Speaking of Rahsaan with
by Mark Ruffin
At about the same time that Steve Turre began a series of concerts this year celebrating the music of the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the good people at Label M re-issued Here Comes The Whistleman. That 1965 recording was Kirk’s debut for Atlantic Records and is available on cd for the first time.
Three years after that recording, in San Francisco, Kirk met Turre, then a teen-age trombone player, and took him under his wing, and helped him to develop his own wings. With his Rahsaan Roland Kirk tribute band, Turre is repaying the favor to the great saxophonist, who died in 1977, by playing his music to a new generation of jazz lovers. Mark Ruffin caught up with Steve before an engagement in Chicago.
JazzUSA: Can you tell us a bit about the Rahsaan Roland Kirk tribute concerts that you’re doing?
ST: Well, the players first. The rhythm section is Buster Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash. The front line- of course, we have to have three horns, because Rahsaan played three horns at once, so we have three guys up there doing the work of one man. (laughs) We have Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones, James Carter on tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute, and myself, Steve Turre on trombone and shells.
JazzUSA: That’s a hell of a band.
ST: And we’re just playing the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. We’re going to play his compositions. So, it’s kind of a tribute that I’ve put together. I did the arranging, but it’s all his compositions. It’s not my music. It’s a tribute to Rahsaan and the wonderful music he left here for us.
JazzUSA: Is this a one-shot deal?
ST: No, we’ve played in Europe and we’re heading to the west coast later this summer.
JazzUSA: Are you recording this band?
ST: I’m going to record it, but I just did a record with a quintet, trombone and tenor saxophone. That’s coming out first, but I am going to record this band.
JazzUSA: You know man, a lot of folks don’t know that Rahsaan was a great lyricist, and that he wrote the words to Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar and Charlie Mingus’ Goodbye Porkpie Hat?
ST: Oh man, he could do it all, lyrics, music, orchestrations. Of course, he couldn’t write it down. He did this piece for strings and big bands and everything, and he got together with my wife (cellist Akua Dixon) and told her what to write down, every note, and she wrote it down on paper and they performed it at Town Hall. This was back in the 70’s. It was beautiful.
JazzUSA: Have you and Miss Dixon been married that long.?
ST: 23 years.
JazzUSA: That’s great. How did you meet Rahsaan ?
ST: The first time I heard him play was fall of 1966. I graduated from high school in the spring of ’66, and then that fall I went to college at Sacramento State in California, and I had heard that Rahsaan was going to be in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. So I drove down there on a Saturday, and to the Saturday night performance at the club. Actually, you were supposed to be 21. I was 18. But I put on a fake mustache, came in early, paid my money, sat in the back and ordered a Coca-Cola, and they let me slide. They knew, but they let me slide. And Rahsaan blew my mind, so I stayed for the second show, and after the second show, he said, thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming out. Remember, tomorrow afternoon, we’ve got the two o’clock session, bring the kids.’ So I went up to him afterwards. I just wanted to shake his hands and tell him how much I appreciated and loved what he did. We talked for a minute, then I said, you’re having a session on Sunday.’ Then he said, it’s not really a session. What it is, is a matinee, and they don’t serve alcohol and people can bring their children, so they can listen to the music. Why, do you play?’ I said, well, yes, I play trombone.’ He said, it’s not really a jam session, but if you want to play, come on down and bring your horn, and you can play music for the kids.’ So, I went down and sat in with him, and it clicked.
There are two people in my life where the first time we played together it just clicked. We phrased the same way. We breathe in the same place, without discussing it or nothing, we just knew. One was Woody Shaw and the other was Rahsaan, and I went on to work with both of them. So after I played that afternoon, he invited me to stay over and play that night, for the Sunday evening performance. And I stayed and played that night too. After that, every time he’d come through the Bay Area, which was at least a couple of times a year, he’d call me, and I go work with the group in a local club with him. Until later on, in ’73, I moved to New York. I came with Art Blakey. I sat in with Art in San Francisco, at the Keystone Korner, and he asked me to join the band. He brought me to New York in the spring of ’73. In ’72, I toured with Ray Charles, that’s when I first met Ray. Then, I came back to the Bay Area, and I hooked up with Woody, and Woody introduced me to Art, and that took me to New York. Then I ended up working with Rahsaan again, until he passed.
JazzUSA: Once you got to New York, you started working with Rahsaan regularly?
ST: No, I stayed with Art for a while. Then I went with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, for a while. Then I went with Chico Hamilton for a while. Then, I went with Rahsaan. That was about, early ’75, I think.
JazzUSA: When did you start playing trombone?
ST: Oh, in the fourth grade.
