James Spaulding: An Emotion Of Notes
AAJ: 1954-1957 saw you in the army playing in service bands. During this time did you play only on base or had you a chance to play clubs too?
JS: Yes, I was seventeen when I joined the army and twenty when I was discharged. During this period I also played professionally with a group of young Indianapolis musicians which included Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridleywe called ourselves the Jazz Contemporaries.
AAJ: After leaving the army you moved to Chicago and became part of Sun Ra's Arkestra. What had made you choose Chicago over New York with its then vibrant 52nd Street scene?
JS: I moved to Chicago to go to school on my G.I. Bill (more than likely thinking of my father's advice) where I attended the Cosmopolitan School of Music, and also to test the waters of really being on my own. I lived with my cousin and her husband, went to school and gigged. I studied flute for about six months under the tutelage of Professor Emil Eck. I also led my own group playing in local clubs and freelanced.
JS: I would play at the jam sessionsand I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, who were both members of Sun Ra's Arkestra. I met Sun Ra when I was taken there by John and Pat.
AAJ: In later years Sun Ra would have his own personal mythos and imagery, some cosmic and Egyptian motifs. Was he already projecting a specific persona to the public in these early years?
JS: Sun Ra was a mystic , I think, clairvoyant. He would say to me, "Play," And I would respond, "Play what?" He would say, "Just play." At first I was rather resistant; it was totally strange from my previous music training. He encouraged me to play notes without structured time. This was my first excursion into the style known as free form. As a personality, Sun Ra was rather peculiar, I thought, especially when he spoke of space travel. He also predicted travel to the moon before the Russian Sputnik. I played with his band (musicians really had to be in tune and have simpatico) on and off during the period 1957-1958/59.
AAJ: Did Sun Ra have you playing both your instruments? Were there any recordings made while you were in his band?
JS: Yes, if anyone is interested they can check my discography on my website: speetones.com.
AAJ: Some of his band members seemed to stay with him forever (e.g. John Gilmore). Were any of his long term players in the band during your stint?
JS: I played in the band with both John and Pat [Patrick].
AAJ: You briefly moved back home before finally taking the plunge and heading to the then holy land of jazz, New York. What was the impetus behind this?
JS: I was only in my early twenties and I started to miss my family, so I went back home for some of my mother's home cooking and spirituality, which I needed to recharge my battery.
AAJ: Whenever one reads the biography of an artist, it is easy to read "so and so was with this band for these yearsâ"¦" but often overlooked is that those dates represent part of a person, the artist's life. Is it hard moving on to another band? I sometimes think it may be akin to breaking up with a girlfriend.
JS: Mostly, it's just great to be working. I guess you could miss certain band leaders more than others. The one good thing is that you're not married to the group.
AAJ: Although your later body of work is equally compelling and rewarding, you are perhaps best known for the large body of work you did under the Blue Note label. How had you initially come to the Blue Note roster?
JS: Duke Pearson was the A & R man for Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records. He liked my playing and called me for the sideman dates.
AAJ: Whose was the first session on which you appeared? Did Blue Note try to promote or emphasize one of your instruments over the other?
JS: My first recording session was as a sideman with Freddie Hubbard on an album called Hub-Tones (1962). I was what you'd call a musician that doubles. This way, sometimes the producer got two instruments while paying for only one. If a song called for flute or called for alto saxophone, I was your man.
From 1962 until 1964 I was playing hard bop/cool with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, and recorded with the band on several Blue Note dates. One recording in particular, The Night of the Cookers (1965), has now become one of the classics. I was the only saxophone on that date.
AAJ: You were on so many Blue Note albums in the sixties, to ask everyone their favorite would produce a diverse list of titles. Which is your personal favorite?
JS: I think Wayne Shorter's albums were my favoritesThere was great energy and creativity: The Soothsayer (1965), The All Seeing Eye (1965), Schizophrenia (1967)I contributed one of the songs, "Kryptonite," to Schizophrenia.
AAJ: Randy Weston was your first New York job. How long where you with him? After the 1950s he often seemed to have larger ensembles, what was his band comprised of at this time?
JS: I think there were six of us. I was with Randy on and off for about two or three years, from 1963-1966. Randy Weston (Third Stream music) was my first encounter with polytonal and polymodal musical elements accompanied by African drums and instruments for an extended period of time. This was an extremely important and invaluable addition to my musical vocabulary.
AAJ: There was a European tour with Randy. Was this your first time in Europe? Do you recall where you played and the reception you received from the audience?
JS: I think the people in Europe have always been more receptive to our music. They would bring us flowers and show us so much appreciation and acceptance. My first trip was to the country of France.
AAJ: Both in his music and interviews there has always been a spiritual aspect to Randy Weston. I imagine there must have been some interesting conversations on the road.
JS: Randy was like a teacher to me, I admired him so tremendously for his music, rooted in our African heritage. It was my first time being accompanied by African drums and instruments for an extended period of time. My regret is that when Randy offered to take me to Africa to perform with the band, I missed the plane. We were going to Morocco.
AAJ: Was there ever any specific thing which dictated when you would leave a band?
JS: Jazz is experimental, sometimes you prefer playing another style or the leader hears a different instrument for his music. It's not like a day gig, as you can imagine.
Also, some bands are hired more than others, and this is great for the rent.
AAJ: A George Wein tour next brought you to Europe. You were part of Max Roach's band. Was this one of the Jazz at the Philharmonic package tours? You seem to have a deep appreciation of bop, building off of it, adding your own ingredients. It must have been exciting sharing the band stand with one of the genres main progenitors.
JS: Although I dreamed I would play with Max before I met him, it was probably one of the most important points in my career, being a member of Max's band. It was so hard to say goodbye when he passed this year. He was one of my heroes.
AAJ: The JATP tours have their detractors, the main criticism being that the large roster of great artists made it hard for anything except blowing sessions to be done on stage. What comprised an average set list? Were individual groups on stage, or was there a sort of house band backing star soloists?
JS: I think that certain artists are privileged to bring his/her own groups, some prefer to go as a single and pick up sidemen, others have already worked with the other musicians before and have no problem performing together. I think that the most versatile rhythm section is put together for just the purpose of the ability to accompany all the great artists.
I imagine that some tours might just be put together in a sloppy fashion; not for the music, but for the money.
AAJ: What were you listening to at this point and how did it affect your playing and artistic ambitions?
JS: In 1966, I was introduced by Bobby Hutcherson to higher harmoniesthe extensive use of ninth, eleventh, thirteenth chords and beyond. In the African tradition of oral learning, I continuously evolved. In 1967, I was recommended to Max Roach by Freddie Hubbard, and this is when I experienced playing hectic tempos and rapidly moving chords. It was very challenging and required that I acquire a thorough knowledge of harmony and had to practice technical skills.
Also, in 1967, I worked with Leon Thomas, the great musician that used his voice as an instrument. Leon had developed a unique vocal yodel sound, and sang the blues, jazz and African rhythms. It was fortunate that in my previous music encounters I had acquired musical idioms that were necessary to accompany Leon's unique vocal style.
From 1974-1975 I became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, under the leadership of Mercer Ellington, this was mostly swing arrangements and individual players taking improvised solos. I was hired to be a member of this legendary band because Mercer Ellington liked the way I played, "In a Sentimental Mood." During 19872000, I became a part of David Murray's Octet and Big Band. David's use of expanded harmonies came as a natural progression to add to my music vocabulary.