The Charles Lloyd Interview: Life of a Song

In his 80th year, Charles Lloyd takes stock of his storied past, thriving present and wide-open future

Charles Lloyd (photo by D. Darr)

On March 15, the tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd spent his 80th birthday at home—both literally and, given that he’s one of jazz’s most exalted and enduring live performers, figuratively. At a concert in Santa Barbara, Calif., Lloyd led a special ensemble combining bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland—the rhythm section in Lloyd’s New Quartet and in his Americana-flavored band the Marvels—with pianist Gerald Clayton, an occasional member of the Quartet; guitarist Julian Lage; and, from Lloyd’s birthplace of Memphis, Tenn., organist Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

“I didn’t know Booker then [in the ’60s]—he’s behind me several years,” Lloyd says on the phone from his house in the picturesque Central California town. “But he acted like I was a big deal to him when he was growing up. I never knew that. You don’t know where your seed falls and the tree grows.”

The same could be said of Lloyd’s new Blue Note album with the Marvels, Vanished Gardens, which features the progressive-country singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. The two met in 2015 through guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz of the Marvels. Last year, Lloyd, Williams and the Marvels convened in a Los Angeles studio for a pair of two-day sprints, recording a provocative range of material: Lloyd originals; Williams’ emotionally probing folk-noir; “Monk’s Mood,” as a Lloyd-Frisell duet; the Jimi Hendrix ballad “Angel,” done by a quiet-power trio of Lloyd, Frisell and Williams. “I don’t think there’s any precedent for it,” Lloyd says of the album. “She’s from that side of the box; I’m from over here. We started stirring the soup.”

Vanished Gardens is another milestone in a career that was already full of them when Lloyd turned 30 in 1968. Two years earlier, after tenures with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley, he made an explosive debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival as a leader. His set with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette, issued by Atlantic as Forest Flower, was a commercial sensation, and he became one of the label’s best-selling jazz artists, drawing rock audiences after game-changing shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Today, the further Lloyd digs into his past, the more exuberant and discursive his storytelling becomes. One tale during this interview started with a hang in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, turned into a hair-raising ride to a dentist appointment via mountain roads in a snowstorm, and ended with Lloyd spotting Richard Pryor in a rental-car office.

The saxophonist also speaks frankly of his dark hours with drugs and ill health, and the chosen exile of healing and spirituality that allowed him to emerge as a reborn force in the ’80s. Lloyd currently has three working groups: the Marvels; the world-jazz ensemble Sangam, with Harland and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain; and the New Quartet. Notably, the Quartet’s 2017 Blue Note gem with pianist Jason Moran, Passin Thru, includes Lloyd’s Atlantic perennial “Dream Weaver.” Also notably, Lloyd will headline all three days of the Newport Jazz Festival, in August, with Sangam, the New Quartet and a special “& Friends” ensemble featuring Williams.

“It’s funny,” he says brightly. “Bill heard me when he was a teenager in Denver, playing with Keith and Paul Motian. He saw there was another way to look at this stuff, as I was inspired by those before me. Now here we come, Lu and I. I just keep moving forward. That’s what I’m about.”

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JazzTimes: Vanished Gardens is a decisive evolution for the Marvels. The last album, 2016’s I Long to See You, had vocal cameos by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, but Williams is embedded on this record, singing on half the tracks. And you cut four of her songs.

Years ago, I had a neighbor who turned me on to her [1998] album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It was some kind of Southern crossroads for me, like when Willie had that Stardust record [in 1978]. I used to play that a lot, too. I don’t have lines of demarcation. I’m about the music. And it’s not my profession; it’s my life. I walked away when I was a young man. They wanted me to play in stadiums, but I would have to be a commodity for that. I wasn’t up for it.

“Unsuffer Me” is remarkable in that, over 11 minutes, you don’t take a solo. Your playing is in phrases and interjections, as if you’re in conversation with Williams.

