Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior

Victor L. Schermer By

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For many decades, Philadelphia has been home to a cadre of multi-generational jazz musicians who go on year-after-year composing, arranging and performing some of the best, highest level music to be heard anywhere. This tradition is exemplified in no better way than by alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader Bobby Zankel.

Zankel apprenticed with legendary pianist Cecil Taylor and absorbed the most advanced trends of the 1960s and '70s. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he has done his own thing with various ensembles for over three decades. One of his jewels is the big band, Warriors of the Wonderful Sound—a collective of the best, most sophisticated players around, recently supplemented by the phenomenal saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa—and an upcoming collaboration with groundbreaking saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman. The Warriors' music has virtuosity, aesthetic beauty, and rich complexity that is rare in any genre.

Zankel's late, great teacher and mentor was Dennis Sandole, with whom he studied for many years. Sandole was also the teacher who inspired Chuck Anderson, John Coltrane, Pat Martino, and James Moody, among many others. Sandole remains a bit of a mystery to much of the jazz public, and Zankel helped clarify his mystique and influence. Two of Zankel's other mentors, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are jazz legends.

Zankel resides in the heart of West Philadelphia, not far from the University of Pennsylvania campus. Like the Left Bank of the Seine (in this case, the Right Bank of the Schuykill), the creativity that comes out of this diverse neighborhood of working poor, writers, students, professors, musicians, artists and scientists is extraordinary. Its residents have included Margaret Mead, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, as well as members of the jazz pantheon such as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Heath Brothers, and Gerry Mulligan.

Chapter Index
  1. Origins and Youth
  2. The Avant-Garde in New York
  3. With Cecil Taylor at the University of Wisconsin and Antioch
  4. The Move to Philadelphia
  5. Learning from Master Teacher Dennis Sandole
  6. The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound
  7. Listening to and Appreciating Advanced Jazz
  8. About Jazz Writers and Critics
  9. Other Pursuits and Interests

Origins and Youth

All About Jazz: We'll start out with the notorious "desert island question": Which recordings would you take with you to that island?

Bobby Zankel: John Coltrane at the Half Note (Audio Fidelity, 2005), which was released three years ago. Maybe Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction (Columbia, 1972), with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Bobby Bradford, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and, of course, Charlie Haden. And if I found myself in a bad mood at the time and needed cheering up, I'd take James Brown, Live at the Apollo, Volume II (King Records, 1967), something to relieve the seriousness of everything else. Maybe the early record that Thelonious Monk made on Blue Note, The Genius of Modern Music, in two volumes, and it was all there in 1952 with all those incredible tunes like "Skippy" and "Four in One."

AAJ: Any others with sax players?

BZ: Well, maybe I should have mentioned the one with Trane at the Vanguard, [Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1962)], that had Eric Dolphy on it too. And certainly Bird at St. Nicks )OJC< 1983), and a lot of other live Charlie Parker records. Of course, I'd take the rare recordings of Cecil Taylor with Jimmy Lyons, and Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard. And now they have these box compilations, like the ones with the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter at The Plugged Nickel [The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965 (Columbia, 1995)]. Also some Mingus, maybe Blues and Roots (Atlantic, 1959). You know, the usual suspects.

AAJ: So you grew up in Brooklyn, New York, right?

BZ: I was just a kid in Brooklyn, and then I went to high school in Rockville Center, Long Island. My family moved out to the suburbs, as many people did.

AAJ: What years were you in Brooklyn?

BZ: The mid-1950s.

AAJ: That was when modern jazz began its upward momentum. So, what was your childhood like, and what were your early musical exposures?

BZ: OK, there are a couple of levels. One is when we got our first stack of LPs. My father knew someone at RCA, and we got a box of Harry Belafonte records. Then there was Little Richard, rock 'n roll, under Alan Fried's banner, the Coasters with those great tenor solos. And Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." My parents tried to expose me to some highbrow music.

AAJ: Did they sense that you had talent as a kid?

BZ: They weren't artsy folks. They grew up in the Depression and were very practical people. In school, in the second or third grades, you could only begin on string instruments, so I got a violin, but it wasn't really "manly" enough for me, so then I wanted a saxophone. But you had to get a clarinet, so I played it throughout junior high and high school in the bands and so on. I didn't consider myself a "musician" at that time, but I did love music. I got a lot of stuff from the library and the radio. At the local library they had Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and I could hear that right away.

I was more into sports, politics, poetry or whatever. But I remember reading Downbeat and buying my first Coltrane record with Eric Dolphy, Impressions (Impulse!, 1963) from the Village Vanguard. I could hardly follow it, but I knew it demanded my attention. It was in New York. The '60s were such an exciting time. It was a very exciting time to grow up culturally. Being in eighth grade, and seeing the president shot down, it was like having the rug pulled out from under you, and what reality was and what you could depend upon. You know, the norm at the time was go to school, get a job, and so on- but all that began to unravel. It was a sensitive time of my life, so that at 16 or 17, just becoming a lawyer, a school teacher, a professor, or a person in government or business had no appeal to me at all. At that point, the music seemed like the most interesting thing I could do, and getting into the saxophone was very comfortable- it's made to be a comfortable instrument to learn on anyway. The years playing the clarinet made it relatively easy to transition into it.

AAJ: Your mentioning Dolphy, who often played bass clarinet, made me wonder if you have ever wanted to go back to your original instrument.

