Photo of Charles Davis. 11th Street – March 18th 2013.
Recollections of ‘Prince Charles’ Davis
I first met Charles Davis at the Jazzmobile Workshops in Harlem at PS 201 on one Saturday morning around 1975.
Founded by Dr. Billy Taylor, jazz pianist and educator, this program was the place to be for all young musicians who wanted to learn jazz in NY. Staffed by such notables as the great Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, Lisle Atkinson, Freddie Waits, John Stubblefield and a host of other jazz giants….This program provided a solid foundation for aspiring musicians in theory, sight reading, improvisation, instrumental technique and jazz history. Jazzmobile was the pioneer program of what is now called jazz education. Here the actual practitioners and masters of this Art… passed the elements of the jazz tradition on to inner city youth and anyone who attended. This program and the Barry Harris workshops are passing down the true Jazz tradition.
As a young 17 year alto/baritone saxophonist full of the dream of becoming the next Charlie Parker of the saxophone. I found myself in the workshop class facilitated by baritone saxophone legend Charles Davis, who had I believe the intermediate/advanced level saxophone class. Charles had us running through the various approaches to improvising on chord changes He was no nonsense yet patient….emphasising the importance of a thorough understanding and mastery of basic scales and chords on our instruments and the correlation of the various scales to chords and chord progressions.
I remember attending one of Charles outdoor concerts in Jamaica queens where he enthralled his audience with baritone saxophone virtuosity. Motivating me to purchase his latest album he was selling after the concert. Young bubbly and enthusiastic as I was I did not get the idea he was impressed that I bought his record but I cherished it anyway. Listening to his nuances over and over.
Some years later, in 1976 I was sitting in Dr. Ken Makanda McIntyre’s office at state university college at Old Westbury, listening to Sun Ra’s Jazz in Silhouette. Reading the names of the two phenomenal baritone saxophonists on the album I recognized the name of my jazz mobile instructor Charles Davis and heard what I could only describe as ‘Bird’ on baritone sax.
This album changed my entire music direction as my life’s dream now became to be part of the greatest band in the world………….the Sun Ra Arkestra.
After leaving the jazz mobile classes as I moved to study at SUNY My next encounter with Charles Davis was at the ‘Jazz in Symphonique’ concert which featured Sun Ra’s arrangements for Arkestra with strings and orchestral accompaniment of bassoons, flutes, French horns etc. in Nantes France in 1990. This was recorded and released by Leo Records as ‘Pleiades’
For this landmark concert with strings, Sun Ra brought Charles back to the Arkestra as a featured soloist to take some weight off of then ailing John Gilmore. Charles improvisations that night were now conceptually closer to those of Gilmore and Coltrane as he sailed into the stratosphere with ease…exploring the harmonics which can be brought out of the Baritone. Charles seemed to have a psychic connection with Sonny and instantly would know when Sum Ra wanted him to solo.
Charles was a member of Sun Ra’s elite fraternity the band nicknamed the Big Boys….of whom Sonny would call upon when there was really good pay. So we knew it was a big concert or tour when Charles showed up. Never saying too much but speaking volumes with his horn. Like John, every solo was a lesson.
Admittedly I did not know Charles or his buddy Pat Patrick well enough to articulate about their friendship with Sun Ra only that they knew and were recruited by Sun Ra when he was still Sonny Blount. While I’ve never heard either of them expound on Sun Ra’s equations. I have likewise never heard a disparaging word about him from either of these gentlemen of Jazz.
Charles Davis membership amongst the A line of jazz musicians began with his attendance at du Sable High School under the instruction of the legendary Capt. Walter Dyett teacher of Sarah Vaughn, Nat king Cole, Johnny Hartman Johnny Griffin, Von freeman, Richard Davis, and Sun Ra Arkestra bandmates , Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Julien Preister and Ronnie Boykins all members of what Danny Ray Thompson calls Sun Ra’s ‘1st band ‘ which recorded Jazz in Silhouette, Sun Song, Supersonic Jazz, Sound of Joy, Jazz by Sun Ra and several other Ra Lps from 1955 to 1960.
Charles would tell us of the Captain’s extremely harsh discipline which cumulated with so many of his students rising to the highest echelon of musical excellence.
Occasionally Charles would enter discussions of Jazz history which would reflect a fundamental difference in his approach to the saxophone and Gilmores despite the fact they shared the instruction of Capt. Dyett.
Some of these discussions were very provocative in that Charles firmly believed that Lester Young was a more influential saxophonist that Coleman Hawkins. As you listen to his playing you definitely hear a very strong lyrical quality in the texture of his tone and construction of his improvisations somewhat reminiscent of Prez.
Unlike his Baritone buddy Pat Patrick whose unique approach was more related to the great Harry Carney with a concept closer to that of Eddie Lockjaw Davis or even Don Byas.
