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Charles Tolliver: Blowing Down The Walls Of Trump’s Jericho


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You have to run the table, like in poker. Finally, after four hundred and one years, we’re going to get there. We will win the Presidency back from this despicable man and the sycophants around him and we will take control. There’s no way in heaven we will not win the Presidency back. This will happen.
—Charles Tolliver
Charles Tolliver has played with practically every major African American jazz stylist of his generation, and composed for some of them, too. In addition, he is the co-founder of Strata-East, the most influential label at the intersection of hard bop and spiritual jazz during the 1970s. Tolliver's long and distinguished career continues to flourish, with a new album, Connect, recorded in London in November 2019, set for release on the Gearbox label at the end of July 2020.

Connect is Tolliver's first release in over a decade and it is a monster. It finds him fronting a US quintet which brings with it the grit and groove of a classic Blue Note hard-bop band while also sounding totally 2020. The lineup is augmented on two of the four tracks by tenor saxophonist Binker Golding, one of the young lions of the new London jazz.

Born into what he describes as "dirt poor" beginnings in Jacksonville, Florida, Tolliver moved to New York with his family at the end of the 1940s, still a young child. He was a high-achieving school student. After spending three years at Howard State University in Washington D.C., and diligently practicing his trumpet in the city's Rock Creek Park, Tolliver returned to New York in the mid-1960s. He burst on to the scene almost immediately, when Jackie McLean hired him for his band.

Tolliver's recording debut was McLean's It's Time! (Blue Note, 1965). In his sleeve note, the critic Nat Hentoff wrote that in Tolliver, McLean had found "a new trumpeter of solidity as well as daring," a description which nails Tolliver's qualities to perfection. Tolliver wrote half the material for It's Time!, showing himself equally adept at burners and ballads, and shared the writing credits again on McLean's Action (Blue Note, 1967).

A year with Gerald Wilson's band in Los Angeles followed, before Tolliver answered Max Roach's call to return to New York and join his band. During this time he was also featured on important albums recorded by Roach and by Roy Ayers, Horace Silver and Gary Bartz.

In 1971, Tolliver co-founded Strata-East with the pianist Stanley Cowell, whom he had met in Max Roach's band. Just as Impulse! had been the primary platform for progressive African American jazz in the 1960s, so Strata-East carried the torch in the 1970s. In 1974, the label enjoyed unexpected success with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's Winter In America. The album made Billboard's top ten jazz albums chart and one of its tracks, "The Bottle," released as a single, became a top twenty R&B hit.

By the end of the decade, Strata-East had released 58 albums of near-uniform artistic excellence, a remarkable achievement for an independent company run by two musicians with no previous business experience. Tolliver released several landmark albums on Strata-East, under his own name and with Cowell and other musicians.

In this interview, Tolliver talks about his childhood, key events in his career, the founding of Strata-East, Black Lives Matter and the abomination that is President Trump.

All About Jazz: Did you come from a musical family?

Charles Tolliver: It was a jazz loving family. My parents were super hip. We had one of those old victrolas. I don't know where they got the money to get the thing, because we were dirt poor. But they had these 78rpm records and they were all Jazz At The Philharmonic. Those recordings became my mantra at the age of 4 or 5 years old. I remember Charlie Shavers particularly. Norman Granz did so much for jazz. I mean, not just for me, for the music in general.

It was my grandmother who got me my first horn. Kids in the south tended to be brought up by their grandmothers, because their mothers had to be out doing maid work or something. So it was the grandmother who raised the child. She was the matriarch of the family. Normally you would call your grandmother "momma." My dear mother, my brother and I called her by her first name, Ruby.

When I was about 5, walking back from kindergarten school, I saw a cornet hanging in this dingy little pawnshop. I would see it there for about the next three years and I would say, "Momma, I would so like to get that cornet." And she saved her pennies and God knows how, somehow she saved up enough that one day she got this thing for me.

AAJ: When did you move from Jacksonville to New York?

