Bright Moments with Gary Bartz

The sax legend revisits some of his greatest recordings, proving that he’s both an elder statesman and a forerunner of the newest wave

Gary Bartz
Gary Bartz (photo: Alan Nahigian)

One of jazz culture’s many graces is that a musician’s value—his or her relevance, to use a deeply flawed term—has little to do with age. A brilliant example of this is Gary Bartz, who seems to have hit upon yet another apex. At 78, the Baltimore-born, Oakland-based saxophonist, composer, and educator is in a rare position to be all things to all jazz people.

To start, he’s one of the most reliable living narrators of the music’s history, an intermediary between the bop and fusion generations with oodles of memoir-worthy firsthand accounts. A nice haul of those tales appears below, but this interview yielded much more: a recollection of the time Bartz’s hero Jackie McLean taught him to never leave his horn with a tough-love prank; the memory of meeting Bud Powell, after a Brooklyn club owner thought the genius pianist was a vagabond, and playing with him; anecdotes from Ornette Coleman’s historic Five Spot stand; and reflections on Sun Ra’s sprawling two-night Omniversal Symphonic on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1984. To name but a few.

Lately, as artists like Kamasi Washington and an ascendant London scene have made jazz’s longstanding relationships to R&B, social justice, Afrocentric spirituality, cosmology, and DJ culture seem new, Bartz’s status as a crucial forebear has become clearer. His performances at this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest—especially a 50th-anniversary celebration of his LP Another Earth at Le Poisson Rouge, featuring Pharoah Sanders—felt like showcase gigs by a breakout star. And for good reason. Bartz’s playing continues to deliver a distinctive meld of the many lodestars he’s spent a lifetime studying, among them Bird, Trane, Ornette, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie Mac.

At New York’s Blue Note in March, Bartz joined Charles Tolliver, Vijay Iyer, Buster Williams, and Lenny White to mark the half-century anniversary of Tolliver’s Paper Man. Again and again, regally dressed and gripping his alto in a power stance near the edge of the stage, he offered perfectly charted lines that surged in fervor until the applause and smartphone cameras rose to meet them. A couple of days later, he sat down in the breakfast nook of a Greenwich Village hotel to take the Bright Moments challenge, using various recordings from throughout his career to summon up stories and invaluable wisdom.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Soul Finger (Limelight, 1965)

Blakey, drums; Bartz, alto saxophone (originally uncredited); Lucky Thompson, soprano saxophone (on “Spot Session”); Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, trumpets; John Hicks, piano; Victor Sproles, bass

That was my first recording. My dad had a nightclub in Baltimore called the North End Lounge. I worked there for years, learned how to be a bandleader. I was commuting from New York down to Baltimore on the weekend. [Messengers] Lee Morgan and John Hicks, who was one of my best friends, they had been trying to get me in the band. [The Messengers] were at my dad’s club. My dad found out that John Gilmore was leaving, so he called me in New York. He said, “Why don’t you come down and sit in with the band? I hear his horn player is leaving.” I did that, and Bu [Blakey’s nickname] liked me, so I ended up joining the band there.

We did all the touring and went out west. Coming back from California, it was 1965 and we left three days before the Watts riots. I felt the tension in L.A. I didn’t like L.A. at that time. I later fell in love with L.A. and actually moved there.

So we get back to New York and Lee disappeared. Couldn’t find Lee for the record date because we didn’t know we had a record date until we got back. We get to the record date, and Bu hadn’t heard from Lee so he called Freddie. But Lee showed up! That’s why the two trumpets are on that album. But what an auspicious first record. To have two of the greatest trumpeters, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard—are you kidding me? That’s my big memory of that particular record. And Art Blakey tried to take one of my songs—that was another memory. “Freedom Monday.” I got it back. I knew nothing about publishing. Freddie was trying to tell me I got to sign a “notice of use” and all that. But by the time I found all that out, the recording was out and Art Blakey’s name was on my song.

[On the fact that his name was left off the original credits, although it appeared in the liner notes and DownBeat’s review] My first album! Are you kidding? I was more than upset—I was mortified. But I got over it [laughs].

