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Julian Pressley: From The Duke To Ornette In His Own Way


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Julian Pressley isn't exactly a household name, but it's a name every jazz aficionado should know. When he plays his alto saxophone, ears perk up because he's playing what they came to hear: music that embodies the legacy. Passionate, quick-witted, and full of new ideas, Pressley stands out in the crowd, a genuine original. Yet you can hear Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean, James Moody, Cannonball Adderley, and even Ornette Coleman coming out of his horn.

Pressley was born listening to jazz. His father's jazz collection, especially Duke Ellington recordings, enlivened the household. In the course of five decades playing with groups as diverse as the Stylistics, the Edgar Bateman Ensemble, Joe Sudler's Swing Machine, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, J.C. Hopkins' Biggish Band, and hundreds of other gigs, Pressley has always sought to bring his own intuitive approach into the mix of the many and varied fabulous musicians in such groups. He is at home as much with the avant-garde as he is with swing, bebop, and R&B. His one album as a leader: Steppin' Out (Self-produced, 2002) is a post-bop classic. As revered critic Nate Chinen says in the liner notes, "[Pressley's] blend of emotional fervor, melodic candor, and wry humor is highly personal..." Featuring Bill O'Connell on piano, Charles Fambrough on bass, and Dave Brown on drums, the album is "unremittingly swinging."

In this interview, Pressley looks back over the course of his long career and reflects on his life in music and how he learned from everyone with whom he worked, but always in his own way.

All About Jazz: The desert island question. What are your favorite recordings these days?

Julian Pressley: I have to tell you, I'm not a "favorites" kind of guy. Everything about me musically changes from day to day. But off the top of my head at the moment, I'd say maybe Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers doing "Pensativa" (Free for All, Blue Note, 1964). Any record of Charlie Parker with strings. There's some James Brown recordings that I love. And Duke Ellngton "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the Newport Jazz Festival (Ellington at Newport, Columbia, 1956). I grew up with Duke. It's like comfort music for me. But, truthfully, if you asked me the desert island question on a different day, I wouldn't give you the same answer. On any particular day, I might have a completely different musical mind set.


AAJ: Just to get an idea of how things fit in time, when were you born? And when did you start playing professionally?

JP: I was born in November, 1949. My first ever memory was me listening to a record my father brought home. It was Bud Powell playing "Glass Enclosure." (The Amazing Bud Powell, V2, Blue Note, 1954). He played it on our brand new Bendix HiFi record player. HiFi was the thing at that time. My father loved music, it was his life. So, I was rollin' in the fifties man, I just didn't have a horn yet! I didn't get the horn until around 1962.

AAJ: Where did you grow up?

JP: I was born in Philadelphia, and my parents were from North Philadelphia, so I consider myself a Philly guy, but I actually grew up in South Jersey. We lived in Hammonton, New Jersey, about a 45 minute drive from Philadelphia. We spent weekends in Germantown and North Philadelphia with my parents' families. I still think of myself as a Philly guy.

AAJ: Tell us more about your earliest exposure to music.

JP: My father was a jazz fanatic. He would come home and put on his records. He was very much into Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. He was into everybody. Around 1960, he came home with John Coltrane's first recording (Coltrane, Prestige, 1957). He said to me, "We have to be into Coltrane because he's the next big thing in jazz." He always had loved Duke and Basie, and then after WWII, he really picked up on Bird and Diz. And he got into Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.

AAJ: Did your father play an instrument?

JP: He was an amateur upright bassist. I remember him going into his bedroom and working with the bow. His teacher was Lenny DeFranco, Buddy DeFranco's brother. But my dad just liked to play for himself; he never went out on gigs.

AAJ: So you heard a lot of jazz from the time you were born.

JP: He had Woody Herman and Stan Kenton and all the big bands. I got to hear Woody Herman with the "Four Brothers" saxophone section: Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff.

AAJ: Did he ever take you to shows?

JP: Often. There used to be a place called St. John Terrell's Music Circus in Lambertville, NJ, across the Delaware River from New Hope, PA. It was a theater-in-the-round. We would go there to hear the big bands, especially Duke Ellington. Sometimes he'd take me and my late brother to concerts in Philadelphia. I remember in 1958 seeing John Coltrane on stage playing next to Lee Morgan at the Academy of Music. I was just a kid, and at the time, I had no idea who they were! The last time he took me to hear Duke Ellington was around 1967, but by that time, I thought I was too hip for Duke. But my father told me that you could never hear too much Duke!

