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Greg Osby: Saxophone “Griot”

Victor L. Schermer By

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The griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician, a repository of oral tradition who is often seen as a societal leader. Saxophonist Greg Osby recently was excited to meet some griots on his travels. While he is originally from St. Louis, he himself is a griot in many senses of the word. As Peter Margasak said in Jazz Times as early as 2000, "Greg Osby has quietly become one of the most potent, complete and important saxophonists in jazz." That reputation continues to this day, and he has become a force in all aspects of the jazz scene, exploring possibilities and genres, mentoring younger musicians, and jump starting a successful record company, Inner Circle Music.

Beginning with the formation of the M-Base Collective with Steve Coleman in the 1980s, Osby has been helping musicians come together to develop new approaches and to advance their cause. He is a perennial seeker of knowledge, not only about music, but about diverse subjects from restoring collectors' items to spiritual teachings. He uses his knowledge to push the envelope of jazz. In those respects, he is a griot par excellence, and in this interview he candidly discusses his musical development with astute observations and strong views on what he and the music are all about.

All About Jazz: A couple of warm-up questions. First, the desert island question: please give us a few recordings that you would take to that desert island.

Greg Osby: Off the top of my head, maybe Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959). Duke Ellington, Indigos (Columbia, 1958). Thelonious Monk, Underground (Columbia, 1968). Shirley Horn, Here's to Life (Verve, 1992. Betty Carter, The Audience (Verve, 1980). I could go on forever, actually...

AAJ: Any classical music that you especially like?

GO: I do love Erik Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Ibert. Also Alexander Scriabin. I enjoy the progressions and motives that are utilized in French-infused classical music.

AAJ: If you were in a big city, and there was a lot of jazz going on, who are some of the musicians and groups you'd grab a chance to hear?

GO: To be honest, I would be more inclined towards towards catching the younger players. They best represent the idea of music being put together from the large numbers of historical building blocks that we have available to us now. Some of my current favorites are Logan Richardson, Godwin Lewis, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Ambrose Akinmusire, Adam O'Farrill on trumpet, Walter Smith III, Melissa Aldana, Ben Wendel, Tivon Pennicott, Troy Roberts on tenor sax, Aaron Parks, Christian Li, Victor Gould, Matt Mitchell, Gerald Clayton, John Chin on piano, Matt Brewer, Linda May Han Oh, Ben Williams on bass, Lage Lund, Mike Moreno on guitar, Sara Serpa, Gretchen Parlato on vocals, Eric Harland, Jonathan Blake, Tommy Crane, Marcus Gilmore on drums, younger people like that. Far too many to mention, really. I applaud their fearlessness and their ability to channel their influences into an identifiable platform -music that is representative of our times. There are others who promote and practice traditional values, which is also great, but for my own personal preference, I like to hear music that is a representation and expression of the world as an artist experiences it—while it's happening.

Early Roots

AAJ: Let's go back to your youth. You grew up in St. Louis, a city that plays an important role in the history of jazz. What was your life there like as a kid, and especially the musical influences?

GO: I enjoyed typical inner city radio-oriented listening, with healthy dosages of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner. Lots of soul music, funk and R&B. In the sixth grade, I was able to get my hands on a clarinet when there was an opening in the junior high school band. I chose the clarinet over the trombone, and I took to it quite rapidly. I learned the fingerings, how to develop a tone, how to play little melodies on it in a very short time. And I couldn't get enough of it.

AAJ: Did you have a teacher at that time?

GO: My clarinet teacher was actually a trumpeter by the name of Fred Irby III, who is now (and has been for the past 42 years) the director of the Jazz Ensemble and Coordinator of Instrumental Music at Howard University in Washington, DC. He was working on his music education graduate degree back then and made his rounds on the public school circuit, doing student teaching. He was very inspiring. But outside of that, I've never really had any formal instrumental music lessons in my entire life. I may have had some great advice and personal coaching, but no regular or legitimate lessons as such. It's interesting to hear myself say that because I've never really thought about it very much until now.

AAJ: At what point did you learn to read music?