Max Roach
Members, Don’t Git Weary (Atlantic, 1968)
Roach, drums; Bartz, alto saxophone; Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Stanley Cowell, piano; Jymie Merritt, bass; Andy Bey, vocals (title track)

I had met Max in Baltimore when I was about 14. My dad took me down to the Club Casino in Baltimore, and I sat in. I think that’s when I met Clifford Jordan, who ended up being one of my best friends. I sat in and they called the fastest thing they could, “Cherokee.” I’m a Charlie Parker nut, so that’s what started me off.

I knew “Cherokee,” even though I didn’t know anything about harmony and theory. I wasn’t playing wrong notes; I was playing the right notes, I just didn’t know why. Which is why I ended up moving to New York to go to Juilliard—to find out what this harmony was about. Max was very gracious. I guess he liked what he heard, and he said to look him up when I moved to New York. I started going by his house, and we would play chess and talk and listen to music. I moved to New York in ’58 and in ’64 he asked me to join the band. My first airplane flight was with Max.

[Members, Don’t Git Weary] turned out to be a good, lasting record. I knew Andy from Andy & the Bey Sisters. We would see each other around, and I used to hang in Newark, New Jersey [where Bey was born and raised] with my friend Grachan Moncur.

Gary Bartz
Another Earth (Milestone, 1969)
Bartz, alto saxophone; Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Stanley Cowell, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Freddie Waits, drums

That was my second record [as a leader]. I’d been reading about Beethoven, and Beethoven would write a piece that was a light piece, like the Pastoral Symphony, then he would follow that with a heavy piece, and go back and forth. I liked that concept. I had done Libra, and that was more of a light record. So I said, okay, now let me do a heavy piece.

I had gotten into astronomy through studying astrology. I was drawing charts for myself and other people, and I realized that a chart is just a photograph of the sky at a particular moment. That got me into astronomy, because now I wanted to see it. So I got my telescope and I got into it, and that inspired the Another Earth music, which is still going because I’ve added some new things. What was missing from the Le Poisson Rouge [performance were] films and footage of space that I wanted to have going. Hopefully when we do it elsewhere, we’ll get that going.

Pharoah and I had met in the early ’60s, when he first came to town. I had already been here, and so we started hanging out together and practicing. Actually, Pharoah taught me how to do circular breathing. We used to go to a park and practice, and try to play as loud as we could. We’d go out there to try to open up our sounds.

Gary Bartz with McCoy Tyner and Gerald Cannon
Gary Bartz with early employer McCoy Tyner (left) and bassist Gerald Cannon (right) at the Blue Note, New York, September 2016 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

McCoy Tyner
Expansions (Blue Note, 1969)
Tyner, piano; Bartz, alto saxophone, wooden flute; Woody Shaw, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Ron Carter, cello; Herbie Lewis, bass; Freddie Waits, drums

Wayne was my hero. One night, Lee Morgan said, “Come on, Gary, I want you to hear this tenor saxophone player. I got this gig in Newark.” And we went over and I had my horn; I was going to go play with him. That’s the night I met Wayne Shorter, and it changed everything about my outlook. I was trying to hide my horn after hearing Wayne [laughs]. I’ve been following him ever since. I think he’s America’s great composer. He’s in the same vein as a Duke Ellington or a Charles Mingus … or Beethoven. He’s our Beethoven.

I learned so much working with McCoy. When I met McCoy he was working with Benny Golson and Art Farmer’s Jazztet. I had known him for a while, before he went to John [Coltrane]. So when he asked me to join the band I was very happy. Now I’m in the role of the Trane.

[McCoy] and John Hicks were the first two pianists I knew of who knew how to play with soloists when they were playing free, not necessarily following the harmonic structure. Because McCoy had done that with Trane. They figured out a way through Trane studying with Ornette.

I loved John Coltrane so much. The alto saxophonists I like play like tenor players, and the tenor players I like play like altos, which would be John Coltrane. He started out on alto, and he always to me played like an alto player.

 

On Wayne Shorter: “I think he’s America’s great composer. He’s our Beethoven.”