JazzUSA: Did the instrument speak to you instantly?
ST: I knew I liked it. I think when I was in junior high, I knew music was going to be my calling. I always liked music. From the beginning, it was fun. It felt fun. I had a knack for it and I enjoyed it. And I played it as much as I could, because it was fun. I think in junior high, I knew that this is what I wanted to do, play the trombone.
JazzUSA: Coming up, what kind of music did you listen to?
ST: All kinds of stuff. My mom and dad met at a Count Basie dance. So they were big band fans. That was the pop music of their day. They danced to that. Before I was ten years old, I had heard the real Duke Ellington Orchestra, not the ghost band. Of course, Duke was there, and the whole saxophone section with Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. I remember Harry Carney doing Sophisticated Lady and holding that note. Clark Terry was in Duke’s band at that time. Britt Woodman. Ella Fitzgerald was the guest vocalist and Coleman Hawkins was the guest soloist.
ST: Before I was ten years old, I saw that. And I heard the Basie band later that year. I think it was ’57 or ’58, somewhere in there. Basie had Al Grey, Benny Powell and Snooky Young and Thad Jones and Marshall Royal. I mean, it was one of the great bands. I also heard Woody Herman’s band, when Bill Chase was with him and Phil Wilson and Sal Nestico. That was a great band. I heard a lot of real music, big band wise. Also, my folks liked New Orleans traditional. We had a lot of Louis Armstrong records. I actually started improvising in the New Orleans traditional style. You know, they would listen to orchestral music too, and of course Latin music and Mexican music. Then when I was in high school, somebody gave me a J.J. Johnson record. At that point, it was all over. I said, wow, what is this? I want to get with this. I didn’t even know you could play a trombone like that.’ I was blown away, so I started getting everything of his that I could find, and try to learn it, and see how you can apply that. Of course, back then, there weren’t any books of transcriptions, or no Real Book, or anything. I just used to get the records and wear them out, play along with the record. And it was really better that way, as far as I’m concerned, because you learn the music from the ear. You learn the nuances and the phrasing and the feel of where you place the rhythm and everything, rather than just looking at notes on a paper.
JazzUSA: Man, one day, last year, I was in New Orleans walking through the French Quarter, and I heard two screaming trombones. It was you and Al Grey. I could hear you guys a block away.
JazzUSA: I felt like one of those kids in The Pied Piper, I just followed the sound.
ST: Man, you know he’s gone now. That is such a loss. I knew Al wasn’t well, but I didn’t expect him to leave us like that. And Britt Woodman left us this year too.
JazzUSA: Were those guys very influential on you?
ST: Definitely, but not like J.J. I just think J.J. is the father of the modern style, but Britt recorded with me. He’s on two of my records.
JazzUSA: Yes, he’s on that great shell choir record….
ST: The Rhythm Within?
JazzUSA: No, the self-titled one from just a few years ago.
ST: Yes, Britt’s on both the Steve Turre and The Rhythm Within. On The Rhythm Within, which is another shell choir record, with Herbie (Hancock) and Pharoah (Sanders) and Jon Faddis. There’s one tune on there that’s just a duet between the two of us. You see I love Lawrence Brown too, and Britt is the direct descendant of Lawrence Brown. He took Lawrence’s place in Duke’s band. I appreciate that approach. But I like all the different approaches. (laughs)
JazzUSA: How did you learn how to play shells? Where did that come from?
ST: Self-taught. You don’t learn that in school.
JazzUSA: So what did you do, just one day walk on the beach pick one up and blow?
ST: No, no, no, no. That was Rahsaan. You know how I said, whenever Rahsaan would come through town a couple times a year and I’d work the local club with him.
ST: Every time he’d come to town, he’d have something a little different. He’d have a few different tunes. He’d bring a different instrument. Sometimes, he’d make them himself. One time he had the nose flute. Another time he had the black mystery pipe, which was a piece of black garden hose that he’d taped a funnel to the end of it, and put a saxophone mouthpiece at the other end of it. Then he’d cut some finger holes, and he played it something like a snake charmer instrument. That was the black mystery pipe. Another time he came, he had a shell and a gong. He would just hit this one note on the shell and circular breathe, because he was the man for that. Remember that b.s. they had on television about Kenny G holding the note for the Guinness Book of World Records. That was bullshit.
ST: (laughing) Purity bull, and he knows it too. Rahsaan, up there, where ever he is, knows it too. Rahsaan was the champ.
JazzUSA: He’s proven that on live recordings.
