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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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The Impact Of J-Mac

Wayne AAJ: So now we come to the Jackie McLean connection, which is through the Artist Collective.

WE: How I ended up knowing about Jackie was that there were a lot of jam sessions in New Haven. At one of these jam sessions, which was on our birthday, I met saxophonist Jimmy Greene. We share a birthday—he's a day younger than me. We met at midnight on February 23 and his birthday is February 24. He introduced me to Jackie McLean's music and told me all about what he was doing with J-Mac. He's known J-Mac since he was a kid and been working with him. He was like, "Oh man, you've got to come up and check out the Artists Collective and check out Jackie McLean." I went up there and joined the Artists Collective and was in the big band there, which was run by Jackie McLean's band—[pianist] Alan Palmer, [bassist] Nat Reeves, [trombonist] Steve Davis. I met all these guys and got to play all this great music like [Duke] Ellington and Thad Jones and Tad Dameron and all this great stuff.

Then J-Mac offered me a full scholarship to go to [The] Hartt [School].

AAJ: Was the Artists Collective like the Jazzmobile?

WE: It was like that, but it wasn't just jazz. They had African drumming, martial arts—it was really an artistic environment dealing with a lot of African-American culture and trying to help inner-city kids. It was a great environment to be in. The jazz part of it was a big band. And they would teach private lessons. Once I went to Hartt for college, I taught private lessons at the Artists Collective.

AAJ: Was Jackie McLean the founder of the Artists Collective?

WE: Yes, along with his wife. He would teach lessons there and train all of his students to do the same.

AAJ: And he also founded the jazz program at Hartt, right?

WE: That's right.

AAJ: When you went to Hartt, were you studying all the time with Jackie McLean?

WE: The way it works with J-Mac is that he didn't give private saxophone lessons that often. He did to a select few, and I was fortunate enough to get some of those lessons. But in general, what he did was have a sax class with him in front of the class with all the saxophone players. It was on Wednesday mornings. There would be ten-to-twenty saxophone players, and he would go through exercises with us. He'd show us little lines or patterns to play in twelve keys. He'd tell us tunes we needed to learn and we'd go over songs with him. It was a very organic thing. He was really into that. There's a video called Jackie McLean On Mars (Kenneth Levis, 1980) and it shows that saxophone class back in the 1970s. It's the same vibe. He's standing up there and talking about so many aspects of the music. Who to check out, what's hip and what's not, philosophies about music.

I did take some private lessons with him and I was fortunate that he dug what I was doing. Jimmy and I were a duo up there. Everyone called us "the twin towers." We had a group that J-Mac put together called Twin Towers. He really took both of us under his wing and gave us private lessons. We went over to his house a couple of times. We got to have some extra time with him. Honestly, anyone who really requested it, he would try to accommodate. But there were so many cats up there that he would just stick to the master class format. It was a great way to get close to him for everyone.

AAJ: What was the vibe like between the different horn players in the larger class? I've seen some of those where it's like a cutting contest, but it doesn't sound like that was the environment at Hartt.

WE: It was and it wasn't. Everyone always talks about it as baptism by fire. J-Mac didn't hold his words. He would tell you what he thought. I remember him telling one guy, "The stuff you're playing is baby talk. We need to be making sentences here, using real words." He didn't have a problem telling people how he felt about what they were doing. So there was that aspect of it. There was a family aspect of it where we were all brothers and sisters, listening to what our father figure was saying.

Master class started at ten on Wednesday mornings. I had a gig at Rudy's [in New Haven] on Tuesday night, and I wouldn't get home sometimes until 2:00 AM, because I would have to drive back to Hartford, which is about 35 minutes away. I would still get up Wednesday morning to do my long tones an hour before the class, because I wanted to get in there and I knew that Jimmy was going to sound great, and I knew [saxophonist] Julius Tolentino was going to sound good, and so-and-so was going to sound good. There was that aspect of it.

