Clifton Anderson has been on a lifelong journey of artistic evolution. From his start as a child surrounded by a musical family, to formal education mixed with the practical experience of live gigs, Clifton's odyssey is ever-unfolding. Whether playing as a long-standing member of his uncle Sonny Rollins' band, helping to run the Doxy label or leading sessions with his own band, Clifton's life is always happily connected to music.
- Early Years And Inspirations
- Tennis Versus Jazz
- Formal Education
- First Gigs
- Multi-Genre Touch
- Technology and Bones
Early Years And Inspirations
All About Jazz: With your father having been a professional church organist, your mother having played piano and soloed in church choirs, a violin-playing uncle and, of course, your famous saxophone-playing uncle Sonny Rollins, it can easily be said that you come from a musical family. Was there an assumption from early on you would take up an instrument, if only for fun?
Clifton Anderson: Yeah, in my family pretty much everybody plays something. As children, we were expected to learn some instrument. Our parents didn't push us in any one direction but, since everybody played something, we were expected to pick up an instrument.
AAJ: You credit the end of The Music Man (1962), where Robert Preston leads a street procession during "Seventy-Six Trombones" for giving you the initial interest in the instrument. What was the next step for you in regards to pursuing this new muse?
CA: There were a lot of different instruments that I had liked, but that was what hooked me on the trombone. After that happened, I told my mother that I wanted to play that instrument and she told Sonny about it. He bought my first trombone for me. So at that point I started taking little lessons and things.
I was so small that I couldn't really hold up the horn. When I got out to the sixth or seventh position, I had to balance the slide on my foot because I was too small to hold up the whole horn and reach all the way out. I had a teacher very early on; I remember him very well. He told my mother that he felt the trombone was the right instrument for me because I could get a really good tone out of the horn at such an early stage. He said that most kids can't get a good sound out of trombone that soon, so the fact that I could do thathe felt the trombone was the instrument for me, and he was right.
AAJ: During these early years, what were you listening to? How did it affect your approach to what you wanted to play?
CA: There was so much music in the house. I heard a lot of organ music since my father was a church organist. I heard a lot of church music and choir music because my mother sang in the choir and my father was also a choir director. I listened to some jazz. There was pop music in the house, and R&B. There was a little bit of pretty much everything. There was no one specific thing that I really keyed on into as a young kid coming up.
Although the kids in school everybody was listening to Motown and the earlier pop music that was around at that time. AM radio was a lot more popular back then than it is now, so my parents would have it on sometimes, if my mother was cooking dinner or something. They played a lot of pop music on thereSly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Mamas and Papas- -the Hippie generation kind of stuff.
With church music, we would listen to all the different great organists. My father had a lot of great recordings of organ music. Wherever he would work, whatever church he was affiliated with, we'd go and he would put on the Messiah. We were familiar with the Messiah and the different pieces that would usually come around the holidays. It was quite a diverse mix of material, which was good for my development because I wasn't really stuck in any one place; I could utilize information from everywhere.
Tennis Versus Jazz
AAJ: In your adolescence, you were actually a good tennis player too, winning some tournaments. You have said that at one point you felt you had to choose between a career in music and sports. What brought things to a head and how did you come by your final decision?
CA: I had the good fortune to be up on Martha's Vineyard; I spent my summers on that island as a young kid. They had a tennis community up there. Tennis was not very popular in urban New York City (where I was living) and it was an expensive sport as well.
I didn't really know anything about tennis until I went to Martha's Vineyard. I would go and sit by the tennis courts and watch these players play, and after a while a couple of them invited me out on the court.
There was a doctor and his wife took me under their wing; they realized I had an ability to play tennis at a fairly young age (10 or 11 years old). They provided me with some equipment and started teaching me/training me how to play. I got good enough, to the point where I started winning the local tournaments up there. Then they sponsored me to go around and play on some of the junior amateur circuits on the east/northeast. So I played in some of the tournaments, including the Nationals up in Boston one year.
Then I started meeting players from other parts of the country who could play year round and it made me realize that since I couldn't play in New York City year round (it was too expensive for me to able to play indoors at that time), that I couldn't start practicing until early spring and play until mid to late fall. These other kids at the tournaments were able to reach another level. It made me realize that if I was going to do this, I would have to committhat I would probably have to go away and live out of state. I didn't really want to do that, plus I had started to take music more seriously at about the same time.
As I got into high school, I started meeting a lot of young musicians who were more serious about music; it inspired me to put tennis aside. I kept playing for the high school team but at that point I was more interested in pursuing a music career.
AAJ: You attended the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art (graduated 1974). Had you at this point started to think at all about the possible trajectory of your career? How did your initial studies affect the way you thought about a life in music?
CA: It was a great school. It was my favorite place of all the schools I went to. I came out of a junior high school that was a good school in the Bronx. It had a good reputation but the kids were always fighting. There weren't that many kids who were interested in music, so I didn't have many kids to hang out with. We'd listen to Motown in junior high.