CT: In 1947, my father decided to move to New York. When they were demobbed, a lot of the Negro soldiers emigrated north to other places. Chicago, Detroit, New York and so on. Then later my mother decided she wanted to go there too, to be with my father. My grandmother would have none of it. She said the whole family had to be together. So everything we owned was packed up in one of those long-bodied automobiles that belonged to one of her relations, and off we all drove to New York.

We were able to be housed in the same apartment building as my grandmother's son, in Harlem. He had all these great records because he was super hip too. One was 'Round Midnight by Miles Davis, and there was Max Roach and Clifford Brown At Basin Street. Those two records changed me forever. Clifford Brown became the mantra for me in terms of what is achievable by a human being in playing this piece of metal. And of course Round Midnight is still with me today.

During my teenage years I always made sure I was in contact with like-minded teenagers and we would get together and do jam sessions and talk about music. At high school I was in all the bands—the concert band, the marching band for the football games, and the dance band for the weekend dances.

AAJ: So when you left high school, how come you went to Washington to study pharmacy?

CT: That happened because in my last year I had a part-time job delivering medicine for our local apothecary. It was the only black-owned pharmacy in Harlem at the time. I watched him mix the medicines—this is before medicines came pre-mixed—and I got fascinated. I said to myself, if he doesn't do that right, people die. So after high school I applied to Howard University in Washington D.C. to study pharmacy. Not necessarily to make a career of it, but because it fascinated me. Music was always there though. In fact most of my time at Howard I was in the Fine Arts building.

AAJ: Within a year or so of graduating you were working with Jackie Mclean. You must have done a lot of practicing in Washington.

CT: Well, yes. Every day I was in Rock Creek Park practicing my horn. And one day in 1963 I realised I'd finally caught up with what I'd heard with Clifford Brown. So I came back home to Harlem.

I began doing jam sessions at a place called The Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. There was Chick Corea, there was Jack DeJohnette, totally unknown, just starting. And one night I came off the bandstand and this gentleman said, Jackie McLean might be looking for a trumpet player. And I mean, as a teenager we woke, ate and slept Jackie McLean. He said, this is where he is, go and see him. And I did. He was drying out at the time, in one of those facilities. He said come and see me when I get out and bring your instrument. So I did. He was playing at Slugs. It was sawdust on the floor from the front door to the back. Larry Willis on piano, totally unknown, who I also grew up with in Harlem, and Billy Higgins on drums. And Jackie said, I'm going to put you on a record date. This was early 1964.

At the studio there was Alfred Lion with his stopwatch and Francis Wolff with his camera taking pictures. And then arrived Roy Haynes. And I was saying to myself, you got to be kidding me. And then arrived Herbie Hancock. And then arrived a new bassist that nobody ever heard of before, Cecil McBee. This record became known as It's Time!. And though Jackie didn't say it, he implied to me that he was going to go beyond bebop. And I ate and slept bebop. So the songs Jackie asked me to bring to the recording I had to rethink and revamp and reimagine in order to deal with where I knew he wanted to go. Until today that's really one of my favourite recordings.

AAJ: Around this time you contributed a track to a live album Impulse! recorded at the Village Gate [The New Wave In Jazz]. How did that come about?

CT: That was through Leroi Jones—this was before he changed his name Amiri Baraka. He knew about me and he would come to Slugs. One day I got a call from him and he said, listen, I'm going to do a concert at the Village Gate and Impulse are going to record it, and I'd like you to be on it, and Bob Thiele wants to record it for Impulse because John Coltrane will be on the bill.

For me the original Village Gate in Greenwich Village was the best of any venue for jazz. It was in this incredible art deco building. I don't know how Art D'Lugoff could have sold it to become a pharmacy. It was so beautiful. The street level had this wonderful café, and then you walked up a little bit of stairs and you had an incredible restaurant and nightclub. But in the basement was where iconic things happened. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, the list goes on.