Really, those two people that I mentioned, Jimmy, Julius and another saxophonist Chris Allen, We all lived together. There was a very healthy amount of competition there. We were all pushing each other, much like a family, much like brothers and sisters. You have the older ones and the younger ones. At different points in our development, maybe all of us were a step ahead of the other one in different areas. That was definitely a healthy type of competition to be involved in.

AAJ: Sounds like an episode of America's Next Top Saxophonist.

WE: It was a lot hipper than that, trust me. [laughs]

AAJ: While you were at Hartt, were you getting a chance to play gigs with people who were in J-Mac's orbit?

MingusWE: I got to play some gigs with Steve Davis from time to time. One of the great things is that there were different ensembles in the college. I was in the advanced ensemble with Jimmy Greene. When we were freshman and sophomores, it was Jimmy, myself and another great alto player named Teddy Brubaker, and our rhythm section was actually J-Mac's band. It was Eric McPherson on drums, Alan Palmer on piano and a great bassist who lives in New York now named Peter Hartman, who did some gigs with those guys every now and again. There were no excuses—we were playing with one of the best rhythm sections in the business right there, so we did get a chance to really play with the people in J-Mac's circle. Nat Reeves was always around. Every now and again he would pull us into a room and say, "Let's play a couple of tunes." Randy Johnston, a great guitarist, was there and we'd always play with him.

It was definitely like a family up there. Once you were in J-Mac's "dynasty," so to speak, you were just in. You were always there. Of course I'm going to give more respect to Steve Davis and Nat Reeves because they were older than me and they were helping me out, but it was really like a family.

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The Reluctant Monk

AAJ: When you got out of Hartt, you continued to make your mom happy by getting a full scholarship to the Thelonious Monk Institute. Talk about that.

WE: What I initially was hoping to do was to come to New York. Even after high school, all my friends went straight to New York. I had some friends who played jazz with me in New Haven, and they all went to the New School or Manhattan [School of Music]. I was spending a lot of time with the Jazzmobile, so I really wanted to come to New York. But I got a full scholarship to go to Hartt, so I went to Hartt. After that I was like, "OK, great, I'm done. Now I can go to New York." Then J-Mac told me to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute. He said, "I think it would be good for you." I didn't really want to do it, but I said, "OK, I'll audition and if I get in, I'll decide then what will happen."

So I started making a tape. But then I started having second thoughts, thinking, "I really [don't] want to do this. I want to go to New York now and play." I told some of my friends, and then J-Mac called me in his office. He said, "I know you're having second thoughts about doing this. You really should do this. You should go, you should get a Masters, you'll be able to study with all these people. You should do this. Now is the time for you to do this stuff." I trusted what J-Mac said. It meant a lot to me. Everything he said meant a lot to me. I auditioned and I got in.

AAJ: What happened as a result of going to the Monk Institute?

WE: A lot of great things happened. The way it works is they select a band. So you're a band in a college with full access to everything, which was great. In addition to that, they bring guest artists up every week. So I was able to get private lessons and we were able to deal with these musicians in an ensemble environment. [Saxophonist] Benny Golson, [saxophonist] Phil Woods, [pianist] Barry Harris. [Bassist] Ron Carter was one of the artistic directors and the band coach. Every weekend, Friday and Saturday, you'd have an intensive study with him for about five hours. Just Ron Carter telling us what the deal is.

In addition to that, we'd do tours with the group. One summer, we did a tour and had [pianist] Herbie Hancock on piano. So our ensemble had Herbie on piano! Our pianist, Richard Johnson, would play a couple of tunes each concert, then Herbie would play the rest. So in addition to be able to study with all these great jazz musicians and meeting a lot of people in the business, I got to go on the road with Herbie Hancock for two weeks. It was really an incredible experience.

When I moved to New York City, one of the first things I did was call every single person that I met while I was in the Monk Institute to say, "Hey, I'm in New York City. Just letting you know that I'm here. Give me some gigs." [laughs] [Pianist] Eric Reed, who came to the Monk Institute to do some stuff with us, was the first person I started working with. I was in his band when I first got to New York City, for the first two years or so. I'm sure if I would have just come here and not gone to the Monk Institute, something would have happened, but not in the same way that it did. The Monk Institute was really a great thing for me to do.