While Gilmore, like Sonny Rollins, was just as rooted in arpeggiated thematic development pioneered by Coleman Hawkins. Gilmore sound was clearly of the Hawkins tradition while Charles horn was very Lestorian.
The contrast of their styles yet oneness of intensity and spirit coupled with Marshall Allen, James Spaulding and/or James Scales) made the Ra reed section one of the most formidable in Jazz history. Every bit equal to the famed reed section of Duke Ellington possessing a seamless precision rivalling the great sax section of Jimmie Lunceford.
The close friendship and comradery of Charles Davis and Pat Patrick began at Du Sable and led to Pat introducing Charles to Sun Ra after Charles did a stint with the great Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday.
They’res was a symbiotic association which was codified in the composition TWO TONES recorded by the two of them with Sun Ra and his Arkestra on the LP Sound of Joy in 1956.
Charles Davis and Pat Patrick pioneered the concept and development a musical group comprised solely of baritone saxophones and multiple baritone saxophone with rhythm section……………..entlitled the BARITONE SAXOPHONE RETINUE This was the greatest assemblage of baritone saxophones ever achieved…with Charles and Pat co-leading, arranging and composing for ten baritone saxophones which included Cecil Payne, Harold Cumberbatch, Mario Rivera, James Jabbo Ware, Hameit Blueitt , Kenny Rodgers, George Barrow, Rene McClean and Rey Scott all major baritone saxophonists of the 1950 to 90s. Their major Lp entitled Sound Advice was originaly released by Sun Ra’s recording label Saturn and produced by Sun Ra’s friend and business partner Alton Abraham in 1980………..attesting to the strength of the association between Charles, Pat and Sun Ra. This Lp has been re-released as a CD in 2015 by Art Yard records.
Charles illustrious musical career reads like a who’s who of jazz. With appearances and recordings alongside a plethora of jazz greats………..notably Billie Holiday, Kenny Dorham, Ben Webster, Freddie Hubbard, Erskine Hawkins, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Red Foxx, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Sam Jones, Dameronia, Philly Joe Jones, Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as innumerable others. Charles co-lead a quartet with Barry Harris and performed frequently as featured soloist with the Barry Harris ensemble.
Charles was voted the #1 baritone saxophonist by the Down Beat International jazz critics poll in 1964 and received the BMI jazz pioneer award in 1984 amongst many other accolades bestowed upon him in recognition of his great statue as a saxophonist, composer, educator.
Davis was a private saxophone instructor for students from The New School and a teacher at the Lucy Moses School. For over 25 years, he was an instructor at the Jazzmobile Workshops. Davis recorded eight albums, and was featured on over 100 recordings.
In spite of being one of the most sought after jazz masters on the planet, Charles regular made himself available to perform and record with the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen despite the fact that his tenure with Sun Ra began before Marshalls.
A musician’s musician. Charles was always accessible to offer insight into the complex harmonies of Sun Ra’s arrangements and would often correct the younger members on chord changes and melody lines of Ra compositions. ‘I was there when he wrote it’ was the line that stifled any misguided feedback. Those of us who were unable to study with him found that the provision of two cognacs while sitting at the bar would get you a thorough answer to your musical query.
Charles was as no nonsense as his music but his offsetting demeanor was flavored with a humorous wit that contained volumes of truisms. If you were topical or insincere you could be cut to ribbons with his tongue only to be stitched up with laughter. His personal nickname for you spoke volumes and his witty comment on your questionable actions would have everyone chuckling.
Charles would never hesitate to correct us of our miscued repeating of common spoken jazz misinformation……’it didn’t go like that’…………’.I was there’……and you shut up and let the story be told right. Charles was generous and playful when he wanted to be and never one to complain .unless you were playing wrong…that he would tolerate till it reached a point and he may offer some correction. Especially if the rhythm section wasn’t getting it right. Or sing the correct intervals of a line. He’d turn around and call the correct changes like you would correct a misspelled word. Yet I’ve never heard Charles speak disparagingly about or to another musician. If he corrected you.it was about the music and making the music better, period.
He was not one to suffer fools………… but your foolishness may get a pointed joke that would have everyone laughing, including you.
Charles woul never fail to enlighten me when my mouth got ahead of the facts about, music, sonny or jazz history.
Yet for all of his knowledge and experience Charles was totally at ease playing in the Arkestra under the leadership of Marshall Allen never questioning or challenging what Marshall is working to accomplish.
Charles once played a solo on Marshalls composition ‘Differ’ so beautiful the band hasn’t played the song since then.
I could go on and on about this truly humble giant who did his last tour with us in 2014 in obvious pain and discomfort without a word of complaint.
