Hadley Caliman

Thomas Conrad By

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If you have followed jazz long enough, you probably know the name Hadley Caliman. He was around in the '60s and '70s, on albums by people like Gerald Wilson, Don Ellis, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson. He made four records of his own for Mainstream and Catalyst, collectors' items now. Rock fans of a certain age also might remember Caliman. He played on two Santana albums 38 years ago: Caravanserai and Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles Live!.

Perhaps you have wondered what became of Hadley Caliman. He lives in a charming small cottage on Mercer Island, Washington. From the kitchen there is a view of Lake Washington with the Evergreen Point floating bridge in the distance. Caliman jokes that he is "surrounded by millionaires." On Mercer Island, it is no exaggeration. Caliman and his wife Linda rented the cottage, tucked between large suburban estates, two years ago. Caliman has a small study and practice room with an upright piano and his silver 1932 Selmer "Cigar Cutter" tenor on a saxophone stand.

He is a handsome, compact man of 78 with a disarming smile. He is the kind of man who can make jeans and sandals and a loose, lived-in shirt look fashionable. He is battling liver disease but still plays powerful, personal tenor saxophone, as illustrated on two recently released CDs, Gratitude and this year's Straight Ahead, both on Origin.

He was part of the Central Avenue scene in Los Angeles in the '50s and was regarded as a peer by other tenors of that milieu like Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards and Harold Land. It is surprising to learn that Gratitude was Caliman's first recording under his own name in 31 years, but he has not had a normal career path. Heroin addiction and incarceration derailed him early. "Heroin was a big, big part of the Central Avenue scene and I was deeply involved in it. I played and shot drugs with some who survived and some who didn't. Dexter Gordon survived because he got out, but Dupree Bolton died a street person. The fact that I'm still here is miraculous. Logically, I should not have this chance."

But addiction and prison are common subplots in jazz biographies of Caliman's generation and his intravenous drug use is long behind him. What really took him off the jazz radar was his decision, in 1980, to relocate to Cathlamet, a small Washington town on the Columbia River. His wife at the time was pregnant and her parents lived in Cathlamet. They had intended to stay until the baby was born. But Caliman liked the river and the quiet: "Laid back folks. People would wave at you and stuff. I was the only black person in town but I never had one racial problem there." He stayed 18 years.

When his second child was born he needed a steady job. He found one on the jazz faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He taught there for 22 years, most of that time commuting from Cathlamet. He liked teaching. He says, "My method was different. I don't have any papers. I tried to make it simple, to find ways to let students into the stuff that I know." But he also says, "I continued to play but I wasn't practicing like I should, to progress."

Over the years he became a revered figure in the Seattle jazz community. He brought both history and contemporaneous creativity to numerous projects and ensembles, including the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, and played all the major and minor jazz venues and every jazz festival in the Northwest. And when he retired from Cornish in 2003, he believes he made a breakthrough with his music: "For several years now, I've been able to get up in the morning and practice and work on my sound. I think I've started to figure some things out."

Caliman says that his two recent records got made only because trumpeter Thomas Marriott organized and produced both projects. On Gratitude, the personnel includes two out-of-towners, vibraphonist Joe Locke and drummer Joe LaBarbera, plus Marriott, the great Seattle bassist Phil Sparks and Caliman. You hear Central Avenue in Caliman's tenor, in its cleanliness and fluidity. But his style encompasses disparate elements. He says, "I don't consider myself a West Coast tenor player." But only West Coast tenor players sound pleading and passionate and cool all at once.

The best piece on Gratitude is "Linda," for his wife. Caliman's few simple reiterated cries come out of a starry night of vibraphone notes and create a fervent testament. The new Straight Ahead, with Marriott and a Seattle rhythm section, contains a "Lush Life" for the ages in less than four minutes. Caliman stays close to the melody and yet, through choices of phrasing and emphasis, transforms it into something like a summation.

Selected Discography

Julian Priester, Love, Love (ECM, 1974)

Eddie Henderson, Heritage (Blue Note, 1976)

Hadley Caliman, Celebration (P-Vine, 1977)

Prince Lasha, Firebirds, Vol. 1 (Birdseye, 1977)

Hadley Caliman, Gratitude (Origin, 2007)

Hadley Caliman, Straight Ahead (Origin, 2010)


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