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Introducing Booker Little

Robert Levin By

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[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970. Little died in 1961, just a few months after this interview was originally published in Metronome]

Booker Little, twenty-three year-old composer, arranger and trumpet player (the order is arbitrary, each role has equal importance to him), has lately come to demonstrate, in recordings and as the musical director of the Max Roach group, a talent that promises size.

As is true of many jazz players of his generation, Little is a product of the conservatory. He's found that experience to be "invaluable," but has discovered that it can tend to bind one to conventional concepts and result in an excessive emphasis on the technical aspects of making music—at the cost of the emotional aspects.

"My background has been conventional," he says, "and maybe because of that I haven't become a leftist, though my ideas and tastes now might run left to a certain degree. I think the emotional aspect of music is the most important. A lot of guys, and I've been guilty of this too, put too much stress on the technical, and that's not hard to do when you've learned how to play in school. I think this goes along with why a lot of trumpet players have come up lately sounding one way—like Clifford Brown. They say everyone's imitating him now and that's true in a way and in a way it isn't.

"Clifford was a flashy trumpet player who articulated very well. He started a kind of trumpet playing that's partly an outgrowth of Fats Navarro—insofar as having a big sound, articulating well all over the instrument and having an even sound from top to bottom. Most of the younger guys, like myself, who started playing in school, they'd have the instructor driving at them, 'Okay, you gotta have a big sound, you gotta have this and that.' Consequently if they came in sounding like Miles Davis, which is beautiful for jazz, they flunked the lessons. They turned toward someone else then, like Clifford. Donald Byrd is a schooled trumpet player and though he's away from that now he'll never really be able to throw it out of his mind."

Little was born into a musical family in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 2, 1938. His father was a trombonist in a Baptist church band and his mother was a church organist; an older sister sang for a time with the London Opera Company. Little began playing trumpet in his high school classical and marching band. "At first I was interested in the clarinet, but the instructor felt trumpet would be best—because he needed trumpet players. Jazz records were very scarce in Memphis at that time, but there were a lot of guys who were interested in it. George Coleman was one. He was probably one of the most progressive people around town at the time, and there was also Louis Smith, who is my cousin. They were listening. I was rather close to George because he was in the same high school. He was sharp enough to take things off records. I was fourteen or fifteen then, and he sort of got me started. I played with some groups around town and then, when I graduated, I went to the Chicago Conservatory. Being in Chicago gave me greater exposure to things, because guys were always coming through."

At the conservatory, Little majored in trumpet and minored in piano. He also studied theory, composition and orchestration. In his third year, when he was nineteen, he met Max Roach through Sonny Rollins, and not long afterwards Roach called him for a record date. About that time he decided to quit school. "I gave it up because I realized there wasn't much I could do as a far as being a classical musician was concerned." The record date eventually resulted in a regular working association with Roach's quintet, an association that continued through 1958 when Little took a leave of absence to freelance in New York. During the latter period he gigged and/or recorded with John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Slide Hampton, Ed Shaughnessy, Teddy Charles, Mal Waldron and Abbey Lincoln, among others. He also recorded an album for United Artists and another for Time. In early 1960 he rejoined Roach.

Of late, however, Little has been considering the possibility of forming his own group. Its repertoire would consist exclusively of his own compositions.

"I think I've found the way I want to play on my instrument and now I want to concentrate on the sound I'd like to build around it." Currently, Little has a working agreement with Candid Records, for whom he's already made an album (with Eric Dolphy) comprised entirely of his own writing. At the time we spoke, he was working on the orchestrations for an album that will feature Coleman Hawkins "in a modern setting."

"I don't think there's very much of my work prior to these Candid albums that expresses how I feel now about what I want to do."

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