Home » Jazz Articles » Lew Tabackin: A Life in Jazz



Lew Tabackin: A Life in Jazz


Sign in to view read count
Zoot Sims took me to meet Coleman Hawkins and I saw a man who was only 60 years old who wanted to die. He had been the king and then other people rose to prominence, like Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz and suddenly Coleman's career diminished. Those old veterans didn't practice or stay in shape. They would play a gig and it would be a disaster. It happened to so many older guys. It taught me to maintain my skills so when the opportunity does come you are up to the demand.
—Lew Tabackin
Tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin is known as a forceful and dynamic soloist, both in small group and big band settings. His views of the jazz music scene, both past and present, are equally compelling.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several hours with Mr. Tabackin for this interview. Rather than insert myself into the conversation, I just let the tape roll, threw in a few topics and let the master jazz man expound on them in one free wheeling solo after another. What follows are his unedited commentary.

Challenges Of Mature Musicians

Jazz musicians are neglected in middle age. Period. Thirty or Forty years ago, promoters were into presenting young lions and established veterans. That left a void for the people of my generation. We didn't fit into either category. Now that I am older those opportunities have dried up, so I missed the boat. Promoters are no longer enamored with promoting old guys who aren't going to be around much longer.

When I was a middle aged guy, most of the great musicians like Clark Terry, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, etc. were in demand. Now there doesn't seem to be as much interest in mature players.

In order to get some exposure I recorded Soundscapes with my working trio. I hired a company to send product out to radio stations and we got amazing reviews and I was encouraged by it. The album even began to move higher on the jazz charts for a minute. But overall, I haven't seen a great improvement or much return from my investment. We make recordings so that people know that we still play and possibly get some gigs.

Like most people my age, I don't have a management team or much in terms of support. I have an artist page on Facebook that I never do anything with. Younger musicians have the energy and competence to use social medium and have learned how to use it to survive. Most of the people my age don't have that competence and I'd rather spend time working on playing a low b flat than putting in ten hours promoting myself.

PR can sell pet rocks and mediocre musicians. But music requires playing with a certain amount of passion and respect and trying to bring people in—not in a superficial way but in a real way. For example, last night at the gig I was approached by a couple of young women who weren't jazz people. They said they were emotionally touched. I think that is really important.

My philosophy is that I am never going to achieve my goal, but it is the effort of getting as close as you can that is important. Sometimes you go through a period where you aren't doing too well, but you keep fighting and you eventually get ahead. Life is like that for a musician. You keep trying to find a way to improve your expression. Not how many notes you can play, but making the music more communicative.

Racial Issues

I was around during the black revolution and while it was a great event, the byproduct had a negative effect on people like me. At some point as a young player in Philadelphia, playing in mainly black clubs with black musicians some people began to ask about the white guy playing, although most of the musicians were cool. For example, I was playing in Duke Pearson's band with Randy Brecker and we were at the Apollo theater and we couldn't play any solos. We played a concert in Philadelphia and the solo was in my book and people were pissed off that a white guy played the solo.

Heading West And The Big Band

Arnie Lawrence got me a job with Doc Severinsen, and it led to my getting higher paying gigs. So when my bassist friend, John B. Williams moved to L.A. with Doc I thought it was good idea go west too. We moved to Los Angeles in 1972. Doc offered me a few nights a week on the Tonight Show and it didn't take me long to realize that I probably did the wrong thing. While there I picked up a gig at Donte's where a lot of studio musicians played—mostly white. I put together a band with Williams on bass and Steve Shaefer on drums. I'm playing and doing what I normally do and I didn't think of the music as being "out." But as the music went in and the people went out. After the first song the place was almost empty. Our style didn't fit the culture. Life is very relaxed. New York is intense all the time. I didn't feel comfortable there.

While living in L.A., I was invited in a bunch of rehearsal bands and most of the music was practicing for commercial work. I didn't like it and I was bored. So I encouraged Toshiko (Akiyoshi) to get some charts together and that's how the big band started—out of boredom.

One of my more positive experiences on the West Coast was my association with Shelly Manne, who wanted to put together a quartet as a co-op. It was great to play with him. Mike Wofford and Chuck Domanico. I really enjoyed it and he was really great guy. But I still had this frustration with the LA mentality. The white guys had such an intellectual approach. I wanted to ask them, "Can't you just play the fucking blues?"

I didn't feel natural out there and I had to create my own environment. In New York I was playing in Clark Terry's band and Duke Pearson's band and with Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and others. In LA I had to establish my own reality. But in the 10 years that I was in LA, the big band achieved a lot of recognition. Mel Lewis got really pissed when we beat him in the polls. It gave me an identity. But I missed being in the real world and I had to go back to New York. Also, New York was closer to Europe and I was able to go to a lot of European festivals and we were able to take advantage of the New York musicians. So we reorganized the big band.

Low Periods

Zoot Sims took me to meet Coleman Hawkins. I saw a man who was only 60 years old who wanted to die. He had been the king and then other people rose to prominence, like Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz and suddenly Coleman's career diminished. Those old veterans didn't practice or stay in shape. They would play a gig and it would be a disaster. It happened to so many older guys. It taught me to maintain my skills so when the opportunity does come you are up to the demand.

