Steve Turre: Still Searchin'


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Rahsaan Roland Kirk kept telling me that I will know where I
Steve TurreSteve Turre is widely considered to be the finest jazz trombonist in the world. In addition to his twenty-plus years of service in the Saturday Night Live Band, he has performed with a virtual who's who of legendary jazz musicians, both as a leader and a sideman. His music is always diverse, challenging, and passionate. His thirteenth studio album, Keep Searchin', will be released by High Note in late-September, and he will be performing with a stellar band at Dizzy's Club in August, celebrating the music of his chief inspiration, Roland Rahsaan Kirk.

This interview was conducted mostly at Steve's home in Montclair, New Jersey, while his miniature greyhound, Jazz, sat on his lap. After a delicious meal cooked by his wife and musical peer, Akua Dixon, we retired to the basement, which is set up as his music studio, and watched ancient black-and-white videos of classic Roland Kirk performances.

Subsequently, I spoke with Steve on several occasions—at the Manhattan School of Music, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, to discuss recent events. Finally, we put the interviews to bed with a long-distance phone discussion about his upcoming album, during the final game of the NBA championship. As the Miami Heat scored the final points to win the trophy, I looked at my notes and realized I had a major piece of jazz history to piece together.

All About Jasz: Steve, let's begin our musical journey with your upbringing.

Steve Turre: I was born on September 12th, 1948, in Omaha, Nebraska. The great drummer (for Cannonball Adderley, amongst others), Victor Lewis, was born in the same hospital that same year—I guess there was some good musical energy in that maternity ward. Before the year was up, my parents moved from Omaha to a town east of Oakland in the Bay Area—Lafayette, California is the fertile land where my musical roots were sown. One of my earliest memories is that of our backyard, which had numerous pear and walnut trees, and was a nice, shady place to play and ramble. The beauty of nature would always affect my musical inclinations.

AAJ: Were your parents involved in music?

ST: They were big fans of music, and it was always played around the house. I was weaned on the music of Ellington and Armstrong, not to mention all of the major big bands of the day. My parents, James and Carmen, met at a public performance of Count Basie's Big Band, where they danced together for the first time. My mother was a professional dancer, and played the piano—years later, she played castanets on my Sanctified Shells (Antilles, 1992) recording. Rumor has it that I started out playing the violin, which is not true. I may have shown an early interest in it, but my Dad talked me out of it—he thought the violin sounded like a cat in the alley. I began learning to play the trombone when I entered the fourth grade.

AAJ: What was the first song you learned to play?

ST: First song—"Sweet Sue."

AAJ: Which musicians were your early influences?

ST: Oh, there were many I enjoyed listening to. I liked the full sound of the big bands, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton—Seeing them perform made me realize how exciting music is, and how vital it is to a fulfilled life. It brought me joy—and I wanted to learn how to play the trombone, so that I could share my joy with others. Music can enrich your life in many ways. In my case, it became a way of life, and my sustenance.

AAJ: As proven by your numerous Down Beat awards, it is apparent that you kept your eyes on the prize until successfully reaching it. Tell me more about the formative years?

ST: In Middle School, I was in the jazz band, under the tutelage of a tough disciplinarian, Joseph Disch. He was tough, but good at developing the talents of his students. Around that time, bebop styles entered my musical library—and the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had a powerful effect on me. It blew my mind, how cool their sound was. Next, I went to Acalanes High School, and studied with a wonderful instructor by the name of Elvo D'Amante. Also at that time, I took private lessons with Rogers Shoemaker, a very fine trombonist—he taught me the importance of scales. Another teacher was Phil Wilson, who introduced me to the plunger mute.

AAJ: Were you a good student in all subjects?

ST: I was not the school valedictorian, but I had a good grade point average. I liked most subjects, and paid attention in class, so I did well. Of course, music allured me the most. Then, I decided to attend college over Vietnam—I'm too peaceful to go to war. I enlisted in the music program at Sacramento State where I also played on the football team.

AAJ: As the Sixties unfolded, did you find yourself listening to rock and roll?

ST: You couldn't help it. The Beatles and Motown were all over the radio. I loved the tunes of the Beatles, but I thought the Rolling Stones were sloppy. James Brown was awesome, as were many of the soul acts of that era. We still play a lot of that stuff on SNL during the commercial breaks. Yet, I still listened to jazz—Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon found their way onto my turntable quite frequently. Ray Charles was exploring all types of music in those days—from soul to gospel to country; and when he played country songs, it introduced me to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, which I also liked.