 

Miles Davis
Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy, 2011)

[portion recorded August 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival]
Davis, trumpet; Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones; Chick Corea, electric piano; Keith Jarrett, organ; Dave Holland, electric bass; Airto Moreira, percussion; Jack DeJohnette, drums

Miles Davis
The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy, 2005)
Davis, trumpet; Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones; John McLaughlin, electric guitar; Keith Jarrett, electric piano, electric organ; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Airto Moreira, percussion; Jack DeJohnette, drums

When Miles called me, I was disappointed because I knew he was playing that electric music from Bitches Brew, and I knew all the music from his bands before that. I knew all those songs, and that’s the band I wanted to be in—the quintets, especially the first quintet with Trane. But I said, I can’t turn Miles Davis down, that’s the gig everybody aspires to, so I’ll give it a few weeks. We had one rehearsal and I began to see what he was doing. And really, in essence, he wasn’t doing anything different than he had been doing. He had already gone modal with Kind of Blue, but now he had changed the rhythms. Everything around him changed, but he didn’t change.

I didn’t have to do anything but play the way I always play. I felt very free. [But] Keith [Jarrett] and I always had a problem. I didn’t like the way Keith comped behind me. I didn’t think he was listening to me, and above all we have to listen. I could go out and play without listening to everybody and just play what I want to play, but that’s not a band. The greatest thing about Miles is that he knew how to listen. Because he listened from the inside. Hearing is like a fingerprint; everybody hears differently. We have to find out how we hear. That’s our job, to find out what it is that only we can hear—and for that we have to go inside ourselves. Miles was always inside of himself. Whatever he heard on the outside, he could then bring that into what only he could hear and meld it with that.

So with Keith—and I love Keith—he just wasn’t listening because he was so excited and he’d do his stuff. And it bothered me, because I’m trying to go where I want to go, but he’s trying to take me where he wants me to go—and it’s my solo. So I would complain to Miles about that.

[On the various reactions to Miles’ electric music] I remember the Modern Jazz Quartet came in one night at Paul’s Mall in Boston. Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and I think Connie Kay may have been there. Percy, he didn’t like it: What the hell are you doing? But Milt Jackson said to me, “You ain’t doing nothin’ but playin’ the blues.” I said, “Yeah, that’s what we’re doing.” It ain’t no different; it’s just the rhythms are different. What we’re doing is no different from what Bach did, Beethoven, Mozart. They just didn’t have a rhythm section, so they could only do theme and variations by themselves. We figured out a way to do theme and variations with a group of people, and changed the whole pathway of music.

Woody Shaw
Blackstone Legacy (Contemporary, 1971)
Shaw, trumpet; Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; George Cables, piano, electric piano; Ron Carter, Clint Houston, electric bass; Lenny White, drums

At that time, Woody, George Cables and I were like three peas in a pod. We’d see each other every day. We would hang out, work on music, go eat and talk. So that’s how that record came about. When he got a record date, of course we’re with each other every day creating music anyway. So he brought these songs and [two tracks of] George’s writing—he’s a great, great composer himself.

[On the album’s themes of black freedom] We all were [thinking about social-justice issues] in the ’60s. I mean, they killed the president; they killed our leaders. Our leaders were assassinated in the ’60s, and we act like it was just a footnote in history. But that was traumatic. I was going to stop playing music because I didn’t think the world needed another musician. I thought, we got more problems than what a musician can solve, even though as I got to know Max and Mingus and different people, I saw that you can address social ills through music. That’s the only thing that kept me out of the Black Panthers.

Gary Bartz with George Cables
Gary Bartz with George Cables (right) at the Roy Hargrove Musical Celebration, Jazz at Lincoln Center, January 2019 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Gary Bartz NTU Troop
Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru (Milestone, 1971)
Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones, piano and vocals on “Blue”; Juni Booth, bass (on “Vietcong”); Ron Carter, bass, electric bass; Nat Bettis, percussion; Harold White, drums; Andy Bey, vocals

[The NTU Troop recordings were a] result of me listening to “Fables of Faubus” and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and all of that. That’s when I came up with the concept of the NTU Troop.

[My friends and fellow musicians and I] used to go to the Shabazz restaurant near the mosque uptown off 116th Street just to see Malcolm X come in. We knew what time he came into the restaurant, and then we’d follow him. He’d walk through the streets of Harlem, talking to the prostitutes and pimps, drug addicts and drug dealers. He would talk to everybody and say, “Brother, that’s not the way to go.”

There are two people I’ve been around who had a Christ-like effect, or a Buddha effect; you just felt their aura of peace and goodness. Malcolm was one of them, and John Coltrane was the other. [Harlem Bush Music is dedicated to the memories of both men.—Ed.] Everybody respected Malcolm X—everybody. They knew Brother Malcolm. He was ready to die for this. And he did.

