An Interview with Steve Turre
Talks about Lotus Flower and more…
by Fred Jung
It’s funny that in all the conversations, chit-chats, fireside talks, and the like, I’ve never spoken at length with a trombonist outside of Ray Anderson, so when the opportunity arose to converse with Steve Turre, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had seen Steve play live a handful of times and on Saturday evenings, who can miss the bone man playing with the Saturday Night Live Band. Steve sat down with me from his home in New Jersey to talk about his fourteen year stint with the Saturday Night Live Band, his time with Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Woody Shaw, his conch shells, and his latest on Verve, “Lotus Flower.” It is a candid discussion with one of the heavies in jazz, unedited and in his own words.
JazzUSA: Let’s start from the beginning.
ST: I started playing trombone in the fourth grade, in the school band. I started on the trombone and I’ve been with it all the time. I played in the grade school band and then in junior high, they had a jazz band and I started doing my first professional work about thirteen in junior high. My brother and I had a band and we used to play for dances and parties and stuff. Then in high school, I continued and played in the All-state California Band and then this jazz band and a concert band and I also played electric bass in a funk band in order to make some money on the side. I ended up working professionally. My first big gig was with the Ray Charles Band in 1972. And after a year with Ray, I came back to the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area, where I’m from and I sat in with Art Blakey and he asked me to join The Messengers and brought me to New York. In the spring of ’73, I came to New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and I’ve been there ever since.
JazzUSA: Do you miss the Bay Area?
ST: Well, it’s a beautiful place to live, but it doesn’t have the music that New York has. No place does.
JazzUSA: And your influences at that time?
ST: Early on, my first jazz experience in junior high was New Orleans traditional. The father of that was Kid Ory, but when I was in high school, somebody gave me a J. J. Johnson record and of course, that turned me around. I wanted to play like that. And then, later, when I was about eighteen, I sat in and played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and he turned me on to the guys after Kid Ory, but before J. J. Johnson. People like Vic Dickenson (Dixieland trombonist), Trummy Young (Dixieland trombonist), and Jack Teagarden, and J. C. Higginbotham (Swing trombonist), you know, those cats from that area, the Ellingtonians, the cats from Basie, Al Grey. Then I had the full lineage, but I was also, before coming to New York, I was also influenced a lot by other instrumentalists besides trombone players. I was influenced by saxophonists and trumpets, somewhat pianos too.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your relationships with Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Woody Shaw.
ST: You know, Fred, interestingly, Dizzy was, Dizzy was like, it was finishing school. It was graduate school. But actually, in terms of playing with trumpet players, it was much more pivotal in my development and in my career playing with Woody Shaw. I did twelve albums with Woody Shaw. I did four years in a quintet with Woody were the only horns was trumpet and trombone. And at that point with Woody was where I developed my own voice and gained the maturity, at that point. Dizzy was the icing on the cake, but the cake was Woody. Dizzy is the father that we all come from, but in terms of my personal development, Woody was more important.
JazzUSA: And Roland Kirk?
ST: Well, he was my first mentor as a teenager. Whenever he would come to the Bay Area, he would call me to work with him in a local club. I wouldn’t tour with the band. He taught me about the legacy, the history, the lineage of the music, that how far back that you go will determine how far forward you can go. We used to play the whole history of the music in the course of one night, not emulating, but being yourself within the given stylistic approaches of the different eras. Playing true to the feeling of New Orleans, or the feeling of Ellington, or the feeling of Bird, or the feeling of Trane. You don’t play something else when you’re playing Coltrane. It just won’t work. You’ve got to know the history of the music.
JazzUSA: And Blakey?
ST: Art was, that was university there. Woody turned me on to Art and Art brought me to New York. Art would teach you how to tell a story. He’d teach you how to build a solo and to play with the rhythm section, and how to have the confidence to project yourself, and to be a man or a woman, or what the case may be, because he had some women in his band too. I remember Joanne Brackeen played piano with him among others. It was really, boy, Art was deep. There’s so many things he told me that I’m still thinking about today.
JazzUSA: You are also a member of McCoy Tyner’s Afro-Cuban Band, you have a brand new record out with that band.
ST: It’s coming out in March, right?
JazzUSA: Right, on Telarc.
JazzUSA: What’s your experience been with that ensemble?
ST: It’s really inspirational. He’s so powerful and so deep that he picks you up and brings you to places that you didn’t know existed. It’s a real privilege to play with McCoy.
JazzUSA: The majority of the music on your albums are originals, what is your approach to standards?
ST: If I do other people’s songs, I, kind of, arrange them my own way. It’s about being yourself.
