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Lenny Pickett: Equal Opportunity Explorer

R.J. DeLuke By

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The hard work and high demand on his time is worth it. "It's always interesting and it's never boring. With SNL it's like watching a parade of contemporary culture come through. When you're in that experience, where it's part of your job, it's hard to lose touch with it. You feel connected to popular culture because it's part of your job. There's a blessing in that."

On the TV show, or whenever Pickett puts the sax to his mouth, his sound is recognizable. That's important in the jazz world. To Pickett, the approach to that development was natural.

"I think everybody, potentially, can be very idiosyncratic. If you dwell on the things you really like, and concentrate on that. And you don't try to sound like somebody else; don't try to fit in in some kind of way; don't try to make other people approve of you or anything like that. Just play what you like to play. You know what that is and you really prepare like that. Then you're automatically going to play like yourself. Because nobody else is going to have the same set of things that they like. You're going to end up being idiosyncratic by definition by the fact that you're a different person, a different entity."

A complaint in jazz circles about today's young players is that they don't have that identifiable sound. Some critics, including musicians, say to many youngsters are content to imitate.

"I think the jazz education that's come about in the last 30 or 40 years has tended to gravitate toward certain curriculum, certain aspects of jazz performance. Which has led people to think there's a correct way to do it," is Pickett's take on it. "But if you look at players from the '60s, like Roland Kirk. Nobody played like he played. It seems like the idea of it has become more formalized. That's part of it. The education system has created a way of studying formally to do that. Whereas in the past it was all my mouth to your ear and your mouth to my ear. The translation of it changed quite a bit. I'm glad that it's getting the attention that it is, and people have a chance to study it and appreciate it. But you do get more homogenized in that situation than you do when it's more ad hoc, where people are at liberty to re-invent it all the time."

An identity is not a problem for Pickett who has had a career full of variety. His thick, flexible sound has contributed to projects with a dizzying array of people. It's been a good ride.

"I worked for the Big Apple Circus for a couple of years. That was crazy. Pretty interesting. I did a Broadway show. I worked in the show called 'Leader of the Pack,' a show by Ellie Greenwich. When I was a kid, I worked with John Lee Hooker for a minute. With Tower of Power, we traveled as a horn section with people and played on people's records. We played with Little Feat on their live album. We did a tour with Rod Stewart."

So while he enjoys jazz, can play jazz, Pickett enjoys music as music. Labels, he said, are nearly impossible to define anyway.

"The definition of jazz is kind of a struggle. When you have musicians as diverse as Jelly Roll Morton and Dave Koz in the same category, it makes you go, 'Wait a second. Is there a category?' And what is it exactly. Does Eddie Vincent qualify as a jazz musician? Was Jay McShann a jazz musician, or R&B or swing? Dance music? Was Louis Jordan a jazz musician? Some people would say so. Depends on who you ask. When you think about it that way, he probably is a jazz musician. People called it jump swing ... I identify quite comfortably with jazz and I play with a lot of jazz musicians. Burt Wilson was an avant-garde jazz musician and he was my friend. I learned and played alongside him and felt very comfortable with those people."

"I'm not sure what it is anymore. I wish that was a little more clear, but I don't think it will get that way. Secondly, I don't think it holds a monopoly on interesting, improvised, African diaspora music. You'd have to leave out salsa and Afro-Cuban music and all sorts of other things. At one point, it was the popular music of the time. It was the dance music that people searched out and wanted to dance to."

With his love for entertaining and his openness to all kinds of music as a backdrop, Pickett told, almost with reverence, a story about being at an open interview with drummer/bandleader Chico Hamilton, in which the audience was allowed to ask questions.

"I asked him, 'When did people stop dancing at his gigs?' And he got really quiet. There was a long pause. And he said, 'That was a really sad time," says Pickett. "I think a lot of jazz musicians would have liked it if people kept dancing at their jobs."

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