‘I was there’ was the message that poured out of his horn as he sang his truth filled with aural recollections of Prez, Bird, and Coltrane. Illinois, Gilmore and Pat.
I remember Charles speaking of how back in the day, every tenor player had to know the classic Illinois Jacquet solo on Flying home, and the ‘bring the house down’ effect that solo would have during Lionel Hamptons performances. Then Charles would sing the solo with such deep expression and soulful glee.
My favorite testament of Charles genius as an improviser and master of the saxophone is his recording of Land of Dreams from the CD which bears that title released in 2007 on Smalls records.
. Land of dreams is a song based on the A section of Ray Nobles Cherokee. Charles takes Land of Dreams and places the melody over the entire Cherokee changes. Complete with a bridge then superimposes the four bar Giant Steps chord progression over the Cherokee changes in different places. Amazingly, Charles is pretty much doing this by himself as the piano is pretty much sticking to the Cherokee chords.
This display of genius and virtuosity Is Charles gift to all of us who love this great music they call Jazz.
My recollection of Charles Davis is that of a giant of a man on and off stage who embodied the spirit of Jazz.
Knoel Scott, November 13, 2016. London UK.
Charles Davis Interview by Monk Rowe. 1997. NY.
Charles Davis was born in Goodman, Mississippi on May 20, 1933.
He was educated in Chicago schools and first played the alto saxophone, soon to be followed by the tenor and baritone. Charles has played with most of the major figures in jazz, including Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Clark Terry, Illinois Jacquet and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. His long association with Sun Ra began in 1954 and he joined the fellow baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick in creating Baritone Sax Retinue, an ensemble for six baris and rhythm section.
He has also been associated closely with the music of Kenny Dorham and Tadd Dameron and has received a BMI Jazz Pioneer Award. Charles currently resides and works in New York City and frequently plays abroad.
Charles was interviewed by Monk Rowe, Director of the Jazz Archive and Lecturer in Music Performance at the Hamilton College, August 23, 1997 at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
MR: We are filming today for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. It’s a pleasure for me to welcome as my guest Charles Davis, saxophonist.
CD: Oh, thank you. Pleasure being here.
MR: This isn’t your first trip through Upstate New York.
CD: No, it’s not.
MR: Do you have to travel outside New York a lot to keep working?
CD: Well travel is part of working. Sometimes it’s to Utica. Recently I was up in Williamstown, Massachusetts, during six weeks of the summer, performing in a play.
MR: You were performing in a play?
CD: Well I was playing the saxophone, performing/playing the saxophone in the play. I didn’t have any actual lines.
MR: That sounds interesting. As I was, for some reason today I was looking at the Local book from, I think ‘95, and I got curious, and I added up all the saxophone players in Local 802, and it was over thirteen hundred players.
CD: Oh, yeah, well that’s only the ones that’s in the Union.
MR: I didn’t even think about that. So can I guess that there is extreme competition for work right in New York?
CD: Well you could say that. Yes you can say it. Well if it’s something that’s an ongoing factor I guess in music, it’s always competition.
MR: You’ve been in the music business — ‘54?
CD: Around that time. Actually earlier, I think. I started playing, I started gigging a little bit in high school.
MR: About what age were you, can you recall, when you decided that “I think music is what I want to do for a living.”
CD: Well I don’t know what age that was but music has always been a part of my life as a kid growing up, you know listening to records, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Jordan, all the big bands during the time.
MR: Jazz and big bands, would you say that that was the popular music of the day when you were a kid?
CD: Well, let me think, yeah. Well mostly it was Swing during that time. Yeah, Jazz, Swing, whatever. It was hard to define when the main categories changed. You know, Jazz, Bebop, Swing, Avant Garde and whatever. Now we have Hip Hop and whatever, but the names change.
MR: Right. We have Acid Jazz.
CD: Yeah. I don’t know what that is.
MR: I haven’t figured it out either. Do you recall what you consider your first real professional gig that lasted a length of time? Mid-50’s perhaps?
CD: Yeah it was in the ‘50’s. Well I first started out playing with Sun Ra around band-wise I think, as far as an established band, in the 50’s.
MR: When people hear the words Sun Ra, if they know at all who he is, I think most of us probably think of the kind of outlandish trappings that went along with all the things he did, but when you started with him in the mid-50’s, what kind of music was he doing then?
CD: Well even with all the outlandish trappings as you say, he still played the same thing. He had come out of Fletcher Henderson’s era and then as time progressed, the more the cosmic called him, the more he dealt with that situation. But he was like with Fletcher Henderson, and we were playing Jazz, Bebop, whatever. He always had a mythical essence to his music anyway.
MR: Really? From the start, huh?
CD: Yeah, from the start.
