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Lew Tabackin: A Life in Jazz

Rob Rosenblum By

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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.

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