My parents had a summer house in Atlantic City, and the last time I saw Duke's band was at the very end of the Steel Pier at a place called the Marine Ballroom. My brother and I went to hear them every night. This was around 1968, and I think it was just before Johnny Hodges passed away, and we got to hear him play. It was a ballroom for dancing, so we would go up and sit right next to the band. But I was seventeen at the time, so I was getting more into bands like Jimi Hendrix.

AAJ: When did you start playing saxophone?

JP: I started playing sax at age twelve around 1962. The way that happened was that I went to Edgewood Regional High School [now Winslow Township High School -Ed.], which also included junior high. The band director was Paul Tweed who invited kids to pick an instrument. So I went down to the band room intending to learn the trumpet or something, but when he asked me, I just blurted out "saxophone." He got me playing an old C Melody Silver Conn saxophone, but soon I got interested in baritone sax, and I had a great sound. So I played baritone exclusively in high school. But in 1968, I went to Florida A&M University and played in their "One Hundred Band" doing those fast marching steps, and I got to play at the 1969 Superbowl with them! There was so much marching in that band that the baritone saxophone was too heavy to carry, so I had an alto sax that my father had given me, and the band director told me to use it.

But it wasn't until 1973 that I started playing the alto sax professionally with the Edgar Bateman Ensemble. Bateman said the alto "was a little more universal" than the baritione sax, and he also told me that "the baritone saxophone is a starvation box!" [Laughter.] He was right, of course. It's hard to get consistent work with the baritone sax. Bateman convinced me that alto was the way for me to go. After I started playing the alto for a while, I realized it was really the right instrument for me, and that's what I've mostly played ever since.

Jumping Right In to the Philly and New York Scenes

AAJ: In my judgment, you're one of the best alto players in the business. Who are some of the musicians and bands you've worked with since you got into the alto saxophone groove in the 1970s?

JP: As I've said, I started out with Edgar Bateman. He was a very advanced and influential drummer, and I learned a lot from him about all aspects of the music. I hit the ground running at a very high level with him. Among other things, Edgar had a big influence on Elvin Jones' use of polyrhythms. Later, I hooked up with bassist Charles Fambrough, who was working with McCoy Tyner at the time and then joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Bobby Watson and Wynton Marsalis. That was around 1980. I also got connected with Odean Pope and his Saxophone Choir and received a lot of mentoring from Odean. Another mentor was a great lead alto player, Zack Zachary. I got to sit with him for a number of years in a Philly band called the Joe Sudler Swing Machine.

I also worked in Illinois Jacquet's big band in New York City. He was, of course, one of the all-time greats, and he never minced his words. If he thought you sucked, he'd tell you so. If he thought you played well, he'd compliment you. His recording of "Flyin' Home" had a big influence on rhythm and blues. R&B had a huge impact on me.

I did a lot of free lance work back then. I often worked with the trumpet player Cullen Knight. Also, I did a lot of rhythm and blues work for Gamble and Huff and other studios in Philly. Kool and the Gang had a studio at Ridge Avenue and Hunting Park, and I'd go there to participate in recording dates with them.

Unforgettable and Unpredictable

AAJ: So even early on, you had a lot of diverse influences and experiences with bands from hard bop to rhythm and blues. Listening to you on a number of different occasions, I'm really amazed by your resilience and the vast range of what you can do. And I would say that you have a very advanced knowledge of the most difficult harmonic structures, and at the same time you make it all sound beautiful and easy to hear. And your sound is a lot like Charlie Parker's on those "with strings" albums you mentioned. Your sound is very lyrical despite all the twists and turns you take.

JP: Thank you. I appreciate your saying that. I grew up with Charlie Parker. My father had a lot of his recordings. To me, Parker was like a beacon. At that time, he brought jazz farther forward than anyone else. If you go back to 1942, a lot of the tenor players were trying to play like Coleman Hawkins, and the alto players were trying to emulate Johnny Hodges. They were great, but they didn't have new ideas with forward momentum. Bird came along with new ideas. You could feel the momentum in his solos. There's a jam session with Bird playing alongside Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges (Benny Carter / Johnny Hodges / Charlie Parker /Flip Phillips /Ben Webster Super Session, Past Perfect, 2002) , you hear a total change between what Bird was doing as opposed to the rest of these great saxophonists. You could feel the momentum in Bird. It was like getting on a train and going forward.