MR: How did you guys deal with that? Did you think he was simply eccentric? Did you find it interesting or can you give me a clue as to how his fellow musicians …
CD: Well he was always a dedicated musician as far as I’m concerned. The other name categories you’re speaking of came from critics. You know that was the outside area. In the inside area, he was a dedicated musician. We used to rehearse and then he had singers he used to deal with, and then he used to write for a show band, for dancers in the show band in a club called Club DeLisa in Chicago. So he was always busy with music. So that was the main focus of his life was music.
MR: And Chicago had a pretty healthy Jazz and Blues scene when you were growing up. It wasn’t your hometown, was it, but you ended up there?
CD: Well when I was a little kid I came to Chicago from Mississippi, like a lot of other people.
MR: We’ve heard the name Club DeLisa mentioned a few times, and that that was a site where they would have a breakfast show or something?
CD: Well that was Monday mornings, after Sunday nights. In Chicago during that time the clubs would close at four o’clock in the morning, five o’clock on Saturday morning, which was Sunday. So Sunday morning at four o’clock the club would close, and at six o’clock in the morning they would have the breakfast show from about six to eight or nine. Then after that you would go somewhere and jam, and it was playing music all the time, all the time. And at that time Joe Williams was working at the Club DeLisa. I know you had just mentioned Joe Williams and the Count Basie Band, but he was working at the Club DeLisa at the time.
MR: Kind of an emcee for those things was he?
CD: Emcee, vocalist, all around utility person.
MR: Well, musicians at that time, what was the … how did the racial make-up of what was going on in the music in those clubs? Was it a mixture? Was it reflective of what was happening in the general society at the time?
CD: I guess so. It was a reflection of the times. Because at that time you had Local 208, which was the Black local, and I’ve forgotten the name of the White Local, and then you had the south side and you had the north side. The south side was mostly Black clubs, the north side was mostly White clubs. They kind of intermingled. You know people would come, at that time, although it was mostly like a segregated situation, but people would travel freely from one side to the other, especially in the music world. The music world had, for the most part, I know in the jazz world, it was more of an integrated society, just like it is now.
MR: They seem to — I guess music has helped to lead the way in that respect. I remember recently when Jackie Robinson, they celebrated his 50th anniversary of breaking the color barrier in sports, but I think music preceded that.
CD: Oh, yeah, definitely. That was with the Benny Goodman Trio, quartet, whatever, with Lionel Hampton, they kind of got over this — ‘39? And Billie Holiday with, which band did she play with?
MR: Artie Shaw.
CD: Artie Shaw’s band. So they had a lot of different situations where music was in the forefront of that society.
MR: What was your educational experience in music?
CD: Well the main focus of my education was Walter Diet. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
CD: Well this was from DeSalvo High School in Chicago, where a lot of musicians from Chicago were guided by this individual. Most musicians, who came out of Chicago, went to this high school. And he had a formula that musicians adapted to it, and became fairly successful behind it. I found that.
MR: Did he teach jazz per se?
CD: Well he wasn’t really a jazz teacher, he was a teacher. And then from that you dealt with what you wanted to deal with. Because we have some people that didn’t pursue the music, but they went on to being doctors and lawyers, and then we had some people that deal with classical aspects of music. So he was really a teacher. The jazz or whatever that you want to deal with in life it comes from you so you have to get it from the teacher and then you deal with the direction you want to go in.
MR: In Chicago in those days, I mean there was a big Blues scene too but was Blues considered to be a kind of music that socially was not up to the level of other music?
CD: Well it’s kind of hard for me to define that one. Because Blues is always a part of your life, as far as that’s concerned. Well there are different levels of performance if you want to look at it that way.
MR: I guess what I was thinking more of, was going to the Blues clubs in Chicago, was that something that was not considered acceptable to do by certain parts of society?
CD: Well that’s the same as jazz. Jazz had the same label. From when people would go slumming then would go to the speakeasies. So each faction of the music goes through the same change or the same encounter. But I mean today if you want to hear some Blues you go to a Blues club. If you want to hear some jazz you go to a jazz club. I mean that’s according to your religious beliefs now — which days you can go to the club.
MR: In looking at your information in a couple of different books, starting in the late 50’s you went through an amazing list of playing with people at the time — Billie Holiday and Ben Webster.
CD: Yeah. Those were great times.
MR: Tell me about those times.
CD: Diana Washington?
MR: You had quite an association with Diana Washington, right?
CD: Yeah, well I worked for her about two, two and a half years. And also, I don’t know if it’s on there, Clarence Henry — speaking of Blues — I first came to New York with Clarence Henry. You know, the “Frogman?”
MR: The “Frogman.”
CD: Yeah. I first came to New York with the “Frogman.” And then I went back, that was my first observance of the in-person view of the Statue of Liberty. And then I said well I’ve got to come back here. And then I came back with Diana Washington. But while in Chicago I was lucky and fortunate enough to perform with Billie Holiday for about six months, on a local stint that she was dealing with in Chicago, with Billie Holiday and Ben Webster. So that was a pleasure, it was a real learning experience.
