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Greg Osby: Saxophone “Griot”

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: So, at that time, you were in high school, you took up alto sax, and began working some gigs with the more mature musicians. What was your next move after high school?

GO: Fred Irby III, who was my mentor in junior high, later visited my high school with his big band that he then (and now) directed at Howard University in DC. I heard them up close and was transfixed, because I'd never seen a big band before. I was blown away. Before that, I never had thought of pursuing music as a career, but Fred took me aside and proposed that after I graduated from high school, he would arrange a scholarship for me to go to Howard. That really motivated me to take the music more seriously so I could be prepared for music studies in college. It wasn't simply a fun pastime anymore.

AAJ: What happened when you got to Howard University?

Inspirations at the Berklee College of Music

GO: On the very first day of orientation, I met trumpeter Wallace Roney, tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, pianist Geri Allen, and a few other players who also went on to great careers. During the audition process, they put some music charts in front of me, and I froze, because I wasn't a good sight reader at all. But I was a quick study, and soon got into the swing of things. I was learning and progressing very rapidly because I had an overwhelming enthusiasm for acquiring information. However, after a while I got restless and frustrated because I felt that I needed more than I could get at that school. So during my second year at Howard, I visited Berklee College in Boston during spring break. I sat in on some jam sessions with other guys who were all my age, but they were playing things that I wasn't yet familiar with. There were people like alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Walter Beasley, tenor saxophonists Jean Toussaint and Don Aliquo. Branford Marsalis was also there, but he played alto exclusively at the time. Drummer Cindy Blackman, bassist Victor Bailey, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and drummers Jeff "Tain" Watts and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. There were many more and I was very impressed by their abilities and energy.

AAJ: What a lineup! And they were all students at the time?

GO: Yes, they were all students or associates of the college. I thought, this is where I need to be! At Berklee, they were jamming all evening—every day, whereas at Howard, it was really difficult to find a complete group to play with. Also, while checking out Berklee, I sat in on some classes, in particular two performance ensembles taught by tenor saxophonist George Garzone, and one by alto saxophonist Bob Mover. It was a very inspiring trip.

So, after my visit to Berklee, someone from the school contacted me and offered me a scholarship. Since I got a free ride to go there, it was onward to Boston. And it was a big culture shock, because it was a very diverse city and college, and for the first time, I felt like a member of a minority group. There were even international students there. I'd never been around Europeans or even Asian people. That was in 1980 in Boston.

AAJ: What was the musical culture like at that time?

GO: It was quite a vibrant scene. There were a number of clubs, places to perform where you could work things out or regularly hear more experienced musicians play. Bob Mover, James Williams, Jerry Bergonzi, Mike Stern, Bill Pierce, George Garzone, guys like that played a lot in the Boston area. Garzone had a group called the Fringe that played at a place called The Willow in Somerville. There was (and still is) a club called Wally's, where I fronted an organ trio. I could write arrangements or call any song in any key at any tempo, so it was a great place to apply what I'd learned in school in front of a live audience, at my own pace.

AAJ: What sort of music were you playing at that time?

GO: We were playing primarily standards, but we could also closely check out a guy like George Garzone who was very adventuresome and experimental. Branford Marsalis liked a lot of what Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis were doing. I liked Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley a lot. And I really appreciated that there was an incredible degree of exchange and sharing in our peer group. Players weren't smugly putting each other down or coveting information. We were coaching each other, and it was very supportive. Back then, we gave a lot to each other and as a result, one person's discoveries were to the benefit of everyone. I miss that atmosphere.

AAJ: You had a noteworthy teacher at Berklee named Andy McGhee. What was he like, and how did he influence you?

GO: There were a number of very knowledgeable teachers who influenced me, for example, Joe Viola, who was a technician, a "saxophone guru" so to speak. But I preferred to study with Andy McGhee because he was more hands on and more fatherly. He watched over me, and helped me to identify and hone the more unique characteristics of my playing. I guess he recognized my desire and latent, underlying musical personality. He observed me carefully, and we had frequent conversations—on and off the clock. At times, it was like going to a shrink! I would tell him a lot about what I was thinking and feeling. Then, he would sit at the piano and accompany me. He told me to stand in the far corner of the room, because he wanted me to fill the room with my sound and to simulate a broader, tenor saxophone direction on my alto sax, because some alto saxophonists sound screechy, like nails on a chalkboard. He suggested that I incorporate tenor sax logic into my playing. He felt that a lot of alto saxophonists sounded thin and undeveloped, and he wanted me to be more vibrant and more enveloping with my sound.

