June 2001

Andrew White

“These are titties!”

Andrew White is reveling in the all-natural glories that have long decorated the office-basement of his Northeast Washington, D.C., home. Magazine photos of women with mountainous breasts hang off every inch of wall in the cramped room, which has served as the headquarters for Andrew’s Music for the past 30 years. As White talks about his backachingly chesty “girls,” he does so with deep affection, though there is a touch of sorrow in his voice as he laments the state of the
au naturel porn industry.

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Andrew White
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Andrew White
By Charles Steck

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“The market now has shifted toward the artificial breast, so I can’t get the material to rotate as much as I used to,” he says. The tall, handsome White’s elbows are poking out of holes in his too-small herringbone suit-coat, his knee-high socks exposed under his trademark, Lee Morgan-inspired flood pants. “But most of these chicks, because I’m in love with so many of them, I wouldn’t take them down. Like this chick here, shhhhh. She’s been up here since ’82.”

Welcome to Andrew White’s world: saxophonist, oboist, bassist, educator, author, Coltrane expert, transcriber, world’s most voluminously self-produced artist in the history of jazz and leading authority on the natural boob.

Since Sept. 23, 1971, White has run a remarkable business out of this tiny basement. He formed Andrew’s Music on Coltrane’s birthday 30 years ago, and since then he has self-released more than 2,000 products including 650 transcriptions of Trane’s solos; 42 vinyl records and four CDs as a leader; nearly 30 books and treatises, including his new, 800-page, hardcover autobiography, Everybody Loves the Sugar—The Book; and numerous cassettes, one of which is Far Out Flatulence: A Concerto for Flatulaphone, which comprises 56 minutes of White lettin’ ’em fly. Why did such a self-acknowledged genius, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyne, masterful musician and prolific producer stoop to recording his own farts? Because an acquaintance whose girlfriend had an odd sexual kink requested a tape that she could listen to during relations that would be, literally, a gas; White responded with his most jaw-droppingly outrageous product. Andrew’s Music is nothing if not demand-driven.

For White, most anything that brings in the duckets is fair game to market and sell; it has to be for an independent artist to make a living. He’s always been a self-reliant musician, ever since his uncle sent him a soprano sax when White was an eight-year-old kid in Nashville. “I developed an iron embouchure from the beginning; that was my first instrument,” says White of the notoriously difficult horn.

White took up the alto and oboe in middle school and the tenor and upright bass in high school. He moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard and study music theory. Even with his multiple-instrument prowess, and early proclivity for transcription—he’s been figuring out other people’s stuff since he was a middle schooler—White still had an uphill battle to get anyone to accept his unique saxophone sound.

“My whole career started out, even in 1960 when I came to Washington, with a severe handicap, which is, I was told very early on that I had no commercial viability,” he says. “My saxophone sound has too much resonance in it, and I was told it would not register well on recording tape, so I couldn’t make good records—and they wouldn’t even know what to do with the records anyway. So I’ve been off in the corner ever since. But nobody ever said I couldn’t play.

“Nobody was knockin’ on my door, so I knocked on my own door, because I had the resources from [professionally performing] rock ’n’ roll. There are other fellas in my ilk like Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Ornette [Coleman], they probably didn’t have the resources to do it themselves, and if they did who knows what we could have had from those cats, because they were working under what they call professional supervision. I’ve done all this myself, so I’ve never had anyone tell me what won’t sell,” he laughs in his deep, distinctive guffaw. “I put it all out myself and it’s done well for me, but then I’m not ambitious either. I’m happy with the sales I get, which wouldn’t impress somebody else who would tell me what won’t sell and who probably wouldn’t put it on the record. And who knows how much music that Coltrane had, and all those cats, who never got to even play it in the studio because somebody told them, ‘Well, we don’t need this.’

“I was considered an oddball just like they were. I think Coltrane and Eric and Ornette, to a lesser degree, they didn’t have so much resonance in their sound that it wouldn’t register well on tape.”

