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Wayne Escoffery: Past And Future

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There was a family aspect of [Jackie McLean's master class] where we were all brothers and sisters, listening to what our father figure was saying.
Wayne Escoffery Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery has plotted a smart course to success in jazz, one based on strong educational foundations and constant exposure to the best musicians in the business. From his early days with the Jazzmobile and Artists Collective to his time at The Hartt School and the Thelonious Monk Institute, Escoffery used every opportunity to grow as an improviser, composer and bandleader. His new album is Veneration (Savant, 2007). All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane talked with Escoffery about Jackie McLean, jazz education, and improbable meetings on Valentine's Day.

All About Jazz: As a way back into the past, let's talk about the last track on your new record, which is an amazing performance of a Jackie McLean tune, "Melody for Melonae. Will you talk about the track and about Jackie?

Wayne Escoffery: I've always wanted to record that tune since the first time I heard it on Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1962). I think the melody's very unique and it can go in a lot of different places. In many ways, it's reminiscent of Jackie and his whole concept. He's about being soulful and swinging and grooving, and also stretching and going outside and searching. That piece really has all of those elements—a very soulful melody, and in the improvisation, the band just opens up and everyone goes wherever they want to go, wherever they feel like taking it. In the recording that we did, we try to keep within that. Once the solos start, we're just exploring and seeing where the music can take us.

AAJ: It also has those rubato sections after the solos. Are those in his recording on Let Freedom Ring?

WE: Yeah. The arrangement is actually his exact arrangement. The only thing that makes it sound extremely unique is that we have vibes there. One of the writers who wrote about the record commented that it sounds like it was written for vibes. It's really a beautiful melody and those passages are incredible, and beautiful to hear on vibes with the saxophone. So I did have a little foresight where that was concerned. I knew that would have a really great sound.

AAJ: I'm talking to you from Rochester, New York, which is the hometown of your vibraphonist, Joe Locke. All throughout this record, he shows what an amazing skill he has for color and texture and also for being a very propulsive player where that's called for. Have you played together a lot?

WE: We actually haven't played together that much. The first time I met Joe Locke was when I was at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Boston. The drummer that was in the group, Sebastian De Krom—now he's with, I'm trying to remember his name ...

AAJ: Jamie Cullum?

WE: Right. At the time, he was our drummer. For his senior recital, he got Joe Locke to come up. His senior recital was incredible. Ron Carter on bass, Joe Locke, Sebastian, myself—it was crazy. That was the first time I ever met Joe, and I thought, "This dude's incredible." Then, when I finally moved to New York City in 2000, I used to go and hear Joe Locke's group the Wirewalkers down at the old Kavehaz in Soho. It was more of a fusion, funk-jazz type of group. I sat in with him a bunch of times. We got along well. It was a lot of fun. We always threatened each other that we'd do something together at some point. So when the idea came to put this band together and record, he was one of the first people I thought of. It was a good opportunity to work together.

Chapter Index
  1. Early Years: London To New Haven
  2. The Impact Of J-Mac
  3. The Reluctant Monk
  4. Finally in New York!
  5. Veneration And The Future


Early Years: London To New Haven

AAJ: I asked you about Jackie Mac, and then I didn't keep going after it to take us back into the past. You were born in London of West Indian heritage, right?

WE: My family's Jamaican. Jamaica was a colony of England, so there's a lot of Jamaicans that live in England.

AAJ: When you were a kid, you moved to Connecticut?

WE: Right. My mother and I left when I was about eight years old. I lived in a few places before we moved to Connecticut. We lived in Canada for about a year, in Montreal. Then Atlanta, then Florida. Finally, we settled in New Haven. That's where I really began my studies in music. I didn't move to Hartford until I began college at The Hartt School.

AAJ: You started your studies in music as a singer in the Trinity Boys Choir, right?

WE: Exactly. Not many people know that, but I actually joined when I was in elementary school. We did some touring internationally, and I got exposed to a lot of great classical choral music. That was a great beginning for me to get my ear together and get an understanding of the basics of music.