Influential Musicians-Recordings

Some of the most influential musicians for me are Billy Higgins, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Toshiko Akiyoshi, John Lewis, Clark Terry. Shelly Manne, Elvin Jones, Duke Pearson, Jimmy Knepper.

Some of the recordings that impacted me were those by Al Cohn, who was the king of the white sax players, in Philly when I was 15. Then I started to listen to Sonny Rollins—a lot of the early records at the Vanguard and Tenor Madness. Coltrane always said that in Tenor Madness, "Sonny was just toying with me."

Jewish Culture

There is a lot of genetic stuff you don't know about. Jewish people have a sense of pathos and a kind of cry that you can hear in someone like Al Cohn. Sometimes I would play something—more on the flute than the saxophone—and I would get into an Eastern kind of thing without thinking about it. While I do not particularly like the idea of the chosen people, I do have a feeling for my cultural heritage. I feel my Jewishness. It's innate, not intellectual. When you grow up as a Jew you know you are Jewish. I don't think about it, but I know it's there and it's something to be proud of. I definitely feel the connection.

Other Musicians

Miles Davis -He was a painter. Miles Davis knew how to put together the perfect group. He knew the colors and textures he wanted, and he knew the balance. Coltrane was the perfect foil for him. At the end of his career, I think a lot of it was a put on -just a way to make some bread.

Coleman Hawkins—He was our father. It took me a long time to understand his greatness. He was a true avant-garde musician. He was always ahead of his time. Can you imagine what it was like to be that much of a pioneer? To come up with really meaningful solos with the ultimate harmonic sophistication? He was as sophisticated as Bird harmonically. He played unaccompanied solos -stream of consciousness -before Sonny Rollins. When he hired Thelonious Monk, everybody thought he was nuts. But he heard something because he was so ahead of everyone. He never got credit as a bebop player, but he had all those bebop players on his recordings. He was the ultimate.

Bill Evans—I respect him. He's not my favorite. Something about most of his playing I find a little bit vanilla. He just doesn't get to me. I liked him with other people's bands. To me the 8th note phrasing doesn't touch me.

Chick Corea—I've known Chick for a fair amount of time. I used to play in Duke Pearson's band way back in the late '60s. I also played with him in Urbie Green's Tommy Dorsey band. He's a good guy—a very good person. And a great musician.

Charlie Haden—His great quality was that he had a beautiful sound on bass and time feel. I wasn't used to the sound of his bass. I had to adjust my hearing. I realized he wasn't always playing the changes—I couldn't depend on the bass for the changes. I got used to it and his sound spoiled me to the point that other bass players who played louder really grossed me out! But the sound of his instrument and time feel were great.

Ornette Coleman—I loved Ornette Coleman. I saw him in Philadelphia. He was startling in a way. I realized that you needed to create a different value system. I don't think he could play changes. He was a melodist. I think his contribution was that he influenced greater players that were greater than himself. He freed everything up. Now when you are playing you don't have to play all the changes.

Kenny G—I was teaching in Washington and there was this guy named Kenny Gorlich. He was with a fusion band. When there was a move to cut the funding for NEA and he testifyied to congress saying that if it wasn't for the NEA he wouldn't have met Lew Tabackin and that I changed his life. And it was headlines! So, now it's my responsibility.

I'm not a fan, let's put it that way. He found his thing and it works for him and its not my fault.

Contribution To Jazz

When I first started to play, I had the dream of being the next Bird. I soon realized it was probably not going to happen and I started to doubt the idea of becoming a jazz musician. I thought that maybe I would just become a studio player. But if everyone felt like that there wouldn't be any players.

I decided that you just have to find out who you are and that's a contribution. If you pursue your individuality then that is a contribution. I think I reinforced the idea of individuality. As a flutist I think I did something that was different. I didn't create a Lew Tabackin school of playing, but my contribution is that I pointed a way for people to respect a personal approach to jazz.

Highlights Of Career

I was playing in Canada at a festival. I was in a club. This pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and Dave Holland were playing. I didn't know what to expect. He called some older standard tunes and it was great. Muhal played almost traditional, but played in two keys at once. It was great.

Playing the Hiroshima Rising from the Abyss in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing was a very moving experience.

A highlight for me that nobody knows about. I played Bloodcount with Kenny Barron at Avery Fisher Hall and I thought my instrument sounded better than it ever did.

Photo credit: Dick Stockmans

Post a comment

For the Love of Jazz
Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Jazz article: The Nimble Nuovication Of Nimbus Sextet
Jazz article: Tomasz Dąbrowski: Elevating Jazz Storytelling
Jazz article: Thandi Ntuli: Reclaiming The Rainbow
Jazz article: Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie


Read The Ten Best  Jazz Christmas Albums Of All Time
Read Giving Thanks & Sharing the Jazz Love
Read Record Store Day Black Friday 2023: Jazz Releases
Read The Most Exciting Jazz albums since 1969: 2006-2009

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.