So anyway, Leroi Jones called me. And I thought, wow, why me? But he'd been listening to me and I guess he liked me. So I put a band together. Bobby Hutcherson and I were very close, and I was very close to Billy Higgins, I used to see him every day. And Cecil McBee, he and I were very close. And James Spaulding. So I brought that band into the Village Gate for the concert and we did "Brilliant Corners." And the bands on that night—there was my band, Grachan Moncur's, Archie Shepp's, Albert Ayler's, and the main attraction, John Coltrane—that became known as the New Thing.

AAJ: Did you know Coltrane well?

CT: Not really. See, we were in such awe of John Coltrane. Truly, if ever there was a God in jazz, like Beethoven in classical, Coltrane was and is it. Just his presence for me was awesome. A lot of guys, they'd go up and, you know, hey John, and want to shake his hand and everything. And he was very gracious about it. But for me, he was like God, so I didn't talk to him. Later, at the Half Note, I talked a little to him, just to say hello. I never said, I'm Charles Tolliver or anything like that. Maybe he knew who I was, I don't know. He was a very peaceful guy. He would always be reading a book and smoking his brown cigarillos.

AAJ: Then you moved to California. Why did you leave New York?

CT: Well, there was actually very little work in New York then. Every night we'd come out from Slugs and walk across the West Side to the Village Vanguard and if Sonny Rollins was playing there it was to five people, man, trust me. Not even the big names were earning anything. There was a dedicated audience, that has never gone away, and on the weekends there'd be a few more people, but on the weekdays they weren't there.

So in 1965 I used to practice with Bobby Brown, a musician no-one knows about because he was never written about. We met at jam sessions and we became friendly. And one day he said, look, Willie Bobo is looking for a trumpet player to make a tour out West. Bobby had just done a Willie Bobo album, Uno Dos Tres 1.2.3., and the trumpet player on the record, Melvin Lastie, had died or something. I wasn't interested in Willie Bobo because I didn't know how great he was yet—I was soon to learn that he could get off the timbales and play wonderful trap drums. But I said to Bobby, OK, I'll do it. Because I had never been to California and I wanted to see L.A.

AAJ: Which is where you joined Gerald Wilson's band.

CT: When the tour was over I stayed in L.A. because one night a wonderful trumpet player named Freddie Hill, who had been playing in Gerald Wilson's band for a number of years, said, hey man, you're from Jacksonville, that's where I'm from too. And Freddie said, are you going to stay in L.A.? I said yeah, but I don't have any money, I'm broke. He said, let me take you to Gerald Wilson, see if I can get you in the band.

So he took me to Gerald Wilson's house and Gerald said, OK, but before we get you in the band I got to send you to my tailor. I had these tattered clothes on and Gerald was quite a dresser. It was a really high-end men's clothing store and the man was a really big jazz fan and benefactor of Gerald's big band. I got two wonderful suits, man, free of charge. I kept those suits for years because I wanted to pass them on to any children I had in the future. But eventually the moths got them. I stayed in L.A. with Gerald's band for a year and in 1967 we recorded one of my songs, "Paper Man," on Live And Swinging.

AAJ: Then you went back to New York and joined Max Roach.

CT: See, I knew Max Roach before I went to Los Angeles. I used to go and see Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln and the band he had at that time with the great Freddie Hubbard and James Spaulding. They were working at the Five Spot, and they knew I was one of the new trumpeter players on the scene. And I said, Max, if you ever need a trumpet player, think about me. Then a year later, in L.A., I got a call from Max Roach and he said, OK, I'm starting a new band, get your ass back here.

AAJ: Given that he'd co-led a band with Clifford Brown, and you admired Brown so much, that must have been something for you.

CT: It was the end of the world. Man, you could have put me in a coffin and just laid me to rest. I mean, I'm good to go. So I found a way to get back home. In those days there'd be ads in the newspapers saying anyone who wants to drive a car to some place, come into our office and bring $50 deposit. You'd deliver the car and the person would give you the $50 back plus another $200. It was faster than using the Greyhound bus. That's how I got back to New York. That's when I met Stanley Cowell, who was on piano, who was to become my lifelong alter ego and partner in Strata-East.

