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James Spaulding: '60s Sideman Extraordinaire

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I think this music in particular will help us get through this mess; I believe in the human race -- black, green, white, there's only one race, the human race.
Born July 30th, 1937, alto saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding spent his formative years in Indianapolis, and moved to Chicago in the latter half of the '50s, appearing on early recordings by the Sun Ra Arkestra. Following a brief return to Indianapolis in 1962, he moved to New York and played with Freddie Hubbard, Randy Weston and Max Roach. His unique, unfettered and lyrical approach quickly became in demand, and he recorded as a sideman for Blue Note on dates with Hubbard, Duke Pearson, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and others on the inside-outside end of the spectrum. His first session as a leader came, surprisingly, in 1976 ( The Legacy of Duke Ellington , Storyville); he has since recorded as a leader for the Muse, High Note and his own Speetones label.

All about Jazz: You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis, right? What was the impetus for your moving to Chicago from Indianapolis (a place that I always considered to have such a strong scene)?

James Spaulding: I was in the Army for three years, so when I got out of the Army in '57, I went back to Indianapolis and there wasn't anything to do, and at this time I'd made up my mind that I was going to play music for the rest of my life. So I had a chance to get myself together with my parents, and when I left for Chicago, I lived with a cousin who took me in and got me a job during the day so I could have a little money in my pocket. I enrolled in school, the Cosmopolitan School of Music, on the GI Bill that I had received. I was pretty fortunate for having that happen, so while I was going to school and working the day job that my cousin had got me, I was able to run into Johnny Griffin's mother at my place of work. I said "you're Johnny Griffin's mother! I want to meet him." I wanted to come to Chicago to meet Johnny Griffin; that was really the motivation. I heard a record of his, Chicago Calling, and I thought I had to meet this guy, right? If I had heard Charlie Parker and I was old enough, I would have said the same thing — I don't care where he is, I'll take a bus! So his mother gave me his number and said I could go see him; he was playing at this place called the Flame in Chicago. So I went over and he was playing so much tenor saxophone, I was sitting there with my mouth open!

AAJ: Where exactly was that in Chicago?

JS: It was a nightclub — and this is pretty funny — it was a place called the Flame, and it burned down later on [laughing]! I think the owner had a little insurance scam or something; a lot of the clubs started closing down later on, around '57, '58. I was going to school down there and I by chance I ran into Sun Ra and met him, and I rehearsed and recorded with him. Actually my first recording was with Jerry Butler; I wasn't listed on it — it was on the Chess label, I think — that was really my first date, and I took a flute solo as a matter of fact.

AAJ: So were you playing more flute than alto at that point?

JS: Well, that was what the gig required. The guy told me "we need a flautist — can you read?" I was so happy my father taught me to read; he was my music teacher. Once you learn how to read, you can work all the time. You can work in anybody's band, as long as they've got charts and arrangements. I'm so happy I learned to read at home with my parents.

AAJ: So your dad was a music teacher?

JS: My father was a professional jazz musician; he was playing guitar and he was a bandleader. He had a band that called themselves "The Original Brown Buddies" back in the 1920s. I have some photographs of him in the band he was leading at the time, and it was the first integrated band in Indianapolis. He stopped playing as the children came onto the scene. There was my oldest sister Eleanor, then June, and then there's me, I'm the third oldest. At that time, gigs were very hard to come by, and he struggled through that and had to stop playing eventually. I was in grade school, going into high school, and he was always encouraging me to play. He brought home all these records: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and so I got all this straight from him. My music came from him and my mother, who was taking us to church every Sunday, getting us involved spiritually in the church, and I was happy to have that experience too. Between my father playing jazz music and my mother playing gospel music — what I'm doing now is researching this music, and it makes me realize that this music is so important in our everyday society.

I didn't realize that when I was a kid; nobody told me that. My father would just throw on a record and say "you like this record?" and he'd play along with his guitar, and he'd have me sit and listen to Charlie Parker. I'd say "dad, that's what I want to play, the alto sax." By this time I was old enough to work, so I saved a little money and bought a practice horn for ten bucks. This guy sold it to me and I took it on. I had this friend who played bassoon and piano, and he taught me the fingering for the saxophone. That got me started, and in high school I had a music teacher who was a jazz lover (he played all the instruments) and he taught us how to read — how to interpret syncopation, jazz rhythms, and different concepts — this guy was wonderful. He really wanted young kids to learn how to play jazz and how to read it.

AAJ: And today the public schools — at least the high schools — don't have anything like that.

JS: Oh man, it's really changed. I could go into the band room and check out everything, check out any instrument. I checked out a flute; that's how I got started on the flute, because I could go in there and check it out, take it home and practice. I would take it home and practice at the kitchen table while my mom cooked dinner for us.

AAJ: So you were a doubler early on, then?

JS: I was right in it at the grade school level; when my father put on those Charlie Parker records that impressed me, I believe I was ten. I was very young, but the music dominated our house, with my father being in the scene.

AAJ: You're learning by osmosis, and when you come out of it, you've already got the chops—

JS: Being in the army for three years, that really helped me, and then going to Chicago and meeting Sun Ra, Jerry Butler — After a while I had to stop working [there] and travel on the road with Sun Ra and Sonny Thompson's rhythm and blues band. That was a great experience; we traveled in cars, and a lot of the time when we got there we'd have to stay in one room. One of the gigs we got paid $25 to go out of town, down to Tennessee and New Orleans and back [laughing]!

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