm sections in the business right there, so we did get a chance to really play with the people in J-Mac's circle. Nat Reeves was always around. Every now and again he would pull us into a room and say, "Let's play a couple of tunes." Randy Johnston, a great guitarist, was there and we'd always play with him.

It was definitely like a family up there. Once you were in J-Mac's "dynasty," so to speak, you were just in. You were always there. Of course I'm going to give more respect to Steve Davis and Nat Reeves because they were older than me and they were helping me out, but it was really like a family.

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