AAJ: How did Strata-East come about?

CT: There were these guys in Detroit, they had a thing going. They had a corporation called Strata, and they brought us there to play at the Strata Concert Gallery. I made a great recording from there that I might bring out at some point. Anyway, they said, you've got this recording, why don't you become our Eastern Strata? Because they didn't want to put out records, they wanted to put on concerts, that was their thing. They were trying to sell stock to family and friends to raise funds to do that. And when we got back to New York, I said to Stanley, I'm not interested in selling stock to friends. But I incorporated the name Strata-East.

The musicians in New York loved the idea. We explained to them, you're not on any contract with Strata-East. You do your record and if we like it we'll put it out for you. The real impetus, the person who became our greatest ally, was Clifford Jordan. Because he had it in mind all the time, he was just quiet with it. He had already produced these recordings before we started the label, with Pharoah Sanders and all these other people, and he brought all of that to us.

AAJ: Strata-East was perceived as a politically orientated label. Was that intended?

CT: Our founding intention was more to give musicians a fair shake of the whip. You see, what is happening now with Black Lives Matter, it was already there, though that was not the term used. We'd all been talking about it since when I started to work with Max Roach in 1967. Max had already done We Insist! and he was always trying to have Abbey work out these lyrics when he had her performing with us. And from 1967 to 1969 I spent a lot of time at his house and I knew where his head was at. And, I mean, John Coltrane had already done "Alabama." The label itself was not political. But because of what was going on—the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Martin Luther King, and the riots—the musicians in our circle and the stuff they recorded, this gave it a political dimension.

AAJ: Like Gil Scott-Heron.

CT: One day a guy walked into our office. He said, my name is Gil Scott-Heron and I heard about what you guys are doing and I'd like to put out a record with you. I didn't know who he was, I didn't know he was an underground spoken-word person. But I said, OK, let's hear what you got. He'd already put albums out with Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman, of course, but he was unsatisfied with it. He knew that with the sort of royalties all those companies were offering, you're never going to get any money, you'll only ever get the advance.

The recordings Scott-Heron brought to us were not in all that great shape. They were on cassette tapes. But I thought they were good. So I said to Stanley, it's not jazz, he's a poet, you know, and Stanley listened and said, OK, why not, what the hell, he wants to put it out with Strata, fine. And we were smart enough to know how to get them mastered decently. So we put it out. And one day I got a call from a guy I knew at a record store in the Village. He said, you guys just put out a record called Winter In America, right? There's a track there called "The Bottle" and that's going to go. I said, go? What do you mean? He said, it's gonna be a hit, man. I said, OK, we'll see. And the rest is history.

AAJ: Can we finish with Black Lives Matter and the situation for African Americans in the US in 2020?

CT: I'll say it this way. Black Lives Matter, what they call it today, actually began in 1619 when the first slaves were brought to America by the British. But they kept it all out of the history books for centuries. We have to be thankful for this exponential explosion of gadgetry like smart phones, which allows anyone to film anything the moment it happens. Without that, we'd still be back in 1619. So now, finally, after four hundred and one years, I think we're going to get there. This could never have happened without black people and white people across this globe saying, enough, absolutely enough. So now I think we're going to be OK.

We in America, we will do this. We will get rid of this despicable 45th President and all the sycophants around him who want to "make America great again." America was never fully great, not with the way black people were treated. But I think we'll get there now. Those of us who grew up in New York and are the same age as Trump, we saw him get all this money from his father who was an out and out racist, and Trump grew up with that and it never left him. And any other person who was so misogynous, who went around grabbing women like that, he would never even have been made a candidate for President. That element of our society has to be culled, just like animals are culled when you get a bad litter.

You have to run the table, just like in poker. And we will take back control, take back the center, control the law making. And the world will be healthy again. This will happen. It doesn't matter if it's Biden or some other Democrat nominee. There's no way in heaven we will not win the Presidency back from this despicable man.

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