AAJ: It's been said the more you like music, the more music you'll like.

ST: Absolutely. And I absorbed a lot of different sounds because I wanted to emulate them in my own musical ventures. I was doing well with my music in school, winning several judged competitions. It gave me confidence, and made me want to explore new sounds.

AAJ; Was there a jazz record at this time which became your burning bush?

ST: The first album of note was Proof Positive (Impulse!, 1964) by J.J. Johnson. It knocked me out—the sound of his trombone was so warm and melodic. The compositions were first-rate. That's the sound I was searching for. In later years, J.J. and I became friends, and he played on my Lotus Flower (Verve, 1999) record. My tribute to him was "Steve's Blues," which he performed on. That was an honor for me. J.J. Johnson did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone—he shaped a new sound; set the rest of us on a new path. I still do one of his great compositions, "Lament," at many of my shows.

AAJ: Around this time, you met Rahsaan Roland Kirk?

ST: Well, I met him before Rahsaan was part of his name. I was a freshman in college in 1966, and my brother, Mike, got me interested in Kirk's album, We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961); I wore the vinyl off that one. It connected the dots between traditional and modern music, and I found that to be exciting and motivational. When I heard Kirk was coming to play at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, I went to a costume shop, and purchased a fake moustache. I put it on, and snuck in to the club. His performance was amazing—free and swinging, with a major dash of serious blues. After the second set, I walked up to the stage, and shook his hand, and told him how wonderful that performance was—it would make me a better musician. Kirk asked me what instrument I played, and when I told him the trombone, he invited me to come out to the club the next afternoon for the Sunday matinee performance for kids. I was honored, and a little nervous, but it went well; he liked my playing enough to invite me to play with him whenever he passed through town.

Eventually, I earned a gig with him at the Now/Then club, which paid $50 per week. I felt like I was sitting on top of the world. I began working regularly with Kirk, and set off on my musical journey, which I will never regret. Kirk taught me so much about the dynamics of jazz. I played with him right up until he died, and he was intense even after his kidney ailment and his stroke made him stumble physically. He would improvise to overcome his physical limitations. It was tremendously inspiring to be around him. His performances are legendary. He was the essence of the blues. He would summon the spirits up above when he played, and you never knew where his songs were going, but you tried to keep up—it was so unpredictable. He was a captivating figure, in his bright jumpsuits and wraparound sunglasses. He would start a song traditionally, and would then go off on abstract tangents, building a tale of mystery—but the music would ascend to new heights.

Steve Turre AAJ: What was his method of teaching, besides his actions?

ST: He had a little portable phonograph, which would accompany him on tour—he would invite me up to his hotel room to listen to old LP's featuring great trombonists, like Dickie Wells, J.C. Higginbotham, and Trummy Young. Obscure names to me, but such sweet thunder! And then there was one of the great ones, Jack Teagarden—we spent a great deal of time learning the details and nuances of his style. Roland Kirk taught me to respect the tradition of this music; by learning the past, it will lead you into the future. For a man who was blind, he had a vast vision. He kept telling me that I will know where I'm going to if I know where I'm coming from, and that lesson was learned from those old records.

AAJ: That's similar to a mountain-climber—when he gets to the top, he can see further, and in all directions.

ST: Yeeeeaahhh! Good analogy. Kirk's music explored in every direction. At his home in East Orange, New Jersey, he had a music room filled floor-to-ceiling with records; all kinds. Mostly jazz, but classical, country, rock—just about everything, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of each idiom. He would look deep into the music to get more out of it. He taught me that less is more, and how to focus and function better. His musical template was so wide-ranging., and he set the example through his actions to go beyond conventional styles.

AAJ: You paid a great compliment to him with your fine The Spirits Up Above (High Note, 2004) last year. It was gritty, bluesy, and full of warm and genuine energy. I recently attended one of your Kirk tributes at the Jazz Standard; I was struck by the variety of arrangements, from fast and furious barn burners like "Three for the Festival" to the sweet and tender arrangement of "Inflated Tear."

ST: Yeah—it's a treasure trove. "Inflated Tear" is Kirk's very personal recollection of his blindness, when a nurse administered the wrong medication in his eyes, and he completely lost his eyesight. But like Ray Charles, the lack of sight heightened his other senses. He knew his surroundings, and had a great respect for the beauty of nature, even though he could not see it. It poured out of him through his wonderful compositions.

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