Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity

Paul Rauch By

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AAJ: In some regards that is lacking with many young musicians today. You can come into a session with charts on an iPad in a certain key, and change the key utilizing technology rather than by ear. They don't have to transpose in their head, or listen as much. There are concerns about that educational approach.

JP: It is a handicap if you can't really instantly identify the sound that you are hearing. It's not about learning the chords, because when you're on stage, you don't have the time to think about what chord this is. It's the sound you can identify. You're connected to that sound, you play with that sound. Once that skill is developed, you don't really need to know what the chords are.

AAJ: You arrived in New York in the late fifties, a very exciting and transitional time for jazz music. New language was being created in terms of melodic improvisation, as bebop gave way to more open harmonic structure, and melodic possibilities. Talk about this time in the late fifties, what it was like to be a part of that movement.

JP: When I arrived in New York, I went to the Five Spot where Thelonious Monk was performing, and in his band Johnny Griffin was playing saxophone. Johnny is from Chicago. Johnny introduced me to Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records where he was recording for the label at that time. Things just mushroomed from there.

I was very fortunate. I credit all of my successes to an attitude that was kind of forced on me when I was in high school. My high school band director Captain Walter Henry Dyett, ex army captain who took no mess from nobody! The principal of the school, the mayor of the city all respected Walter Henry Dyett. He was instrumental for not only Johnny Griffin, but Gene Ammons, Clifford Jordan, and many, many others. That really prepared me for life because he told us that the power of positive thinking can get you through life.

He made an illustration that you can go to this window in the band room on the third floor of the school building, and you can actually walk across the street, to the house across the street, without going down to the ground. From the window to the roof. And of course, everyone looked at him and said that this man was crazy (laughter)!

AAJ: But they didn't mess with him!

JP: But it worked. Not that I tried to walk across the street from that window! Little things would happen, like I would be desperate for money, and the phone would ring with a gig. If I didn't have any money, I would make a determination that I was going to go out and find some money, and I would go out and find some money. One time in particular, I was dead broke looking for money, I was going through Washington Park in Chicago, a huge field big enough to have two baseball games going on simultaneously. As I was walking across this field, I saw something glimmer on the ground, it was money, coins. As I reached down to pick up that coin, there were others. I must have picked up a couple of dollars in change from the ground. It must have fallen out of someone's pocket. But that confirmed the belief that the power of positive thinking results in positive thoughts and positive action. So I kind of carry that around with me to this day.

AAJ: There was a protest element to the music in that time, in terms of civil rights, and social justice that would manifest itself later in the sixties in rock music as well. For example, Abbey Lincoln's contribution to the Max Roach album Percussion Bitter Sweet (Impulse, 1961), "Mendacity." Talk about the impact of social change on the music then.

JP: Oh yes, Max in particular was very busy stirring people up with music, and also personally. He was an avid agent in the civil rights movement. We marched in parades when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, Abbey, Max, and myself. I was just following them at that time, it was a learning experience for me. I wasn't politically involved, all I wanted to do was play some music. So that was an education for me, it opened up a lot of new ideas, points of view. I wasn't active socially, still I have social issues, I don't converse openly. If somebody talks to me, I'll reply. Even today, my wife reminds me that I need to be a little more social, more active, getting out and meeting people, and talking to people. I'll talk, like right now, but I wouldn't initiate a conversation with a stranger, or with somebody who is not in music, if we don't have anything in common that would bring us together naturally. So when I go to social events to hang out with people I know, perhaps a jazz fan who recognizes me will come up and say hello. I might have a few words to say to that person. But generally, I'm pretty quiet.

AAJ: There was a new form of jazz evolving then, music exemplified by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, among others. This music truly liberated the rhythm section, the drummer and bassist, an invitation to join in the internal conversation. It changed the approach to modern melodic improvisation. Talk about time in the new music, what would be anticipated from each musician.

JP: At some point in my development I came to the conclusion that the drummer has to play music, so don't be so concerned with keeping time. I can keep time myself. You can play in time, but I don't want you to keep time. Play music. Make it music, play melodies on the drums. Max Roach could do that.

AAJ: Be part of the conversation.

