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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.

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