"Journeyman is often applied to those in the jazz business, but "stevedore might be more apt. After all, both individuality and slow recognition are the result of impossibly hard work, and Curson is the rule rather than the exception. Born June 3rd, 1935 in Philadelphia, Ted Curson came to music early on, playing saxophone from age five and trumpet from ten. "When I was a kid, there was a guy who came through the streets selling newspapers, and he had a silver trumpet...so I asked my father for one of those. He really preferred the alto because in those days Louis Jordan was very famous and my father said that if I played [alto], I'd get a new one every year, but if I played trumpet, I'd get just one! I didn't get my raggedy trumpet until I was about ten. The Philadelphia jazz community is known for having an extremely strong community of musicians - Lee Morgan, Coltrane, Henry Grimes, Archie Shepp and Kenny and Bill Barron all hail from one of Pennsylvania's jazz capitals, not to mention the Heath brothers, who lived around the corner from the Cursons. Albert "Tootie Heath, later a fine post-bop drummer, went to school with Ted "and we used to go around meeting all the famous jazz musicians. On Sundays, Mrs. Heath would make dinner for any musicians who were coming to Philadelphia. You could see anyone from Miles to Duke Ellington to Sonny Rollins [at the Heaths' place].
Curson and the Heaths were just a few of the musicians whose seeds were sown in the wake of Bird and Dizzy - "there were a lot of us around the same time who got our instruments; I mean, we couldn't play, but we played badly together. Curson attended the Mastbaum School (he later attended Granoff) for musical training - Red Rodney, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan among others studied there - and turned professional at 16. It was around his late teenage years that Curson began to get involved with another scene in Philadelphia, those who were trying to do something different with the doors opened by bebop's architects - people like reedmen Bill Barron and Odean Pope. Curson puts it this way: "I was raised in the middle of the Dizzy Gillespie thing, I was surrounded with this and I knew I'd never play like Dizzy and I didn't want to. I wanted to see what I could do - what Ted Curson could do with 'A Night in Tunisia'.
It was also around this time that Curson met Miles Davis; the teenage upstart was, in his words, "wearing my hair like Miles, I had a tie around my waist, I even made the mistakes that he made. I liked his approach to everything and I still do. He heard me play when I was around 15 or 16 and he gave me his card and he said 'if you ever come to New York, give me a call.' There was no conversation - he said that and left - and I kept that thing in my pocket for years. After I graduated, it was about three years before I finally moved there [at age 21] and I called up Miles. Miles said 'Ted Curson, that little guy from Philadelphia? We've been waiting for you for three years! Where the hell have you been?' The scene appeared to be aware of Curson's potential, for he was almost signed to Roulette Records at Birdland before making any appearances as a leader, the night Roulette's A&R man and Birdland co-owner Irving Levy was murdered outside the club.
After a yearlong stint with Cecil Taylor that resulted in one concert and a recording for United Artists (Love For Sale
, 1959 or 1957 [depending on who one asks]), Curson joined Charles Mingus in a quartet in 1960, with reedman Eric Dolphy as a foil. "I got a phone call from a friend of mine and he said 'I got a call from Mingus and I don't want to play with that crazy motherf*cker. You want to take my place?' It was in Teddy Charles' loft, and there were a 1,000 or something musicians in there jamming, and I met Mingus and we played and everybody dropped out and that was it. He said 'maybe one day I'll call you' and about two or three months later I get a call at about midnight and it's Mingus. 'Ted Curson? Charlie Mingus here. You start right now. I'm at the Showplace in the Village and as soon as you get here, you go to work.' I got there and he said 'Okay ladies and gentleman, here's your new band - Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy - and you other cats are fired!' Curson stayed with the Mingus group through 1961, including an important performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France in July of 1960. Curson was the group's media spokesperson, which was a good thing for the trumpeter, as his image became more firmly rooted in the European public - laying the groundwork for a warm European reception a few years later. For Curson, "the main thing I picked up from Mingus was to 'do your own shit, straight ahead no matter what.'
After forming a few short-lived groups in the early '60s, Curson and Bill Barron founded a cooperative group with drummer Dick Berk and bassist Herb Bushler that would tour Europe in 1964, playing the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen, Paris, Holland and Sweden's Golden Circle, recording the heralded album Tears For Dolphy (Fontana). "Wynton Kelly had arranged for someone to get in touch with me who ran the Nice festival in the south of France. They told me they could get me so much work in Europe, and I talked with Paul Bley and he said this was my chance, so we started with a month in Copenhagen...and we went to France and instead of staying two months at the Blue Note, we stayed for six! The head of the union, who at that time was Kenny Clarke, came and told us we had to leave! Curson came back again with various groups, playing the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland starting in 1968 (he plays its 40th anniversary this year and has since become a spokesman for the festival).
A dogmatic approach to playing one's own way that has marked the work of his mentors - Mingus, Miles, Dolphy and Cecil - is what defines Curson's incredibly difficult to pinpoint approach, one that seems to hit every adjective in the book while harping on none. Curson's clear aesthetic is what, ironically, has led him into the non-jazz public as well - the composition "Tears for Dolphy is in three films, including Vincent Gallo's infamous Brown Bunny and he is slated to play the UK's All Tomorrow's Parties festival this summer. Yet it is that iconoclastic perseverance which is so necessary in keeping one's spirit out of the quicksand. Recommended Listening:
· Ted Curson - Fire Down Below (Prestige-OJC, 1962)
· Ted Curson - Tears for Dolphy (Fontana-Freedom-Black Lion, 1964)
· Charles Mingus - Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic, 1960)
· Archie Shepp - Fire Music (Impulse!, 1965)
· Ted Curson - Pop Wine (Futura, 1971)
· Ted Curson - Traveling On (Evidence, 1996)