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Finally in New York!

AAJ: So now you're in New York, playing with Eric Reed. How long did that association last?

WE: Approximately two years. We did a CD called Happiness (Nagel Hayer, 2001), we did some tours. I also met [drummer] Carl Allen through the Monk Institute and through playing with Eric, and then I ended up working with him on different projects. Eric's CD Happiness was on the Nagel Hayer label, and Frank Nagel Hayer dug what I was doing. I had a project that I was working on and I ended up getting signed to Nagel Hayer. My first two CDs are on Nagel Hayer.

Wayne Escoffery

AAJ: Did you move to New York in 2000?

WE: Yeah. Maybe the summer of '99.

AAJ: By 2001, you had your first record out, Times Change (Nagel Hayer, 2001). Were you also playing with the Mingus Big Band then?

WE: Yeah. I think I hooked up with the Mingus band around 2001, just when that first CD came out.

AAJ: How did that happen?

WE: I was good friends with [drummer] Jonathan Blake and [trumpeter] Jeremy Pelt. They were always telling me to come down and sit in, so I would. Sue Mingus [wife of the late composer and bassist Charles Mingus] seemed to be pretty nice to me and thought I sounded OK. Then on one Thanksgiving—which is always the gig when it's hard to get [players] there—they were playing at the Fez. She called me and said, "Do you want to come and play the Mingus band?" I said, "Hell, yeah!" The first time I played it was Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. It was all subs. All guys who didn't mind playing on Thanksgiving and happened to be in town. Tain, [pianist] Dave Kikoski, all these bad dudes. [Saxophonist] Vincent Herring. That was my first time. After that, she gradually would call me every now and again. For the next year, probably, I was doing it maybe once a month. When 2001 came, I was pretty much a mainstay.

AAJ: Once you got that gig and had a record out, was it a steady upward progression from there?

WE: One of the good things about the Mingus band is that you're playing with so many different musicians. You're meeting people all the time, so that's been great. Sue has three groups and they're all very busy. I met [trumpeter and arranger] Don Sickler at the Monk Institute and got reacquainted with him, and he has this project that he's been working on for two or three years now—the Ben Riley Monk Legacy Septet. He asked me to play in that group. For the past year, I've been playing with the [trumpeter] Tom Harrell Quintet. I'm the newest member of that group. So yeah, pretty much every year after that, I've been working more and more. I'm blessed and lucky and really happy.

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Veneration And The Future

AAJ: Let's finish up by talking about the new album, Veneration. This album relies less on your own compositions than your previous records, although you do have your tune "Tell Me Why" here. Was that a conscious decision? Was it necessitated by the band needing to play things everyone was familiar with?

WE: The idea of the band is to perform music by the artists that we've come up loving and admiring. I think a lot of those artists are respected and appreciated more for their improvisation, but they're also great writers. [Trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard, [trumpeter] Booker Little, Jackie McLean, [saxophonist] John Coltrane—they've all written some great songs. The idea of the band is to play some of those songs that are lesser known to reacquaint people with them. It happens to me all the time—people say, "Who wrote that song?" and I'll say, "[Trumpeter] Kenny Dorham wrote that song." And they have no idea. The purpose of the band is to play a lot of under-explored music by the masters of this music, so it's intentional that there aren't many originals. The next one that we do, we'll probably throw in some more originals.

DavidAAJ: You just mentioned Booker Little. Many people will know Booker from his association with saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. You play one tune on this record, "Bee Vamp," that's on Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot Vol. 2 (Prestige, 1961). And then you play another Little tune called "Looking Ahead." How did find that piece of music?

WE: I came across "Looking Ahead" through my love for [saxophonist] George Coleman. He's one of the people I got to study with at the Monk Institute. There was a period where I was just trying to find everything I could find with George Coleman on it, which can be a feat, because a lot of those CDs aren't on big labels or easy to find. But one of the records I found was this record with Booker Little and George Coleman and Max Roach [Booker Little And Friend (Bethlehem, 1961)]. George Coleman takes some great solos. Since college, I've been transcribing his solos from that CD. That's how I came across that song.

