Steve Turre is widely considered to be the finest jazz trombonist in the world. In addition to his twenty-plus years of service in the Saturday Night Live Band, he has performed with a virtual who's who of legendary jazz musicians, both as a leader and a sideman. His music is always diverse, challenging, and passionate. His thirteenth studio album, Keep Searchin', will be released by High Note in late-September, and he will be performing with a stellar band at Dizzy's Club in August, celebrating the music of his chief inspiration, Roland Rahsaan Kirk.
This interview was conducted mostly at Steve's home in Montclair, New Jersey, while his miniature greyhound, Jazz, sat on his lap. After a delicious meal cooked by his wife and musical peer, Akua Dixon, we retired to the basement, which is set up as his music studio, and watched ancient black-and-white videos of classic Roland Kirk performances.
Subsequently, I spoke with Steve on several occasionsat the Manhattan School of Music, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, to discuss recent events. Finally, we put the interviews to bed with a long-distance phone discussion about his upcoming album, during the final game of the NBA championship. As the Miami Heat scored the final points to win the trophy, I looked at my notes and realized I had a major piece of jazz history to piece together.
All About Jasz: Steve, let's begin our musical journey with your upbringing.
Steve Turre: I was born on September 12th, 1948, in Omaha, Nebraska. The great drummer (for Cannonball Adderley, amongst others), Victor Lewis, was born in the same hospital that same yearI guess there was some good musical energy in that maternity ward. Before the year was up, my parents moved from Omaha to a town east of Oakland in the Bay AreaLafayette, California is the fertile land where my musical roots were sown. One of my earliest memories is that of our backyard, which had numerous pear and walnut trees, and was a nice, shady place to play and ramble. The beauty of nature would always affect my musical inclinations.
AAJ: Were your parents involved in music?
ST: They were big fans of music, and it was always played around the house. I was weaned on the music of Ellington and Armstrong, not to mention all of the major big bands of the day. My parents, James and Carmen, met at a public performance of Count Basie's Big Band, where they danced together for the first time. My mother was a professional dancer, and played the pianoyears later, she played castanets on my Sanctified Shells (Antilles, 1992) recording. Rumor has it that I started out playing the violin, which is not true. I may have shown an early interest in it, but my Dad talked me out of ithe thought the violin sounded like a cat in the alley. I began learning to play the trombone when I entered the fourth grade.
AAJ: What was the first song you learned to play?
ST: First song"Sweet Sue."
AAJ: Which musicians were your early influences?
ST: Oh, there were many I enjoyed listening to. I liked the full sound of the big bands, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan KentonSeeing them perform made me realize how exciting music is, and how vital it is to a fulfilled life. It brought me joyand I wanted to learn how to play the trombone, so that I could share my joy with others. Music can enrich your life in many ways. In my case, it became a way of life, and my sustenance.
AAJ: As proven by your numerous Down Beat awards, it is apparent that you kept your eyes on the prize until successfully reaching it. Tell me more about the formative years?
ST: In Middle School, I was in the jazz band, under the tutelage of a tough disciplinarian, Joseph Disch. He was tough, but good at developing the talents of his students. Around that time, bebop styles entered my musical libraryand the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had a powerful effect on me. It blew my mind, how cool their sound was. Next, I went to Acalanes High School, and studied with a wonderful instructor by the name of Elvo D'Amante. Also at that time, I took private lessons with Rogers Shoemaker, a very fine trombonisthe taught me the importance of scales. Another teacher was Phil Wilson, who introduced me to the plunger mute.
AAJ: Were you a good student in all subjects?
ST: I was not the school valedictorian, but I had a good grade point average. I liked most subjects, and paid attention in class, so I did well. Of course, music allured me the most. Then, I decided to attend college over VietnamI'm too peaceful to go to war. I enlisted in the music program at Sacramento State where I also played on the football team.
AAJ: As the Sixties unfolded, did you find yourself listening to rock and roll?
ST: You couldn't help it. The Beatles and Motown were all over the radio. I loved the tunes of the Beatles, but I thought the Rolling Stones were sloppy. James Brown was awesome, as were many of the soul acts of that era. We still play a lot of that stuff on SNL during the commercial breaks. Yet, I still listened to jazzThelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon found their way onto my turntable quite frequently. Ray Charles was exploring all types of music in those daysfrom soul to gospel to country; and when he played country songs, it introduced me to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, which I also liked.