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Charles Tolliver: Before & After

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

Charles Tolliver and Ashley Kahn
A screenshot from Tolliver’s listening session with Ashley Kahn (top; courtesy of Ashley Kahn)

7. Roy Hargrove RH Factor
“The Joint” (Live at JazzBaltica, YouTube video). Hargrove, trumpet; Keith Anderson, alto saxophone; Jacques Schwarz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Bobby Ray Sparks, Renee Neufville, keyboards; Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, electric guitar; Reggie Washington, electric bass; Jason Thomas, Willie Jones III, drums. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: Now that sounds like, maybe Roy Hargrove? Although the mic-ing added a little too much dynamics to the trumpet sound, it’s a bit fuzzed. I’ve heard him go there, the few times I’ve heard him. He’s got a Texas delivery, which for me is coming off of Joe Gordon. You know the trumpet player Joe Gordon? I think [Hargrove] had to be listening to him at an early age and that stuck with him. Joe had a wonderful delivery. 

AFTER: I appreciate his delivery and music—it works. Roy was into every avenue of modern American music.

8. Charles Mingus
“What Love?” (Mingus at Antibes, Atlantic). Ted Curson, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Mingus, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: I wouldn’t be able to tell you who that is. Nothing in particular stood out, or as Art Blakey would say, not one in particular. I’m not passing judgment on it, it’s just I was waiting for something to perk me up. I sometimes use this as an analogy: in a horse race, like the Kentucky Derby, the jockey knows if he’s got a really great thoroughbred underneath him by the time he gets to the Eighth Pole just after the final curve [an eighth of a mile before the finish line]. The horse’s ears will prick back and he can tell. So I was listening and it’s sort of like waiting for the Eighth Pole to arrive to get something to prick my ears. 

AFTER: I would not have known it was him because I did not get a chance to hear Ted Curson after my teenage years. When I was a teenager going and sitting in jam sessions at Count Basie’s, he was there every Monday night trying to work out his bebop like everybody else was. 1960, I went off to college, then came back and boom, our paths never crossed. But I’m looking at the picture and I know who that is. 

9. Ambrose Akinmusire
“Blues (We Measure the Heart with a Fist)” (On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, Blue Note). Akinmusire, trumpet; Sam Harris, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Justin Brown, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Okay. This is something that [Dave] Douglas might do because I’ve heard him go there, but the tone … I haven’t heard enough of David in the different milieus to know whether or not that might be him. I like what I heard because it’s inventive and adventurous. I like it when there’s an adventure with a knowledge of what they’re doing. Obviously, this is a band that talks to each other, they’ve discussed how and why they want to deliver this kind of music.

AFTER: Yeah, I wouldn’t have guessed him, because he has a couple of ways that he delivers. This must be something new. We were just together on a competition panel in Chicago before this pandemic hit, judging trumpet players at DePaul [University for the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition]. We were there for a couple of days. He’s got a great spirit and knows how to handle the trumpet. He’s put a lot of time into developing his style—very proud of him.

One interesting thing about his approach is coming up with a title first, then creating the music to match.

He’s not the only one that does that. Practically everything I write comes off of a title.

So you have that in common with him.

No, he has that in common with me. I knew of course it was the blues because of certain tones that were played, the fifth and the root, that lets you know that he was thinking about the blues. The one thing that young players coming up today have to understand is that everything Charlie Parker played and John Coltrane played had the blues in it. Every single thing. Somehow you have to figure out how you’re going to do that, and still be exploratory. Good, what else you got? 

10. Donald Byrd
“Weasil” (Fancy Free, Blue Note). Byrd, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Frank Foster, tenor saxophone; Lew Tabackin, flute; Jimmy Ponder, guitar; Duke Pearson, electric piano; Roland Wilson, electric bass; Joe Chambers, drums. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: He’s an excellent trumpet player and it sounded a little like Brian Lynch every once in a while, because he’s got that facility. But I can tell this is the ’60s, with a little bit of the ’50s, but certainly the ’60s. Other than that, I love this take on the blues. It’s a nice way of laying out a blues chord; instead of the usual cadence it goes up and then resolves, and the solos are doing that too. In other words, they’re following the way the song is constructed and that’s nice, rather than just play a song like that but veer off somewhere else.

That was a great period that could work right now, to go back to the old days promoting some music along these lines. When I left Howard [University in the early ’60s] I broke in with Ike and Tina Turner and then backing up Ruth Brown, and those guys [in their bands] could play, man. They were actually jazz musicians, bona fide.

