In 2005, I had the honor of writing a feature piece for DownBeat on the great trumpeter-composer Charles Tolliver, who turns 70 today. Happy birthday, Charles, and many more.
Since the piece was somewhat attenuated, I’m also appending the first of two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Tolliver for this article.
Charles Tolliver (DB Article, #1):
On the final night of Charles Tolliver’s week-long engagement with his big band at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard last October, the leader was dressed for battle. Outfitted in a black leather jacket, black shirt, black pants, and black beret, Tolliver strode to his microphone a step below the bandstand, cued the 17 instruments, and nodded in time as they articulated the complex-funky theme of Ruthie’s Heart with machete sharpness. Tolliver turned to the audience, primarily African-American and middle-aged, placed lips to trumpet, set his feet, and plunged in. His sound was big and fierce and raw; the lines were intricate, the dynamics nuanced, the rhythms drumlike. Concluding his solo, Tolliver spun 180 degrees, one step per beat. He pointed his index finger to signal the band to restate the theme. Emerging from the mix, alto saxophonist Todd Bashore launched a solo. Tolliver lifted a clenched right fist to call for a supporting riff, pumping it to ratchet the intensity.
Tolliver is 63, and the iconography of his gesture and attire conjured flashbacks of the radical ‘60s politics that backdropped his coming of age. So did his music, primarily written or arranged during the era, and defined, then as now, by heady intellectual content and an animating inner fire. “What we were doing in the ‘60s is still so alive and well that it’s fresh and new when you work on it,” Tolliver commented a few days later at a Greenwich Village diner, down the block from the New School, where he teaches orchestration and the repertoire of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “Anything coming in at this point can’t really supplant that.”
On this Sunday night, Tolliver sustained a level of energy that might have reminded some witnesses of Slugs Saloon, a Loisida venue on a rough block where young lions of the ‘60s cut their teeth before cutting edge audiences on a nightly basis. There Tolliver played his first gig, a 1964 matinee with Jackie McLean that kicked off the room’s jazz policy. Six years later, he booked a quartet with Cowell (they met in the 1967-68 edition of the Max Roach Quintet), hired an engineer to document them, and issued Live At Slugs on Strata-East, the musician-run imprint that Tolliver co-founded in 1970 with pianist Stanley Cowell. Mosaic Records reissued it on their Select series in October along with the 1973 quartet date Live in Tokyo, and added an hour of previously unissued material from the sessions. These take-no-prisoners albums and Live at Loosdrecht, a searing double-LP, clarified Tolliver’s consequential contribution to the lineage of trumpet vocabulary. In contrast to the saxophonistic harmonic explorations of generational contemporary Woody Shaw, who like Tolliver pricked up ears with his playing as a Blue Note sideman but had to wait until the ‘70s to sing his own song as a leader, Tolliver’s voice is trumpetcentric. He imbued his lines with sass, nasty accents, and rhythmic thrust, eschewed front-line partners, and dominated the proceedings with an against-all-obstacles attitude and vibrant personality.
That Tolliver’s tonal personality emanated as distinctively from the pen as from his horn became manifest on a pair of influential Strata-East orchestral projects, Music, Inc. And Big Band (1970) and Impact (1975) for which Tolliver assembled a cast of New York A-listers—George Coleman, Charles McPherson and James Spaulding solo on the latter. He performed his charts with various European radio orchestras during the ‘80s and ‘90s, but a 2003 engagement at the Jazz Standard was his first-ever big band gig in a New York City venue. He returned to the Standard in 2004, played a week at Dizzy’s Club in August, and was booked, as of this writing, for a week at Birdland in January.
Tolliver followed “Ruthie’s Heart” with an arrangement of “Right Now,” a boppish line with a slick turnaround that McLean introduced as the title track of a 1966 quartet session, which followed three Blue Note albums that showcased such well-wrought inventions by the promising young trumpeter as “Truth,” “Plight,” and “On The Nile.” Both charts featured declarative, intricate section conversations, but perhaps the most startling performance was a show-stopping arrangement of “Round Midnight.” After an opening fanfare, Tolliver, unaccompanied, limned the melody, a cry in his tone, displaying total command of the spaces between the notes. The band entered with a bravura Gil Fullerish chord, and he tripled the tempo, eliminating all connotations of midnight melancholia in the manner of a New Orleans parade band marching home from the funeral. Finally, he reprised the rubato mood, and again counterstated with an efflorescent fanfare.
Artists like to talk about taking risks in the crucible of performance, and Tolliver embraces the principle wholeheartedly. He also followed the example of Max Roach by risking his own capital as an independent entrepreneur. “I’m a believer in ownership of your intellectual property or art form,” he says. “But it has nothing to do with politics. A lot of people have tried to read political and racial into the creation of Strata-East Records. It had to do with ownership, pure and simple.”
Self-taught as an instrumentalist, composer, arranger, Tolliver seems constitutionally averse to doing things the easy way. “I like to rumble,” he said. “I take the most difficult routes for improvisation. It’s actually easy to play a number of choruses effortlessly and never make a mistake, never break down. That’s no fun. You need to get in hot water by trying something out right from the jump, get yourself out of that, and move on to the next chorus.”
To transmit that predisposition for risk to his orchestra, Tolliver functions as a creative conductor. “Jazz is about improvisation and changing things around, to fit the mindset of the men on the bandstand,” he said. “Say the soloist is gathering steam or the drummer moves the soloist to another gear. I then have the liberty to move things around; by eye contact or a hand movement, they know immediately that I want to take a section or part of a section and put it somewhere else. It takes some time playing together to do that, but it means that each night the guys are refreshed, and not just reading the stuff the same way all the time. Thad Jones did that, too, with some of his pieces.”