He emphasized ballad playing for tone development and for grand decision making. He'd often tell me not to play so many notes, to take my time, to tell a story, to think about the lyrics. He had me listen to multiple vocal versions of each song that I played, emphasizing that they were sung before they were played instrumentally. He covered many particulars that you don't usually get introduced to by most teachers. They give you the nuts and bolts and mechanics of musical construction, but they often don't give you the why's, where's and how's, the reasons behind doing certain things. For instance, he would tell me that when I played a gig, I should play to the Exit sign in the back, and then it dawned on me much later that he was telling me to play for the people in the back row -that I should attempt to project and spread my voice to embrace everyone in the entire room.

AAJ: That's a real gem of advice!

GO: Yeah, it was one of those "Old Man on the Mountain" bits of accumulated wisdom.

AAJ: McGhee was a wise man who'd been around.

GO: Oh, yes, he'd been around! He played with Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and many of the other big bands. He emphasized reading charts, doubling, being reliable and punctual and being a complete musician. It's all right to have your own voice, but when you're called for a gig, you want to be able to fill the bill whether or not you think it's hip. It's up to you to make a living as a working musician. Rent and bills don't care about "hip."

Career Trajectory in New York

AAJ: OK. So you're doing all this learning, jamming, and meeting people. At what point did you feel you were actually embarking on your musical career? Was it when you moved to New York.? GO: The entire time that I was in Boston, I would make bi-weekend or monthly treks to New York. I took a cheap shuttle flight from Boston to Newark. I would hang out, sleep on various floors and sofas. When you're young, you're very adaptable and have boundless amounts of energy. I was fascinated by all the possibilities that New York offered. A lot of questions that I couldn't get answers to in school became more clear. In New York, I could supplement the blackboard-based logic of my teachers with applications by the best musicians. I heard George Coleman, Gary Bartz, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman, Junior Cook, Arthur Blythe, so many players. I went to Bradley's regularly [a small club in Greenwich Village that closed in 1996.—Eds.] There, practically every night I was in the midst of giants who would come there after their gigs. I'd be there, and all of a sudden there'd be Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and there's Woody Shaw. Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, John Hicks, Kenny Barron. Betty Carter would hold court at times. I just couldn't believe it!

And most of these top musicians were very accommodating to me. I've always been the assertive type who would ask a lot of questions. I'd see one of these people in the club, offer to buy them a drink, and I'd ask some questions. I wasn't shy at all, especially since I was aware that I was presented with a rare opportunity to get the truth from the source and not a book. They were usually very nice and impressed that someone my age would be there and even be interested in the music at all. I'd ask questions about their playing, practice routines, details about what led them to play in specific ways, the books and tools they used, and so on. And they enjoyed our dialogue. So I would go back to Boston all charged up with stories and anecdotes. It became clear to me that New York would be my destination.

AAJ: What other musicians did you interact with in New York at that time?

GO: Primarily a drummer named Camille Gainer, a New York native and a good friend was my main running buddy, but I also hung out with a lot of people who never went on to become professional musicians or were simply fans of the music and the scene. My friend Jeff Watts had already made the move from Boston to the city by then, as he was a member of Wynton Marsalis' newly formed quintet. So he showed me around. I frequently hung out with people who would be dismissed as derelicts or junkies, homeless musicians who were strung out on drugs, but despite their condition, they told me a lot. They had seen Coltrane live. They got high with some of the legends. Or they knew Monk personally. They had stories that no one else knew about. So that was also an education. Information is where you find it.

AAJ: What neighborhoods did you hang out in?

GO: Harlem, various locations in Brooklyn, but mostly in the Village, which was the epicenter of jazz activity during that time.
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