MR: Was she — as a player, when you start working with vocalists, you need to start doing things perhaps in different keys than you’ve been used to doing them in, to match.
CD: It was not that exceptional. Most vocalists I work with, it’s just normal keys, it was nothing exceptional. I mean it is different when you deal with vocalists that learn how to play off the guitar. Then that’s when your keys are exceptional.
MR: Exceptional sharps, right?
MR: What was your — did you have much big band experience over the years? With Sun Ra of course, but …
CD: I worked with Clark Terry, Thad and Mel, the latest being Clifford Jordan. I was with his big band for a few years, playing the baritone, along with playing the tenor and alto in that band.
MR: The baritone — your name comes up with baritone a lot.
CD: Well that was the first …
MR: Was that your first horn?
CD: No that was the second horn. The first horn was alto.
MR: Do you still like to play the baritone or …
CD: On special occasions. I don’t really like to deal with the competitive aspects of trying to play in the big band and get a solo on the Blues, so I’d prefer not to do that.
MR: It seems like it must be a struggle sometimes. Harder to be heard on the baritone, because of the range perhaps?
CD: No, my experience with the baritone, especially when you get to go through a sound check, is the guys will see the instrument and it’s large so they cut it down. I’ve had this problem for years. The altos and the tenors they’ll turn up and they’re loud. But the baritone they’ll turn down, so then you’ve got to huff and puff to be heard.
MR: Hopefully some sound men will see this and take note.
CD: Sometimes they’ll get it right, but the majority of times they’ll see the baritone and they’ll just turn everything on flat and low, and so that’s the problem.
MR: Tell me about the baritone sextet.
CD: Baritone Retinue. Well that was started with Pat Patrick and myself. This was years ago. But actually it was continuous of playing with Sun Ra because both of us used to play baritone with Sun Ra. In fact we recorded with two baritones with Sun Ra.
MR: Did he write out, how much of his music was actually written out, like big band charts, was it a lot of it?
CD: With Sun Ra?
CD: He wrote out everything. Stacks and stacks of music. He was always writing.
MR: He had quite a diskography at the end of his life I guess. How much recording did you do with him?
CD: I don’t remember. I really couldn’t say. I was in and out, in and out. I don’t have a list. Sometimes you look up and there’s some things that are out on records.
MR: The music mostly came out on small labels at that time?
CD: Yeah. Saturn and another one I remember recording for was Transition. That was a company that went out of business. But most companies, the small ones would go out of business.
MR: Did you feel at the time recording with him and in those days that the compensation, the money you were being paid or not paid was worth it? From a recording standpoint?
CD: Well I mean that’s a tricky question. It’s always worth trying to record and leave something for history. So that’s a situation where during those times you know all of the scales were lower anyway.
MR: What was the union scale in the late ‘50’s?
CD: Oh, I don’t remember, I don’t know. Sometimes scale was 50, 70, I don’t know. I can’t recall exactly. Maybe you can research it from the union.
MR: What year did you move to New York?
CD: I actually moved to New York in 1959. That’s when I started playing with Kenny Dorham.
MR: There’s a guy who wrote a few good times.
CD: Yeah, quite a few.
MR: In fact you played one last night, I think probably his most well known…
CD: Blue Bossa?
MR: Yeah. There was a little counter melody you guys were playing after you played the head? Where did that come from?
CD: Well that’s a part of the song.
MR: See most people don’t play that.
CD: Yeah well that’s part of the song. I used to play it with him when we played it, but that’s part of the song.
MR: What was New York like for a working musician when you moved there? Was it a process of breaking in and getting your name around?
CD: Yeah, that’s the same as it is now. But it was heaven, it was fantastic. It was a great place to be.
MR: Do you still say that now, it’s a great place to be?
CD: I still say it now. It’s a great place to be. There’s nothing like New York.
MR: Do you have an agent that books work for you or do you mostly book your own engagements these days?
CD: Well sometimes an agent calls you and sometimes — I don’t have a personal agent — God is my personal agent. But I’ve gotten calls from various agents from time to time.
MR: If you had to place, I’m thinking of the effect of the church in jazz, or Black music in general, do you have any views on how church music is effected — what you play or jazz or Gospel, that kind of thing.
CD: How it’s affected what I play?
CD: I don’t think it has affected what I play.
MR: Could you describe the style of jazz you play? We were talking just now about labels, trying to put labels on things, and is it possible what you and Joe played last night, what you play down at Small’s when you visit the jam sessions there?
CD: Well we’re still playing what’s given to us through the Bible of Bebop. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham. I think this is — I don’t know if I’m playing it that well but this is what I’m attempting to do.
