A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

* * * *

Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  “That’s Earl, Brother (1977),” “Angel Eyes (1968),” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Our Delight”]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960’s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…

[END OF SIDE A]

…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950’s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Sprint.”]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

Leave a comment

Filed under Chicago, Interview, Ira Sullivan, trumpet, WKCR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s