Clifton Anderson: Leading The Way
One of Anderson's most pointed lessons in playing intuitively came during his very first performance with Sonny Rollins at a festival in Toronto, Ontario. "It was a really harrowing experience for me because I didn't really know what to expect. Sonny told me to just learn the material, which I did. And I thought I was well prepared. The stage was 'in the round' and it revolved very slowly. It was outdoors, in the summer time." Everything seemed to go well for Anderson until the time came for him to play his first solo. "When I'd rehearsed with Sonny, he would let me blow some choruses and then he would just come in on top of me and continue to blow. So I thought that was what he was going to do. Well I was playing and playing, waiting for him to come in. I'm going around and around on this revolving stage and I've seen the same people come around more than once," Anderson said while laughing. "And it was hot! I was sweating so much that the horn started slipping off my mouth! Then the guys in the rhythm section started dropping out one by one underneath me, until it was just the drummer (Ronnie Burrage) and I who were playing. Then I just ran out of steam. I played a note that sounded like a 'blat' or something and people thought that it was an effect, like that was what I wanted to do. They all started clapping," he chuckled.
After the concert, Anderson left the bandstand angry, thinking that he had been subjected to a hazing by Sonny and the rest of the band. "I thought it was like an initiation that these guys were putting me through. I came into the dressing room and I was really mad!" Clifton aired his complaint to the band and was met with denials. "They were all laughing and saying 'What are you talking about? You sounded good, man! It just sounded interesting to lay out one by one.'" Then Sonny's wife Lucille entered and said 'Oh Clifton, Sonny would like to see you in his dressing room.'" Anderson's immediate thoughts were "Oh boy! Here we go!" But Sonny's comments were not what Clifton expected. "Sonny said 'Well I think you'll be okay. You'll just have to watch how long you play.'" Anderson, of course, had been desperate for Sonny to come in and take over long before the solo had finally ended. "That's part of the intuitive thing that I guess we developed as time went by.
"That's what took place in Sonny's band with me and the other musiciansthe music would evolve as we played. The more we played the more we could solidify where we were going, under Sonny's direction. But it took a while to get to that. I don't think that people always understand how music evolves and how musicians evolve. Ultimately it turned out to be a really unique thing. Especially over the last seven years, we developed a real sound with the two horns, something that was special.
"The time I spent with Sonny has been very beneficial to nurturing me as a leader. I think when people listen to me now they hear somebody that's well-schooled and rounded, very able to do what I'm doing now, a leader that's ready to make a statement and to be able to contribute to what has already been put down."
Anderson continues to rely upon intuitiveness in his music, but believes that another quality is equally important. "The whole point of being a leader is that you have something that's unique, that is clearly defined as you and nobody else. Like Miles Davis, you hear him play a couple of notes and you know it's Miles Davis, and you say 'Wow.' So that's what you reach for, and that's what you try to develop in leadership. In this business there are so many great musicians and there's so much great music that's already out here. And part of the tradition of jazz is to continue that unique individuality in the music. So it's important to me that I'm bringing something unique to the table, something that can add to the wealth of great material that's already out here.
"There is a legacy of the music that you want to try to uphold as you're coming out here to perform it. It is very important that you understand the tradition and that you are able to have that lineage of the music in your music. And then you have to really work on yourself so that you bring something unique to the art form. Or else everybody is out here doing the same thing, sounding the same, and it doesn't really help to advance the music or the listenership.
"My idol, J.J. Johnson, and people like Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller and Frank Rosolino have all had very unique styles and voices on their instruments. I don't want to be out here as a leader unless I can say the same about my music. When you have something that establishes you as a unique commodity, then people will want to come to see you because they can't get it anywhere else."