It was a very important time. Gil Scott-Heron, we used to do gigs opposite each other, and then there were a lot of Black Student Unions during that time, all over the country. They had budgets for the music … and they would say [to the college and university administrations], “Well, you’re bringing these other groups, these rock groups and country groups. What about us?” So that’s why they started bringing in Gil Scott, the Last Poets, NTU, Max Roach.

Gary Bartz NTU Troop
I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies (Prestige, 1973)
Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones, vocals; Hubert Eaves, electric piano, piano; Stafford James, electric bass, bass; Howard King, drums

I actually started practicing and trying to learn the guitar, and that’s how I wrote “I’ve Known Rivers.” I was always into poetry. We had studied Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes in school, Countee Cullen, poets like that. We had Black History Month; then, when I was in school, it was Black History Week. Probably the generation before me it was Black History Day. It’s not Black History Month, it’s White History Month, because we know all that stuff. It’s not for us. The other community needs to find that out.

Andy [Bey] had left. I’m not a great vocalist, but I always loved to sing. I didn’t have anybody, so I said I guess I gotta sing [“I’ve Known Rivers”] myself.

 

“I’m not an improviser. I resent when somebody says I’m improvising, because improvising means you’re just making stuff up.”

 

Gary Bartz
The Shadow Do! (Prestige, 1975)
Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones, synthesizer, lead and background vocals; Reggie Lucas, guitar; Hubert Eaves, piano, clavinet, synthesizer; Michael Henderson, bass, backing vocals; Mtume, percussion; Howard King, drums, synthesizer; with Larry and Fonce Mizell, producers

Gary Bartz
Music Is My Sanctuary (Capitol, 1977)
Bartz, alto and soprano saxophones, piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals; Ray Brown, Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Juewett Bostick, John Rowin, David T. Walker, Wah Wah Watson, guitar; George Cables, piano; Welton Gite, Curtis Robinson Jr., bass; James Gadson, Howard King, Nate Neblett, drums; Bill Summers, Mtume, percussion; Sigidi, Syreeta Wright, vocals; with Larry and Fonce Mizell, producers

The Shadow Do! was sampled by A Tribe Called Quest. [The legendary hip-hop group sampled Bartz’s “Gentle Smiles” on the track “Butter.”] I just did a show out in Los Angeles last month with [composer/producer] Adrian Younge and [Tribe’s] Ali Shaheed Muhammad. We played some of that music, and the sold-out crowd, they went nuts. We played some of it [when I guested with Jon Batiste’s house band] on [The Late Show With Stephen Colbert] last week.

I had been doing the Donald Byrd records, Stepping Into Tomorrow and Caricatures, and so that’s how I met the Mizells and how The Shadow Do! album came about. I ended up signing with Capitol [prior to Music Is My Sanctuary], so now we had a big budget. I could get my strings; I always wanted to do an album with strings. Wade Marcus did the strings. We got Wah Wah Watson, James Gadson … great musicians. I really enjoyed doing that.

I did a lot of writing for those [records with the Mizells]. Because I’m like Ornette Coleman. Ornette said he thinks of himself as a composer, as do I. I’m not an improviser. I resent when somebody says I’m improvising, because improvising means you’re just making stuff up. The only time I’m improvising is when I make a mistake, because I didn’t plan on doing it. I just call it composing, because I was a composition major at Juilliard, and I understand what composition is. You’ve got to have a great entrance, a great ending, good thematic material in the middle. You’ve got to think about that; you don’t just start playing.

I remember when we mixed “Ooo Baby Baby” [off Sanctuary]. This is before all this digital technology; we were still going to tape. We had about five of us on the board. Each had a job: “Okay, right now, you push up and you pull down.” We must have done 12 hours trying to mix “Ooo Baby Baby.” We tried the first day, and the next day we came back and finished it.

[On the fusion of jazz and R&B] Everybody’s got to compartmentalize. I saw Marvin Gaye with Harvey and the Moonglows. I saw Fats Domino; I saw Little Richard; I saw Jackie Wilson. I grew up with that. My friend [pianist] Albert Dailey was in the house band [of Baltimore’s Royal Theatre], so I would go and see all of that.

