Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Ray Charles & Steve Turre: After Midnight

Steve Turre and Ray Charles (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Steve Turre and Ray Charles (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Steve Turre

It’s the stroke of midnight and we’re waiting on Brother Ray. We-photographer Jimmy Katz and his crew, a record company publicist and trombonist Steve Turre-are all assembled in a cramped hotel suite near United Nations Plaza, ready to conduct a joint photo and interview session. Everyone in the room is slightly anxious about the prospect of this late night encounter with soul royalty. Everyone, that is, but Turre, the ultimate hipster, whose ponytailed visage has graced the Saturday Night Live Band for the past 15 years and whose relationship with Ray Charles goes back nearly 30 years.

At half past midnight, with photo backdrop in place and strobe lights humming, a bottle of the finest cognac ordered up from room service and me with my thumb hovering expectantly over the red record button of my cassette recorder, Turre offers this urgent bit of advice to the assemblage, like a college basketball coach prepping his team before the big game: “OK now. Mr. Charles is a very busy man. He’s very professional and is going to want to do this thing quickly, so we can’t waste any time here. Jimmy, you get your thing set up now. And Bill, start rolling the minute he walks in the door. So when he gets here, we can hit it and quit it.”

It’s the kind of anxious preparation, I imagine, that goes down before having an audience with a foreign dignitary, a president, the pope. But forget about those mugs, this is The Genius we’re talking about here.

A beloved entertainer and true American icon, Ray Charles has become a universal figure in the tradition of Louis Armstrong. His name is recognized by everyone from crocheting grannies in Peoria to hipsters in Harlem, from rednecks in Nashville to lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest; cowboys in Wyoming, soccer moms in suburban Connecticut, short-order cooks in Kansas City, doormen in Manhattan, retirees in Florida, lobster fishermen in Maine, players in Hollywood, factory workers in Detroit, postal carriers in Piscataway-everybody knows his name.

If they haven’t heard of him from R&B landmarks like “What’d I Say,” “Busted” and “Hit the Road, Jack” or country & western fare like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crying Time” or “Georgia on My Mind,” they might’ve heard him duet with Kermit the Frog on “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Or they might know him from his cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers movie or his frequent concert appearances, in which he trots out the hits from his glorious career. Failing all that, they probably remember the rash of catchy commercials he did a few years back for Diet Pepsi (“You got the right one, bay-bay!”), a move that ensured his imprint upon the American consciousness in the 1990s.

Today, nearly 50 years after scoring his first top-10 hit, Charles’ easily identifiable singing voice still resonates to the back row with emotional, spine-tingling power, as it did a couple of hours earlier in Avery Fisher Hall, where he appeared as part of George Wein’s JVC Jazz Festival. Turre sat in on Charles’ set, blowing trombone on some mellow soul-jazz and rekindling the chemistry that Ray and Steve had experienced together in the studio earlier this year when cutting tracks for Turre’s Telarc debut, In the Spur of the Moment. The album features the great trombonist expressing three sides of his musical personality in quartet settings with three guest pianists each reflecting a different style: “The Blues in Jazz” with Charles; “Modern and Modal” with Stephen Scott; and “Afro-Cuban” with Chucho Valdés.

Finally, a call from the front desk. Ray is in the lobby. He’s coming up. “Alright, get ready everyone,” Turre snaps to the troops. “Let’s do it.”

Suddenly, Ray is being led into the room by his man. Pleasantries and hugs are exchanged between Charles and Turre, and the strobes start popping and flashing as Katz goes for the cover shot. I hit the record button and we’re off and running. Turre’s appearance earlier that evening with his one-time mentor seemed like a natural place to start this interview. And the conversation flowed from there like the Dom Perignon in Ray’s beer mug.

JazzTimes: Ray, did Steve play well tonight?

Charles: Very well.

Turre: I was going out of tempo.

Charles: Oh, you can play the blues, don’t start that shit with me. The blues is just in a minor key, that’s all. But really, man, I’m very happy you were able to come out and sit in with the cats tonight. I loved it, made my night. I really truly enjoyed it.

JazzTimes: Steve, what are your memories of joining Ray’s band back in 1972?

Turre: I remember I went down to L.A. from the Bay Area and I auditioned and it was a thrill of a lifetime for me. I was a young man then. And that was my first real experience, you know, with the real deal. It was my first time I came into New York and traveled around the world. It was wonderful.

JazzTimes: What did you learn on that gig with Ray?

Turre: Oh man…you can’t really explain that stuff in words. You just have to feel it.

Charles: You got that right.

Turre: You know what I mean, Ray?

Charles: Take my word for it, when he came in the band, he was playing then, otherwise he woulda never got in that band. You know, I don’t hire people that can’t play. You got to play it when you come in my band. Because, see, I want to hear it. That’s the whole thing with it. And with Steve, he was always an excellent player with much feeling. The man made me very, very happy. I was very saddened when he decided he would drift away on his own. But I could respect that because that’s what I did. I drifted away on my own, so I know how it is.

Turre: But I came back home!

Charles: [laughs uproariously]

JazzTimes: What happened following your stint with Ray back in ’72?

