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Clifton Anderson: Knowing the Road

Photo credit: Georges Braunschweig

Barbara Ina Frenz By

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I'm always trying to kind of stimulate through my music a sense of hope and a purpose and a connection to something greater, something that's uplifting, that's always gonna be in my music. —Clifton Anderson
New York trombonist Clifton Anderson has mastered his instrument from the 1970s on in jazz programs of his home town outside the conservatory (which he also attended), that were initiated by leading spirits of the music such as Barry Harris, Sam Rivers, and Reggie Workman; these informal, professional jazz circles gave him information, insights and inspiration that the academic world couldn't provide in those days. Equally important for his development as a trombonist was his constant collaboration with musical giants of the caliber of Sonny Rollins, and also Geri Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, McCoy Tyner and Stevie Wonder. As a performing artist and his own producer he has dedicated himself exclusively to the jazz trombone, which is courageous considering the music market of today. With his mature sound and rich melodic playing he carries forward J.J. Johnson's legacy, adding a generous dash of calypso that is nurtured by his family roots in the Virgin Islands and inspired by his long-standing work with various calypso masters such as The Mighty Sparrow. On December 4, 2020, he published his fourth album—Been Down This Road Before—a boost of musical energy with a stellar line-up of collaborators, among them Monty Alexander, Andy Bey, Al Foster and Buster Williams. Its eponymous song provides a social comment on the newly rampant racism and police brutality in the US, that reminds listeners to face its long history, stay awake and this way constantly defend the achievements of humanity—justice and respect of diversity, i.e. equality and freedom— against the ever occurring pest of racist hate.

All About Jazz: When you were about seven years old, your mother took you to see the film The Music Man from 1962 with Robert Preston in the leading role. The trombone choir in this film fascinated you and made you desperately want to play that instrument.

Clifton Anderson: Yeah. First, I got attracted to the trombone because it looked like so much fun, you know, all those trombone players marching on the street, the slides going and everything. But I got more serious about it as I started growing older—and then I heard the recording J.J.'s Broadway by J.J. Johnson. Of course I never heard a trombone sound like that.

AAJ: Can you describe that sound?

CA: At the time I almost didn't believe it was a trombone. Because it was so smooth, the sound was so rich, and also his articulation was so clean. And then of course I later realized that it wasn't just his sound but that he had really developed the style of playing the trombone in a bebop setting.

AAJ: Shortly after you had seen the film The Music Man, your uncle, Sonny Rollins, bought you a trombone. His sister, your mother, had told him about your avid desire.

CA: Yes, I was about seven years old. And of course I was ecstatic when I saw the trombone. But I was so little, at seven years old, I was too small to actually play the whole instrument.

AAJ: Did your mother encourage you becoming a jazz musician?

CA: No. My mother didn't want me to be a jazz musician. She and Sonny were close, and she knew what Sonny had gone through developing and living as a jazz musician. She tried her best to discourage me at a certain point, when she saw that I was really serious about playing music for a career.

AAJ: When did you start playing jazz music?

CA: I must have been maybe sixteen, seventeen. I was going to the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, a famous school here in New York City. But when I graduated from Music and Art and went to Manhattan High School of Music, there was no jazz studies program. And even Juilliard, which is a well-known school, didn't develop a jazz program till the early 2000s.

AAJ: Did you get a chance to develop your own sound on the trombone at school?

CA: Yeah. And that really gave me an edge after I left the school in terms of developing technique and sound in jazz circles. A lot of what you play on that training, for playing symphonic music in particular, is focused on breathing and on sound or projection. The jazz circles were more focused on theory and technique on the trombone.

AAJ: So, you learned playing jazz music the same way like the veteran musicians did— outside of school.

CA: Well, when I was maybe in my senior year in Music and Art I started going out. Reggie Workman had a program out in Brooklyn at a place called The Muse, where he would teach jazz classes. Sam Rivers had a spot down on the East Side called Studio Rivbea where I would go and hang out and listen. And he would have a big band down there also.

AAJ: Did you play in their bands?

CA: Yeah. A little bit later Barry Harris had his Jazz Cultural Centre on 8th Avenue. That was about as close to formal jazz training as you could get anywhere in the world. I mean authentically. Many of the greatest jazz musicians in the world would come through there—Charlie Rouse, Clifford Jordan, sometimes Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Eddie Jefferson ...

AAJ: In 1977 Slide Hampton was looking for the best up-and-coming trombonists in New York for his trombone choir project World Of Trombones and hired you among others.