AAJ: You mentioned some other people who are known as improvisers but are also great writers. Talk about "I Waited For You."

WE: "I Waited For You" is by Dizzy Gillespie. It's a killin' tune, man. It has great lyrics and it's a beautiful tune. That's another tune I heard George Coleman play, with [trumpeter] Chet Baker. They did a series of CDs. That's how I first came across that tune. I reworked it and rearranged it and changed some of the chords around. I love playing it.

AAJ: You do it more up-tempo than it's usually done, right?

WE: Yeah, I do it more up-tempo and with a straight-eighths kind of thing, and I changed some of the harmonies.

AAJ: You do another tune that almost any jazz fan will know, which is the Ellington/Billy Strayhorn tune "Isfahan." This has an interesting arrangement to it.

WE: It's funny, because I thought it would be nice as a breath of fresh air to do it duo. I thought it might be nice to strip everything down and feature Hans Glawischnig on bass. He's one of my favorite bass players. I love playing with him. What's funny is that not until after the recording was done [did I remember that saxophonist] Joe Henderson did this same thing. His record Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (PolyGram, 1992) has been one of my favorite records forever. I haven't listened to it in so long, but it's clearly in the back of my head and I didn't even realize it. I was thinking I had some sort of original idea. All that stuff really stays with you. It comes from somewhere.

AAJ: What's the story behind your tune "Tell Me Why"?

WE: One day I was thinking about my mom. She was living in England at the time and going through some stuff. And my wife, [vocalist] Carolyn Leonhart, was going through some things. They were a little upset and I was in a pensive mood. I was playing the Rhodes [electric piano] and thinking about them, and I wrote the song.

AAJ: You just mentioned your wife Carolyn Leonhart, who's a wonderful singer. [teapot whistles in background] My guess is that she's drinking a cup of tea right now?

WE: She's always drinking a cup of tea. [laughs]

AAJ: How did you meet her?

WE: I actually met her at Smoke [jazz club in New York]. I met her at Smoke on Valentine's Day after coming from a Mingus gig.

Wayne Escoffery

AAJ: You've got to be kidding. Does that really happen?

WE: That really happens. It was Valentine's Day and I was like, "No girls here, let me go up to Smoke." I saw Carolyn, we starting talking, and then it led to where we are now.

AAJ: What's coming up for you?

WE: I really want to focus on the Veneration band. We just completed a weekend at Smoke. It was a packed house every set, and the audience just loves the group. It made me feel really good. It's not that they just came to hear me or Joe [Locke] or one person in particular. Everyone just loved the sound. In addition, I'm really excited that I'm a member of Tom Harrell's group. He just did a recording for HighNote. I'm looking forward to doing more work with him.

I'm just lucky, man. I'm playing with Ben Riley, Tom Harrell, the Mingus band, this band with Carolyn. I just hope that all the bands are working a lot and that we get to keep traveling the world playing this music. I'm fortunate that I'm a part of a lot of great musical environments. I hope people get to hear them and we get to experiment more and more.

Selected Discography

Wayne Escoffery, Veneration (Savant, 2007)

Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart, This Rhythm On My Mind (Bluesback, 2006)

Mingus Big Band, Live In Tokyo At The Blue Note (Sunnyside, 2006)

Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet, Memories Of T (Concord, 2006)

David Gibson, The Path To Delphi (Nagel Hayer, 2005)

Mingus Big Band, I Am Three (Sunnyside, 2005)

Carolyn Leonhart, New 8th Day (Sunnyside, 2005)

Wayne Escoffery, Intuition (Nagel Hayer, 2004)

Mingus Big Band, Tonight At Noon (Dreyfus, 2002)

David Gibson, Maya (Nagel Hayer, 2002)

Wayne Escoffery, Times Change (Nagel Hayer, 2001)

Eric Reed, Happiness (Nagel Hayer, 2001)

Photo Credits

Juan-Carlos Hernández

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