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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.

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