Jon Faddis: Man of Many Bands

AAJ Staff By

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"He's the best ever, including me!
Dizzy Gillespie, talking about Jon Faddis.

High praise indeed for Jon Faddis from one of the legendary trumpet players in jazz history. But Faddis has earned his place among the greats of jazz with a combination of amazing trumpet technique, rare skill as a leader of big bands and small groups, and remarkable talent as a composer, arranger and educator.

Born in Oakland, California in 1953, Faddis was playing professionally in New York by the time he was 17 — a gifted prodigy taken under the wing of the great Gillespie but who also worked with greats such as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Duke Ellington and many others. In addition to leading the Dizzy Gillespie 70th Birthday Big Band, the United Nation Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Faddis conducted the acclaimed Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra from its beginnings in 1991 through 2002, when the Orchestra disbanded.

He now leads the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra as well as touring with his own quartet and appearing as a guest artist with symphonies and orchestras around the world. Faddis also recently took the helm as the artistic director of the Chicago jazz Ensemble. Faddis continues to teach at Purchase College as Artist-In-Residence and Professor, and in 2003 received the first honorary doctorate ever awarded by the Manhattan School of Music.

All About Jazz: There's a story that when you were about eight years old back in Oakland, California, you happened to see Louis Armstrong on TV on the "Ed Sullivan Show, and that inspired you to play trumpet. Is that how it really happened?

John Faddis: It's pretty funny the way that worked out. I had an older sister who played piano and I was noodling at the piano we had in the house, but I wasn't really playing music. And I remember that sometime after I had seen Louis Armstrong on TV, I was asked by my parents which instrument I would like to play if I could choose one. In one of those split second epiphanies, I thought: my sister plays the piano, the guy down the street plays sax and his brother plays trombone, someone else plays drums... Louis Armstrong... he was great! Trumpet! I blurted out trumpet, and the next thing I knew my parents had bought a trumpet and were signing me up for lessons on Saturday morning. Which at that age was cartoons and pancakes and play time. So it was not what I wanted to do at the beginning.

AAJ: Obviously it did turn into something you wanted to do. What were the big influences that turned you on to jazz — and wanting to be a jazz trumpeter?

JF: My second trumpet teacher, Bill Catalano, was a former trumpet player with Stan Kenton and still played a lot of clubs in the Bay area. He was a very big influence on me. I started with him when I was 10 and stayed with him until I was 16. My first teacher was a straight classical player, while Bill had a jazz background. And I liked that a lot. Bill was the one who introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie's music, and that was it for me. I started getting into Dizzy, and when I was 15 got the chance to play with him. That did it. I wanted to be a jazz musician.

AAJ: How did that meeting with Dizzy come about?

JF: I met Dizzy at the Monterey Jazz Festival when I was 15. I took all of my records down there hoping to meet him and have a chance to get his autograph, and that's exactly what happened. I was in heaven! He signed all of my records — which at that time was about 50. Not too long after that he was playing at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and my mother took me over. I met him again and he invited me to play with him. Thatwas a very special night — one I'll never forget.

AAJ: Not long after that when you graduated from high school, you joined Lionel Hampton's band at the age of 17 and headed for New York City. Had you been keeping in touch with Diz since those first meetings?

JF: I tried. I got his address from Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz, and sent him cards and stuff. But they were returned because he had moved. Then, about six months after I came to New York, I saw Diz was playing at the Village Vanguard. I decided Iwasn't going to miss him, so I quit the Hampton band and went down to see Diz play all night. He remembered me and let me sit in again.

AAJ: You went on to play with Dizzy quite often over the years, and he was obviously a tremendous influence on you. But were there other trumpeters that influenced you in your early days as a professional musician?

JF: At one point, Bill Chase, the former trumpet player with Woody Herman, was a big influence. Snooky Young was another influence, I would say. I also had the opportunity to meet Clark Terry, who was very, very helpful to me in the early days of my career. He still is, and we've become very good friends. Lew Soloff , the same way. But I actually used to listen to records by every trumpet player that came out back then. I listened to everybody —and I still do.