GO: I learned to read music right way somewhat, but it wasn't methodical, it was largely intuitive. So, of course there were bound to be issues. Back then I had a lot of shortcomings in my musical education that weren't corrected until I got to the university level. I started playing clarinet in 1972, and a year later I got my hands on an alto saxophone. At that time, I soon found myself playing in lightweight blues bands and in soul band horn sections. By 14, I was playing with grown men in their 30s and 40s, so it was a very healthy environment and apprenticeship situation for someone who was as enthusiastic as I was about learning how to play. The older players looked out for me. They advised me on the ins and outs of captivating an audience, being funky and soulful, dealing with properties of music that stimulated movement and dancing. It was great that I could learn on the job and get paid for it, but my formal education was still lacking in terms of musical references, harmony, and theory. I was basically playing by ear.

AAJ: Were you interested in jazz around that time?

GO: Not quite yet. In 1974, I started high school, and was in a soul R&B band in St. Louis, and a year later guitarist Kelvyn Bell, who now lives in New York, joined the band that I was in and he gave me a Charlie Parker live bootleg recording in which Bird was playing bebop at blistering tempos. Parker was masterfully playing songs like "Hot House," "BeBop" and "Barbados," and I was mystified. I was completely stunned by his ability to express himself on that level. I had no idea that people could play that way on the saxophone. So I tried to extract as much as I could from those recordings by just listening and copying, again pretty much on my own. I've been a lone wolf for the greater part of my career.

AAJ: What do you mean when you say you're a lone wolf?

GO: I tend to pursue things on my own. My curiosity motivates me to seek things out, analyze them and I would then come up with my own systems of identification and labeling. I had my own personal lexicon, my own vocabulary, my own notational system. I knew nothing really, but I would get to a piano and write things out in a way that made sense to me. It was very rudimentary.

AAJ: I'd say you were very independent, not so much a loner.

GO: Well, I rejected a lot of things, too. I always wanted to dance to the beat of my own drum. I never liked to go with trends because doing so didn't require any creativity. I thought about many things differently. I embraced a different set of values of my own contrivance. Hard-headed is another word for it! [Laughter.] It's come to serve me well, but it's also boxed me into a corner on many a day because being unconventional has its hazards in a world where conformity is the norm.

Getting back to my early listening, during that time my mother worked at a record distribution company in St. Louis, a really big warehouse, and they would get shipments of recordings from all of the major labels, and in turn they would distribute them to the big chain and retail stores around town. So every day, my mother would come home with an armload of discontinued items; cutouts, overstock and unsold returns. So, we had a record collection to die for. We literally lived amongst mountains of vinyl recordings! We'd stack the spindle on the record player with six or more records, and they would include, say, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Wilson Pickett, Jr. Walker, various classical recordings, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, The Jackson Five, the Beatles, and the Osmond Brothers. We, quite literally, played and listened to everything.

AAJ: Did your mother enjoy the music as much as you did?

GO: Absolutely. Her favorites were Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and so on. Mostly Soul and Blues.

AAJ: Was she a single parent?

GO: Yes, and I really appreciated her efforts to keep everything together, domestically speaking, so I did my best to keep out of trouble in the streets. I found activities that would occupy my time, like visual arts and music, which helped to fashion my perspectives on life and how I might fit into the grand scheme of things. The street culture in my neighborhood was both seductive and unsavory, to say the least. I saw things that young people should never see, and I saw them up close, face-to-face, and with a great deal of frequency, to the point where I became desensitized to them. I became indifferent in a way, and it affected how I reacted to and viewed things. Fortunately, I was smart and ambitious enough to recognize the folly of participation in some of the neighborhood's various "activities."

AAJ: So you never got into the drug culture.

GO: No, not at all. I was more of a regular reader at the library, and I often would travel to the other side of town to read and check out books because, it wasn't considered a good look to be seen coming out of the local library! We often did stupid things or pretended like we didn't enjoy school or didn't want to excel in order to not be targeted by the "bad" guys on the block. It was ridiculous, and I'm sure it still happens.

AAJ: What was the interracial climate was like at that time in St. Louis?

GO: At the time, I didn't even know the definition of interracial! There was no mixing and up to that point, all of the people I knew or encountered were black, as was my entire environment. I only saw white people on TV or in the movies. In fact, I didn't actually have a white friend until I was twenty years old, when I transferred from Howard University to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I experienced real culture shock when I had to actually relate to white musicians, teachers and such. Growing up in an all-black community was great in terms of being exposed to culture, identity, soul and blues, but it was debilitating in terms of social interchange.
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