Bennie Wallace: Disorder at the Border


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Bennie WallaceSaxophonist Bennie Wallace, also known for his clarinet work, moved to New York in 1971 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, playing with Monty Alexander, Sheila Jordan and others before debuting as a leader in 1978. He has released numerous records for Enja and also had a pair of highly-regarded discs for Blue Note in the late 1980s. In the fall of 2007, he brought an ambitious project to New York City, celebrating the work of the legendary Coleman Hawkins.

All About Jazz: Can you discuss the seeds of the Coleman Hawkins Project you are bringing to Jazz Standard this month?

Bennie Wallace: It all started when [I] moved back from California in 1997 and we came home and it was November and they were playing a Coleman Hawkins Festival on the radio. And I sat here, after two or three days drinking beer, and listening to Coleman Hawkins alone... After that, I really got onto this real tear and I was thinking, "Everybody should play Coleman Hawkins' music on his birthday because he's kind of become under-appreciated.

It's ironic because in his day he was the guy. I don't think that there's anything like him in his music that's just fashion. ...I thought, well his 100th birthday is coming up, I wanted to do something. So, I talked to [guitarist] Anthony Wilson about it because Anthony and I had been playing together and I'd done some things with his band... And so, we decided we would write this music for five horns and rhythm section.

AAJ: And not just make a standard saxophone quartet: saxophone, piano, bass and drums?

BW: Right. The idea was to take songs that Hawkins either wrote or was closely identified with. And my models were the way that Gil Evans would do Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke, and the way Tommy Flanagan did Monk. Which is to not try to recreate music—to me, that's a sin, but to take the music and use it as an inspiration for a personal statement. And that was the object.

So we got to work on it and Anthony and I would listen to a lot of Hawkins tunes. It was kind of hard to decide what you're not going to do. I was here [Connecticut] and he was there [California]—this was an ongoing thing. Finally we got it down to about a half-dozen tunes. Anthony did most of the heavy lifting. The only arrangement that my name's on is "Honeysuckle Rose.

AAJ: Did you ever see Hawkins play?

BW: No. The one thing that was a real highlight of this experience was Annie Kuebler and Dan Morgenstern introduced me to Hawkins' daughter, Colette. She is just a charming lady and really dedicated to her father's memory and archiving his music. So, that was really a treat to spend some time with her and learn about Coleman Hawkins from someone who knew him.

Bennie Wallace ></a><strong>AAJ:</strong> Other than the fact of him being the

BW: Well two ways. Indirectly the first saxophonists that I really was inspired by, really my heaviest inspirations were Sonny Rollins and [Eddie] "Lockjaw Davis, who were two Coleman Hawkins disciples. I started buying this music when I was thirteen years old. I would go to a record store, back in the days when they let you listen to the record, and I wore out a couple I never bought! ...Anytime, I bought everything I could afford and find by Sonny and by "Lockjaw with Basie and other guys that played with Basie.

And then at Christmas time, my mother bought me a record and I opened it up and it was a Coleman Hawkins record. I put it on the player and thought this isn't hip, this isn't Sonny Rollins. And I didn't get it. And then a little bit later when I got a little older, I got to thinking about the sound of the sax—I realized this guy has probably the best tone that anybody ever got on a saxophone. I just started studying that tone and I would buy anything by Coleman Hawkins I could find with ballads on it where he was really opening up his sound. Of course it was different in different periods and it was always the best.

AAJ: What changed about it?

BW: Well, of course, when you hear the earliest recordings, you'd never know it was Coleman Hawkins. And then when he was playing with Fletcher Henderson, when he would play fast, it would be almost like what today would be a modern sound, very compact and centered. But then when he recorded that first ballad, "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight [in 1929] with Glenn Miller and Pee Wee Russell if I'm not mistaken, that's when that ballad sound was first revealed to me. All through the '30s and '40s he kind of developed in one direction. He was using an old Otto Link mouthpiece and mostly Selmer saxophones. When he was recording those ballads like "Body and Soul and "Sophisticated Lady and "How Deep is the Ocean, the stuff in the late '30s and '40s—unbelievable!

Then towards the end of the '40s, he switched to a Berg Larsen mouthpiece. It was a different sound, a deeper sound. ...And I always hear a real relationship between his saxophone playing and the cello. First of all, he's not what you would call a blues-based player. Now it's politically correct to say it's not jazz unless it's coming from the blues... Hawkins doesn't come from the blues.

AAJ: Where did he come from?