JazzUSA: Is it difficult for the younger musicians today to be themselves because there are no opportunities to learn from a Art Blakey or Woody Shaw type leader?
ST: They ain’t had the opportunity to play with people like Art Blakey, or Dizzy, or Woody. The sad part about it is the record companies are putting them out there and buying them gigs and making stars out of them, before they’ve had a chance to learn their own voices, and play with the older musicians to be a part of the continuum. So as a consequence, the only thing they know is what they’ve heard on records or learned in school, but the real school is on the bandstand.
JazzUSA: What adverse effects in the long term do you think that will have on the quality of the music?
ST: It’s just changing the parameters of the lineage.
JazzUSA: What is the story behind the conch shells?
ST: Well, you produce the tone the same way, with the lips. Shells are the roots of the brass instruments. The shells were being played before there was ever metal to make a trombone, trumpet, horn, or whatever, and the animal horn too, the ram’s horn, or the tusk horn in Africa, or whatever. They were played with the lips, producing the sound in the same manner as brass instruments, but before brass instruments. These instruments are the roots of brass. I first heard the shells when I worked for Roland Kirk in San Francisco. He let me blow on the shells that he had and I really liked the sound so I got one and that was 1970. So I’ve been doing it since then.
JazzUSA: Do you find that the shells are still maligned as a gimmick of sorts by traditionalists, even though you have been winning polls for playing them?
ST: Yes, that true, but you know, Fred, I also just won a “Downbeat” poll for trombone, and trombone is my main instrument. I know that the record company, Verve, was primarily interested in the shells because they thought it was a gimmick that would sell. I was really surprised by that shallow an outlook in my artistry, being that the trombone has been part of the music since before the saxophone. If you look at the history in jazz and record jazz music, the trombone, in fact, in the past has been million sellers, not to say that I’m a million seller, but they haven’t even tried to promote trombone in recent times. Let’s face it, Fred, they can sell anything they want to if they put it out there a certain way. I know Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey and all of them. They all had big hits on the pop scale! So it’s not the instrument won’t sell, it’s the fact they’re not selling it. You know what I mean, Fred?
ST: Since the years that I’ve been with Verve, they put together these little all-star groups and stuff and make records and try to keep the artists out there. They have McBride (Christian McBride), the guitar player, Whitfield (Mark Whitfield, unfortunately is no longer with Verve and has been one of first of what’s sure to be many casualties of the Verve/Impulse! mega-merger), and Hargrove (Roy Hargrove), or Nicholas (Nicholas Payton) did, Nicholas, they played the music of Herbie Hancock, or they’ll do a Christmas album with various artists, but they’ve never had the trombone included in that stuff. But I’ll tell you this, Fred, when I go out and play on a gig or play opposite these people, the people appreciate what I’m doing just as much as the other instruments. I consider it lack of insight, personally. I’m tired of them telling me about what the trombone won’t do when they’re not doing nothing for it.
JazzUSA: Do you feel as though members of the media consider the trombone a second rate instrument?
ST: Not second rate, just not so popular. How could it be second rate? It was there from the beginning! The first two most important bands in the beginning of New Orleans was King Oliver and Kid Ory. You’ve got to realize this, Fred. This is a fact. It’s part of history. In the beginning, the trombone was there before the saxophone. There was no saxophone to speak of. Then the big bands came along after New Orleans traditional, the next big event was the big band sound. It was a popular dance music. I mean, my mom and daddy met at a Count Basie dance. How about that! That’s a fact. It was dance music, Ellington, Basie, you know, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, all of them. And the saxophone came into prominence, Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” boom, Prez (Lester Young), Johnny Hodges. Each big band had three sections, the trumpet, the trombone, and the saxophone. Each section had stars and soloists that were revered by the public. Now, what’s the next big thing that happened? Bird (Charlie Parker) and Diz, Max (Max Roach), Monk (Thelonious Monk), bebop, and all of that music was so technically challenging, all the trombone players bit the dust, except one. And you know who that was, Fred.
JazzUSA: J. J. Johnson.