AAJ: How did you even decide to do that? Did you sing around the house as a kid?

Wayne WE: I've been singing since I was five years old. I always thought I was going to be a singer. I thought I was going to be the next New Edition or something. I went to elementary school and they had a music program. The [Trinity Boys Choir] choir director would travel to different elementary schools and audition kids. They didn't even know what they were auditioning for. He would just take you into a room with a piano and play some stuff and tell the kid to sing. He'd tell the kids, "Sing this note, sing this note," to make sure they weren't tone deaf. If he thought they had a good voice, he hit 'em with, "Well, I've got this choir..." That's what happened to me. I wound up joining the choir.

Ironically, in that same elementary school I got introduced to the saxophone. They had a guy coming around doing master classes in different elementary schools. He could play every instrument. So he came and did a performance and played the saxophone, trumpet, violin. He even took a straw and was blowing through it and showing how you could make music from it. It was really great that a school would have that happen. That's why I got into the saxophone.

I actually wanted to play trumpet. I went home to my mom and said, "Mom, I want to play trumpet." I don't know if you know, but I always tell people that I'm not from a musical family at all. My dad played guitar, but I didn't grow up with him, and my mom has no musical talent at all. So I went home and said I wanted to play trumpet, and she said, "Well, the trumpet only has three notes, so don't play that. Pick something else." I didn't know anything, and I was like, "I guess trumpet does kinda suck." She said, "Why don't you try saxophone?" I guess my grandfather on my father's side played saxophone for fun. So I tried sax.

AAJ: Probably a smarter career move than the straw.

WE: Yeah, definitely. [laughs] Definitely better than the straw or an instrument with only three notes.

AAJ: It's amazing how all those trumpet players recorded all those records, because it sounds like a lot more when you hear it.

WE: It does. [laughs]

AAJ: When you started to get more serious about the saxophone, you attended some places that would help you advance faster. I think one of those was the Jazzmobile, right?

WE: Sure. At that time, New Haven had a great music environment and jazz environment. I was attending the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven. I was going to the Educational Center for the Arts, which is an arts program much like LaGuardia [High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts] in New York City, except that the first half of the day, you go to your normal high school, and the second half you'd go to the Educational Center for the Arts. In addition to those two things, every Saturday I'd go to New York City and go to the Jazzmobile.

AAJ: Talk about what the Jazzmobile is.

Wayne WE: At that time, it was basically a community program. It was free, which was incredible. It was on 125th Street. I auditioned for all these cats, but the audition was more for placement, because everyone got in. You were able to take classes with great musicians. You'd have an improvisation class, jazz ensembles—it was a great environment. I met a lot of musicians there and got to study, even with some people that people may not know. The Jazzmobile has a long history of people like [trumpeter] Lee Morgan who were working there and going there. It's goes back quite a while. When I was there, people like [saxophonist] John Stubblefield were there, and this great saxophonist who doesn't play any more, Bud Revels, was there and helped me a lot. [Pianist] George Cables was there. There were a lot of great artists who were there to teach young guys how to do this.

AAJ: What years are we talking about?

WE: I graduated from high school in '92. I didn't even know what jazz was until I was a sophomore in high school, so about '91 or '92 I was going to the Jazzmobile.

AAJ: When you started going to the Jazzmobile and other places, were you seeing people who were making music their profession and realizing that it was something you might want to do?

WE: I did. There were a lot of local artists in New Haven like [brass player] Chris Herbert and [saxophonist] Barry Marshall, a lot of guys who pretty much just stayed in New Haven and didn't get to New York much. They were decent players who helped me out a lot. I would see them doing gigs—there were a couple of clubs there around that time that a lot of international artists came through. I remember there was a club called Malcolm's. I was there all the time. I'd see all kinds of cats there on the weekends, like [saxophonist] Lou Donaldson and all kinds of artists. There were also a few clubs with local musicians like Eddie Buster, who played organ with Sonny Stitt—I was around those people just soaking up what they did.

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