MR: Would you consider Bebop the hardest kind of jazz to play?
CD: Yeah it is. And to develop it in that style is very, very difficult. And not run awry of the direction that you’re supposed to take in it.
MR: Well this could be a hard question, but as I was listening to you last night and the rest of the group, a question I get a lot about music is, what’s a player thinking about? If you’re playing what some critics say “inside” or “outside” the changes, can you describe at all what you’re thinking about when you’re playing the changes on “All the Things You Are”? I told you it was a hard question.
CD: What I’m thinking about is I hope I get through this and get out of it and thank you. I don’t know. It’s a hell of a mindset what to answer what you’re thinking at the time you’re doing it, because you’re thinking about what you’re dealing with and you’re saying “oh boy I wish I’d have practiced this better” or whatever. I don’t know, it’s just kind of hard to answer.
MR: It is. It definitely is. Do you still think about the chord changes though? I mean that’s a pretty basic thing.
CD: Yeah well you have to relate to the chord changes and the sound. You know the chord changes are basic sound patterns so you have to find various ways to deal with the sound as you go through the chord patterns.
MR: When you play, oh you did a Blues number last night I guess “Straight, No Chaser” and to my ears, some of the changes you were playing were pretty adventurous. So how do you choose, I’m going to pursue this, this is a hard question I know, but how do you decide where to go, if you’re playing outside the change? Is there certain places you like to go that you can say I’m going to go up a major third, or is it less technical than that?
CD: Well sometimes you go different places and nobody’s home, and you have to leave that and go somewhere else where they’ll let you in. So it’s a procedure. It’s something I’m working on, so I don’t want to sound ridiculous or redundant, but that’s the answer sometimes. It’s a process. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
MR: And most of it happens on the gig instead of in your practice room.
CD: Oh when you practice at home it’s great. I mean you’re the king of your room, until you bring it out and you find out that you’re just a peon.
MR: Do you practice with accompaniment? Do you use any of these — I know nowadays they have all kinds of things that you can practice along to.
CD: No, because when you’re playing you don’t have that. See if you have a play along and then you’re coming to play with somebody that’s strong and forceful and dynamic as Alvin Queen, then you’re not going to have the same effect, so you have to learn to deal with what you’re dealing with on the spot. You have to sometimes readjust. What you practice in your room with a play along is vastly different.
MR: We were talking on the way up here about learning scales and learning what to do with them once you have them down. Are you a player who uses modes and that kind of approach in your playing or is it more what sounds good to your ear?
CD: Well what is a mode?
MR: Sometimes I wonder. Ice cream a la mode.
CD: Well everything comes from the scale. So the more you about know about scales the more you know about the modes or whatever. And that’s just a scale, it’s one long ending sound. So after a while it’s just kind of monotonous, so you have to learn how to put other little things in the mode. Like you say, ice cream a la mode, so you just stick a little strawberry or cherry or whatever. It takes some adjusting just to play one thing all the time. And in doing that you have to find different things to play. Even John Coltrane, I mean he broke it up and found other things to play, even though it was based on one sound. But one sound has many sounds in it.
MR: When you were, I suppose in your formative years of playing the saxophone, did you have major influences and people you liked to listen to and emulate perhaps?
CD: Oh, yeah, well I had many influences, still have influences as far as that’s concerned. One of the main influences, as it was then and it is now, is Charlie Parker. Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, on down to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin. See the list is long so there’s always influences. I grew up listening to Von Freeman.
MR: Wow, there’s a name you don’t hear that often. He has a son who plays also, right?
CD: Yeah. So life is full of influences.
MR: Did you see Charlie Parker in the clubs in New York at the time?
CD: No, I saw him in Chicago on the dances. I didn’t want to see him in clubs. But dances and concerts I saw him.
MR: Charlie Parker playing for dances?
CD: Well that was a prerequisite during that time as far as my age would attest to, and that was the only thing that I could get into, 11, 12, 13 years old. I couldn’t get into clubs.
MR: Dances were such a part of the Swing music at that time.
CD: Yes. Well that’s what a lot of it started from, dances. The Bebop started out from dance music.
MR: Do you think that the fact that that whole thing isn’t happening anymore is — how does it effect the music?
CD: Well it’s according to where you are sometimes. A lot of times people will dance, but the clubs don’t allow you to dance, that’s the problem. When I used to play in Brooklyn people would get up and dance. It happens mostly say in Brooklyn or in Harlem or something like that, people will dance you know. Because it’s a tribal ritual to dance. So in Brooklyn and Harlem and whatnot, people will exuberate that spirit. A lot of times when they listen to the jukebox they’ll do it. But most sophisticated clubs now, you know, if you get up to dance they’ll stop you, you can’t do that. So that has its effect on the music, it has an effect as far as the music is concerned.