CA: Yeah. I had been to Manhattan School for about three years already and I had taken all kinds of ensemble courses, brass courses—but nothing like this. This was a unique thing—Slide's arranging. His idea was to have about eight trombones, he in the front and then the rhythm section. The writing was fantastic, it was also extremely challenging. He was writing trombone lines like saxophone lines.

AAJ: Speaking of the saxophone—do you remember your first or at least an early experience with Sonny Rollins?

CA: I have a very vague memory of that, but my mother had told me that she remembered this when this happened. I must have been about six years old. We were living on the 163rd Street in the Bronx. This one day I remember somebody knocking on the door. I answered the door and saw this big guy standing there and he had the Mohawk haircut. He looked like an Indian. And he scared me. So I went running to my mother and I said, 'There is an Indian at the door!' And she said, 'What are you talking about, this is your uncle!'

AAJ: In the late 1970s you started taking part in rehearsals with Sonny Rollins's groups. In 1983 he finally called you to come to play with him. What did you learn from him and how did that happen?

CA: He definitely hipped me to different approaches to playing this music, that I hadn't been exposed to before. Sometimes he could be vague too, not always giving a definitive answer to a question and not always giving me music to songs he would play. So, it was very hard for me at first to figure out how to fit into his band. Towards the end of my first year in his group I thought I was beginning to find my way. And then one early morning I got a phone call, I was half groggy, and I hear his voice, 'Clifton, what's going on?' And I said, 'Oh Sonny! 'And he said, 'Look man, this is not happening right now, you know, I'm having some trouble with my mouth, and we're not really playing cohesively together, so I'll have to let you go.' I realized, 'Oh I just got fired.' So, I didn't work with him for a whole year. He called me back in 1985—and this answers to your question—and hired me to go to Japan.

We came back from that tour and he had some spot dates in the States here. One night we were getting ready to go out on the stage and he comes into the dressing room and he didn't say anything to me, but he handed me a piece of paper. And on this piece of paper he wrote a little note, and it said, 'Clifton, I don't want you to approach playing with me like playing with any other quintet or group that you are working with. I want everything we do to be intuitive.' ... It wasn't till almost maybe five or six months later that I was talking to Al Foster. We were just talking about music and playing. He said to me, 'Did you ever see that Art Blakey video, where Art Blakey is in Japan, with The Jazz Messengers [1961—with Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, and Jymie Merritt]? Man, check this out.' So I watched this video.

They were set up on the stage in a way that none of them were facing the other one. They started playing this arrangement which was rhythmically intricate. They had to be like right on top of it and none of them were looking at each other. And I realized, That's what Sonny is talking about. So, I started to focus on that. A different type of lesson, how to really kind of become one with everybody who's on the stage and Sonny in particular. To know, to be comfortable with where he was going, so I could anticipate what he wanted to do. So, from that point on I started to develop that, and that was when the music started to come together—I mean my contribution started to improve.

AAJ: In your music the calypso is a very much alive element, which I guess is closely connected with the cultural legacy of your mother's and father's families— both stem from the Virgin Islands, and both of your parents were musicians also.

CA: Yes. I had a natural kind of affinity to be able to play it. It's rhythmic, a certain kind of feeling, it's not something that you write down on a paper and can execute that way. With calypso, like with most cultural musics, you have to be able to identify with. So, if you are in that culture, it's easy to identify. I played on nearly every calypso recording between 1974 and 1980 probably—the Mighty Sparrow was just one.

AAJ: The eponymous song on your latest album, Been Down This Road Before, that came out in December 2020, addresses the newly rampant racism and police brutality, that is sadly engrained in the history of the US. To me, the music sounds like a ray of hope to overcome hate and violence in the current US-American society that is split more than ever before. I actually don't hear rage in it. The pure sound of the trombone and Andy Bey's singing seem to have removed the dirt of hate and violence— flying above it and this way sending energy and faith to be able to continue fighting against it. Can you describe the connection between that currently exacerbated situation in the US and your musical message of this song?

CA: That's not an easy question to answer. I've come to the place where I think that the majority of people in the United States and maybe in other parts of the world as well, that are racist and steeped in that kind of mindset, will not change. So, I feel that instead of trying to reach these people on a rational level, you have to just be able to figure out ways of keeping that mindset from expanding and kind of keep it suppressed as best we can. I think that —in the United States anyway—it's always been here, it's never not been here. So, it's not something that has been developed. It has been suppressed at certain levels, and we actually had a war over it, a civil war. And I felt that after we had a Civil Rights Movement of the nature which was huge—Martin Luther King spirit-headed that movement—and today the Black Lives Matter movement, which has transcended the United States actually, they died for trying to get a rise, an evolution of mindset, of consciousness in the American Society. And you would think that after a movement like that, which was so impactful and so in everybody's face that it would have made a really huge, significant change, at least here in the United States. But what we see today is that nothing has really changed at all. The level of racism has kind of been under the covers for a while and I think the American society has kept it suppressed to some degree.