White did have a few record dates for a major studio, Riverside, when he was a member of The JFK Quintet while at Howard along with trumpeter Ray Codrington, pianist Harry Killgo, bassist Walter Booker Jr. and drummer Carl “Mickey” Newman. Only two of the three recording sessions were issued by Riverside: 1961’s New Jazz Frontiers from Washington and 1962’s Young Ideas; only the former has been reissued on CD via Fantasy.

“Cannonball Adderley said, ‘Man, you crazy as hell, but it’s all there; you’re playing all music.’ He said that after sitting in front of me, listening to me play for several nights” at the Bohemian Caverns, where the JFK Quintet performed regularly between 1960 and ’63. “He produced the first JFK record. He produced the second one as well. The third one, he was there for but he didn’t produce it. It never came out. They told me they were waiting for me to die; it’ll probably sell more after I’m dead,” White laughs—a little.

There is a lull in White’s discography after the JFK Quintet disbanded in Sept. ’63. In 1964, bachelor’s degree in hand, he went to the Paris Conservatory to study oboe for a year on a John Hay Whitney Foundation grant before moving on to the Center of Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo for two years. In 1968 he joined the American Ballet Theatre of New York as an oboist, and stayed until 1970; also during this time he parlayed his bass playing into a lucrative gig as a sideman for Stevie Wonder. In 1970 he joined The Fifth Dimension as a bassist, staying with the group for six years, and he brought the funk to several tracks on Weather Report’s 1973 album Sweetnighter. (He also played English horn on that album and on 1972’s I Sing the Body Electric.) All of this success as an electric bassist helped fund the creation of Andrew’s Music; it didn’t help him get noticed as a saxophonist.

“The bass actually put me out of work as a saxophone player. When I started playing the bass, that was it; overnight the whole thing just changed 180 degrees.” People only want to hire him as a rock and funk bassist.

On July 30, 1971, White entered a Hollywood studio to cut what would be his first album for Andrew’s Music, Andrew Nathaniel White III, a solo recording that features him on alto and tenor, oboe, English horn, piano and electric bass. It’s the first recorded example of White’s diverse-repertory concept—he plays everything from Bach and Tchaikovsky to Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.” and his own “Selections From Andy’s Song Book”—and it’s one of the few studio albums he has ever recorded. Even his fantastic, four-volume Gigtime 2000 CD series are rough-and-ready 1998 live sessions recorded at the D.C.’s now-defunct jazz dive, One Step Down. (On numerous studio recordings as a member of Julius Hemphill’s saxophone sextet, though, White’s unrecordably resonant tone is in fine sound.)

“I did a few studio records on Andrew’s Music, and they had a problem with [my resonance]. And me being a producer, even before we get to the mix-down, in the session itself, I’ve had engineers call me and say, ‘Can you come in here a minute please? What do you think of the saxophone [sound]?’ And I say, ‘Well that’s the way I play.’ And he says, ‘Well, you know, it’s not gonna work.’ And I say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Do the best you can, and we’ll work with that later.’ Too many highs; too much resonance. I guess with the new computerized thing they can compress it down, but it’s still gonna [sound] wheezy, ’cause that’s the way I hear it!” he laughs.

Many people have compared White’s sound to Eric Dolphy’s, though White disagrees.

“I don’t have any Eric Dolphy influence. We were doing what we were doing about the same time. Eric Dolphy came to the Bohemian Caverns and he heard me play [with The JFK Quintet]. He was sitting right in front of me, and he sat there for the whole first set and I was playing my ass off that night. When it was over, I was standing upstairs getting some air and he came out—he had on a black leather suit—he came out and he said, ‘Mr. White, I just want to let you know how much I enjoyed your music tonight. My name is Eric Dolphy, I play the saxophone.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of you.’ He said, ‘Well yeah, I’ve been hearing about you; a saxophonist in New York told me to come check you out. John Coltrane told me to come down here.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, John.’ So we talked for a while, and he went off, then he came back later that night with Ron Carter.