Although the references are more spiritual than direct, Thad Jones’ footprint looms over Tolliver’s conception. “As great as Gil Evans is, Thad is a whole nother level of greatness,” Tolliver said. “He could write a perfect arrangement without going to the piano. I thought that’s like God at work! And he had men who could PLAY this difficult stuff. I watched that, and thought I could never hope to be in that position.”
Nearly forty years later, Tolliver is fulfilling this dream. His October orchestra included saxophonists Billy Harper, Craig Handy and Bill Saxton, baritone saxophonist-tubist Howard Johnson, three lead trumpets (Jimmy Owens, Earl Gardner and Chris Albert), and a world class rhythm section of pianist John Hicks, bassist Cecil McBee—both veterans of Tolliver’s early ‘70s units—and drummer Greg Hutchinson. They had to draw on every ounce of skill to execute Tolliver’s challenging parts.
“I’ve never heard anything like Charles’ music,” said fourth trumpet David Weiss, leader of the New Jazz Composers Octet, which, among other things, backs Freddie Hubbard with Weiss arrangements of Hubbard repertoire. After listening to reunion of the Tolliver-Cowell quartet at a Tribeca concert in 2002, Weiss asked Tolliver about the status of his big band charts. “I said, ‘It’s collecting dust,’ Tolliver recalled. “I meant, occasionally I’d dust it off, look at something, maybe add something here or write something off of that. David said that perhaps he could interest some of the venues here in New York. After several months, he got the Jazz Standard to agree to have me for a couple of nights, and it was very successful.”
“Charles is the culmination of his period,” said Weiss, who has booked all of the band’s subsequent New York gigs. “He encompassed everything that happened in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the highest level of harmony and rhythm and technique, and pumped it up even more. His trumpet parts are very tight and dissonant, in a higher range than most people dare to write. The saxophone parts are tough, too. He doesn’t write them to show off a busy, notey line, but so that something can counter against it. The line becomes the constant, almost like the rhythm section, and the other horns bounce off it and make all the accents.”
A Thad Jones alumnus, Harper—his Strata East date Capra Black is a ‘70s hardcore classic—acknowledges the gnarly singularity of Tolliver’s saxophone lines. “Most big bands have a traditional format, with soli that sound the way saxophone big bands may sound,” Harper said. “But a lot of what Charles writes feels exactly like what you might play on the spur of the moment in a small group. I don’t know if he went to church that much, but some of his things sound like heavy music from black roots in church. Thad Jones sounded that same way. The rhythm and fire is a necessary part of it.”
“I came up in the church the same way he did,” responded Tolliver, who spent his first ten years in Jacksonville, Florida, before migrating to Harlem in 1952. “I noticed the rhythms of the church and the communal thing that happens between the parishioners and the pastors—especially in the Holiness Church, where my grandmother was. They’d get up and have the call-and-response with each other, and some of them would actually fall out and froth at the mouth, like the Haitian voodoo business. Other parts of the family were in other denominations, but it was all communal, and the music came out of the old hymn books by James Weldon Johnson and others from the 19th century. There were all different types of rhythms in it. So early on it was apparent to me that rhythm, as personified in the modern drumkit, is integral for this kind of music. I require the drummer to really lay it on. A lot of my compositions and arrangements sound as if I wrote them for the drums, and in my playing I work off rhythm a lot, moreso, let’s say, than playing linearly.
“Big band jazz is not about over-writing to the point where all these different sections are playing in different time signatures and all that nonsense. It doesn’t have to sound as though you’re writing for a symphony. After all, we are playing this so-called thing named jazz. Jazz is about theme, melody, call-and-response, counterpoint if you want, but not overly done—and always improvising. If you take away improvising and swing, then it seems to me that you are removing two of the prime elements that allow us to call ourselves jazz musicians. You know what jazz is because of the way the drummer plays. If you hear TING, TING-A-LING, TING-A-LING, that’s jazz. If you don’t hear that, then it’s some other kind of music—which is fine. It’s the rock-solid base that allows you to do all the other things. Improvising is the meat of jazz, and the drummer propels that improvising. Therefore, I take careful consideration in selecting the drummer.”
With drummer-of-choice Ralph Peterson unavailable for the October week, Greg Hutchinson played the charts with crisp aplomb. “The music I write is intended to play the musician,” Tolliver remarked. “To gain control of it, he will take the music even further, as Greg did. The language makes the artist play. Thad needed those all heavy-duty guys in order to play his music, and when I do the big band I want the best players I can get, the big-time horses, to pick up the language and take it to the next level.”
With three major New York club appearances within five months and the Mosaic reissue, enough buzz may exist to make this the moment for Tolliver to actualize his ambition. Negotiations are underway to record the orchestra, and this winter he will reissue Impact, which he licensed in the ‘90s in Japan and Germany. In keeping with the philosophy of Max Roach, his former employer, he will continue to do everything in his power to control his creative output and the means by which he produces it. He intends to spend his sixties “firing up on all cylinders.”
“No matter what’s happening, even if you play a ballad, Charles wants it always burning,” Harper said. “It seems like a very young approach to the big band. He’s still a young lion.”
“It comes from the style of ‘jazz’ that we played, which is high energy music,” Tolliver concluded. “As a young child I listened to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Max, and they were on all cylinders all the time. It’s in my blood.”
* * *
Charles Tolliver (Oct. 26, 2005):
TP: How long have you been teaching at the New School?