JP: Yes, be part of it. All the great drummers were not so much concerned with keeping time. They were very creative, they were very involved in setting the mood. If they became angry, they would adapt to that, play something to support that mood. If he became more peaceful, quiet, they would respond like that. One of the things I appreciate about that conversion was, well, when you're playing with somebody like Elvin Jones, if you're going to rely on Elvin to give you the downbeat, forget it.

AAJ: How did you meet people in those days? There is a concern now of how young musicians get together to play, which is largely with their peers, as opposed to playing with, and learning from older and more experienced musicians. When you were younger, you had the opportunity to play with Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Jones, Elvin Jones, and players of that caliber and experience.

JP: Those people that you just mentioned were from my very first recordings with Riverside Records. It was actually Orrin Keepnews that put that group together for Keep Swingin' (Riverside, 1960). All those people were already recording for the label. So here's this newcomer coming in, it was a great idea, I was blown away, being in the company of those giants. The effect on me, the effect on my image, is indescribable. It elevated me to a stature I would never be able to gain on my own.

AAJ: Was that the connection that enabled you to play on the Coltrane Africa/Brass session?

JP: No, I had spent, after the Max Roach experience, a time freelancing in New York, on call. I would receive opportunities to perform with artists that I had no prior connection with. Since I was on the list of available trombone players, I got involved with John Coltrane. He certainly didn't invite me to play on that album. I had done some things with Blue Note before, so it was just a chain reaction, basically. There's a perception that I was in Coltrane's band, but that's not accurate. I was just one of the sidemen on that album.

AAJ: You are credited with playing euphonium on it.

JP: That's what it says, but no, I played trombone. I still have the baritone horn, but I haven't played it in years. That's an error, I read that.

AAJ: I went to see trombonist David Marriott, Jr. play last night at Tula's with his Triskaidekaband, and asked him why he doesn't solo more, which he does brilliantly. His response was basically that people generally don't want to hear trombone solos, they want to hear trumpet and saxophone. It's true that the trombone has largely been relegated to a support role behind trumpet and saxophone. Obviously you take exception to that to some degree. How have you dealt with that phenomenon, or bias throughout your career?

JP: Traditionally, trombone has been the support instrument. Technically, it doesn't have the facility that the trumpet or saxophone has, but that's no excuse.

AAJ: No, it really comes down to who's playing it.

JP: Right, so I developed an attitude, it's one of the reasons I would be the first one to the microphone. I thought, I'm going to dispel that tradition. Even composers when they write for the trombone based on a hold back, they put it in a category based on its limitations, and it does have limitations. Because of that, trombonists don't get the opportunities that trumpet players and saxophone players get, as far as the organization of the music is concerned. So I set out to break that habit, that concept. Instead of following in the footsteps of J.J. Johnson, I followed in the footsteps of Sonny Rollins.

AAJ: The trombone does seem to get more respect in Latin music. Trombonist Doug Beavers released an album recently titled Titanes del Trombón (Artistshare, 2015). Do you know him?

JP: I don't know him personally, but I know of him. I played with Eddie Palmieri. I was in his band, so I've had a latin experience.

AAJ: In 1969 you did a six month stint in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. After all you had experienced, from Sun Ra, to Max Roach, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, and your recordings as a leader, what was it like to step back into perhaps the greatest large ensemble in the history of jazz?

JP: This may sound a little strange, because I was awed to be in the presence of those giants. I hated it. I hated it because I had to pretend to be older. Conceptually, the music was older, the style was older, I had Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams playing behind me. I love Paul Gonsalves, I love him. So here I am, everyone dressed up in jackets, trousers, shoes shined, tie, everybody. Everybody had a little stash, a bottle of whatever their favorite drink was. They'd get to the hotel, go to their room, sit down. turn on the TV and drink. Every time you would see them, they would have their tie on, gentlemanly. So I'm in this environment, I even got my own stash, I kept my own bottle. I think my favorite drink then was cognac. I put on about twenty five pounds. But I hated it, I was really torn to be where I was, but at the same time, not really having the opportunity to express myself. I remember a rehearsal where I had a trombone solo, and there was a break, maybe a two or four bar break before the solo. And so I took the break, I played in the break, and I reverted back to Julian. For the first time it was, "Say hello to Julian." After those four bars that I played, silence. Everyone stopped.
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