Turre: We toured that whole year back then and at Christmastime we were off so I came home to the Bay Area and I sat in with Art Blakey. And he asked me to join the Jazz Messengers. So, I ended up coming to New York with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, and I’ve been here ever since. That’s how I got here.

JazzTimes: And at some point you came in contact with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who became another significant mentor figure for you.

Turre: Well, Rahsaan I had met when I was 18. I sat in with him at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and we became good friends. So when I came to New York I looked him up.

JazzTimes: Ray, I’m wondering if you had any contact with Rahsaan over the years, if you ever met him or played with him?

Charles: I don’t think we ever crossed paths. Sorry about that, chief.

Turre: I know, Ray, that he loved you. He’d talk about you a lot. Boy, you talk about someone who plays the blues-Rahsaan with that flute!

JazzTimes: Ray, I’d be curious to hear from you about when you first heard the term funk with regard to music. I remember talking to Earl Palmer about this. And even Horace Silver. They both have different stories about where it comes from.

Charles: Musicians have been using that word for a long, long time. I heard it when I was maybe 17, 18 years old: “You gotta make the music funky, man!” It was just musicians using the word but everybody knew what it meant. It was around 1947 or 1948 when I was living in Seattle, and that’s what the cats were talking about, people who could play really funky music. It just means when the person plays you can feel it in your bones, in your soul, in your heart. That’s when it’s funky.

I also talked to Ed Blackwell and was surprised to find out that he played in your band. He mentioned that you bought him a set of drums to go out on the road.

Charles: Oh yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, the man could play and he needed drums. I mean, what was I supposed to do? The way he played? Shoot.

JazzTimes: Well, he had that direct connection to Africa in his playing, which really came out when he went on to play with Ornette Coleman.

Charles: He went on to play with everybody.

Turre: He could play with anybody.

Charles: The thing about it is you don’t have to be limited. I’m not knocking it because we have what we call specialists. I’m not a specialist in nothing. In other words, you would never say that I’m a blues singer, ’cause I’m not. I’m a singer that can sing the blues. I’m not a jazz singer but I’m a singer that can sing jazz. I’m not a country singer, but I’m a singer that can sing country. You understand what I’m saying?

JazzTimes: Just like George Jones is country but he can sing the hell out of the blues.

Charles: Right! I’m not a specialist. If I said B.B. King you would say he’s a specialist, because he specializes in the blues, you see. I guess you can call me a utility guy. I can play first base, second base, shortstop, third base and pitch-and catch too. I’m that kind of person.

Turre: I’m glad you brought that up because I’m the same way and I think I got it from you.

Charles: Yeah, well, that’s the key. The key is to be able to fit wherever the promoter wants you. If he says, “Well, we’re having a jazz concert tonight,” I can fit. Or if he says, “Oh, we’re having a blues concert,” you know I got something for him. A country & western thing? I can fit. And that’s what makes it real nice, man, because you can find great music in all of those fields. Duke Ellington once said that there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad. And it’s the truth! Because you can find beautiful, good music in every branch of music. And don’t let nobody fool you when they say, “Well, all classical music is good.” That’s a lie, ’cause it ain’t. Just ’cause it’s classical, that don’t necessarily mean that it’s good.

Turre: You know, when I was younger I wasn’t a big fan of country & western, then I heard you, Ray, and I dug that. But then also someone gave me a Patsy Cline record.

Charles: Yeah!

Turre: Man, she messed me up.

Charles: Hello!

JazzTimes: Steve, you’ve played with all these people who have so much heart invested in their music-Ray, Rahsaan, Blakey, Dizzy.

Turre: I’m attracted to that. I don’t care about technique, I want to feel it. If it got feeling I want to play it because it makes me feel good.

Charles: Thank you!

Turre: You know, technique is great, but that ain’t music.

Charles: I think what he’s saying is that to play technically is one thing. There’s nothing wrong with technique because you need to know how to do what your mind is telling you to do, you understand what I mean? So that you can play what your heart is telling you. The technique allows you to do that. That’s why you learn fingering. But you don’t have to finger like I finger. You find a way that’s comfortable for you. That’s why I got a lot of hits on my finger from my teacher. “You can’t finger like that, boy!” Whack! But in the end, it was comfortable for me. Same with Dizzy Gillespie. I’m sure somewhere along the line he had a teacher that told him, “Put those cheeks in, boy!” But it was the way he did it, wasn’t it? The cheeks. Am I right?

Turre: Yessir.

JazzTimes: Ray, you had some dealings with Louis Jordan in the early ’60s. Didn’t he record on a label you started up [Tangerine]?

Charles: Yes, he did. Louis Jordan was somebody that I loved as a kid. I admired his music so much. When I was a young boy I never even thought the day would come that I would get to meet him and we would do some recording and stuff together. I never dreamed that would ever happen. I always loved Louis Jordan. He had a very, very unique sound of his own. The music that he did, man, it was very come-hither. In fact, I did some of his things: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.” I just love so many of his things.