TOLLIVER: 12 or 13 years now.  Reggie Workman asked me if I was interested in teaching Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and it sort of came that way. I teach the repertoire.
TP: You also teach composition and orchestration. Have you stayed in New York the whole time, from the ‘70s and ‘80s until the early ‘90s.
TOLLIVER: I’ve been here since 1952.
TP: You’ve been a New Yorker for 53 years, except for four years in D.C.
TOLLIVER: Yeah, but I was always coming home.
TP: You spent your first ten years in Jacksonville.
TP: From the end of the Strata East years and…
TOLLIVER: There’s not an end. We need to correct that. It never folded. It always was alive from its inception.
TP: Before ‘93, when Live In Berlin comes out…
TOLLIVER: There was a full operation from inception until ‘82 or ‘83. Then I decided to shut down the office operation. Financially, it was just too expensive. Anyway, I was already given an early cue that the compact disk format would be soon coming, so I basically gave myself a five-year rest from looking after that situation day to day.
TP: During the ’80s, were you a full-time musician?
TOLLIVER: Of course.
TP: I’m sorry to ask, but there was the impression among so many people that you were doing this, you were doing that…
TOLLIVER: For over ten years, I went all over the place, playing and performing and then looking after this baby of ours, the Strata-East thing. I decided to give myself a rest from that around ‘83. But as you know, the market for straight-ahead playing that I’m known for was such that it was difficult to be working all the time in the States. I did have a route to take bands to Europe, so I was doing that a lot between ‘83 and ‘88. So consequently, I wasn’t playing in any venues here in New York City or the ten major markets in the United States. That might be a reason why people thought I was off the scene.
TP: So your activity was mostly in Europe.
TOLLIVER: Just Europe.
TP: Were you teaching during those years?
TOLLIVER: No. Full time music. I did a lot of writing of big band music and performing it with a lot of the European radio orchestras.
TP: So these days you’re playing a lot of your compositions from the ’80s and ‘90s.
TOLLIVER: Right, I’m playing them now.
TP: Let’s jump to 2003 and the reemergence of your big band in this country. By the way, did the big band play publicly in the ‘70s?
TOLLIVER: No. Just made the recordings for the fun of it, to see if we could do it, and that was it. There was never a thought of fielding a big band.
TP: Have you played your charts in any of those workshop situations in New York?
TOLLIVER: No. I just wrote the music, hired the musicians, and did the recording.
TP: That’s quite a feat. Almost all the great arrangers talk about the trial-and-error process, hearing their stuff played and…
TP: Not you.
TOLLIVER: I just sort of seized the moment to get the best musicians in town that I could, and did the recordings.
TP: You’re saying that so nonchalantly.
TOLLIVER: Well, the guys who are on there did a terrific job. We just rehearsed a day or so before the recording and hit!
TP: Before we talk about resurrecting the band, did your thinking about big bands and composition evolve over the years? You mentioned a few days ago that you still think the way you did in the ‘70s.
TP: But you’ve evolved and grown in various ways.
TOLLIVER: Yes and no. I haven’t thought to hit the ground running with a big band after doing the recordings. I had hoped to make a good recording with the music I had written. Then I put it away. As I said, in the mid-‘80s, I pulled it out again and did a lot of work with that as a soloist, and sometimes with a quartet in Europe with the radio orchestras. So that writing stood me in good stead at that point. Then in the mid-‘80s that gave me a little more emphasis to add a few more big band charts to what I already had, still never thinking about, “well, this is something I want to do full time.” A quartet setting, that’s how I burst out here, so that’s my real love. And still is. Although I love what’s happening with the big band thing now. Which is really basically an extension of what I do in the small group, with a lot of orchestral stuff written around that.
That’s basically how it evolved, just little bit by little bit. My style of writing I think is basically the same, which is a forward-looking harmonic and rhythmical thing. Which just goes to show… By example, the John Coltrane Quartet and what they created by 1965, it’s still as if it hadn’t even been played yet, or conceived. That’s how modern it is. My whole thrust is coming out of that sort of style.
TP: Trying to extrapolate those ideas onto the trumpet.
TOLLIVER: Yes, and also orchestrally.
TP: Did you know Coltrane?
TOLLIVER: Yes, I did.
TP: Did you ever play with him?
TOLLIVER: No. I was too quiet and too… I wasn’t the kind of guy who pushed John. It was wonderful to be around them and to hear them and watch them do their thing. But in his case, he was such an unassuming guy that you hardly knew he was around when he was in your presence. But I did know him a little bit and met him. He was a very quiet individual.
TP: Was Africa Brass a very important recording for you?
TOLLIVER: Yes, I would say so. Because it was again him expounding on the quartet idea. As we were to find out, Eric Dolphy was the one who actually did those arrangements, and he actually said, as has been written, that he just tried to use the McCoy Tyner chording and expand that with the big band. Ultimately, though, what made that happen is the rhythm section – John Coltrane himself, of course, and the rhythm section. When I’m writing big band stuff, I’m always thinking about the rhythm section first to get the best support that a rhythm section normally would give to a soloist, to then move that a step ahead with the big band support, but the same idea. It’s always a problem to find individuals who are thinking along those lines, who can give you that.
TP: Were most of your big band charts written with Stanley Cowell and Cecil McBee in mind?
TOLLIVER: To some extent, yes, because we had been playing together for quite some time. So I knew they would be able to add the support I needed for those charts.
TP: It must be nice for you now to have Cecil McBee playing in the big band, because his lines seem to be in synch with the way you think. There’s a certain synchronicity between the motion of your trumpet lines and the way his basslines lock in.
