Ted Curson: More than a Survivor
I’ve got your opening quote for you, right here,” laughs Ted Curson when I say I plan to write about him for JazzTimes. “My life is like a barrel with no bottom. I keep putting stuff in, but it never fills up!” It’s a joke, but a serious joke, the rueful kind that veteran jazz musicians often make when discussing life in the bebop business.
At age 71, Ted Curson is not a household name—in this country, at least. Still, he’s made his mark. A jazz musician’s life is not measured by the money he’s made or the number of readers’ polls he wins but by the respect he commands from his peers and the quality of his body of work. By those standards, Curson is an unqualified success. Since making his recording debut in 1959 with Cecil Taylor (Love for Sale on United Artists), the Philadelphia native has worked nonstop, playing with just about everyone who matters.
For a brief time, Curson and Eric Dolphy were Charles Mingus’ answer to Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. In July 1960, the trumpet-sax duo joined Mingus, drummer Dannie Richmond and tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin at the Juan-Les-Pins Jazz Festival in France. The concert is one of the greatest live jazz performances ever committed to disc. On Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic), Curson is an early exemplar of the inside-outside approach. Steeped in the blues, with a talent for capricious melody, the self-assured young Curson occupies a middle ground between Ervin’s steadfast bluesiness and Dolphy’s outward-bound impetuousness. Curson’s playing on the Antibes album might be the definitive recorded performance by a trumpeter in a Mingus-led band.
“Oh, that’s a great record; that’s some of Mingus’ greatest playing,” remembers Curson. “What made the record so great is that each guy was an individual, [all] put together by Mingus. It was a special chemistry. It’s great music, the best.”
They didn’t stay together long. The band (without Ervin) went into the studio a few months after the Antibes gig to record Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus for Candid, and that was basically it. Mingus moved on. So did Curson. “Mingus was acting so ridiculous, man,” says Curson. After all these years, you can still hear a hint of frustration in his voice. “He couldn’t handle success. I don’t know why he was like that.”
That truncated stint with Mingus was just the beginning of a long, distinguished career. Over the years, Curson has performed far and wide and recorded for such labels as Black Lion, Inner City, India Navigation and Atlantic. In recent years he’s led sessions for the Futura label. His dates as a sideman are too numerous to list. Curson estimates them at more than 300.
One of his best bands was a pianoless quartet with the late tenor saxophonist Bill Barron. In 1964 the group (with Herb Bushler on bass and Dick Berk in drums) recorded the classic Tears for Dolphy. The title track has been used in three films, most recently by actor/director Vincent Gallo in his notorious 2003 release, The Brown Bunny. Gallo discovered Curson through the 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini film, Teorema, for which the trumpeter did the music.
“I don’t know how Vincent Gallo found out I did the music [for Teorema], because my name wasn’t on it,” says Curson. “Ennio Morricone took credit, but the music was by Ted Curson and Amadeus Mozart. Anyway, Gallo saw it and liked the music, so when he did The Brown Bunny, he used it.”
Making records hasn’t filled Curson’s pockets. Jazz records are typically made, released and—without proper promotion—overlooked or forgotten, usually with the musician making little or no money. Curson knows the drill. “On so many of my records, the company would tell me up front they weren’t going to promote it,” Curson says. “If people found it, fine; if they didn’t, fine. It was like a Frisbee, another Ted Curson Frisbee, and if the dog don’t catch it, too bad!”
Curson’s close relationship with the annual Pori Jazz Festival in Finland has helped keep him afloat. He’s played the festival every year since its inception. This summer marked the 41st anniversary. “It started in 1965, actually. I was playing in Paris, and three guys approached me, said ‘We’re from Finland. Do you know of Finland?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ because when I was a kid I remember singing Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia.’ I don’t know why black kids in a black neighborhood in a black school in the U.S. would be singing ‘Finlandia,’ but we did, true story,” says Curson. “So anyway, the guys said they liked me and thought people in Finland would like my music and would I like to come? I said, ‘Sure, just make the arrangements.’” He played the very first Pori Festival the next year.
The association has paid off. Ted Curson is a household name in Finland, or darn close. He appears on television and even endorses products—a certain brand of shoes, for example, gets the Curson seal of approval. He’s even hosted a party for the country’s president, Tarja Halonen (stateside insomniacs know Halonen as the world leader who most resembles late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien). “It turns out that she was always a fan of mine, even from college,” says Curson, still sounding a bit amazed. Halonen proposed a visit to Curson’s home in Upper Montclair, N.J., on a trip to the United States for a meeting at the United Nations in Sept. 2005.
“My wife and I put together a small party of 88 people, with special police and everything else, and it was just beautiful,” says Curson. “At first, the American government said, ‘No,’ when she told them I was a black man and it was in New Jersey. They panicked and said, ‘We can’t do this,’ but she insisted, so they sent out the Secret Service and they went over the property and saw I had a nice house. They saw everything was OK. So it was on, we had it and she was very gracious.”
Gigs in the United States can be scarce, but Curson manages to get by. He hosts a monthly jam session at Trumpets, a club in Montclair. He played a reunion concert with old friend Henry Grimes at New York’s Cornelia Street Café this past summer. This October he’s booked into his old stomping ground, the Blue Note in New York City. For well over a decade, Curson hosted a late-night jam session at the Blue Note that attracted many of the best players around. He quit a few years ago, not on the best of terms (“They were a bit steamed at me when I left”). Time heals all wounds, however. Is a revival of the club’s after-hours jam in the offing? “Well, maybe if they read this article,” he chuckles. “A lot of people think I’m still there!” He should be, if he wants to be. He seems the perfect jam-session host: warm, charming, with a good-natured sense of humor—and serious chops. Ted can still bring it. “I’m playing better than ever,” he says.
Curson is philosophical about his career. He knows the score. Still, a lack of recognition in his home country clearly bothers him, at least a little bit. “Because you called me [about this article] I feel 100 percent better,” he says. “It makes me think, like, maybe there’s a chance for me. But I’m 71, I don’t know. If someone’s saying: ‘Ted Curson? Ted Curson, who?’ then you’re in serious trouble. Fortunately, when I work in Finland, where everybody knows me, I don’t have to worry about that. Finland and France, I’m cool. I don’t know about New York.”
Curson obviously appreciates the good things to have come his way, and he’s grateful to those who’ve helped him. “I have to thank my wife Marge, number one. I couldn’t have done anything without her. Gary Giddins, number two. I have to thank Jyrki Kangas at the Pori Festival, and (producer) Gerard Terrones, who did a lot of my records…I have to thank Mingus for giving me my shot, even though he didn’t like trumpet…and Enrico [Granefei] at Trumpets in Montclair. Those are the people who stuck with me through thick and thin. I’ve been able to survive thanks to that small group of people.”
You could say he’s done better than simply survive. His work with Mingus will live forever, and his records with Bill Barron are classics waiting to be discovered. He’s made friends all over the world. Indeed, in many important respects Ted Curson has positively thrived. Who knows? Maybe one day soon, someone will slap a bottom on that barrel, and it’ll fill up with all the acclaim he deserves. Stranger things have happened.