BW: From my years of listening to him, the seed of Coleman Hawkins is the Bach cello suites. ...Listen to the record he plays, "I Thought About You on a Kenny Burrell record [Bluesy Burrell (OJC, 1962)]...they start out with Burrell playing the melody, well Hawkins plays the introduction and then plays these obbligati behind Kenny Burrell. He doesn't directly quote Bach cello suites, but structurally there's just such a relationship. ...I used to know a guy at Sam Goody's. And Coleman Hawkins would come in there and he never went to the jazz section, he was always in the opera section. One day my friend asked him, "Would you like to come look at our jazz records? Hawkins said, "No, I make those. [laughs] You really hear a real European classical influence in his playing.

AAJ: What makes your playing linked to him and also different?

BW: I don't think that any serious jazz saxophonist isn't linked to him. Even Lester Young—he was linked to it by being the antithesis of it! [laughs] But he was still linked to it. I love a lot of saxophone players. If you look at my record collection, there are so many saxophone players that I've been influenced by and love, all of them eventually directly or indirectly come from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young...and Louis Armstrong in a sense. And Hawkins comes in a sense from Louis Armstrong, and they played together with Fletcher Henderson.

AAJ: What other kinds of things, aside from this project have you been up to lately?

BW: I'm the Artistic Director for a new non-profit up here in Connecticut called Back Country Jazz. And we're producing jazz concerts. The original idea was to produce jazz concerts like chamber music concerts, where there's little or no amplification in a nice acoustic setting where you can really hear the instruments. And I'm hiring my favorite musicians.

The formal idea is to perpetuate the music of the artists that are the present day state of the evolution of jazz. By that I mean people that really invoke their own personal statements from the tradition. We're not bringing in the best guy imitating whoever's dead, or no repertory stuff... I'm bringing up the people who I think are the masters. The ones I can afford anyways. The ones that are nice enough to do it...we're doing one on Dec. 2nd, which is Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, Peter Washington, Herlin Riley and myself.

AAJ: This is in Greenwich, Conn.?

Bennie Wallace ></a><strong>BW:</strong> Yeah, it's an art gallery in walking distance from my house here in Greenwich, the Seven Bridges Foundation. They actually gave me the idea, the seed for me to start this non-profit. So, I have a great Board of Directors, who is aggressively trying to raise the money to do this. What we want to do is to present concerts in the area, which we're already beginning to do and then to take it to schools and inner cities. We did one little concert over at SUNY-Purchase for the jazz department back in April. And we're talking to people about doing more educational events. I want to bring Mike Longo up to do teacher training with people that are teaching jazz; Mike has a wonderful system of teaching Dizzy Gillespie's rhythmic concept from all these years as Dizzy's Musical Director.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> So, you're still hopeful about kids coming to this music?<br /><br /><P><strong>BW:</strong> Well, kids are coming to this music, that's the thing. There are so many young fine musicians out there. I'm worried about what they're going to have. Although, you never know about fashion. When I was a kid, everybody just thought it was going to get better and better and it fell apart. Now we think it's all falling apart and maybe it'll come back together again. We really need to keep it alive. There's so much jazz education that misrepresents the music and there's so much music out there today.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> The European classical tradition—would you say that has also influenced your thinking, writing and playing?<br /><br /><P><strong>BW:</strong> I was trained as a classical clarinetist. When I went to college, I was trained to be an orchestral player. The first music that really got my attention was the Brahms clarinet sonatas. The way those things are constructed, there's a certain flow to them that seemed like totally unconscious, but was very conscious. It was Dizzy Gillespie, or like Monk, sounds kind of loose but it's not. Old Testament.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />And then when I was in high school, I played a Stravinsky unaccompanied clarinet piece which turned my head around. And then in college, I never performed it but I studied the Bartók contrasts for clarinet and that's when I discovered harmonic concepts that I could put to my music. Those lines had harmonic implications to me that I kind of took into jazz. That was a huge kind of detour for me at that point in my life, really getting into those 20th Century harmonic and melodic concepts.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />One day I heard Ed Beach's radio show and he was playing Don Byas and Ben Webster and Zoot Sims and Duke Ellington. And I said,
Selected Discography

Bennie Wallace, Disorder at the Border: The Music of Coleman Hawkins (Enja-Justin Time, 2007)
Bennie Wallace, Moodsville (Groove Note, 2001)

Bennie Wallace, Bennie Wallace (Audioquest, 1998)

Bennie Wallace, Twilight Time (Blue Note, 1985)

Bennie Wallace, Plays Monk (Enja, 1981)

Bennie Wallace, The Fourteen Bar Blues (Inner City-Enja, 1978)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Bennie Wallace

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