TOLLIVER: Stanley was in the first formation of this recent big band business.
TP: You and Stanley think alike harmonically, I’d think.
TOLLIVER: Oh, yeah. I would think so. We came up together and played in a lot of different settings.
TP: But you were playing with John Hicks back in the day, too.
TOLLIVER: Yes. Before I met Stanley, John and I basically started out together. So I’m as close with him musically as I am with Stanley.
TP: So what led to the resurrection of the big band in this country?
TOLLIVER: Do you mean what led to me now dealing with the big band? Not necessarily in this country. Well, a fellow named David Weiss, who is a trumpetist and composer – and a good one, too, at that – and who was doing some things with Freddie Hubbard in an octet… A few years back, there was a tribute to the scene that was happening in Alphabet City in the ’60s – a tribute to Slugs basically. Since I was the only one who had made a recording there, they asked me to do a concert at BCC for this remembrance of Slugs, in which Stanley Cowell and Cecil and I, and a drummer who had worked with me also for a long time, Clifford Barbaro. David Weiss attended that performance, and we exchanged numbers, and we talked later… He was asking me what I’d done with my big band stuff, and I said, “It’s collecting dust.” I mean, occasionally I’d dust it off, take a look at something, maybe add something here or write something off of that. David said that perhaps he could interest some of the venues here. That took several months, and finally he got the Jazz Standard to agree to have me for a couple of nights. I put together the best available musicians that I wanted to have, and it was very successful. So I decided I’d do this again if the opportunity presented itself. That’s happened 4 or 5 times in the last two years.
TP: Mostly at the Jazz Standard, but also this summer at Dizzy’s Room. Has the music developed over the last couple of years?
TOLLIVER: I’ve written a lot of new things, which I’m performing with this big band project. Some of it may be a little more evolved from let’s say 30 years ago. I’ve been writing this stuff for over 35 years, I guess. Actually more than that, because I actually started messing around with big band stuff in the late ‘60s.
But again, to answer the question you asked previously: What we were doing in the ‘60s is still so alive and well now that you can work on that, and it’s still fresh and new. Anything that’s new coming now at this point can’t really supplant that. I mean, the music created in the ‘60s…
TP: A lot of very talented students have come through the New School during your time. Let’s talk about the ways they’ve built off that body of music in building their own sounds. And let’s talk about how the music you came up in, and that incredible scene you came up in, that golden age where the whole history of the music was available every night if you were willing to take it in…
TOLLIVER: Everybody was still alive, with the possible exception of Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro and perhaps Hot Lips Page.
TP: Is it attitudinal? Is it vocabulary? What are the dynamics that separate the musical vocabulary of the ‘60s, which stops being recorded by major labels after ‘69, and certainly not after Miles goes electric…
TOLLIVER: Alfred Lion made the rest of the boys toe the line by just bringing out new, great talent all the time. But he got tired and by the time I arrived, he had sold the company and retired.
TP: Otherwise you would have been a Blue Note artist.
TOLLIVER: Yes. After that, Creed Taylor came along with his new idea for mating the…I don’t know which description you can say except that it was a grand idea, I think, because he gave some of our great artists a chance to really see some financial rewards by still soloing great but with a more, let’s say, accessible to the general public… It was not geared to jazz fans at all. Jazz fans would buy it simply because they wanted to hear the solos on it. But it was geared to a wide audience and it worked. So what happened was that all that great innovative stuff that was going on both compositionally and improvisationally in the ’50s and ‘60s sort of was in a vacuum. The newer generation began to feed off the crossover that was happening in the ’70s, and of course, Miles made a move after 7 years or so off the scene and came back, which gave it even more impetus in the ‘80s and ‘90s…
TP: What did you think of what Miles was doing in the ‘70s? Did you like those bands?
TOLLIVER: It would be imprudent of me to pass judgment on any way Miles went.
TP: What was your own opinion at the time?
TOLLIVER: I decided not to have an opinion, because I enjoyed his bands of the ‘60s, and I sort of just watched with a lot of interest how he was running this in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was having fun in his senior citizenry.
TP: But in the ‘70s, when he started to go that way, it coincided almost exactly with Strata East. Wayne leaves, Keith Jarrett comes in…
TOLLIVER: I had no interest in going in that direction, because I already had a direction I was going in, and I knew I was going to expound on that for a while. So it was of no interest to me to go in that direction that they were going in. It would have meant changing the beat. It would have meant no longer jazz drumming. It would have meant rock drumming, and I wasn’t going to have that. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with rock drumming. But that’s rock.
TP: Well, you’ve got some funk beats, or rhythms that can be interpreted as such anyway. But you’ve been teaching for 13 years at a school whose students have a lot to do with the way the music is evolving. The music of the ‘60s, let’s break it down, not socially, but the actual musical ideas, how the kids who have come through the New School, like the Stricklands, Robert Glasper…
TOLLIVER: They all came through me.
TP: Brad Mehldau probably preceded you.
TOLLIVER: No, he didn’t precede me. He just wasn’t in any of my classes.
TP: These musicians all know the Blue Note food groups by heart. I’m just thinking about the ideas that were animating the Blue Note sound, and which are still your lodestone, which you still draw upon. Why is it such a rich vocabulary?
TOLLIVER: You mean the Blue Note sound?
TP: The Blue Note sound and the sounds that still inspire you.
TOLLIVER: Because Alfred and the musicians themselves put together different groups to play the repertoire of themselves to such an extent that you could almost bet that, no matter what the pairing of a particular group of musicians, this would be a first-rate recording for history. That happened time and time again, and hundreds of LPs issued in that manner. So the vocabulary that was developed through the Blue Note catalog – and to a certain extent Prestige also and Keepnews’ companies – were for the most part repertorial work played by great stylists. This body of work is lasting because it’s repertorial.