ST: Right. J. J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. In subsequent generations, others have followed his lead, Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton, Julian Priester, Frank Rosolino, and they’ve caught up with the other instruments, trumpet, saxophone, but by that time, all you hear, ninety percent of the jazz that you hear in the clubs is saxophone and trumpet, saxophone, saxophone and trumpet, you know what I mean? And that’s just not the way it is, but that’s what they’re selling. I remember George Wein (producer of the Newport, New York’s JVC, and Playboy Jazz festivals) telling me one time, I played with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and I’m saying these things, not to sound like sour grapes because that’s not the case at all. I want to make people aware of the facts, so that maybe if they asked for the trombone, ask for the trombone. There’s guys out here playing beautiful. Young cats too, as well as some of the older masters, still killing. Slide Hampton is incredible! Curtis Fuller is still doing it. He’s a legend. He’s the only trombone player to ever play with Coltrane. I remember George Wein, I was with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, I’ve been with them since the beginning, every concert they had, between two and three, and four, somewhere between two and four guest soloists, you know what I mean, come out and do a tune or two with the band, and they had not once had a trombone. It’s mostly saxophone and trumpets, and sometimes the piano or a singer or whatever. I asked, I remember about four years into the series, I asked George Wein, one day I played a solo, I’m in the band though, I’m wasn’t a guest soloist and I played a solo with the plunger and he really liked it because he likes the older styles. He told me, “Oh, Steve, that’s one of the most beautiful plunger solos that I’ve ever heard. I didn’t know you did that.” So I said to George, I said, “You know, the people really seem to like it.” He said, “Oh, yes, they loved it.” I said, “Well, why don’t you have some trombones be guest soloists with the band.” He said, “What people want to see is two trumpets get up there or two saxophones get up there and battle.” (Sighing) When he said that I didn’t even, what’s the point? You see what I’m saying, Fred.
ST: And then we got to deal with what they call smooth jazz and that is created for the purpose of making money. That’s not created as a cultural thing. What they really ought to call it is instrumental pop. If they called it instrumental pop, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, because when I was coming up in high school, they had instrumental pop and they called it that and they marketed it as that. Now, they want to use the word jazz with instrumental pop. You know what I mean, but that’s what it is.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your new album on Verve, “Lotus Flower” and how it differs from your last project, the self-titled recording, also on Verve.
ST: It (referring to “Steve Turre”) was burnout. It was really. It (“Lotus Flower”) was a sextet. We played together. We gigged together. Everybody had been working together. It’s a working band. We just went into the studio and hit. Everybody knows all the people on the record (Regina Carter, violin; Akua Dixon, cello; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Lewis Nash, drums). They’re all leaders in their own right. They all got records out in their own right. We took our time. We did it in two days, just back to back two days. We just went in and played.
JazzUSA: Any touring plans?
ST: Absolutely. Absolutely. We’re supposed to go to Europe this summer. I’ve had an offer to go to Los Angeles, but I don’t want to just go out there for one thing. I want to make a whole sweep of it, the whole coast, or the whole Mid-West too. We’ve had stuff come up but I want it all to be in one, because if you go out just for a one shot thing, the transportation eats everything up. Why should the airlines get most of the money? If you put all the gigs together in a row, then everybody does better. I’ve gone to Los Angeles consistently over the years, but not every six months or nothing like that. Los Angeles is not really the cultural center of the country. It’s Hollywood. It’s not about creative jazz or nothing, but there’s people there that love and appreciate the music. There’s some great musicians there and it’s cool. I’ve got friends there. I’ve got a lot of wonderful people there. We’re going to play the music live that we played on the record, except the fact that it’s live, we’re going to stretch out more and it’s going to be more energy when you hear it live.
JazzUSA: And the Saturday Night Live gig?
ST: It’s fun. I’ve been there fourteen years. Can you imagine? Twenty shows a year, fourteen years, how many people have been through there. There’s been a lot of them.
JazzUSA: And how are those gigs different from your gigs on the bandstand?
ST: It’s real. It’s not a reproduction, but it’s going to be the same textures and the same vibe. When you hear music live, I think it’s the ultimate way to enjoy our music. I’ve played with some pop groups and I won’t mention any names, but they’re big name pop groups and they memorize the stuff and practice the solos so we can play it verbatim each performance, even to the solos. The drummer, they want the drummer to play the same fills and exactly like the record, or whatever. Our music’s not like that. Each offering is different and unique and reflects the moment. It’s a unique experience to be there and savor it, because it’s never going to be like that again.
JazzUSA: Describe what jazz means to you?
ST: It’s a music that brings people together. There is racism in the marketplace, but in its inception, it’s world music. It combines African improvisation, you know, all that rhythm with European harmonies and so on and so forth. There it is. It’s the beginning of world music.
JazzUSA: If you weren’t a ‘bone man, what other instrument interests you?
ST: Well, I’ve already worked and recorded playing bass. I did two albums with Chico Hamilton, but I, even though I never developed as a professional, I love the piano. And I love rhythm. I love the drums too. I would definitely be in music some kind of way. But I love the trombone.
JazzUSA: And lastly?
ST: (Laughing) It’s not over yet.