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Chops: Blues Clues

Three great saxophonists explain why technique isn’t everything

Pee Wee Ellis (photo: Carl Hyde)
Pee Wee Ellis (photo: Carl Hyde)
Ron Holloway
Sax Gordon

“I used to hear jazz players say, ‘I like James Brown, but anyone can play that simple stuff,'” recalls Ron Holloway, 61, the tenor saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie’s final quintet. “I would laugh. I would say to myself, ‘Yeah, you can play all the notes, but you won’t have the sound, and they will laugh you off the stage.’

“I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen really skilled jazz players get up onstage with a blues band on a cruise ship and play all these 16th notes and substitute chords that had nothing to do with what the band was doing. And I’ve seen the band’s guitarist get all squinty-eyed and ask the guy to leave. He didn’t ask me to leave, because I know how to use tone to say something with quarter and half notes.”

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