Turre: “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”

Charles: Yeah, man! “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Caldonia.” But you see, it was so unique that band he had, The Tympany Five. What they did, they had their own sound. I love Louis Jordan. And you’re right, he did a song on my label which I love. It’s called “You’re My Mule (If You Never Pull No More).” I love that.

JazzTimes: So maybe you picked up something from him as a kid.

Charles: You never know what rubs off on you, man. Even without thinking about it, things just fall into your being. You never know what may happen. Because remember one thing: Whatever we do, somebody has done something similar before we did it, you know what I mean? Let’s face it, for us to be musicians, we loved the music because somebody was a musician before us and we had a chance to feel that we wanted to be a musician. Just like you feel you wanna be a photographer [pointing to Jimmy Katz], you feel you wanna be a writer, but you feel that because somebody was doing that before you. Ain’t that right?

JazzTimes: And in your case, that was people like Louis Jordan, Charles Brown…

Charles: Nat “King” Cole. I loved him to death. You know, a lot of people don’t realize that Nat “King” Cole was a helluva pianist.

JazzTimes: What about you, Steve? Who were some of your early inspirations, specifically on trombone?

Turre: Well, I guess I have to go back to the beginning. My mom and dad met at a Count Basie dance. And so as a kid, they took me to see all the big bands-the real bands. I saw Basie when he had Al Grey. I saw Ellington in the Oakland Auditorium and Coleman Hawkins was a guest soloist and Ella Fitzgerald was a guest vocalist. I was a little kid, just started playing the trombone. I didn’t know what they were doing but it got me somehow. It really inspired me to say, “I wanna do that when I grow up.” So I started getting into it, and then when I was in high school someone gave me a J.J. Johnson record.

Charles: That was the end of that! [laughs uproariously]

Turre: That turned me around. I didn’t even know that you could play a trombone like that. He did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone.

Charles: That’s right!

Turre: So, you know, I went over there. Then when I played with Rahsaan later on, when I was about 18, 19, he turned me on to the cats that I had missed, like Vic Dickenson and Trummy Young, J.C. Higginbotham and Tyree Glenn. So listening to music from that period got me into the plunger. And now I love the plunger. It’s part of my voice and I will keep it alive as part of our art form.

Charles: You’re unique with that, man. Very few people know about that nowadays. It’s becoming almost like a lost art. And I love that sound, man.

Turre: Me, too! You know who showed me that? Quentin “Butter” Jackson.

JazzTimes: So you’re part of a continuum, keeping that tradition alive.

Charles: Yeah, man. I think it’s a wonderful thing he’s doing. I really do mean that.

JazzTimes: And you’re part of a whole other continuum, which is the ancient art of shell playing.

Turre: You know, it’s interesting about the shells-I know a lot of people make a big deal about it and everything-ain’t nobody did it in jazz before and all that. But for me, you know, I play a lot of mutes. I play the plunger mute a good bit, I play the Harmon mute, I play open horn, and then I play the shell. And [they are] just like another mute to me. It’s just another color at the right time and the right place to change up the texture. You know, I like music to have different colors and grooves and stuff. Because the shells you can only get but so many notes out of them, so it’s about simple. The shells made me and taught me how to play simple. Before that I was trying to play fast like all the bebop cats and everything-and that’s cool and I was getting to it. But when I started messing with them shells, you can’t do that. You can’t play “Donna Lee” on the shells, man.

Charles: [uproarious laughter]

Turre: So, I had to just get basic and talk the language.

[Ray scats the intro to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop,” Steve joins in for a unison chorus.]

Turre: Yeah, man. But I can play a blues on the shell.

Charles: You got that right. We did it! On the record [“Ray’s Collard Greens”].

Turre: But you know my favorite thing that we did, Ray? “Misty.”

Charles: Oh yes, yes, yes. It’s awfully nice.

Turre: One take-boom! It was natural.

Charles: And that’s why it was just one take.

JazzTimes: Did you decide on that tune at the session?

Turre: Yeah, on the spot. We just said, “Let’s call a ballad” and boom! It was done.

Charles: And you know, it’s strange about that first take because you ain’t thinkin’ then, you’re just playin’ what you feel. Once you start getting into take after take after take, you start thinking about it. You know, a song that’s simple, you wanna keep it like it is. And “Misty” is very simple and easygoing. So just play what’s in your heart. And if you do that, that’s it.

Turre: Yeah, because I remember when we finished I said, “Well, let’s leave that alone.”

Charles: [Laughs] You sure did. It was like, “Next!”

The interview goes smoothly . After 40 minutes of chat, Charles gets up to leave. He grabs two complementary bottles of Dom Perignon and makes his way out the door. We breathe a sigh of relief; things went just fine.

Listening Pleasures

Steve Turre:

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia)

J.J. Johnson: Proof Positive (GRP/Impulse!)

Also, any Indian classical music by Ravi Shankar and Ram Narayan

Anything by Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington


Steve Turre:

Turre plays a custom Yamaha trombone that he helped design with a sterling silver custom-made Yamaha mouthpiece that he also helped design. Turre crafts his own shells (with an assist from Mother Nature).

Originally Published