When I got to Music and Art, the first person that I met was a young Tuba player named Carlton Green. The way I met him was, I was walking down the hallway and I heard this tuba playing incredible stuff and I was thinking, "What is that this guy is playing?" So I went to the practice roomthey used to have little windows so you could look in and see. His back was to me; I saw him playing his tuba. He was reading this music that looked like flies on paper. I knocked on the door and asked him what he was playing. He said they were violin concertos. I said, "You can play violin concertos on the tuba?" Turns out that this kid was a prodigy and was a soloist at the age of 14 with the New York Philharmonic. He was the best student in the school. We became friends.
From that point on, the school had an amazing brass section. There was a bass trombonist in there by the name of Malleon Walker who went on study at Juilliard and graduated from Curtis Institute. He was known around New York (he is no longer with us) as a premier bass trombonist for European classical music. We had another guy playing French horn whose father was a famous studio French horn artisthe taught his son a lot. One of the trumpet players in our brass section is now the principal for the Minnesota Orchestra; his name is Manny Laureano. So these are the kinds of kids that were in there at the time. I got to hang out with all these kids. Everyone was into playing music and learning and into practicingtrying to be creative and trying to be unique and different. The teachers gave the students all the freedom. They basically told us we didn't have to come to class unless we really wanted to be there.
There were a lot of famous people who were in the school around the time that I was there: the fine jazz drummer Kenny Washington - Vocals; the lady with the hit single "Turn the Beat Around," Vicki Sue Robinson; Steve Jordan, who has recorded on my new record with me and become a big producer; Noel Pointer, who became a well known jazz violinist; Nat Adderley Junior, the musical director for Luther Vandross. A lot of kids with a lot of talent came through that school.
My mother and my uncle, the concert violinist, attended that school. She attended as an art student. It was her experience with the school that made her want both myself and my sister go there. I don't know how they are doing right now, because there have been a lot of budget cuts for schools specializing in arts, but they have an incredible history at that school, turning out many, many great artists.
AAJ: After studying there, you spent one year at The State University of New York at Stony Brook studying under Simon Karasick and Dave Schechter. Were any of your studies by that point focused on jazz specifically?
CA: No. It was very interesting. I had an interest in jazz when I was at Music and Art, and the educator Justin Dicciocio was a young teacher at the school. He was the director of the jazz band at the time. I didn't play in the jazz band but I was with all the musicians there. The jazz band really started forming when I was leaving. Jazz in the schools at that time wasn't a big deal so it wasn't the same kind of situation as it is now. It was something that Justin had just started and put together during my senior year, but I was still interested in the music.
When I went to Stony Brook, I went there to study with Simon Karasick because he had taught at Mannes School of Music and he had a very big reputation for being a great trombone teacher. I decided to not audition or take exams for any other schools. My sister was out at Stony Brook and I thought it would be easier on my parents if I just attended Stony Brook also.
It turned out that he and I didn't get along too well, but it was a good experience because I started playing some music and practicing in the clefstenor clef and alto clefreading music that I hadn't really been that familiar with before. He turned me over to one of his graduate students and that was Dave Schecter. Dave heard me play and suggested that I audition for conservatory instead of staying at Stony Brook. I followed his advice and we put together a program for my audition. We started to look at who was teaching at Juilliard or the Manhattan School of Music, et cetera.
After studying with Simon Karasick, I was very apprehensive about switching. I wasn't too keen about some of the teachers I might find. So I decided to just focus on Manhattan School of music because they had a big band being fronted by Rusty Dietrich. It wasn't like a real part of their curriculum at the time, but Juilliard didn't have one. I also realized that most of the teachers that taught at Manhattan also taught at Juilliard. There was a bass trombone teacher at Manhattan School of Music that did not teach at Juilliard, by the name of John Clark.
People were telling me about John Clark and saying that he was a great teacher, especially if you were interested in soundwhich I was; I was very interested in developing my sound. They said that he would be very good to study with. Both of the teachers came highly recommendedthe other one was Ed Herman who was the principal for the New York Philharmonic. So I had formal classical training; my training in academia was no jazz. Now the schools have degree programs in jazz, but that wasn't available. Jazz at that time was not looked upon as a viable part of the curriculum, particularly in the conservatories. We relied on getting together in the practice rooms and playing/going out and listening to the music.
Of course, it was a lot more accessible at that time to do it that way. There were a lot more great jazz artists who were still alive from the '60s and the '50s as well. They were real giants of the music. They were all around New York; you just had to go to where they were and you can be around them and listen to them. The club scene was very different; you could walk into any of the clubs, if you were a musician. For instance, The VanguardMax Gordon used to have the back door open and all the musicians knew where that entrance was and we would just walk in the back, no matter who was playing or what night it was. Once you came in the back door and came downstairs, you might be standing next to Freddie Hubbard or Jaki Byardthere were so many great musicians who were just hanging out in the scene. You could just sit there with people and mingle, listen to the music and the conversations. It was very different than it is now.