“So Ron sat in on the bass—Walter Booker was our bassist—Ron sat in and we started playing ‘Cousin Mary.’ When I finished my saxophone solo I was standing over to the side of the stage, and Ray Codrington started playing his trumpet solo. Eric came over to me and said, ‘Man, can I borrow your horn? ’Cause I want to get some of this.’ I said, OK, and I loaned him my alto and I walked out and sat out in front of the band to listen. Booker was already sittin’ there, smoking a cigarette, so I sat next to him. When the piano solo finished, Ray was standing on the other side of the bandstand picking his nose—hip—with his left hand, had the trumpet behind him, looking off to the side.

“The piano solo finished, then Eric Dolphy started playing from off of the side of the bandstand as he was walking to the front. And he was playing some of the most convoluted music I ever heard; I’ve never heard anything else like it since, right? And I’m sitting there listening, and I happen to look up at Ray and Ray stopped pickin’ his nose and Ray look like this,” White says, his eyes bulging, his mouth agape, his finger feigning nose-picking.

“At first I think Ray thought I was coming back for another solo, but I was doing something else; it wasn’t me. And he had never heard anything like that either, and he just started laughin’ and laughed all the way through the solo! Joe Chambers was the drummer, and he was playing, but his head started turning like the RCA Victor dog! Eric and Ron got into some stuff on ‘Cousin Mary’ which I’ve never heard the likes of anywhere since.

“That was the last tune of the set, and when it was over, Booker said to me, ‘Andrew, I ain’t never gonna make no more jokes about your alto sound after what I heard here tonight.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but he was using my horn.’ And Booker said, ‘Oh, lord!’” White is cracking up at the memory.

“So I went over to the side of the stage to get my horn from Eric, and we started talkin’, and this was mystical. We started talking, and he was a very loquacious fella, but everybody else says he was quiet, but with me he was really talkative. We were talkin’ music theory and everything, and he started telling me about certain ideas he was playing. And then he pulled out a piece of manuscript paper and he wrote down a scale; a systemic scale that he was working from. I was listening to him talk while he was explaining this scale and his approach to using this intervallic concept, and my eyes started bulging but he couldn’t see them bulging because he was talking so much. What I was thinking while listening to him is that I was working from the exact same scale at the same time. To me it was a coincidence; I’ve told this story to other people and they say it’s mystical. When he got down to the [end of his speech], he said, ‘You know what man, you sound like you’re doing the same thing!’ And I said, ‘I may be doing the same thing, but I don’t sound like you!’ Then we just looked at each other and broke up laughing, and we were brothers from then on.”

Dolphy took White’s place in The JFK Quintet at the Caverns in the summer of ’63 when Andrew went to Tanglewood Music Center to study oboe. “When I came back from Tanglewood and we started working, it was made quite clear to me by several Washingtonians, musicians included, that one wise-guy alto player is enough for Washington. So, I’m still here today!”

Gearbox

“I play Selmer, alto and tenor, Mark IV. I got the alto in 1958; I got the tenor in 1962. The mouthpiece on the alto is a Brilhart Level-Air metal mouthpiece; the facing is number 5. I use a number 1 1/2 Rico Royal reed. On the tenor I use a Strathon with the adjustable tonal chamber closed; that’s the number 5 facing. And I use a number 2 Rico Royal reed. I play a soft reed; nobody believes that. I have the physiognomy of an oboe player; I don’t have a saxophone player’s physiognomy, so I can play with the compression and the breath velocity of probably three times as much as a regular saxophone player. Because of that I can use a smaller [number] reed and manipulate it to the maximum much more than a regular saxophone player. Regular players who use much harder reeds have so much energy and effort going into producing sound that it distracts from their creative process.”

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