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James Spaulding: An Emotion Of Notes

By Published: February 4, 2008
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Genres, Suites and an Emotion of Notes

AAJ: There was a small subset ,within the larger group of Blue Note musicians in the sixties, whose playing and composing was progressive and forward-thinking. As an example, something like Wayne Shorter's The All Seeing Eye seems almost like a new form of modern classical, but using jazz instruments and leaving space for the soloist to improvise. Chamber music, but not using the traditional chamber instruments and not chamber jazz, which is a genre well exemplified by both Chico Hamilton and the Modern Jazz Quartet. On any of the more progressive dates did anyone theorize or discuss names for this new genre or was it not an issue?

Wayne Shorter / James Spaulding<JS: I'm not sure the music was categorized. But it certainly can be defined as a work of enduring excellence. I loved doing the albums. I believe playing Wayne's music was the most creative and fulfilling that I've ever felt on recording dates.

AAJ: How much of what was going on in the mid-sixties socially and politically influenced the more cerebral albums you were on?

JS: I think that Max Roach and Leon Thomas' music was quite politically influenced by the rhythms of unrest and upheaval. I also wrote my Song of Courage suite. Many musicians were influenced by the volatile and restless energies permeating the atmosphere. James Brown wrote several songs to encourage black people to embrace themselves. One in particular, which you may know: "Say It Loud, (I'm Black and I'm Proud.)"

I think we all know the tragedies that occurred during the â"Ëœ60s. President J.F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the four little girls in Birmingham and many more atrocities.

AAJ: Whether you were doing one of the more forward-thinking sessions or a more straight-out hard bop date, I have always noticed a cerebral aspect to your playing. Cerebral but with a fire which is what I think attracts people. Do you have any particular process for your playing or writing?

JS: I think that I'm an emotional player, and I express myself to the people through my instrument. Everything seems to swell inside of me and explode through my instrument. I'm very intense when I play and I can feel the energy in the room, and that's what motivates my creative nature. When I write, I just choose an instrument and wait for the melody that comes out.

AAJ: It seems like by the mid-sixties, anyone who was trying to stretch the form of jazz, but not incorporating rock influences, was just labeled avant-garde. For these people and the more outright traditionalists, live and studio work was hard to come by. The so called avant-garde seemed to have it worse, not even being able or willing to land television jobs as some had to. People like Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron and Archie Shepp emigrated to Europe. Did you ever consider that an option during this time?

Lee Morgan / James Spaulding<JS: Maybe they met someone that invited them to stay and that offered them work? I didn't seem to run into anyone like that. I got married in 1963, and both my daughters were born in the sixties. I wonder if these guys had someone in the States that interested them? I think that many variables have a lot to do with your choices, not so much that we were traditionalist and weren't able to find work here.

We lived in a segregated society and it's still very largely that way. Black musicians still are in the minority in being hired for studio work or able to live by playing music alone.

Have you asked Archie Shepp why he still lives in Europe, even today?

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Leading, Teaching and Performing Song of Courage

AAJ: Surprisingly, it was not until after you left Blue Note in 1975 that you made your first recording as a leader, Plays the Legacy of Duke Ellington (Storyville, 1976). Why so long a wait?

JS: I think I was waiting for an offer. Alfred Lion thought I should record for Blue Note but he wanted me to play commercial music, like boogaloo, and I was not interested in playing that kind of music. I was perfecting, or trying to perfect, my jazz progressions and vocabulary. I thought it was like telling an opera singer, or Frank Sinatra to sing rock and roll. Fortunately, a fellow came along named Howard Gabriel, while I was still at Livingston College, and asked me to do a record date of my choosing, thus my first recording date was on a very small label called Storyville, which probably no longer exists. [The label is still exists and can be found at]

AAJ: This was also the year you received a bachelor's degree in music from Livingston College. You were also teaching flute there at the same time. How long had you been teaching and what made you first get into the educational aspect of music?

JS: I returned to school on the G.I. Bill because Larry Ridley had structured and become the chairman for Livingston College, Rutgers University's first Jazz Department. I was hired as an adjunct professor for about two years. I enjoyed teaching the students and often taught them by performing songs with them, as opposed to just teaching theory.

AAJ: The National Endowment for the Arts honored you with an award. You used the funds to finance the performance of your suite, A Song of Courage—inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King—with full orchestra and choir at the Voorhees Chapel at Rutgers University. You have in your oeuvre several other pieces also inspired by other civil rights leaders.

James SpauldingJS: I was very pleased to receive this grant, and was able to have a performance of the suite as you mentioned, at Voorhees Chapel, at Rutgers. It was not recorded but I did get a write-up by the Livingston College Newspaper. I think of that presentation as a trial run. There was just not enough money to do justice to the presentation, although there were some inspired moments. A Song of Courage is dedicated to our heroes and sheroes, but particularly mentions Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This suite tells the story of the sixties, as I felt the vibrations.

AAJ: How long did it take to rehearse and get the various components, voice, and orchestra up to speed?

JS: I spent quite a bit of quality time working with an arranger/musician friend, Sam Brown. I would go over to his house—my wife Jean and I—and we would work together for hours on end. He did his best with the resources we had, but it simply was not enough. I have recorded several songs from the suite: "Time to Go," "Oracle," "Gotstabe A Better Way," "Give It Up," "New World Comin'," and more. There were about ten songs written for the suite. It was never recorded on one album, but songs were played individually, with different musicians and on different labels.

AAJ: Will we get to hear your suites now, via release through your label?

JS: I hope so.

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