Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity

Paul Rauch By

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AAJ: You have twice been a member of Sun Ra's band, the first time as a very young musician. What did you take with you, in terms of your personal approach to improvisation, from that experience moving forward in your career? How would you describe your playing style at that point in time?

JP: Yes, actually during the experience, I was young, I hadn't made up my mind exactly where I was. I loved bebop. I was confined to bebop, and I wasn't really playing spirituals, gospel music, but I had already absorbed that music from being in church. I was so bent on playing jazz, and developing a repertoire, it came about to not be embarrassed sitting in. I don't know if it's the same now, basically when I was coming up, they would put you to the task, just to test you to see if your repertoire was up to date. They would do things like call a standard song, for instance, "Cherokee," everyone played it, in a standard key. In Chicago, they would change the key without telling you, a half step from the standard. You wouldn't find out until you put the horn to your face and play the first note. You would think, " Oh wow, this is not right." And then to make the conversion to the different key, sometimes you did, sometimes you didn't. In order to keep from being embarrassed, I learned the songs in many keys. At the same time, I'm developing my own ability on the instrument. Technically, I had to not only just learn music, I had to learn trombone, which didn't take that long, because I already had the ear. I could hear.

Once I graduated from high school, I was ready for the big time in my mind. Without being afraid, I had a chip on my shoulder, especially towards saxophone players. Saxophone players get to the microphone and play a hundred choruses, and I'm standing there waiting. So I developed a technique where I would beat them to the microphone (laughter). I kind of carried that attitude with me for my whole career, just the aggressiveness. It really worked in my favor.

AAJ: You played with Sun Ra again in the 80's. How different was his music between your first stint with him in the 50's and the second in the 80's, and how different was your music?

JP: One thing I have to give Sun Ra credit for is to put me in a position where he wouldn't give me much information about the technical aspects about the music he wanted us to play, he would just give it to us and say, "Ok, play." There was no written music there.

AAJ: There were no charts?

JP: No charts, but he would have maybe an idea or two. A phrase, and he would build it off that phrase. Then the rest of the band, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Robert Barry put me in a position where I had to use my ear, and I developed that ability which served me throughout my career.

When you get into a band and improvise, in the beginning, you plan the little stuff that you practice, things we learn in the practice room, and we get onstage and play those licks for one or two choruses, and after that you're out of ideas, you've exhausted your ideas, so your ear comes into play. You listen to what the general sound is and you identify it as far as the harmonics are concerned, and you react on the spot to the sounds that you are hearing. That's what I got from Sun Ra. That's what served me. It didn't dawn on me when it was happening, but later on I realized that Sun Ra really left me with a wonderful gift. I already had an ear, but in terms of the proper use of that ear in a performance is different from going to the piano and picking out one phrase that you've heard. You have to create a song.

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.
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