Meet Oliver Lake

Craig Jolley By

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I used to accompany a poet, and that piqued my interest in wanting to write poetry. I wrote music for dancers, and I've continued that from time to time. That was the basis of my career.
St. Louis musical roots

My mother owned a restaurant with a juke box that had a lot of blues, rhythm and blues. That may have piqued my interest. When I was in high school I got interested in the drum and bugle corps. A lot of members of the corps were playing jazz. That really got me into wanting to play jazz. I met a lot of young musicians who were adept at their instruments at an early age. I gravitated toward them immediately. Later on in high school I started playing jazz, but I didn't get serious until I was nineteen and out of high school. I went to college and flunked out, majoring in biology. When I flunked out that's when I decided I wanted to be a serious musician. I began to study, and I started hanging out with a lot of St. Louis musicians.

Black Artists Group

We started a group called the Black Artists Group in 1967-68. It was a cooperative of about fifty people. We did a lot of exchanges with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. We had a building where we had lessons, and concerts, and so forth. That building was a focus point for a lot of the music that was happening at that particular time, especially the music that we were doing because that was our only outlet. We were presenting ourselves, doing creative things that hadn't been done before in that way. I used to accompany a poet, and that piqued my interest in wanting to write poetry. I wrote music for dancers, and I've continued that from time to time. That was the basis of my career—the things I did in the Black Artists Group. For instance in the Black Artists Group we had a big band, small groups, poets, dancers, and actors. In 1998 I did a multimedia piece here in Montclair [New Jersey] with six actors, a rapper, a dancer, and ten musicians including a string quartet. I'll be going to the University of Pennsylvania in a couple of weeks to do a solo theatre piece [The Matador of 1st and 1st] that involves my poetry and saxophone. I've continued to integrate words, dance, theatre, and composition in what I'm doing. Of the other people in the Black Artists Group Julius Hemphill, Hamiett Bluiett, and Philip Wilson are the names you'd know because they had recording careers in New York. Julius was doing the same kind of thing, too—he integrated all these elements into his career.

Influential musicians

I've been influenced by Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, but the two major influences on me on the alto saxophone have been Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy. I have recorded several tunes of Eric Dolphy and actually did a CD of his music about two years ago. I haven't recorded any of Jackie McLean's. Last week his son [altoist] Rene McLean was the featured artist with my big band. In terms of composers Duke Ellington and Julius Hemphill.

The "Loft Jazz Scene" of the 1970's

That was right around the time I moved to New York, 1974-1975. I had a loft and I played jazz. I wasn't getting hired by the major jazz clubs when I first got here. If I wanted to be heard I had to present myself. A lot of the spaces where jazz musicians could present themselves were loft spaces. All of a sudden there was a name "Loft Jazz" invented by the writers which I thought was absurd. It was used as a way to market what we were doing. I never considered myself a "loft musician."

The World Saxophone Quartet

We were brought together in New Orleans by saxophonist Ed Jordan in 1976. He's still teaching down there. He came to New York and heard the four of us in our individual bands and wanted to bring our bands to New Orleans. He realized he couldn't afford to bring out four bands so he brought out the four of us and put us with a rhythm section. The reaction to the concert was so incredible we said, "Hey, we have to keep this band together." The energy and the chemistry were too great for us not to continue to do it. So we came back to New York, came up with a name, and booked our first concert. We argued about who was going to play bass, drums, and piano. I think I mentioned, "Let's forget it. Let's just do it with the four of us." We did and the quartet was born. We started out as the New York Saxophone Quartet, but there was another group with that same name. They told us we couldn't do that so we went to the World Saxophone Quartet. I feel it's been one of the most creative and major contributors to jazz in terms of projecting a chamber sound and allowing the audience to feel and hear the rhythm, the bass, and everything. After Julius [Hemphill] left the group we did have several other players in that chair, but now we've settled with John [Purcell], and I think he's going to be there for a while. The chemistry seems to be working really well with him so I'm excited about the band. Justin Time, our label out of Canada, has been very supportive. We're doing tours now and then and recording twice a year. Our last big concert was at the Newark Symphony Hall, one of the newer concert spaces.


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