Did you hear my ghost vocal? She was talking about “Unsuffer Me.” I decided to liberate her. Not since Moon Man [Lloyd’s 1970 spiritual-pop album] have I been singing. People wanted to crucify me for that record, but I’m an observer of the condition. By that time in the session, it had gotten very mystical. She’s a poet, and it got really out there. My longevity is probably because I follow my own bells. And I think you should serve missions rather than lead them.

Does your playing change as you go from the New Quartet to the Marvels?
The rhythm section is the same, but the instrumental textures and exchange are different.

It’s the same guy, but something happens where it’s fresh, in-the-moment. This thing with the Marvels—I had that in Memphis playing with Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. When I came to Los Angeles and played with Chico Hamilton, I brought [guitarist] Gábor Szabó in that band. And I had John Abercrombie in my band for a time. I don’t use guitar all the time, but sometimes it comes over me.

Bill and Greg in the Marvels, Jason or Gerald on piano, Reuben and Eric in the rhythm section: What they’re feeding me in background, harmony and simpatico brings out different versions of the meal. It’s gonna be truffles instead of porcini in the risotto. I don’t call it anything. They touch me, and I express it. When those instruments move against each other, it makes another sonority. And you respond to that.

What did you learn as a sideman for Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Johnny Ace that informed your voice on the saxophone?

What really shook me up was how Wolf could go into a place and raise the roof off it. His communication with an audience—I got something from that. A lot of guys can play and their stuff doesn’t come off the stage. It reaches a few people in front. Those guys reached the back row. I got infected by that. I’ve been to over 100 countries. I can’t speak those languages, but there is something in the music that transcends the world. I was in one of those Eastern European countries in the ’60s…

Estonia, in 1967 [where he recorded Charles Lloyd in the Soviet Union].

They said, “You’re playing our folk songs.” I wasn’t. But with that audience and my being open to the night, the deities came and said, “Let’s dance with Charles.”

But the important part of being a sideman is to not get in the way of the vocal.

Nobody played the blues as slow as Johnny Ace. On the horns, we were holding these long tones. But I’d heard Charlie Parker and Lester Young. I wanted to soar. Johnny Ace sang so slowly that I could figure out some calculations, some algebra between the beats while I was back there waiting my time. I had a sense of mission and dynamics, but I had to hold it in abeyance until I could sing my song.

What did it sound like when you first let it loose?

I came to L.A. to go to college. I played with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry around town. There was a club in Pasadena called the Dragonwyck; I played there with Bobby Hutcherson. On my own gigs, most of the time I would get fired because people couldn’t tolerate it. I played a wedding with Billy Higgins, Scott LaFaro and Don Cherry. The father of the bride ran up to the stage—they had an imitation white picket fence in front—and said, “Please stop. I’ll pay you now. Please leave.” We wanted to cement that relationship, send them out with the grace of the infinite. The father wouldn’t let us.

What did you learn from the Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn Jr.? He was one of your first teachers.

I didn’t live far from Phineas. I’d ride my bicycle over to his house and sit outside as he was playing Chopin, Bach and Beethoven. I would tremble from the music coming out of the screen door. But he would look in on me, see what I was playing. He put me in his father’s band, with him and his brother Calvin, at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, Arkansas. We’d play from 9 at night to 4 a.m.—40 minutes on, 15 off.

So your lessons were on the bandstand.

Phineas also started turning me on to the records of Bird. “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” was one of the first. It was this blues I was hearing in Memphis, transformed into heaven. If you’re around genius, osmosis will grab you. If you’re sincere and you’re fortunate enough to find a teacher along the path, you will be saved. Phineas was my savior.

In West Memphis, you played with a pedal-steel guitarist, Al Vescovo, who was in the Snearly Ranch Boys, a white country band.

They would play in the afternoon; we’d do our thing at night. During the overlap, Al and I became friends. He could play “Honeysuckle Rose,” and he wanted to swing. There was no racism. We had this common love for jazz. It was kind of illegal in those days for us to meet up. My mother confronted me once: “The neighbors are saying you’re sitting at the counter with a white boy. You punkin’ or something?” They thought some homosexual stuff was goin’ on.

