CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Charles Tolliver: Before & After

The trumpet veteran goes deep on style, delivery, and the divinity of Thad Jones

Charles Tolliver
Charles Tolliver (photo: John Abbott)

A few weeks before the release of Connect, Charles Tolliver’s first new recording in 13 years, the trumpeter and composer is home in New York and feeling, like the rest of the world, the pangs of seclusion—of disconnect.

“It’s kind of surrealistic in a way because, as a practicing musician I normally enjoy hours and hours of isolation anyway, working on some music idea, so I’ve been given that and more by this pandemic in spades. But not being able to go hear one of my favorite musicians if they’re playing in town and rub shoulders, it’s getting to be pretty hairy, you know. As we all know, once the big venues shut down—the Broadways and the Piccadillys of the world, the operas and orchestras—that’s it. There’s a lot of virtual things going on, but it can never be the same because these art forms, including definitely ours, require close encounters.” 

New music from pre-lockdown days does help. Connect comprises four extended performances, all Tolliver originals, and constitutes a bold reminder of his skills as a soloist, composer, and arranger. The album features the trumpeter with two longtime colleagues— bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White—plus alto saxophonist Jesse Davis and new pianist Keith Brown (son of Donald Brown). British saxophonist Binker Golding guested on two tracks. Tolliver was on tour in Europe and recorded the album last November at RAK Studios in London for the Gearbox label.

“My U.K. booking agent Ina Dittke had the idea to put us together—Darrel Sheinman [Gearbox founder] and myself—and the rest is history. London’s always been a special place. When I first went to Europe with Max Roach in 1967, we were booked to open up the brand-new Ronnie Scott’s club there. We were on a double bill; Bill Evans and his trio were the other band, for a month. Then years later I brought my group there, booked by Pete King, who managed the club and was Ronnie’s alter ego/partner. In recent times I’ve played there as well as the London Jazz Festival on a few occasions. So I’ve gotten to know London over the years and really fell in love with it. The jazz public is very keen on the music, and they basically still are.”

Focusing on the homebound here and now, Tolliver has a new project in mind. “With what looks like months to even a year before we can hit the circuit again, it gives me the time to finish assembling and codifying my memoirs, which hopefully will go into my autobiography some day. It won’t be just another run-of-the-mill book on a jazz musician, but an autobiographical realism novel saga of how the power of music transformed me from very humble, albeit idyllic childhood, to enabling cultural, social, educational, economical, and intellectual property empowerment. The backdrop will of course include my journey through the heroic jazz music art form.”

This was Tolliver’s first Before & After, and was conducted online using Zoom, with the trumpeter clearly enjoying the process. One sad note: trumpeter Eddie Gale passed away on July 10, a few days after we played one of his classic Blue Note tracks for Tolliver.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Clark Terry
“One Foot in the Gutter” (In Orbit, Riverside). Terry, flugelhorn; Thelonious Monk, piano; Sam Jones, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: Okay. I was listening for part of his solo. I’ll just say that if it’s not him it’s someone who sounds a lot like him—Clark Terry. He has a Clark Terry delivery. It’s the way he plays his eighth notes, you know—very distinctive, plus his tone when he does that. [Listens to piano solo] So that’s got to be Thelonious Monk, or someone who sounds a heck of a lot like him. 

AFTER: I don’t know this one. As a kid, all us boys got a hold of as many of these treasures as we could. But this is one I never had, or heard before. Clark with Monk and Sam Jones and Philly Joe. That makes sense. They’re capable of expressing this music in any kind of way, supporting this particular tune and the style that Clark wanted. “One Foot in the Gutter.” [Laughs] He had a great way of naming his tunes.

You guys share initials—there aren’t that many CTs in jazz.

A lot of guys call me CT. But Clark’s in a whole class by himself, totally: his demeanor, how he interacted with the players and the audience, and of course on his recordings. I met him a couple of times. He was very easy to talk with, and he knew who I was. He was someone I had to rub shoulders [with] when he was still alive, it was important. The last time I saw him was at the Vanguard and he had to be carried around in a wheelchair. I think Roy Haynes was playing there, because I always go and see Roy when he’s in town.

2. Eddie Gale
“Ghetto Summertime” (Black Rhythm Happening, Blue Note). Gale, trumpet; Jo Ann Gale Stevens, guitar; Henry Pearson, Judah Samuel, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint at this juncture in this song who the players are, but I like the introduction of this piece. It’s an emotional thing that’s going on, like a prayer. It sounds like what we were doing back in the ’60s, following John Coltrane, a droning thing. It’s a pretty short piece and could be used as a bridge to other pieces, or a bookend to something. But there’s not much improvising going on, they’re just working over a drone effect and not getting in the way.

AFTER: That’s a name I haven’t seen since the early ’60s! I don’t know if he’s still alive, actually. He did some records for Blue Note and they probably put it out again. He wasn’t one of the fellows who hung with the generation I was coming up with. 

3. David Weiss
“Love Letter to One Not Yet Met” (The Mirror, Fresh Sound). Weiss, trumpet; Steve Davis, trombone; Craig Handy, tenor saxophone; Norbert Stachel, bass clarinet; Xavier Davis, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: Very nice arrangement. Well done harmonically and theoretically. I might not be right, but I think I know the soloist’s delivery. David Weiss? I only needed to hear half a chorus to know that it must be David. He has a particular style which is easily identifiable because I was listening to him every night, giving him solos during the big-band thing I was doing [in 2007-09]. What helps players—it doesn’t matter what instrument they play—is developing their own sound and delivery, and he certainly has that.