MR: So you travel outside of the country on occasion?
CD: Yes, on quite a few occasions. I’m on an occasion now to travel next week to Austria with Rodney Kendricks.
MR: Is the reaction to jazz music any different overseas than here?
CD: No I don’t think it’s any different. People react to music because they enjoy it. It’s a worldwide situation. People around the world love music. Some people love this type, that type, some people love jazz. So the reaction is not any different and sometimes in various parts of the world the reaction is better. I remember playing with Clark Terry’sband in Italy and we played a concert and the people enjoyed the music and everything was great. And we came out and we got on the bus and all these people were standing around the bus and I didn’t seem to understand why. And then we got on the bus and as we pulled off they gave us another round of applause. They stood around and waited until we were leaving and they gave us another round of applause. That was an astonishing event to me, just that the people would stop there and wait until you got on the bus and leave, just to give you another round of applause.
MR: It sounds like a nice experience.
CD: It is. It devastated me. I was flabbergasted, just to have people excited enough to want to do that.
MR: When you go overseas do you sometimes get matched up with players from there, because you don’t always take a whole group?
CD: Doing the singles, yeah, you deal with the rhythm section from other countries or from that country or people from other countries, as far as Europe is concerned.
MR: Do you find that the musicians from those countries have basically learned the same jazz repertoire that we are familiar with?
CD: Yes for the most part.
MR: I was curious, last night you did “All the Things You Are” but what was that tune that you guys were playing?
CD: It was a Kenny Dorham tune. The name of it was “Prince Albert.”
MR: I knew I’d heard it but I could not place it.
CD: Well it’s more Kenny Dorham.
MR: I mean that’s a big part of becoming a performing jazz musician I would guess, just being able to play most of the night without music in front of you.
CD: Yes well that’s true. Well then again, Monk, you have to remember that speaking of “Prince Albert” and “All the Things You Are” this is what was in the beginning as far as the repertoire was concerned. They started putting different melodies on standard tunes. So there was still the standard tune, but it was a Bebop melody. So there was something there that the people could understand, even though they didn’t understand.
MR: That they could still grasp the tune, the background of it, but it had something new and different over the top of it.
CD: Yeah. So that was just “Prince Albert” which was made in 1949. It still sounds great today. So that was Kenny Durham and James Moody with Max Roach’s band, and I think they made it in an air raid shelter in Paris in 1949 when Kenny Dorham and Max Roach went over with Charlie Parker. Paris. It was “Prince Albert” and there was another one called “Maxology” that Kenny Dorham wrote. So he’s been a prolific writer for some time.
MR: You got honored by BMI, didn’t you?
CD: Yes. It was in the mid-80’s.
MR: What was that for?
CD: Oh that was for being in BMI for 25 years. Yeah. There was a lot of us. I think Miles Davis was there that night, or during that afternoon, quite a few of us. There is a big picture of all of us. Miles Davis, myself, Ron Carter, a whole lot of musicians. MR: Do you find that the way the record industry is set up these days, do you feel that you get a fair slice of recordings and so forth that you do? Or are you kind of paid by the session and then that’s the end of it.
CD: Well it’s according to your contract I guess. Every situation is different. I couldn’t answer for everybody. But it’s a little different. It’s best to get as much money as you can up front. Then you’re ahead of the game.
MR: This could be another hard question, but can you think back to the music job that was perhaps the farthest away from what you envisioned yourself doing?
CD: No, not really Monk, playing music is what I envision myself doing. As long as it’s music it’s great. Because there are various forms of music. Just because it’s not jazz doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. Because when you first learn how to play you weren’t playing jazz, you were playing music. You know the C scale is in jazz and it’s in various forms of music, you know. So as long as it’s music it’s great.
MR: Can I take you back to Chicago for another minute?
MR: There was a certain core of musicians at that time, did you ever associate with fellows like Milt Hinton?
CD: No, he’s a little ahead of my time. But we have talked about Chicago on a number of occasions, because he informed me of some aspects of Walter Diet. Walter Diet used to teach at a school, in fact Walter Diet taught him. He was in school with Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, and his school burnt down and Walter Diet went to DeSalvo as a temporary basis but he stayed. The school that burned down was Windham Phillips, and they rebuilt it.
MR: That’s right. I recall that name now.
CD: And they rebuilt it, but at the time Milt Hinton and Nat Cole and Dinah Washington were going through the school.
MR: Do you consider jazz to be, some people call it America’s classical music, or Black classical music. Do you have a sense of how jazz is — your own personal sense of how jazz should be viewed?
CD: It should be viewed with great respect. Myself personally, you know that’s my personal opinion. Because there’s nothing like it. I mean speaking of jazz, if you’re speaking about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, there’s nothing like it. It’s such a heck of a creative in you that nothing’s been created since then to equal it. It’s output, musically and emotionally and spiritually.