Now, when Donald Trump came into power, we've seen that all of those people that thought that way, that think that way, they have been here, now felt that they have more freedom to express themselves the way they truly feel. And they have never changed, they have never evolved into a different consciousness. So, I wrote the song "Been Down This Road Before," so that all different kinds of music lovers, all different types of people that listen to all kind of different music, would be able to listen to it and hear, it's got a catchy hook, it's got a catchy chorus to it, it's got certain elements to it that make it very listenable. So, I would not characterize it as a hardcore straight ahead jazz song. It's something that I wanted a broader group of people to be able to hear and listen to and try to get something from it. And yes, it is like an anthem of hope, but it's also an anthem—within that hope—for people to examine a fact that this is going on, I have been down this road before, and will continue. I want people to understand that we will continue to go on down this road. The thing is that we have to understand what it is, so that we can be able to keep it at bay as best we can. I think that there are certain elements in human nature, that make us human beings, that we cannot change.

There's certain percentages of our population of human beings that will always be racist, a certain percentage of the population that will feel they are superior to other people or to other groups. These are things that really make us human. So, our work is to really be able to identify that. I think one of the problems is that we all try to feel like we can change that kind of thing, that we can change that kind of thinking, so that we can get to a certain point as human beings where there are no more racist people, no more people who want to have war. I don't think that we will ever get to that place.

AAJ: But it's important to keep the ideals of justice and equality alive. Without them we would quickly get lost—they give orientation, they come from the positive human potential that needs to be realized as much as possible to not totally destroy the lives of large groups of people, the so called minorities that aren't actually minorities, all over the world.

CA: That's the point, that's the point of the song. Because if we don't, then the balance that exists falls off, and once that balance falls off we have what started to have been here in the United States—with Donald Trump.

AAJ: It's a similar situation with the history of women's rights. It's a very slow improvement, but there is an improvement, and there would be not any improvement if there wouldn't be that resistance of conscious people.

CA: Right, and it has to be constant, because there is that other energy that keeps propping up. I think that what we have to do is move forward and be sure that the balance that is maintained prevents that kind of ideology from becoming dominant in the world. So, the song addresses that and I hope that people understand that this is what's going on today, what we've seen under Donald Trump, it's nothing new. It has happened over and over and over again, from the beginning of this country.

AAJ: Yes, the lyrics say this. But at the same time, at least to me, the music says more. It gives hope and strength to keep on fighting for the balance, as you put it.

CA: Right, right, yeah. There are always elements of that in my music, this is what I am. I'm always trying to kind of stimulate through my music a sense of hope and a purpose and a connection to something greater, something that's uplifting, that's always gonna be in my music. So, even if I try to do something that's gonna be very depressing [laughs] —I don't think I can really ever go there with my music, because that's not really who I am.

AAJ: Can you describe in more detail the genesis of your new album. Are there any other backgrounds that shaped your new compositions—for example the two songs that I particularly like: "Mysticancients" and "In It But Not Of It." These two songs sound new to me in your music.

CA: I evolve from a spiritual standpoint. I've studied metaphysics. When I was with Sonny, we used to play that song "Why Was I Born?" And that's always what I'm interested in: What are we doing here, who and what are we, what is our purpose here as a living being. What is it that makes our existence more impactful in terms of our environment around us. So, "Mysticancients" was something that has to do with things that are in time but are timeless. Ancient people, ancestors —and when I say ancestors I mean not just my personal ancestors, but ancestral people—that had to deal with what I'm trying with similar issues back to that idea of life being like a cycle, and experiences that each generation has to experience, whether they would want to or not, it's part of the human experience, you know.

Everybody experience the same things, from generation to generation: we experience love, we experience hate, we experience the notion of having to make choices and decisions, whatever these decisions are, what the results, what the manifestations of those decisions and choices are, how they affect each one of us personally, how they affect people that are around us, larger groups of people. So, "Mysticancients" has to do with how our ancestors have had to deal with certain things and to try to look back on how certain things were handled and dealt with and trying to draw a musical place, to just draw a sense to be able to direct us today, in what we gonna do today. Because it's been gone through before, by many before us.

