Julian Priester

AAJ Staff BY

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The evidence of that renewed spirit is, 'In Deep End Dance', his first release as a leader in 25 years.
Submitteed on behalf Jonathan Davidson.

When you hear the name Julian Priester, you probably think of all of the amazing recordings in which the jazz trombonist participated. You may also wonder what he’s been up to in the past couple of decades. He last visited our fair city some 5 years ago. Fortunately, he will break that musical fast in a matter of weeks and, to be sure, he has been very busy over the last 25 years.

Julian Priester was born and raised in Chicago. His musical education was steeped in his study of bebop, but was seasoned by his exposure to the blues and the music of Sun Ra. Spontaneous improvisation was the focal point of Sun Ra’s music, and it planted a seed of creative exploration that has stayed with Priester throughout his career. It took some years for Priester to truly understand what he had learned from his Sun Ra experience, but it was valuable indeed in the musical situations in which Priester would soon find himself.

Julian first arrived in New York City circa 1956 as a member of Lionel Hampton’s band. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he was stranded in the city with no way to get home. Hampton’s promoter had booked a double bill with Stan Kenton’s band in Australia, and as a cost-cutting measure decided to take half of Hamp’s band and half of Kenton’s band. Being one of the youngest members with the shortest tenure in the band, Julian was left in NYC to take care of himself. Priester requested a retainer from Hamp’s wife who informed him that Hamp would be back in 3 weeks, and if he was still in the city he would have a gig. Things had begun to look grim for the young trombonist, but saxophonist Eddie Chamblee heard about his predicament and offered to make him a member of Dinah Washington’s newly formed road band. He accepted and worked with Dinah’s band until the end of Chamblee’s tenure, at which point Washington offered the job of leading the group to Priester. He did not accept this offer he says because, “by that time, I was educated about the price I would have to pay”.

He made New York City his permanent residence in 1958. Fellow Chicago native Johnny Griffin helped him get acclimated to life as a musician in New York. The first order of business was to get him a job, so Griffin introduced him to Orrin Keepnews, who gave him a job in the shipping department at Riverside Records. This was some shipping department in hindsight, as Priester was working alongside the likes of Philly Joe Jones, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham, Wilbur Ware and Kenny Drew. Keepnews was keeping his shipping department busy in the recording studio, as well.

This marked the beginning of a stunning recording career as a sideman. Priester was on the classic Philly Joe led session, Blues for Dracula that, as it turns out, opened the door to other possibilities. When tubist Ray Draper left Max Roach’s band, Roach chose Priester to replace him. This led to more recording with Roach’s ensemble, which most notably included, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. This recording was an epiphany for Priester. He’d been playing jazz out of his passion for the music, but now witnessed the power of art to affect society’s conscience.

This period also birthed an amazing recording discography with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Johnny Griffin, Booker Little, Blue Mitchell, Sam Rivers and Freddie Hubbard, among others. In 1969, Priester did a six month stint in Duke Ellington’s band. Priester says, “Duke used the band as his instrument. He manipulated individual’s voices to create the music. (Duke) came out and said, ‘I don’t know what to write for you.’ I guess I didn’t help him out much by constantly searching for new ideas. He couldn’t grab my style.”

Shortly after leaving Ellington’s band, he began his musical relationship with Herbie Hancock. Herbie was just beginning to experiment with what would be the framework for the Head Hunters. Two recordings of note during this period are Herbie’s Sextant, and Eddie Henderson’s Sunburst. After leaving Herbie’s band, Julian moved to San Francisco and recorded two albums as a leader, Love, Love (1974) and Polarization (1977), for ECM.

The ‘80s were a continuation of Priester’s search for a new creativity. He became a member of Dave Holland’s quintet playing a groundbreaking brand of jazz. His fellow musicians on these dates included saxophonist Steve Coleman and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. At the same time, he moved to Seattle and took a teaching post at Cornish College. Of his teaching position, Priester says, “I have the best of both worlds.” He now had the means to settle down and focus on his pursuit of creativity, without sacrificing the performance opportunities available to him worldwide.

In the ‘90s, Julian continued teaching and touring with Dave Holland and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. But by the end of the ‘90s, his health was failing him and in March of 2000, Priester received a liver transplant. The ordeal has left him with a new appreciation for life and music. The evidence of that renewed spirit is, In Deep End Dance , his first release as a leader in 25 years. The music performed reflects the clarity and beauty that are constants in Priester’s performance, but also displays the contemplative interaction necessary to seek what is possible in the music. While his journey continues, it’s good to have documentation of some of his stops along the way. His new release is the latest entry into a journal that is already swollen with history. It’s comforting to know that the history is still be written by Julian Priester.

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