TP: By “repertorial” you mean it’s canonical…
TOLLIVER: I don ‘t know the exact dictionary definition of repertory, but it’s something like playing several compositions a season with a set group, so that each group gets a chance to expound on this repertory. The language that was developed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, off of them harmonically, permeated through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, only changing a couple of times, with Trane making his entrance and doing some things harmonically a little different, and with Elvin Jones making the move progression-wise after Max Roach – and of course, Roy Haynes. But the language, the repertory, actually played the musicians. The repertory itself made the artist play. For me, that’s the reason why when I’m doing this big band stuff, I wanted the guys that I picked to do it, so that they then pick up on that and make it even greater.
TP: Within jazz historiography, when people think about the line of trumpet vocabulary, you and Woody Shaw are the culmination of a timeline, and then there’s a ten-year gap, and then Wallace Roney and Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis pick up on it and go in some different directions. But you and Woody Shaw, before the “end of history,” where musicians begin to embrace the whole timeline of vocabulary… You and Woody Shaw sort of end the thing. Is that accurate?
TOLLIVER: Yes, it is accurate. Woody and I… Alfred would not give us a record date. Woody had recorded with Horace Silver and other artists. I had recorded with Horace and of course Jackie McLean. But because he was retiring, he wasn’t going to “make any more trumpet stars.” The way you got in, if you got to Blue Note and you got a deal with Alfred to do one-two-three records a year, you would then be Downbeat’s New Star on the trumpet and then off you go. Woody and I got caught right at the end, and Alfred wouldn’t give us that in, even though we had already been tapped by other greats to record on Blue Note and worked… By that time, we had already worked with some of the heavy-duties. This could have been, and was devastating probably to both of us… A little bit more to him than me, I think, because I made a decision that I was going to do something about that, which was to make my own recordings. It took Woody another four-five years before he was able to deal with Muse and then Columbia with Dexter. Historically, with the two of us being the last of that group of trumpet players… There was a period… Of course, Miles and Freddie were the guys the industry was dealing with in terms of the crossover stuff in the ‘70s…
TP: Once you decided that you weren’t going to be a pharmacist and that you were going to be a musician… This happened in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and all these roiling ideas…
TOLLIVER: I probably never was going to be a pharmacist unless I could have continued in school while I was doing what I was doing. Because in my junior year, I had found certain ways of playing a trumpet that I’d been looking for. So there was no need for me to stay in school down in Washington, D.C.
TP: What were you looking for?
TOLLIVER: My own way of playing the trumpet.
TP: Can you break that down a bit? If you care to.
TOLLIVER: A style. That this is me. That someone hears me, they know that’s me. Rather than playing some of my heroes. And playing that well enough to get gigs. It wasn’t good enough for me to just emulate some heroes well enough that you could get gigs, because you sounded great playing them.
TP: Your phrasing seems completely unique to me. The way you organize rhythm…
TOLLIVER: I’m working off rhythm a lot, more than I am let’s say linearly playing lines. That’s true. I’m working off rhythmical things. But if I could have brought my classroom from Howard University back up to New York with me while I was trying to get into this thing, then I probably would have done both at the same time. But there was no way to stay in Washington, D.C. at that moment when I felt I was ready to try this thing and finish my studies. I was lucky to get in with Jackie McLean almost instantaneously when I got here, so there was just no need to go back to school.
TP: You must have reminded him of a souped-up Kenny Dorham or something, because you have a sort of cry in your sound, a vocalized thing…
TOLLIVER: Maybe. He certainly was one of my heroes, and any serious trumpet student of this music. Kenny Dorham is big.
TP: The other reference I’m hearing a lot is Dizzy. You seem to have soaked up more Dizzy than some…
TOLLIVER: Rhythmically. But no one can play like Dizzy Gillespie. Actually, there was one person who gave you the feeling of Dizzy – Lonnie Hillyer.
TP: Speaking of pre Jon Faddis players.
TOLLIVER: Well, Jon Faddis only in the way Dizzy plays high. Jon can do that, of course, with this phenomenal ability he has. But I mean, to actually tell a story in improvising, Lonnie Hillyer was the one who came the closest that I ever heard.
TP: So you come upon your own style when you’re about 21…
TOLLIVER: Since I was 18.
TP: You said your second or third year. Did you go to college early?
TOLLIVER: Let’s see…Yeah, about 20.
TP: You’ve pretty much been adding iterations and refinements to that style for 43 years.
TP: Sounds really modern.
TOLLIVER: You know, I was in a freshman class at Howard University that had some heckuva young people. Fabulous… Andrew White. Other politicals, like Stokely Carmichael…
TP: Did you play a lot with Billy Harper back in the ‘60s?
TOLLIVER: No. This is the first time we’re playing together. We were always good acquaintances because of the Strata East project. We have one, Capra Black, which I think is one of his best recordings ever. So we’ve been knowing each other for over 40 years. I remember when he first came to New York, the night when he first hung out. He’s a home run hitter, to use a phrase, and that’s what I want. I want home run hitters. Whenever there’s a chance to have him, I expect to have him in this setting. Well, he did a lot of playing with Thad Jones. Big band is not new to him at all.
TP: So did Jimmy Owens.
TOLLIVER: Yes. Actually, Jimmy and Billy only recently have been playing with me on this big band thing. Originally, I started using some other musicians whom I wanted to hear in this setting, and then it was time to call on Billy and Jimmy, and they were available the last few times.
