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James Spaulding: An Emotion Of Notes

Maxwell Chandler By

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James Spaulding's pedigree is an impressive one. He has been called upon to add his touch on both alto saxophone and flute for countless classic 1960s Blue Note albums. Now, as a leader and owner of the Speetones label he continues to add to his rich legacy.

AAJ contributor Maxwell Chandler spoke with Spaulding about his long and distinguished career, his work on some of the classic Blue Note releases of the 1960s, playing with Max Roach, Sun Ra and Randy Weston, his current activities and what's in store for the future.

All About Jazz: Your father was a professional touring musician. Did he encourage you to take up music?

James Spaulding: I was strongly influenced by my father but it was because of the recordings he brought home for me to listen to: Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie, and I wanted to play like Bird. Unfortunately, my dad's music career was interrupted by his responsibilities of supporting a family. I was the third sibling of seven children. I remember his selling insurance to pay the bills, but he also often played his guitar, while I listened. By the time I was born in 1937, my dad no longer traveled with his band. You could probably say that I was given a bugle to play by my dad at five years of age and from that first encounter, I knew that I would play a musical instrument. It was like a fish takes to water.

AAJ: In Indianapolis your father's band (The Original Brown Buddies) was the first integrated band. This was in the 1920s, a brave thing to do and I imagine not an easy road to travel. Did he ever discuss this with you? Had his actions affected your world view?

JS: I really have no vivid remembrances of my dad's band leading days. I'm sure it must have been rough because even to this day, it's not easy to be a fulltime musician and support a family. Just think about it, here my dad was, now a family man, with three children, living under segregation and the after effects of a recession. My father thought that I should try to seek a good education. To him, education was uppermost in importance. Another hindrance in being a musician was that my community thought jazz was the Devil's music.

AAJ: In grade school you played bugle. Did you formally study the instrument? How long did you play bugle?

JS: Most of my training is self-taught. I continued to play the bugle, added the trumpet, tonette, and alto saxophone (I was shown the saxophone fingering by a classmate, Albert Walton, recently deceased, 2007). What I did acquire in school was more skills in reading music, and in sight reading. If it were not for the band room at school, and being allowed to practice there and to borrow the instruments, my life would probably have taken a rather unfortunate turn. I was not very interested in sitting in the classrooms or studying academic subjects.

AAJ: Eventually you switched to clarinet. It seems that in jazz a lot of the great multi-instrumentalists learn clarinet early on. Is there something about that instrument that would allow one to more easily learn others?

JS: My playing the clarinet was due strictly to the music instructor's need for more clarinet players for the Crispus Attucks Marching Band. As a sophomore, I played the clarinet, led the marching band and played in the senior band, and the woodwind quintet and jazz combo. I also taught myself to play the flute. Fortunately, during that time students were able to check out instruments and take them home to practice.

First Gigs/Flute and Alto Sax

AAJ: Your earliest gigs were in Indianapolis, with a rhythm and blues group. To a lot of jazz aficionados that genre would seem almost too populist. Had you ambitions to be playing this type of music or was it merely a first job to pay your dues?

JS: I began performing professionally at a very early age; I must have been around ten years old when my father escorted me around town to play with professional musicians, who played Swing, the style of the time, for dances. I also played with the Shriners' Organization, Marching Band.

The evolution of this music (commonly called jazz), comes out of the life experience of the Africans' introduction and indoctrination into the sociopolitical structure of American culture, and its traumatic effects upon our psychic being. There are quite a few texts that explain the progression of the music—Eileen Southern [The Music of Black Americans: A History (W.W. Norton, 1997)] and Amiri Baraka [Blues People (Harper Perennial, 1999)], both are black scholars, Prof. Southern, a trained musicologist; and author. Amiri Baraka was concerned with the music's political connotation. I have no such elitist concepts about the music; it's an integral part in my development. I would not be the musician I am today, without having the actual experiencing of these invaluable music styles that are at the roots of the African American black life and culture

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