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Steve Turre: Shell 'n' 'Bone Man

By Published: February 23, 2009

AAJ: What was it like touring with Ray Charles in the early '70s?

ST: Well, he really had a tight ship. He was very organized: they provided a clean suit for you; you had to put on a white shirt, patent leather shoes. It was very organized, very professional. I tried to memorize my parts just as quick as I could so I could listen to him singing, because it was so special.

AAJ: He had a reputation as a shrewd business man. Was he easy to get along with?

ST: I'll put it in no uncertain terms: Ray had zero tolerance for bullshit. First of all, he got his own music, so he used to go crazy on drummers and bass players because some drummer come in his band and wanna try and play like Tony Williams

Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
or Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
, and that don't fit Ray's music.

If you're gonna play with Ray Charles, get some of his records and listen to his music. Figure out what makes the music tick and give him what he wants. That's what he's paying you for. Play his music, not Coltrane's music. So I just tried to play with the feeling that fit his music—any band I play with, I do that. And then when I do my band I do what I feel like doing.

AAJ: Do you have any plans to record again with the Shell Choir?

ST: I'd love to. I'd do it myself, but right now things are a little tight. If some record company wants to do it, I certainly have music ready for a whole other record—stuff that I haven't recorded before. It's definitely something waiting in the wings.

I haven't had the time, because not only am I doing the television show and touring, but I'm teaching at Juilliard now too. This year, I've been appointed to the faculty at Juilliard and I'm really enjoying it. It's a really high level. I'm honored to be teaching jazz trombone there. Young kids shouldn't be scared to apply to the jazz program if they're interested.

AAJ: Famously, Miles Davis dropped out of Juilliard to go and play with Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and Dizzy Gillespie...

ST: Tito Puente graduated. He went there and graduated with a major in composition. And Nina Simone

Nina Simone
Nina Simone
1933 - 2003
went there for a minute. Christian McBride
Christian McBride
Christian McBride
went there for a little bit. So did Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis

AAJ: Do you think that jazz can be taught in that type of institution?

ST: The jazz program is a little different than the classical program in that with orchestral music, which is wonderful music, it's an established tradition. The pedagogy is established—there are certain phrases for different composers, the way you interpret it. Well, that can be said for jazz, but jazz is still young in a historical context, it's still evolving. The way you teach it is a little different. I wanna make sure that a student can first of all play their instrument, and that basic principle is the same whether you play in an orchestra or a jazz band, or Afro-Cuban music or Brazilian music.

But then you have to know the history too. You have to understand the styles, and it's good to study those that came before us. And once you can really swing and play the blues...and if a student has their own voice, you encourage it, but at the same time if they don't understand anything about Ellington's music I'm gonna make them go study it, because as far back as you can go will directly influence how far forward you can go.

Steve Turre

Otherwise it ends up being very shallow with no substance, an attempt to be different just to get attention, and that's not what the music is about. You gotta learn the instrument and learn the music and then be yourself. All you gotta do is be yourself, but that means you gotta be truly honest, and that's very difficult to do. Very difficult.

AAJ: The students that you have must study very hard, but how many of them have bands? How many of them have gigs during the week or at the weekend to practice in a live context?

ST: The school keeps them busy; they don't have time to do gigs during the week. They might do one once in a while, but the school gives them loads. It's not just private lessons—they gotta take theory and arranging, history, all kinds of stuff. They've got a full load.

AAJ: So the students don't get a lot of practice in a club setting, a live setting?

ST: The school puts on a lot of performances, and they have several clubs in town that have the students play in them, and that's part of their class. And I'm sure some of them get calls for gigs but they've gotta make it fit with school.

AAJ: How does your teaching at Juilliard fit in with your touring?

ST: I mix it up, but you know, I don't tour so much. You know, I'll tour if it's worth it or if it's something I wanna do. It's worked out well for me because right now I'm a little disillusioned with travel. I used to really enjoy traveling but it's become a drag. They're charging you for every bag and they don't serve meals on flights and they charge you for a soda, a pillow—some airlines are charging you for a pillow. I still like going places, meeting people and playing for them, but the traveling—that's the real work [laughs].

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