David is a wonderful human being. Before I met him, he was dealing with helping Freddie [Hubbard] in his last period, selflessly. I remember there was this college gig I got in 2006 and they wanted to do a remembrance of Slugs’ [Saloon], and since I was the only one who had made a commercial recording at Slugs’, they came to me. I got together what was almost the original band [from Live at Slugs’, recorded in 1970 and released on Strata-East in 1972] with Stanley [Cowell], Cecil McBee, and Clifford Barbaro. After the concert David came up and introduced himself and we chatted a bit. Then he said, “What are you doing with those big-band things from years ago?”

Actually, people have come up to me with ideas like that all over the years and it took a while, months, before David got back to me. He said, “I think I can get us to do something.” And I said, “Okay, but I’m going to handpick the guys, otherwise I’m not going to do it.” Then Seth Abramson at the Jazz Standard gave us a couple of nights there during Rosh Hashanah weekend. It snowed that night and we still packed out the place. That’s how I got back into the big-band thing and how I got to know David. He was great for coming up with that idea because it really did work. 

AFTER: That’s a long title [laughs]. David’s a very good colleague and I’m happy that he has struck out on his own with the things that he’s doing now—Point of Departure, the Cookers.

4. Woody Shaw/Louis Hayes
“’Round Midnight” (The Tour Volume Two, High Note). Shaw, trumpet; Junior Cook, tenor saxophone; Ronnie Matthews, piano; Stafford James, bass; Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: Okay. I hadn’t heard this, but I know the song and I know the delivery: Woody Shaw—his tone and his ornamentation over the first few parts of the melody. That’s easily recognizable because his music is all about how you deliver your phrases. He developed a very arduous and admirable style all his own. That was easy, in terms of knowing who the trumpet player was. That’s with Louis? Yeah. They spent a lot of time playing together over the years. This is the right group of musicians for that. It was a live recording, right? I never heard him play that tune when we were coming up.

AFTER: The ’70s was quite a time for the music. There was Louis and Woody doing their band, and Herbie [Hancock] with his band, and Freddie [Hubbard] with his band, Chick [Corea] with his band, and Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook, in and out of these bands. It may have seemed tough because of the so-called crossover into danceable types of music that guys were playing, but they were always soloing themselves over all of that anyway. They didn’t change their styles of solo delivery, just made the music more commercially danceable.

I stayed the course of what I was doing. So by 1970-’71, I decided that I was going to do the whole nine yards, run the table, not only independently record but create one’s own label, suss out the gigs, etc. 

Strata-East.

Exactly. That was only to make sure I had some commercial product out there. Strata-East was just one part of it. Booking oneself was a whole ’nother issue, and Clifford Jordan was just tremendous. Not only had he already done what we had started to do but he had a whole book [of venues and contacts] from being on the road with Mingus, and he gave me a copy so I just went to work with it. 

The ’70s for me was an enlightenment period. I was having big fun on my own efforts. But self-reliance can sometimes have limitations unless the industry’s gatekeepers—agents, presenters, promoters, venue owners—have or develop a particular empathy for an artist, and that is passed along and/or inherited by those who take their place.  

5. Christian Scott
“Crisis” (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow [Bonus Disc], Concord). Scott, trumpet; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Milton Fletcher, piano; Kristopher Keith Funn, bass; Jamire Williams, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: Of course I know the song, but I was not able to recognize the trumpet player. They played it well. It required a little bit more dynamics in the melody at the bridge because it’s like a breakout from the A1 to A2. Other than that, it was a good execution of Freddie [Hubbard]’s “Crisis” but I would not be able to say who the players are on that one.

AFTER: I know of Christian, but I’ve never met him, and actually have never heard him. But I’ve never heard of any trumpet players coming out of New Orleans that couldn’t play. I haven’t been to New Orleans since Max Roach days and Horace Silver days. I would like to.

6. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
“Willow Weep for Me” (All My Yesterdays, Resonance). Jones, Bill Berry, Jimmy Owens, Danny Stiles, Jimmy Nottingham, trumpets; Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels, Pepper Adams, saxophones, clarinets; Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Cliff Heather, Tom McIntosh, trombones; Sam Herman, guitar; Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Lewis, drums. Arrangement by Bob Brookmeyer. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: This guy, he’s like a god. We all love Duke Ellington, of course, Dizzy Gillespie with [arranger] Gil Fuller as his driving force. But for me, Thad Jones—that’s just about it. Thad was one of those composers who could completely disregard doggedly using the piano [when he created charts] and didn’t have to correct anything. This is nearly impossible, if you think about it.

There’s a famous story about his Potpourri album [by Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, on Philadelphia International, 1974]. They all went down to Philly on a bus, and on the way he still needed to finish the arrangement for the O’Jays song “For the Love of Money,” and on the bus he wrote out every note for the orchestra. I don’t think there’s ever been an arrangement that can match that one, the way he takes this rhythm & blues thing and reworks it for a jazz orchestra. In my opinion, he took this song and wrote a section for each of his brothers, Hank and Elvin.

When I first came up on the scene, I would go to the Vanguard every Monday night and sit there and listen. Thad was such a jovial wonderful gracious human being. He invited me to join the band, but I just wanted to enjoy listening, and it all got into my head.

Thad’s an international treasure with this art form. Mel Lewis, who understood him, was his orchestral alter ego, rhythmically enabling Thad and his fabulous band to pull off miraculous performances every time. In Thad’s case, he had everything: Each of his musicians could solo and they could read anything and play it the first time. Ed Xiques was one of the mainstay alto players in the band at the time, and was also the copyist. He told me that story of “For the Love of Money”—and when they got [to Philly] they played it the first time through. Something like that would take numerous times to play with most guys to get it right.

I could go on and on about Thad. Slide Hampton and Gerald Wilson were on the same level, and a few others: Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, of course. Bill Holman, Don Sebesky. These gentlemen are all in a class of their own, but Thad Jones and Duke Ellington are totally in a class by themselves. Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.