BZ: No, in truth I never liked the clarinet—I found it hard for me to play. Few can speak on it and sing on it, except for Eric Dolphy, who was such a gifted person technically. With the clarinet, the instrument tends to dominates the player. With the saxophone, your personality can come out in many ways. Actually, I had a horrible experience on the bass clarinet. Some years later, when I was working under Cecil Taylor, his great alto player Jimmy Lyons had a bass clarinet at the university, and he let me borrow it, a beautiful Buffet bass clarinet. So I went to Appalachian Mountains visiting some hippie friends, and parked at the side of the road. I had to leave the car for a while, and when I came back the trunk was popped and Jimmy's instrument was stolen. And that's why the world never heard Jimmy playing the bass clarinet. Also, I was working on playing the alto clarinet, which is a sort of bastard instrument in terms of tuning, and so on, but it's lighter and brighter than either the bass clarinet or the B-flat clarinet. I'm surprised more people don't play it. It's got a curved bell, and it sings a lot more.

AAJ: Are there any recordings using the alto clarinet?

BZ: There's a guy in New York named Mark Whitecage who's been around a long time. I believe he's done it. Maybe Hamiet Bluiett as well.

AAJ: So, when you were young, did you go to the clubs and concerts in New York to hear the music?

BZ: No, not when I was very young. That's one of my greatest regrets. One of the great events that I was supposed to attend but missed was a concert that Coltrane and others did in 1966 called "Titans of the Tenor." They had Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, and Albert Ayler. I didn't get to that one, but soon after that, I started going to clubs, and I saw Monk with Charlie Rouse, Ornette playing when he had David Izenzon, Charlie Haden, and Charles Moffett, all bassists, typically two at a time. Herbie Hancock's first band after he left Miles, which included Johnny Coles, with whom I later played and recorded. Dexter Gordon, during a visit from Europe with Pharoah [Sanders] and Leon Thomas, opening up at the Vanguard. Larry Young, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, who I took a lesson from. Sun Ra many times. And I saw the Miles Davis Quintet at the Village Gate. Once I started going, I didn't stop.

The Avant-Garde in New York

AAJ: It's interesting that you gravitated very early to jazz that was pushing the envelope. Most musicians seem to have first listened to a lot of the standard stuff before going on to the outer reaches.

BZ: It was pushing the envelope, but it was what was very popular as well. You know, Cecil Taylor recorded on Blue Note. People thought he was the outer extreme, but in 1965-66, he had a contract for Blue Note, the same label as Lee Morgan and Lou Donaldson. Ornette Coleman made Live in Stockholm [At the Golden Circle, Vols. 1 & 2 (1965)] on Blue Note, too. When you listened to the mainstream jazz station, WLIB, in the afternoon, they might play either Ornette or Cecil. It's true that when Cecil became more abstract, he got less radio play. Now, when you listen to WBGO in New York or WRTI in Philly, they won't play any John Coltrane that came after 1962-63; but in those days, Trane was there, people loved him. He was such a beloved person by everyone.

AAJ: Are you saying that Cecil and Ornette and the post-1962 Trane were part of the mainstream?

BZ: No, they were clearly to the far left, but avant-garde wasn't a dirty word. Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams played with Cecil's band. Moreover, Miles Davis' band in the late-'60s, before Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), but after the great quintet, were playing non-metrically without regular chord progressions. What made me gravitate towards this stuff was the emotional weight of it. People refer to the "summer of love" in the sixties, but it was also the "summer of upheaval." Before Woodstock, it was the Vietnam War, you and your friends going over there. There was mental anguish about the legitimacy of our government. The Woodstock drugs and sexual revolution were really sidebars to the anxiety and confusion about what was going to happen to our country and what was going on in the world. I know that for me, in 1967, I went to the University of Wisconsin, and I was there for two weeks, and there was a campus demonstration against Dow Chemical around the Agent Orange scandal. I said, "OK, I'm against the war," so I went there, sat down for a soda, and the next thing you know there were police officers banging students over the head, windows are smashed. That's how I woke up to the conflict that was really tearing our country apart.

AAJ: And the music of the time reflected that conflict.

BZ: Absolutely. The seriousness and emotional power of that music. You know, when you listen to Horace Silver at the Village Gate, you hear that finger-poppin,' and I like that, but it didn't affect me like John Coltrane playing A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). Even guys like Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson, for example, wore dashikis and they were playing very modern. People remember Lee for Cornbread (Blue Note, 1965), Speedball (Mercury Phonogram, 1970), and "Ceora," but he also made a record about Angela Davis [We Remember You (Fresh Sounds, 1972)], with all kinds of cross-rhythms and fire.

AAJ: You're rounding off the picture of jazz at that time. So, when you started your career, you were playing with Cecil Taylor's group?

BZ: Yeah, what happened was that I got an alto sax, and I was at the University of Wisconsin, and I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer or a politician. I really wanted to be a musician and play the saxophone. So I dropped out of college, went back to Brooklyn, heard a ton of music, and got into a summer program at Berklee School of Music in Boston. I used the money I earned from working at the post office, but when September came around, I wanted to go to Berklee, but my parents wouldn't support that. They wanted me to go back to a regular college and get a full education.

So I went back to Wisconsin, which didn't even have a regular saxophone teacher until Fred Hemke came in my second year as a music major. But when I got into their music school, they told me that Cecil Taylor was going to be coming out there as artist-in-residence. They thought it was only going to be for one semester. I was taken aback, because I had heard Cecil many times in New York, at a Slug's on Third Street, between Avenues C and D. Sun Ra also played there every Monday. I heard Cecil play an incredible piece with the Jazz Composers Orchestra. That was after Trane had died, and I was convinced that Cecil was the most important musician in the world, and here he was coming to Wisconsin, and I thought "this is mystical" that I'd be there at that exact time.
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