MR: Why do you think jazz, when it moved into the Bebop era, that it lost a good portion of its audience?
CD: Well it wasn’t Bebop that lost the audience. When they turned to the Cool Jazz is when it lost its audience I think.
CD: Well too cool.
MR: Too cool.
CD: It lost its sizzle. I think when it got too cool, the guys just became very cold as far as what they were doing. They were more into themselves then in dealing with the reality of their audience.
MR: Well that’s a good statement. Musicians relating to their audience.
CD: Yeah. Well that’s what it’s about.
MR: Do you feel that your playing changes from one venue to the next?
CD: Yes, it does, according to what you’re dealing with. I think it’s according to the way you are sometimes, what you’ll play. What motivates one audience doesn’t motivate the next audience so you have to keep that in mind.
MR: Did you ever do much Rhythm & Blues playing in your career?
CD: Let’s see, my Alzheimer’s just kicked in. Let’s see, well Clarence Henry was Rhythm & Blues. Clarence Henry. I played with quite a few Rhythm & Blues during the course of my career coming up.
MR: Did you ever feel you had to really do that honking tenor sax thing?
CD: Well that was a part of growing up. There was a lot of honking. John Coltrane had to honk. A lot of people had to honk. That was a tradition — honking and walking the bar. Sometimes you were forced to do it. Sometimes you were forced to do it at gun point. That’s in Chicago sometimes, people put a gun on you because they knew the solos so you couldn’t fool them.
MR: They knew the solos?
CD: The audience knew the solos. They paid that much attention to the records. They’d get the records, everybody knew the solos. So I know this happened to quite a few different people.
MR: That they wanted to hear what was …
CD: They wanted to hear what was on the record. If you didn’t know it then you had to go home and learn it you know. You couldn’t fool us. People wanted to hear “Flyin’ Home,” they wanted to hear the solo. They didn’t want you — if you couldn’t play it then you’d get off of that.
MR: That’s some kind of pressure.
MR: They don’t teach that in school.
CD: No, no, no, no, they don’t teach you that. And if they want you to walk the bar, they wanted you to walk the bar. You couldn’t say that wasn’t in your contract. It’s time to walk the bar, it’s time to walk the bar. That’s another thing, people wanted to see a show you know. When it was show time then you had to go out and put on a show, you couldn’t sit around and be that cool that you couldn’t put on a show saying that’s not mything. So if it’s show time you get up and put on a show.
MR: You want to get paid, you better do it.
CD: Yeah. You may do it and don’t get paid. Guys put on a show laying on his back and playing the saxophone behind his back, anything to get through that scene.
MR: Sounds like a tough town.
CD: Yeah. But that was the tradition during that time.
MR: Would you encourage young musicians to go into the field of jazz these days? What do you think is required besides being able to play?
CD: Well endurance, you have to learn how to practice also. Because without the drudgery of practice, practice is not as pretty as what’s seen as a performer, or as you see a performer perform. Practice is a lonely art. It’s very demeaning sometimes when you have to practice something over and over and over and over just to get it.
CD: Yeah it was, as we were saying, during this time you had to perform. They had clubs with what you called a bucket of blood. You had to go there and really get out and get the house. “Flying Home” or whatever. Some of the other tunes were “Honky Tonk” and I know around Chicago Gene Ammons would have some hits out that you would have to know the solos. So I mean that was my world, because I had left Chicago at that time. So I mean whatever went down at the times, if that was a standard song, especially if it was a saxophone solo. You had to know it. And Charlie Parker had some solos out. “Cool Blues” people would play that at house parties and everybody could hum the solo. So if you had alto and you were playing “Cool Blues” and didn’t know the solo, people would get on you about it.
MR: That’s really fascinating. It’s almost like today knowing the lyrics to rock songs Isuppose.
CD: Oh yeah. Some of them don’t really make sense to me, but whatever. Life is life and it continues on.
MR: Any last words of wisdom for the typical saxophone student who says man, I’m going to be a jazz musician?
CD: Well I would tell him to practice and learn his scales, and to be in for rejection the same as actors have to go through, all the successful actors and actresses, and whatever. People that deal with rejection in life, you have to learn to accept it. But you still have to practice your craft, whatever you do. And being for that, just keep your spirits high. That’s my best advice.
MR: Sounds good to me. Well it’s been a pleasure to have Charles Davis here for our Hamilton College interviews, and I hope you have a great gig tonight, and I hope you have a smooth and wonderful trip to Austria.
CD: Yes, Austria.
MR: Thanks so much for your time.
CD: Thank you for having me here.
Published online with permission from the interviewer Monk Rowe. Art Yard 22/06/2016
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