AAJ: Speaking of young trumpet players, there have been quite a few of them coming up over the past few years. Any in particular who have caught your attention?

JF: There are some really, really good ones coming up. Some I've had the opportunity to play with — some I haven't. There's a young guy out of Cleveland who went to school at Rutgers and he's come out with his own CD (Eternal Journey, Mack Avenue Records). His name is Sean Jones and I'm really excited about some of the things he's doing. Ryan Kizor with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—although he's not so young anymore. And Iheard a kid down in New Orleans named Trombone Shorty ireally liked. So there's no shortage of talent out there.

AAJ: One of the hardest things for any jazz musician is finding their own style and individual approach to the music. With Dizzy being such a strong early influence on you, your sound on the horn was closely identified with his approach. That must have made it especially difficult for you since it seems some critics have typecast you as a Dizzy clone and don't seem to recognize you have developed your own style as you've matured.

JF: Of course. And I do think it was along process for me to develop my sound... a longer process than normal because my relationship with Dizzy was a pretty rare one. Dizzy was always very supportive and generous of his time with me. As a result, some people got the idea in their head that I sound like Dizzy, then they dismiss me. They won't go any further than that. But I think I have gone further and developed my own sound — my own style. It used to bother me, but I had a talk with Wallace Roney about that. The same thing happened to him with Miles. But if you listen to him closely you'll hear him playing many different harmonic ideas than Miles would play, longer lines, a lot of things. I'm pretty proud of what I've accomplished in music and jazz and I do think I have my own stuff happening.

AAJ: You've played with everyone from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band and Charles Mingus to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But for the past 15 years or so, you've been identified with big bands and jazz orchestras—especially the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. How did you end up as the director of CHJO?

JF: It was through George Wein. Carnegie Hall asked him to create a jazz series. Rather than just doing a different concert each time, he wanted to start a band. A couple of years earlier, he had seen the Dizzy Gillespie 70th Birthday Big Band I had directed, and he asked me to put together a band to celebrate the Carnegie Hall Centennial. He told me afterward that was the best big band put together for a special occasion he had ever heard. So he asked me if I would like to put together a big band on a continuing basis for Carnegie Hall concerts, and I said, yeah!

AAJ: Was it difficult to get the Carnegie Hall band up and running? And did the competition from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and other big bands concern you?

JF: In the beginning, it was a little difficult figuring out the direction we wanted to go because of course, there was Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra as well. But we knew we didn't want to just do repertory — recreating things from the '30s and '40s. We did do some of that, but we also wanted to get some of the finest contemporary arrangers and writers and get them to work with our band. We were able to do that with about 35-40 different arrangers and composers, from Melba Liston, Maria Schneider and the late Monty Albam to Frank Foster and Slide Hampton. And it wasn't difficult to get started once we figured out what we wanted to do. Then we were home free.

AAJ: Unfortunately, the CHJO came to an end in 2002. But I understand you now have your own big band — the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra.

JF: That's right. The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra played its last concert in October, 2002. Thankfully, there were people who wanted to continue the legacy and mission of the band, but it took a couple of years to get everything confirmed and put together. We were dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, and also at that time Lincoln Center was working hard to build their new hall — and we didn't want to get in the way of that. Things finally came together earlier this year and the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra is now in existence — continuing to have original music written for performance. And we have many of the same musicians from the Carnegie Hall band still with us. We just played up at the Newport Jazz Festival, and we'll be playing a concert soon in Red Bank, New Jersey to celebrate Count Basie's centennial in his hometown.

AAJ: You performed on a Fall 2004 with your quartet. Tell us a little about that group.

JF: It's basically the group I've been working with for the past several years. Dion Parson on drums has been with me in my small group for at least 10 years. David Hazeltine on piano has been with me about five years, and my bassist, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, has been playing with me for three years. I'm really excited about getting out and starting to develop the small group aspect of my playing. It seems like everyone is familiar with me in big band settings, so this is something I'm looking forward to developing. It's going to be a slow and steady progression, and it's difficult to do without a recording. But that's something we're also working on. That's definitely on the agenda.

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