It was no different, for me, going to see John Coltrane and going to see Little Richard. It’s all the same music. We all came out the same neighborhoods, all learned the same things. James Brown could have grown up right next door to John Coltrane, been best of friends, hung out, played baseball, whatever. And still James Brown would have played the music he played, and Trane would have played the music he played. Because it’s no different; it’s the same music. It’s just how you think about it.

Norman Connors
You Are My Starship (Buddah, 1976)
Extensive personnel including Norman Connors, drums, producer and arrangements; Bartz, Carter Jefferson, saxophones; Michael Henderson, bass, vocals; Phyllis Hyman, vocals; Onaje Allan Gumbs, electric piano, synthesizer; Keith Loving, Lee Ritenour, guitar; Anthony Jackson, Larry McRae, bass; Don Alias, Neil Clarke, percussion

[Norman] wouldn’t do a record without me [laughs]. He felt I was a good luck charm. I met him one Sunday afternoon, I think it was the Aqua Lounge [in Philadelphia] with Max Roach. We used to do these matinees. This little 14-year-old kid came in, and Max let him sit in because he had met Max. That’s when I first met Norman. So we were friends from the time he was a young teenager.

He said, “I got this record date.” He had discovered this great vocalist Phyllis Hyman. My goodness. I got Michael on the gig. I had moved out to Los Angeles. I was out there from ’74 to ’79. He flew me in [to New York] from California and Michael from Detroit.

I met Phyllis on that record, Starship. I knew that was going to be a good record, and that record also taught me something. We were rehearsing and we were ready to record when New York got hit by this huge blizzard. The studio was closed because the engineers couldn’t get into town. So we rehearsed and worked on that music for an extra week—and that record came out great. Ever since then, I make sure I’m prepared when I go into the studio. Each time I go into the studio I learn something, even today.

Gary Bartz 1984
Gary Bartz at Cooper Union, New York, October 1984 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Gary Bartz
The Red and Orange Poems (Atlantic, 1994)
Bartz, alto saxophone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet, flugelhorn; John Clark, French horn; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Steve Kroon, percussion; Greg Bandy, drums

There was a record of Curtis Fuller’s called Sliding Easy, and I love this record. Curtis is my favorite trombonist. The personnel was Curtis Fuller, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones, and Benny Golson [and Gigi Gryce] had done the arrangements. I wanted to do a record like that.

I called Curtis, but he couldn’t do it for some reason, and I couldn’t think of another trombonist that would give me what I wanted. I thought, well, the French horn gives me that kind of sound, so I thought of John Clark, a great, great musician. I called Benny to do the arrangements. He said, “Gary, you’re a great arranger—you do it!” I still don’t think I can arrange as good as Benny Golson, but I did the best I could.

Tony Williams was supposed to be on that record, but at the end we couldn’t finalize a deal. So that’s how I got with Greg, and Greg worked with me for years after that.

Gary Bartz
Coltrane Rules (Tao of a Music Warrior) (OYO, 2012)
Bartz, alto and sopranino saxophones, bass clarinet; Barney McAll, piano; James King, bass; Greg Bandy, drums

I’ve been studying Trane all my life, it seems. That was a working band, so we’d been working on the material on the road. Most everything we did was one take. And one album was not long enough to give my whole take on how I’ve felt about John and his music, so that’s why it ended up being a double album. The second volume will be coming out this year.

I didn’t want to do a recording where I just played his songs. I wanted to show how he influenced me and other musicians. For instance, I did a song called “Birdtrane.” Trane had written “26-2,” which is based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” I took part of “26-2” and part of “Confirmation,” and combined the Bird and the Trane. I was doing things like that to show the continuum of the music.

Now I’m working on [preparing for my] Charlie Parker/Ornette Coleman recording. Ornette understood Charlie Parker like nobody else I know of. Because he didn’t try to play like him. He just took his concepts and his approach, because he could hear it from the inside. When you can hear from the inside, you will only sound like yourself and bring your ideas. Every picture you ever see of Ornette Coleman and every picture you ever see of Charlie Parker, they both stand the same way. They’re both standing straight, because their breathing is correct. You can only do that kind of articulation when you really know how to breathe. And they both did. Ornette really got Bird.

: Greg Bandy, Barney McAll, James King, and Gary Bartz
The Warriors in 2012 (left to right): Greg Bandy, Barney McAll, James King, and Gary Bartz (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at RollingStone.com, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.