I think one of the ways to successfully think about these things is to think about how our ancestors had to deal with similar issues. So, that's what "Mysticancients" is about. It was a spontaneous piece that was co-written by myself, Rene McLean, and Victor See Yuen. We layered that. We got basic motifs that we used throughout there. And we just started layering, based off those motifs, layering sounds, and layering very thick at some points, textures, and came up with that. "In It But Not Of It" is another nod to the idea that we are living in a physical world but we are greater than this, we are greater than the physical world that we're in. We are in this right now, but we are not of this. We are of something that's greater than what we see and experience right now.

AAJ: As an African-American citizen you live in this society, are a part of this society, but at the same time you are a lot different to that biased entity. This is what came through my mind reading this song title.

CA: Yeah, exactly. We live in a physical world. But for many times, we are indoctrinated in a way, into certain ways of thinking and acting right from the physical standpoint. But there is something greater to us than that. Our spiritual natures are spirits, the essence of who we and what we really are is greater than this physical experience. And so, when you try to think beyond the physical experience, then you can kind of see things more clearly. That's what that song is about— in it but not of it.

AAJ: It starts with delicate percussive sounds, then the story turns into a melodic and rhythmic celebration.

CA: It's like an enlightenment, it's like the mind is opening.

AAJ: Is there a certain personal and/or musical way, in which the song "Sonny Says" is related to your uncle, a particular point you had in mind about Sonny Rollins?

CA: [Laughs] You know, Sonny has such a major impact on me. And of course I wanted to write a song for him. Sonny said to me several years ago—we were talking about two fives, you know, which is a musical terminology—'Always practice your two fives. Those are the pillars of modern jazz music, two fives.' So, when I wrote this song, there's a bunch of two fives in it. That was the initial point about the song. But as we started playing it with my group and really working through it, I realized that I and everybody on that track had played with Sonny and understand exactly where he is coming from. So, as we were playing the song, we started to develop that same kind of energy that Sonny brings to his music, and that's something that I wanted to have on the track as well. I wanted to make sure that the track had the kind of high power energy to it. And of course I had to have René McLean, who is one of Sonny's godsons, and the tenor saxophone he's playing is one that Sonny gave to him. So, it was important to have him. And of course Ronnie Burrage, who works with me regularly. I met Ronnie playing with Sonny. Ronnie was the drummer with Sonny when I first joined Sonny's band. So, I've known Ronnie for a long time and we always got along musically and on and off the band stand very well. I knew that Ronnie could identify and understand where this was coming from, so I had to get him. And of course Buster Williams, who is on most of the recording, played with Sonny on occasion too. And then Stephen Scott, who played piano with Sonny for several years also. So, the crew is like Sonny's crew [laughs] and "Sonny Says" is kind of his community paying tribute on that particular track, and I like the outcome, I think it deserves its title well.

AAJ: I have the impression that there are some new elements in the music of your new album. Can you share some insights on your current musical influences?

CA: I think the inspiration has to do with my evolution. What has affected my music is really my living experiences, you know. What I'm absorbing around me, what I'm seeing around me, what I need to make musical commentary on, it is those kind of things of what I think has really effected maybe a slight change in the approach or in what I'm doing musically as opposed to my last record. So, I think that it's my personal evolution as a musician, and as a person living here, like seeing things in different ways, more and more clearly.

AAJ: Do you have already tour plans for your new album, given that COVID-19 will soon be better controlled than it is right now.

CA: I'm starting to work on some tour ideas. The industry right now is still—well, everybody is really looking forward to getting back to a kind of a normalcy with live performance. Nobody really knows, everybody is up in the air as to what's happening. So, my impression in speaking with several people is that nothing is really set yet to really solidify. I would like to play a lot more throughout Europe, because I've only done a few festivals in Europe under my own name. So, I would like to really expand that as a result of this record and hoping that it will get enough circulation and hearing in Europe for me to start to come over a little bit more.

AAJ: Would you say the actual position of the jazz trombone is kind of anti-popular so that contemporary trombonists are kind of forced to commercialize their playing to a certain degree?

CA: Commercial is not a word that I would like to use for my music. I would like to use the word appealing. I like my music to be broadly appealing. Now, when people feel that's more commercial or not, I mean that's for them to determine how they would want to categorize it. I play music that's sincere to who I am. So, you never hear me play something that's just because of the trend. That's not the type of musician I am or the music that I want to offer. But my music, it might have commercial aspects, and if it does so, then that only means that I've listened to a certain amount of commercial music that has had a certain level of impact on me and that will come out in my music at some point. But I don't go about making music from that standpoint, you know, I don't go out trying to make a hit record and using a formula to do it. Music dictates, not the money.

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