Carlos Ward: A Tough and Lyrical Journey


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I was just trying to play what I felt, and I remember at one of the jam sessions I hit a note that must've sounded sour. But to me, it covered everything. I was holding that note for dear life.
Alto saxophonist and flutist Carlos Ward has worked steadily with some of improvised music's most diverse and captivating figures—musicians like John Coltrane, Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim—but despite being a well-regarded presence in their ensembles, Ward has not received quite the recognition that even a host of other sidemen have. Ward's alto tone is gritty and acerbic, but with ebullient, speech-like cadences—comparisons to Jackie McLean, Marion Brown, John Tchicai and Prince Lasha are not unwarranted. He was born in La Boca, Panama in May 1940, and raised in Panama City. "Back in Panama, when I was staying with my aunt, I would be singing—I started off singing at about nine years old, washing dishes on the box and I would be singing the Hit Parade from the States (I lived in the Canal Zone)." His first instrument was the ukulele, and he took up the clarinet in 1952.

Along with the pop hits of the day, Ward's aunt's radio provided him with the music of Bob Crosby, the Dixieland clarinetist who was an early inspiration to pick up the wooden horn. "I always loved the sound of the clarinet and what the clarinet was doing in that whole mixture, improvising and harmonically as well." Ward's uncle, a pianist, also was encouraging and had radio spots on the weekends in La Boca, and his aunt was a classical pianist: "I'd spend hours looking through her library—she had etudes and stuff like that... and my chore of dusting the furniture included dusting the piano... growing up, I always wanted something to do with the arts, either to be a painter or a musician." Ward also spent time listening to the Panamanian calypso, a long-lasting influence on his cadences and compositions. Therefore, coupling local and familial musical traditions with the music heard on American radio broadcasts, a wide variety of musics from the Western Hemisphere made its way into Ward's young mind.

After relocating to Seattle to live with his mother and siblings in 1952-3, and in the midst of his studies on the clarinet, Ward's friend Marion Evans introduced him to the alto saxophone, by virtue of abandoning the instrument at his house in high school. Ironically, his teacher Johnny Jessen was known primarily for later teaching a young Kenny G, and "he's the one who really straightened me out." Ward's early musical associates included drummer Doug Robinson and the rock group The Playboys, in which he played clarinet, alto, baritone and bongos. The rock and roll gigs enabled Ward to make spending money as a kid, which went to the purchase of jazz records, a record changer and concerts by Jazz at the Philharmonic, among others.

In addition to Monk and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) was one of the most pivotal recordings he heard, "oh, that's the shape of jazz to come? Well, I want to find out what it's gonna be [chuckles]." It was an introduction to not only to Coleman, but to Don Cherry, who was a major factor in his later musical development. Like Coleman, Ayler and others, Ward was often disparaged for his approach to the standards on the bandstand—"I was just trying to play what I felt, and I remember at one of the jam sessions, I hit a note that must've sounded sour. But to me, it covered everything. I was holding that note for dear life."

During a stint in the Army in the early 1960s, Ward relocated to Frankfurt and saw groups like that of trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff at the Domicile, who let him sit in. In Heidelberg, Ward met pianist- vibraphonist Karl Berger, who he began working with early on, and musicians from Denmark and elsewhere would come to sit in with the Berger-led rhythm section, providing a fruitful, international scope to Ward's jazz studies. Visiting musicians, especially Eric Dolphy—whom he caught in Frankfurt and Stuttgart shortly before his death—also encouraged Ward to go ahead, to play what he felt. In Copenhagen in 1965 at the Cafe Montmartre, Ward finally met Don Cherry, who was working in a quartet with South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. This led to a visit to the schoolhouse Cherry shared near Stockholm with his wife, Mocqui, and sowed the seeds for their playing throughout the '70s and '80s. A few weeks after this, Ward returned to the United States.

When Coltrane came through Seattle in 1965 with Pharoah Sanders and Donald Raphael Garrett, Ward had another prophetic meeting. "I asked him if I could sit in and he accepted. He let me come on stage, and immediately he could decipher what I was trying to do, by making motions with his hand how my ideas were going. He was going up and down, to the sides, and this is how we started. I would come and sit in with him a couple of nights, and one time Joe Brazil was sitting in... I would go to the hotel and meet with Pharoah and Raphael, and they were talking about vegetarianism. Trane told me I should go to New York, and so in about fall of 1965, I took the Trailways bus there."

Soon he met other musicians of the new music, including Rashied Ali, Henry Grimes, Marzette Watts, Sunny Murray, Roger Blank and Arthur Jones. Ward's most notable gig at the time was with Coltrane's expanded unit, with Ali, Pharoah, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner: "I remember this moment with Trane after the Village Gate, and he said 'what do you think this music needs?' I was thinking about flutes at the time, and so I mentioned that. Later, I saw he was holding a flute on the cover of his record, Expression [Impulse!, 1967]."

Ward frequently hung out with Sunny Murray at his loft, later joining one variant of Murray's Swing Unit. The group played Toronto in 1967, with Grachan Moncur III, Alan Shorter and Alan Silva: "somebody got us a room with mattresses on the floor and that's how we did that week. The cats would argue all day, but at night the music was sublime! You couldn't touch this stuff!" At the Both/And Club in San Francisco, the Swing Unit with Shorter, Ward, Mark Whitecage and Pharoah Sanders made an infamous 'appearance' later in the year: "Sunny says 'yeah, I got us a gig in San Francisco and we're gonna travel by car and take this new music out there.' The club owner apparently saw Sunny in New York and told him to call him if he was ever in town. Sunny took it to mean 'oh, I can go to San Francisco and he'll give me a gig,' which means he didn't have a gig."
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