One time I was talking to Bill Frisell about Al, how I missed something about that. He said, “Well, I’ve got this friend.” He invited Greg Leisz to a show at UCLA, to play a few songs with us, and that’s how the Marvels were born. I called Bill and said, “Our group will be called the Marvels.” Because it was a marvel what was going on.

How did that Hendrix cover on the new album happen?

Everybody was going home after the session. Bill and I were packing up. Lucinda was like, “I wanna do this song ‘Angel’” [does a funny impression of her Louisiana drawl]. I said OK. We sat around a mic. Lucinda started singing, and we played it in one take.

“Ballad of the Sad Young Men”—that was one take. Lucinda wanted to sing it, but she was late. We rehearsed it and liked the vibe we got, so we put one down. But that’s OK, because we did a lot of other stuff with her. We were gonna have a double album—one with us and Lucinda, one of the Marvels. But [Blue Note president] Don Was said we should make one album now and mix it up, so we did.

How about a good Hendrix story?

There’s so many. I bought a loft on West 3rd Street [in Greenwich Village], and Jimi was playing down the street at the Cafe Wha? [as Jimmy James]. I’d walk past and hear this guy. I dug that he had something. He’d come out of the blues guys, as I had. He was bringing that stuff, but he wasn’t himself yet. Later on, I was in London. There was all this talk about him and me, because of our hair and stuff. Somebody got me high and played me Are You Experienced. That blew my socks off.

We would be on the same shows. We would hang out. He was always very sweet. At a party in Hollywood, his girlfriend Devon [Wilson] told me, “Jimi can’t wait to record [with you].” By the time I got back to New York, time had run out on us.

Of the eight Atlantic albums you made in the ’60s, only the first, Dream Weaver, was a studio LP. How much did the nonstop touring impact your playing and composing?

My contract was odious. I made Dream Weaver [in 1966], and it sold a lot of records for those times. Then Forest Flower went ballistic. I had a meeting with Nesuhi Ertegun, who ran the jazz world [at Atlantic Records]. I said, “I want to get a house in Woodstock, take the band to live there and keep working on the music.” He said he would talk to Ahmet about it.

But it didn’t happen. 

I refused to go back into the studio. And I started medicating myself more and more. We grew further and further apart. They had those live records, and that’s what they held on me. Pretty soon, I made my getaway. People thought I was making a lot of money then. I’d make $2,000 for a college concert, but in the clubs, I’d play at Slugs’ for $400 and have to pay people out of that. I didn’t have anything.

The saxophonist David S. Ware once told me that your Atlantic albums were an early inspiration for him, proving that progressive jazz could be popular music. Love-In, recorded at the Fillmore in 1967, certainly set the stage for what Miles Davis achieved with Bitches Brew.

Miles would always come around and hear me play. Of course, his press was different; he would dime on me. But he watched that Fillmore thing, and he took it to the bank, at which point I was falling apart. I came to Big Sur to heal; my study of Vedanta got deep.

There’s an old saying: If you have the goods, even if you live in a cave, the world will beat a path to your door. It wasn’t quite like that, but when [pianist] Michel Petrucciani came knocking [in 1982], I realized the elders had always helped me. So I helped him. I was blessed that I didn’t completely self-destruct. That gave me the longevity I have now.

What do you see for your extended future?

It reveals itself unto itself. I’m thinking of releasing that 80th-birthday concert with Julian and Booker T. When guys play with me, something happens where two things combine and make a third thing. I’m blessed with that.

But I’m backed up with stuff. I just had a big commission in Poland with a string orchestra and 24-voice choir. I have this wonderful fleet-of-foot thing with Bill and Greg and now this thing with Lucinda. I’m not suffering a challenge.

You know what you have going on? You have life.

My thing is overfull. I keep emptying. And the more I empty, the fuller it gets.

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