TP: What are you looking for from the drummer? You had Greg Hutchinson last week, and by the end of the week, he was destroying that music!
TOLLIVER: Right. Again, this music will play you… The music that I write is intended to play the musicians. To take no prisoners. And in order for him to gain control of it, he will then play that music and take it even further. That’s what happened with Greg Hutchinson, and it must happen with the kind of music that I write and what I expect out of the men I call on to play it.
TP: The music has so much energy. Most big band music you hear now is orchestral, there’s an arc, crescendos, decrescendos, colors, a broad harmonic palette. But yours is energy all the time.
TOLLIVER: Well, there’s such a thing as overwriting. After all, we are playing this so-called thing named jazz. Jazz is about theme, melody, call-and-response – but improvising. If you take away improvising and swing, then it seems to me that you are taking away two of the prime elements that allows us to call ourselves jazz musicians. Well, a lot of people could say, “Well, I’m not a jazz musician. I don’t want to be called a jazz musician. I’m a total musician.” Well, that’s fine. But for whatever the reason, we have a name called “jazz” for this music, and you know it when you’re listening to this music because of the way the drummer plays. If you hear TING, TING-A-LING, TING-A-LING, that’s jazz. If you don’t hear that, then it’s some other kind of music. And that’s fine. Therefore, if you overwrite, you are taking away from those elements which I just mentioned, which is theme, melody, counterpoint if you want, but not overly done. Because we want to hear the solos. We want to hear some improvising. Improvising is the meat of jazz, and the drummer propelling that improvising. Therefore, careful considerations have to be taken when you select the drummer. Because the wrong drummer can destroy everything. Not literally speaking…
TP: But if they’re not in synch with the concept… I mean, you don’t have to play TING, TINGALING, TINGALING with certain music. In fact, it might not be appropriate for certain music. But for your music… It still needs to be more than that. It needs to be very elaborated.
TOLLIVER: Yes. But it’s not jazz if it’s not TING, TINGALING, TINGALING. I’m sorry. TING, TINGALING, TINGALING, TINGALING is jazz. It’s what we are about. Now, if I want to play other forms that are coming off of this, like free forms, then… Okay. When Trane went free, totally free, Elvin exited. The reason why is because free forms of music requires everyone to be in synch with doing that and not worrying about supporting the soloist strictly in time. I like free form, but I don’t necessarily call it jazz. If I’m going to call it jazz, I’m talking about TING, TINGALING. I’m sorry. I am talking about TING, TINGALING, TINGALING. The reason why I am dogmatic about that is that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk – and of course, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach after that – helped to create this language in such a way that it requires, just as in classical music, there are certain things which happen, that you can do a little differently here and there, like all the modern techniques which are important with classical music, but at the base sitting underneath that is this rock-solid thing which allows you to do all these other things. For instance, free form coming off of that, and huge elaborations in an orchestral way. Even with the things which Gil Evans did for Miles Davis, they never lost that entity of jazz.
TP: Let me ask you about your early big band charts…
TOLLIVER: But do you understand what I’m saying? I’m very dogmatic about that.
TP: You’re saying that jazz is a specific thing, and other things are related to jazz but aren’t jazz as you know it?
TOLLIVER: No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that the language, the repertoire, the underpinnings of jazz is a specific thing, and the reason why… You asked me about the drums. The drum is just about one of the most important links to that. If you took away the drums from my music, you could actually call it a lot of other types of music. You could call it all the new words they use for describing music. Crossover. A lot of nomenclatures. If you took drumming away from Miles Davis’ groups, if you took Elvin Jones away from John Coltrane, then it would be totally free-form jazz. This is very important. People don’t understand that, that the drum… I might as well say it. The drum is the most important thing in jazz. If that element is not there, whether it’s straight-ahead swing, which is what they call mainstream of straight-ahead jazz; or more loose and free, where you have more modernistic approaches to whatever the song is and improvisation and so on; or totally free, which is still cool… But you have to have the musicians who are in synch to do that. If you bring a bebopper over here and ask him to do that, and he doesn’t know how to do that, this is ridiculous.
TP: You played with all the great drummers, just about.
TOLLIVER: Yes, but I also plant my ears what the leader intended. I was with Archie Shepp when he was writing all that stuff. I mean, he’d come down to my loft and he’d bring this piece that stretched from one wall to the other, and we’d play this stuff. But the ears are in synch. You can’t take a fellow who’s coming up now and put him in the element of what you’re talking about, the ‘60s, if he hasn’t already done his homework on that. Fortunately, the students who have come through me at the New School, in particular Keyon Harold, has done totally his homework. To me, he’s the best thing I’ve heard of the young fellows playing trumpet today. He has big ears and he can apply that base to any modernistic things that are going on now. But again, the drums is the most important element for me in jazz, and there’s a reason why my music has so much rhythm to it and has so much energy. Because I require the drummer to really lay it on.
TP: Maybe that’s what makes it sound so modern and fresh. Someone like Greg Hutchinson has that base, but he’s also very contemporary.
TOLLIVER: Right. He has a wide base.
TP: That night at Iridium, I asked if Thad Jones was an influence. There are some obvious parallels. You’re both trumpet players, you’re both self-taught…
TOLLIVER: That’s just by accident!
TP: Nevertheless. You’re both self-taught arrangers and composers. You both got into big band chart writing…
TOLLIVER: From small groups.
TP: …from small groups and sort of by accidents. So how much of an influence?
TOLLIVER: That was my hero.