ST: I know. Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle. Anyway, Rahsaan would hold this note on the shell, and then would intermittently hit the shell on the gong. It would be like a meditation. And it would cast this vibration over the room, and all of a sudden, the whole room was just still. And out of that, he would put the tenor in his mouth and come out with a real pretty ballad, you know, real whoosy, like Ben Webster. And it was really hip. But the sound of the shells just touched me. So after the gig I asked if I could play it. So I blew it, and I said, aw man.” A couple of months later, I found one. At first, I played just the one note into it too. Then I found that if I put my hand in it, I could change the note and I realized that if I really wanted to play melodies, with some arranged pieces, I would have to get more shells. Then it was just a matter of trial, error and evolution. And as I evolved as a musician, I was able to hear how to make music out of the instrument.
Of course, I’m not going to play a Charlie Parker or a Coltrane tune, Donna Lee, Giant Steps, or nothing like that. I can’t play that on the shell. And I’ve had some people say, well it’s not a legitimate instrument because you can’t play Donna Lee on the shell. Well, I never heard Tricky Sam (Nanton) play Donna Lee on the plunger, but nobody says that about him. At first, I was very shy about bringing the shell out, because people used to accuse Rahsaan of being a gimmick. I was with him and we were very close friends, and I could see that it hurt him very deeply when people would accuse him of being a gimmick. He was sincere. He was real. That wasn’t no bull, it was beautiful music.
So I became sensitized to that issue, and I didn’t want to be called a gimmick with that. So I was, at first, very shy about bringing it out. Then I had an experience in the late 70’s. I went to Mexico with Woody Shaw. We played a concert in Mexico City, and a lot of my family came out. I invited them and they came to the concert. That night, Woody called a tune where I played the shells, and the people really responded and everything. After the concert, my relatives, we got together and had coffee and cake and stuff. We were talking and they said, you know, your ancestors use the shells.’ I said, what?’ They said, you go to the museum.’ So I went to Mexico City where they’ve got a big archeological museum. They’ve got all the artifacts from the Mayan Aztecs and everything. And they had shell instruments, just like what I was playing. I was blown away. I said, golly, no wonder I’m attracted to them.’ I decided then that I was drawn to this for a reason and I was supposed to do it, and I don’t care what people think, I’m gonna do it.
JazzUSA: So it has to be especially gratifying when you started placing high up in miscellaneous instrument categories in polls.
ST: Well, I appreciate what I’m doing. Sure, it’s good to be appreciated. But what really makes me feel I’m on the right track is not what any magazine says. I mean, that’s an honor and it’s good for business and I appreciate it. But what lets me know that I was on the right track was that Dizzy liked it. Dizzy not only featured me on the shells when I was with the United Nations Jazz Orchestra, but he also played on my record with the shells. And J.J. asked me to record with him, just playing the shells. Verve is still sitting on that. It’s still in the can.
JazzUSA: What kind of guy was Rahsaan?
ST: That’s a hard question because he had so many sides. He was so brilliant and such a mind that you just can’t put him in a bag. You couldn’t define him. He was beyond being defined. He could sit down and talk to you about Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet, and the next day have a deep conversation about Charlie Parker, then about Ellington. He’s the one who really turned me on to how bad Ellington really was. Then he might be talking about Cecil Taylor another day. He could play out. Remember that Mingus record Live At Avery Fisher, Rahsaan was on it, Jon Faddis and George Adams, where George Adams tried to go outside on Rahsaan. Rahsaan wiped the floor with him. He took that shit so far out, it was just incredible.
JazzUSA: He also liked pop music too.
ST: He liked music, if it was good music. He played some pop tunes, but he didn’t play any jive tunes. He played good tunes. He liked anything that was happening.
JazzUSA: As a person, was he jovial, sad, intense, always nice?
ST: He was unpredictable. Not only on, but off the bandstand. Sometimes, we would go into his house and we would rehearse and then we’d get to the gig and he wouldn’t play anything that we’d rehearsed. (laughs) He didn’t know what he was doing. He just let the spirit lead him. He didn’t have any preconceptions. He just went with the feelings. Another thing. He wouldn’t bit his tongue. He would tell it like it is. And that didn’t make him popular with the powers that be with the record companies and the television kind of people. In terms of the business establishment promoting him, they didn’t give him a lot of hype, because he told it like it is. During the 60’s and into the 70’s, there was a lot of protests going on, and he would tell it like it is. He had zero tolerance for racism. He was open to all people, if the spirit was right. Obviously, he was blind; he couldn’t see what color you were. But he could tell be the tone of your voice, where your spirit was coming from. He didn’t tolerate racism of any kind. He would speak out about it swiftly and set it straight. He was outspoken, but he loved to have fun too. He was a practical joker. He was a great teacher. He was so wonderful to me.