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!


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