TP: Well, talk about that band… [END OF SIDE A]
TOLLIVER: I was about 24 when he formed that band. I‘d go there just to hear him, and he’d say to me I could play with him if I wanted to. But I had too much respect for that. I thought you had to have honed your skills… Even though I had already worked with Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson, Thad was so… There’s no words to explain Thad Jones. As great as Gil Evans is, that’s a whole nother greatness. But Thad Jones could write an arrangement without going to the piano. I thought that’s like God at work! Every note would be correct. Everything would be perfect. And he had the men who could PLAY this difficult stuff. That was the marvelous thing. So I watched that, and I thought I can’t possibly hope that I was going to happen like that. That’s the reason why I never mentally wanted to think about having to have a big band, because this would be too much. Watching that happen, how could it possibly… That you could do that, you could write that kind of music, and then have the musicians to play it! I never thought that I would be in a position where I could have that, so I never wanted it, because it would have been too much mentally to hope for or want that, and know that you actually could write music like that, but then to find the musicians who could PLAY it…
TP: Thad Jones is like a post-Ellington writer, He gave everyone a melody. You tend to use the sections more as homophonic units. Was that deliberate? Were you trying to differentiate yourself…
TOLLIVER: Well, a lot of times I want the sections to talk to each other.
TP: A lot of call-and-response
TOLLIVER: Absolutely. That’s one of my devices. In that respect, it becomes more personal. People recognize me right away. But there was no device that was not available to Thad Jones. That was the incredible thing. He’s a big influence on me. Total.
TP: But it seems that the influence is not a direct thing can be traced into your sound.
TOLLIVER: Not in the way I write. No, you can’t.
TP: It’s more spiritual.
TOLLIVER: Yes. I can tell you one thing which is apparent, is to have the best players alive available. I saw how he did that. There’s a reason why all those heavy-duty guys are in that band, because he needed them in order to play the music that he wrote. That stuck me with all the time. Whenever I would do big band stuff, I had to take time, way ahead of time, to find the guys who were available…the big-time horses, make sure they were available so I could call on them. So if I wanted to take this big band to the next level, I had to also make sure those men are available. It’s not easy.
TP: They want to be paid, and it’s a big band!
TOLLIVER: Even though they love me, they still want to get paid.
TP: You’d be the same way probably.
TOLLIVER: Well, yes and no. I think they probably would go a long way with me until things happen, which is what’s been happening. That’s the same thing that happened with Thad, how they got started. All those great studio guys they were using, they already were doing okay, so a Monday night they maybe started without any money being paid to them…
TP: So why haven’t you done a Monday night thing?
TOLLIVER: Because there’s no time for that. There was a lot of time then, to build something like that. You’ve got to go big with this NOW. It’s now or never. I don’t have time to wait to build that.
TP: Because you’re 62.
TOLLIVER: Well, not just that. It’s that, man, I wrote some of those music over 20 years ago! If I’m going to play it, I want to play it big time.
TP: Did music ever have a political connotation to you?
TOLLIVER: It may be read in, but absolutely not. I’m not there.
TP: But you’re going up there, you’re wearing the beret, you’re wearing the leather jacket, when you conduct you have your fist up, the Huey Newton thing…
TOLLIVER: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
TP: You went to college with Stokely Carmichael, and jazz was a political thing in the ‘60s. Apart from any particular political platform…
TOLLIVER: There’s only one thing that I am guilty of, if you will, and that is ownership. I’m a believer in ownership of your intellectual property or art form.
TP: I lived in Chicago in the ‘70s and I knew a lot of people in the AACM…
TOLLIVER: Well, we were doing that at the same time as they were, but I wasn’t even aware of them.
TP: All I’m saying is that I think it’s coming out of a similar consciousness: Own your means of production, don’t let yourself be exploited, and express yourself with autonomy.
TOLLIVER: Yes, but it’s not political. It has nothing to do with politics. A lot of people have tried to read the political and the racial overtones into the creation of Strata East Records. It had absolutely nothing to do with that. It had to do with ownership, pure and simple.
TP: What’s the status of Strata-East Records right now?
TOLLIVER: Strata-East is alive and well. At one point there were 40 or 50 product, and I cut it down because after ‘82, as I said, I needed a rest. It went down to maybe 20 or 30 [items in the catalog]. Every few years I’ll lease overseas or to Japan just to keep things going that way. The label was never created to put artists under contract, so it’s a completely kind of concept. It was created as a conduit for artists to get their product to the marketplace, pure and simple.
TP: But now it looks like you may enter into a relationship with Mosaic.
TOLLIVER: I have entered into a relationship with Mosaic. Michael Cuscuna goes back to the days when he was an intern at Record World, just being brought in to do his writings for LPs. He had a paid on West End Avenue, and when I came out with the first big band records to launch the label, I sussed him out, and we’ve been acquaintances ever since.
TP: But let’s be concrete. There’s a Mosaic Select box within the purview of this story.
TOLLIVER: It was just released last week. We’ve been tossing around for a couple of years how we could get involved with further distribution of the Strata East stuff, and it just dawned on him, I guess, since I’ve got this thing going now with the big band, that it might not be a bad idea to get started, and better sooner than later, and to kick things off sequentially, the way the label developed, which is the quartet things, the early things at Slugs, and perhaps next the big band things, and then other artists following.
TP: But what’s coming out now is Slugs and Live in Tokyo, so it catches you live and in performance…
TOLLIVER: And unissued, I might add. Over an hour’s worth of stuff. The thing is to find unissued things and put those together as well.
TP: Do you have intentions to record this big band?
TOLLIVER: Oh, I have every intention.