AAJ: So Parker made a difference for you even as a kid.

JP: Yes, but in fact nobody, even Bird, ever was a role model for me. The difference between me and the kids coming out of college today is that I never let anyone tell me how to play. I don't care what a teacher or anyone else thinks. I want to play whatever it is that I really feel at that very moment. I'm not playing for an audience or to emulate someone. I'm playing according to the way I feel when the music is happening.

AAJ: That certainly comes through to me. Your playing is very spontaneous, alive, and independent, not stereotyped.

JP: You've heard me a lot with Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. When I play with them, I have absolutely no idea what I'm gonna end up playing. Bobby signals to me to solo, and I just hope something comes to me, because I don't have the slightest idea what to do until I do it! Somehow, it usually works well.

AAJ: That band is like that. It's full of wonderful surprises.

JP: Bobby's music is so fresh and spontaneous. You can't plan in advance what you're going to do. Every time you play his arrangements, it could be the same tune, but it'll always be a totally fresh perspective. I really enjoy that kind of situation. It was like that with Edgar Bateman. The way he played drums, I had to find places inside the beat where he wasn't. I had to take whatever he played and take advantage of it. There was no predictable formula I could use.

AAJ: There are two things about your playing that I can't put together in my mind. You play like a free spirit who learned everything from experience, not at all like you went to conservatory, or had a mentor who taught you certain changes. But you play very advanced, highly sophisticated solos. Zankel and many others like him were influenced by the avant-garde, and were mentored by the likes of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. How did you get so you could hear and play all that music they call "the new thing"?

JP: I got it by playing it, not by studying it. When I played with Edgar Bateman, we were playing just as advanced music as Cecil or Ornette. We would go on stage, and the place would be packed! Then, during the first tune, we would be so far out that three quarters of the audience would leave! And we'd all look at each other and nod and say, "Hey, great! We're doin' good!" It's just what we wanted: all the squares had left! Only the hippest people remained! And then sometimes we would be given new music and didn't have the slightest idea what to play! We had this trumpet player, Eddie "Ice Cream" Jones who used to play with B.B. King, and he could play anything we put in front of him. We just had to figure it out right there, just like with Bobby's band, even though it was forty-five years ago.

I used to jam every night with Edgar, just me and him. That's how I guess I learned all that stuff. One night, a very sophisticated looking guy came up to me on the bandstand and said, "Young man, you sound very much like Ornette Coleman." I had to ask him, "Who is Ornette Coleman?" I knew vaguely who he was, that he played alto, but I never had heard him play! Somehow, I came to a similar concept to Ornette, but I never heard Ornette. I did hear a recording by Sonny Rollins with Ornette's band (Our Man in Jazz, RCA Victor, 1962). Later in my career, I sat down and listened to Ornette, and I got to speak with him at length when he would come to hear Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir. He was very complimentary about what I was playing.

I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of things just come up organically in my playing. One of the great aspects of my playing was that I learned quickly to adapt to whatever it was that came up. So I could easily move from, say, rhythm and blues, to the most advanced Cecil Taylor type of music.

AAJ: Most guys who are playing the most advanced music have some serious musical education or theoretical ideas behind them. For example, John Coltrane and James Moody, as well as Zankel, studied musical concepts and improvising with Dennis Sandole, whose thinking was very advanced at that time. They learned chord structures, how to invent chords, and so on from Sandole and others. They learned free jazz from its originators.

JP: I never learned that way. I came off the street. Basically, I play by ear pretty much. What's important is that nobody ever told me "Don't do this or don't do that." Bateman always said, "Don't be afraid to try something. Even if you can't do it, go for it." What comes out may sound ugly, but to me everything out there, including the ugly, is worth experiencing. Your music should reflect everything that goes on with you in your life. There are parts of life that are ugly. So parts of my music have to be ugly.

AAJ: Maybe it's ugly in a beautiful way.

JP: I used to race motorcyles, and if you didn't fall off the bike some times, you weren't going fast enough! It's the same thing with music. Every once in a while you gotta miss. I'm willing to take a risk and make a move that's might take me to my next level of playing.

AAJ: That helps explain your originality. You're always taking chances, playing something new and a little different. But let's change direction a little. We haven't talked much about your recent work, other than with Zankel. In the last ten years or so, which groups have you worked with?

