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

Victor L. Schermer By

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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, Julian "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.


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