TP: How close are you to realizing that? Might you undertake it yourself again?
TOLLIVER: If I have to.
TP: It’s a much less complex proposition to record yourself.
TOLLIVER: And convoluted. Obviously, I’m going to record the present big band project. It’s only a matter of when. Shortly, I hope. Whether I’m doing it myself or someone else, it’s a question of the costs, like always. Hopefully, that can be resolved soon.
TP: You’ve said a few times that big band isn’t your primary interest, that it remains small group, trumpet playing, improvisation, rhythm, energy. But what do you think you’ve accomplished with the big band? What’s your position on the timeline?
TOLLIVER: Well, I feel that if I am successful with picking the right musicians to play my music, there shouldn’t be any obstacles with getting the music out to the public in the short term. In the long term, I’m still loving the small group situation, but one way I can have my cake and eat it, too, is the way in which I write the big band music, I’m still playing small group inside of it when I play.
TP: But can you evaluate your accomplishment as an orchestrator and composer? I think you can find objective language.
TOLLIVER: I want to continue to write music which reflects I was talking about before – the essence of jazz. By example, my arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight. To take songs that represent the essence of jazz, the repertoire of jazz, which is the underpinnings of our music… Because most of the great writers and composers of jazz were also great improvisers. To me, it’s inextricably tied together. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, they wrote like they played. They were compositional geniuses off of their idiom. You can go down the line from there. All the great players, almost to a man, were great composers and arrangers. So to me, the repertoire is the underpinning of this music, and I would hopefully like to compose and of course arrange for the big band, in my style, music that will keep that alive.
TP: Did you ever have any formal lessons in orchestration?
TP: Not one. It’s all self-taught.
TOLLIVER: The whole thing is self-taught.
TP: You had lessons on trumpet, though.
TOLLIVER: Well, if you could call my uncle giving me five dollars to go downtown to a place called Hartnett Studios, which had some teachers on staff who would come down on Saturdays, and you’d sit there in a chair, and you’d put an (?) book up, and you’d play the book, which you’d already mastered, and the guy would say, “Very good, thank you very much,” and he’d take your money and you’d go home. So it was just a reaffirmation that you had done your homework at home.
TP: Were you a natural trumpet player?
TOLLIVER: Yes. My grandmother got a cornet for me when I was 8 years old. There was a wonderful old gentleman down in Jacksonville, Florida, named Mr. Walker. Geez, I can still remember his name. He was the person that you would go to for learning your instrument. I went there, and he said, “Can you hold the instrument?” I held the instrument. “Do you know where the fingers go?” I knew where they go. Then he said, “Let me hear you play something,” and I played something, then he said, “Okay, I can’t show you…”
TP: That wasn’t the first time you’d picked up the instrument.
TOLLIVER: No. When my grandmother got it, I’d already taken it at home and I said, “Oh, well, this fits…”
TP: The trumpet is not an easy instrument.
TOLLIVER: No, because of the embouchure…
TP: And to play the way you play is probably the most difficult… You don’t like to make things easy on yourself.
TOLLIVER: No, I don’t. You hit the nail on the head. I take the most difficult path for improvisation. Because it’s easy to actually play a number of choruses and never make a mistake, never break down. You just play them effortlessly. That’s no fun. You need to get in hot water by trying something out right from the jump, get yourself out of that, and move on to the next chorus. I rumble. I like the rumble.
TP: Do you still practice every day?
TOLLIVER: Not every day. I should. Because a trumpet player should put their lips to the mouthpiece at least an hour a day, just to keep the embouchure dead-on. You do need to put your chops on that iron, because the lips… It’s trained to sense the molecules of this iron, and it only needs to touch it a little bit, a half-hour or an hour every day, and it stays just right. Now, if you leave it for a few days, or whatever length of time, it won’t respond right away, and if you ask it… It’s just like a racehorse. Those stallions, you can see they’re all wound up when they get them in the gate. But boom, when that gate opens and they’re out there, not every one of them… If they haven’t been brought right to the right moment in the weeks prior, with running every day up to a certain clocking on the time, they’re not going to get to that eighth pole, and they’ll break down. That’s what happens with a trumpet player. You’ll break down if you don’t stick with the instrument every day or every other day, if possible.
TP: Most cats when they hit 60 don’t play with the…
TOLLIVER: Well, Clark Terry is just the greatest. He plays just as well as he did when he was 20. There’s nobody even in that world, in that class. He’s a very rhythmical player.
TP: There was this dichotomy in the ‘60s between jazz as entertainment and being an art. It seems like you always put yourself on the side of being an artist.
TOLLIVER: Yes. But if the musicians… If all of you are playing well together, it is both stimulating and entertaining to the fans of the music. Because even though they may dig how well you’re executing something, they also can be entertained by the fact that you’re all having fun playing that stuff together, even if it looks hard and mean, if guys are frowning and all that sort of business. But it can be entertaining if the listener and the fans go away with a feeling that the group played well together. For me, that’s entertaining. If you’re executing that art very well, then it can also be entertaining to the listener.
TP: Do you like club gigs?
TOLLIVER: I like anything in which you can professionally present the music.
TP: But the notion of playing five nights with the same ensemble, and as you said, allowing the repertoire to play them over that time must be…
TOLLIVER: Yes. Actually, I miss the way the cabarets used to be in the old days, which is that we’d get started around 9 o’clock and we’d go until 3:30 or 4 o’clock. Now, starting at 7:30 is really a bit early. Way too early. You’re home at midnight in bed. You’re through by 10:30, and 11:30 on the weekends. It doesn’t feel right.