David Schnitter is the jazz world's forgotten messenger, a marvelous musician who just happened to be in the right place right before the right time. The 55 year old tenor saxophonist has yet to receive the recognition he deserves as a central figure in the reorganization and resurgence Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers underwent during the '70s, paving the way for the astonishing ascendancy into popular culture the venerable institution later experienced with the introduction of Wynton Marsalis into the band. Schnitter joined the Messengers in 1975, at a time when the 20-year-old organization was in real danger of premature extinction, and remained a member into 1981 - attaining the longest continuous tenure of any player in the group's illustrious history. The short lived bands Art led in the years prior to Schnitter's induction featured a series of tenor saxophonists whose conceptions were inspired by the modal experiments of the day; and while much exciting music was created by these groups one could sense that the organization had strayed from its avowed mission of feel-good swinging. David's confirmed allegiance to the saxophonic styles of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, two of Blakey's favorite collaborators, proved him to be the perfect recruit to steer the group back on course.
Schnitter's debut recording with Art, In Walked Sonny, paired the young tenorist with his idol Stitt, an experience that would have terrified most saxophonists, young or old, but one for which he was well prepared. "I had played with Sonny Stitt many times at the Village Gate," he notes. "Me and Hilton Ruiz and Mario Rivera, we'd all be hanging out, and say let's go down and bother Sonny. It was my first record and I was nervous as hell, but it was an honor to record with Sonny." Prior to the date the saxophonist played with two undocumented editions of the Messengers: one a sextet with Shunzo Ono on trumpet and the fiery Jackie McLean prot?g? Nelson Sanamiego on alto; the other a quintet with the great Woody Shaw. It was the In Walked Sonny band (sans Stitt), with reenlisted Messengers Bill Hardman and Walter Davis, Jr., however, that would endure. "We started working more and it started gaining momentum little by little, boom, boom, boom. We were over at Ronnie Scott's in London for two weeks and then the next thing you know we were all over Europe. That band lasted more than two years."
Then in 1977 Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev replaced Hardman, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson joined the front line and the next great edition of the Jazz Messengers was born, as evidenced in the classic Roulette recording Gypsy Folk Tales
. Soon David gained a new notoriety with the band when Art began featuring his soulful singing in a show stopping Ray Charles-inspired rendition of "Georgia". He remembers how he was accidentally recruited to be the band's vocalist: "One night in Japan we were at a club after the concert and I was singing and Art heard it. He saw that it got a good response from the audience and said 'We're going to put that in the show.' That was the great thing about Art: if he saw you could do something he let you do it and it was good for you and good for him, too. So it worked out, but I got a little tired of it (the singing) after about a thousand times (laughs)."
The constant touring was also tiring out the young tenor. "Art used to be on the road 40 weeks a year. He had more energy than all of us put together. Hell yeah, I was tired by the time I left. But I learned a great deal. I didn't realize it all until later." In 1980 Schnitter joined fellow Messenger alumnus Freddie Hubbard's band for two years. Then he took his resume (that included four excellent recordings as a leader for Muse and impressive sideman appearances with organists Charles Earland and Groove Holmes, in addition to Hubbard and Blakey) and disappeared. "I moved to Spain in '81-'82," he says. "I had a couple of festivals with Sal Nistico and did a seminar with Claudio Roditi. Then they brought me back and the people were so hospitable and nice that I decided to move there. And I worked. I played all the time, there and throughout Europe. It was a very nice experience."
Schnitter moved back to New York in 1990 and devoted himself to teaching, both privately and at the New School, where he's been an instructor for the past nine years. "I wasn't playing in public for maybe 5 or 6 years," he recalls. "I wasn't looking for work as a leader, but I was always playing with friends here in the house, just not in the clubs. I got spoiled in Spain and I kind of got turned off to the business here and that whole rejection thing. I guess I was taking it personally." He returned to role of sideman about five years ago, working with former Messenger bassist Mickey Bass uptown at the Lenox Lounge and more recently with drummer Craig Wuepper downtown at Smalls. He's also has a new album, Pen Pals (Munich), with Dutch pianist Edgar van Asselt and has begun working as a leader again.
While playing with Wuepper at the Ear Inn one night Jazz Gallery director Dale Fitzgerald came in and surprised to see the tenor saxophonist there made arrangements to have him perform at the Gallery. Schnitter brought in an excellent group with bassist Dennis Irwin (who had been with him for most of his years with Blakey), along with pianist Michael Cochrane and Ronnie Burrage on drums. Unfortunately, very few people were there to hear it. David approaches this lack of popular recognition with candor and no bitterness. "I moved out of the country at the height of my career. I was gone for almost ten years and people forgot me. It's as simple as that. That's when I realized the importance of playing in these clubs. It helps when people see you and that's what I'm supposed to be doing. Playing music for people and being a Messenger."