Recent Gigs Compared with the Past

JP: One of the things I've been doing is working in New York quite a bit with J.C. Hopkins' Biggish Band. We recently served for over two years as the house band at Minton's, the Harlem nightclub where Bird, Diz, and those guys hung out. Two saxophones, three trumpets, and a trombone, piano, bass, drums, and two or three singers. We mix it up. We play a lot of Duke Ellington, especially obscure Duke pieces. We do some Charles Mingus-related stuff. It was a great gig, and a lot of the old timers came to hear us. The band made an album (Meet Me at Minton's, CD Baby, 2016), but I had gigs that conflicted with the recording dates.

AAJ: Are you still playing with Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir?

JP: Yes. I'm probably the only original member from when he first started it in 1978. I participated in Odean's recent gig at the Blue Note in New York, where in the past we used to do six-night stands. All-week gigs at clubs don't happen much anymore.

AAJ: I was going to ask you how the music business has changed for you since you started out in the late 1960s.

JP: As far as jazz is concerned, there's very little of the music business left! As someone who started out at the cusp of the 1960s-70s, the music business has declined significantly. There are very few recording sessions compared to then. There were a lot of bands going out on the road. A musician could spend eight or ten months a year travelling around the U.S. and abroad. I did twenty-five years on the road, starting with the Stylistics in the early 1980s. I worked the road with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band throughout the 1990s. I did month-long tours with big bands playing music like Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Basie, and Ellington. Also, I've worked in Japan, Hong Kong, other places in Asia. I did a tour of a show of George Gershwin's music in Europe. In the past, a musician could make his pay days for months at a time.

That isn't happening today. These days, you can't meet your bills by just being a musician. Most of us need a day gig like teaching at a university. Somehow, I made it through to today. Many of the musicians I started out with aren't here anymore. Some of them died from the stress of this business. Frankly, I don't know how my marriage survived my being in the music business all these years. But my wife is pretty cool, and we're doing OK.

In 1973, we jazz musicians had a good life style. We had a certain swagger. We just got on the bandstand and transported people out of their hum-drum lives into a space of creativity and fantasy. So we had a good life, and we were able to carry ourselves with pride. I don't see that today.

AAJ: Don't you think that teaching younger musicians is a good way for a musician to make a living today and pass the message on to others?

JP: I only teach privately. To me, schools and universities are part of the corporate world, and there's too much pressure to conform. There's a film excerpt in which Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin are on a train together, and Monk says to Griffin, "Man those are some mother fuckin' pants you're wearing!" Can you imagine some university professors having such an informal exchange? [Laughter.] I came up when acting crazy was OK, because we jazz musicians were apart from the rest of society.

AAJ: That's a very important observation. The culture of jazz is very different today than a few decades ago. Fortunately, there are guys like you and Bobby and Odean who still carry the message of individuality.

Jazz Has a Greater Purpose

AAJ: So, given all the challenges, difficulties and losses of the jazz life , what is your own way to find spirituality, peace, and purpose in life?

JP: Most importantly, the music itself gives me a sense of peace. I love it when people come up to me after a gig. I love to talk with them. I get a real feeling of fulfillment knowing that I did something to inspire them by playing the music that I play. If I can do something that takes people out of their routine existence and helps them go to a place inside where they are spiritually happy, and they leave feeling content and fulfilled, that's what I'm here for. I love it when people from the audience come up and talk with me or have their picture taken with me. Sometimes when I play with Odean, I'm surrounded by folks. They make me feel like I've done my job well for that night. I'm really glad I make some people happy and fulfilled. Also, I've been living my dream of being a musician for over forty years. How many people get to live their dream? So that's my spirituality.

AAJ: Music is your way of living with love!

JP: There's so much nastiness in the world today. We have to try to live in a way that has nothing to do with this nastiness,

Advise Not to Consent

AAJ: You've already talked about the difficulties of being a musician today. So what advice and guidance would you give to young musicians just starting out in their career?

JP: I'd say to them in no uncertain terms that it's not going to be easy! Fasten your seatbelts and put on your crash helmet! You gotta go out on the street and take your lumps. That's what teaches you how to do this music. Today, New York is the place to go to play gigs and meet great musicians. So go there, and get beat up! Don't play it safe. Go out and learn survival!

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