You mentioned your alma mater, and that’s a hint as to who this trumpeter is. 

Hmmm. I only know two other trumpet players that went to Howard: Eddie Henderson and Wallace Roney. And Fred Irby [III, director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble], who’s the boss there but I never heard him play anything other than classical music.

AFTER: My goodness. He’s one of my heroes. Big time. When I was a kid, watching television on the old black-and-white, around 1955, ’56, there was a show called Ted Mack’s [Original] Amateur Hour where I first saw and heard Donald Byrd. They need to dig those tapes up. It was one of the few places where a “jazz” musician like Donald Byrd could get on a show like that. He had just gotten into town and had been working with Art Blakey and Horace Silver. After I had been eating and sleeping Clifford Brown, I heard him and I said, “Wow!” So he became a big hero of mine and I would occasionally see him. The Blackbyrds [the R&B group Byrd formed in ’73 with a number of Howard alumni] would work right now.

What I love about Donald also is that he then went and became a lawyer—very quietly—and then was on the ground floor, helping to start jazz studies in universities across the United States. I mean, Donald Byrd is very important, just as important as Miles, as far as I’m concerned.

11. Artemis
“The Fool on the Hill” (Artemis, Blue Note). Anat Cohen, clarinet; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone, programming; Renee Rosnes, piano; Noriko Ueda, bass; Allison Miller, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Very well done. Very exploratory, well written, well played. I don’t have a clue who the trumpet player is, but it sounds like a player with a very good command of all the registers and executed very well.

The whole group put me in the mind of when Herbie [Hancock] first started his sextet—he’s the progenitor of this kind of playing, when he had Johnny Coles [on trumpet]. Nobody talks about Johnny Coles any more—he’s another hero of mine because nobody sounded like him, nobody attempted to use their brain in that style. Herbie had Johnny, Garnett Brown, Joe Henderson, Mickey Roker, and Buster [Williams]. Then Eddie Henderson, Bennie Maupin came in after, and Julian Priester. 

AFTER: Yes, wonderful command of the instrument. Ingrid Jensen—I have heard her name, but I’ve never really heard any of her music. It just never came across my turntable. She’s mastered that style for sure.

12. Eric Dolphy
“Aggression” (Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Prestige). Booker Little, trumpet; Dolphy, alto saxophone; Mal Waldron, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [Sounds of a jazz club just before the music starts] We’re not going to be going back to this anytime soon—in a club, people up close! [Music begins; almost immediately] Okay, okay! There are those who talk about the trumpet and decide, “I think I can master that instrument,” and they do really well. Then there are the few for whom it wouldn’t matter whether it’s a concerto, or this art form of music. He could have easily been the first young black trumpeter famous for classical concertos, but he chose not to go there. He arrived in New York already fully formed and harmonically heavy, at the age of 20 or whatever: Booker Little.

I only had to hear a couple of notes. There’s a quality to his tonal delivery and it’s completely his own. It requires a tremendous amount of practice to reach that level of absolute mastery. He was one of the trumpeters who changed my musical life. There have been a few great trumpet players who did that, first of course Louis Armstrong, Charlie Shavers, and Dizzy Gillespie. Then Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, and Freddie Hubbard. And Booker Little.

I was in my senior year in high school and they used to have jazz on the Circle Line in the summertime. Charli Persip had a band playing on the boat with a brand-new Freddie Hubbard and a wonderful tenor player named Roland Alexander, John Ore on bass, and Walter Davis, Jr. on piano. That’s where I met Freddie and we became lifelong friends. Then one day he said, “Hey man, Booker Little is playing at Smalls’ Paradise.” Freddie and I got on the subway and we went to hear Booker with just a quartet, no second horn. At that point I was not knowing whether I’m going to make this my vocation, but I knew one thing: What I heard made me say, “That’s the way I want to go.” The trumpet is the most difficult and unforgiving of all instruments, so you have to make a decision if you want to really put yourself on the chopping block. So you can see how important Booker was to me.

Booker is not so often mentioned, and he died so young—uremia, the blood disease, took him. But he must be included whenever there is any discussion about all-time great trumpeter practitioners, classical, jazz, or otherwise.

13, Gene Krupa Orchestra
“Rockin’ Chair” (78 RPM release, OKeh). Sam Musiker, clarinet; Clint Neagley, Mascagni “Musky” Ruffo, alto saxophones; Walter Bates, tenor saxophone; Roy Eldridge, Torg Halten, Norman Murphy, Graham Young, trumpets; John Grassi, Jay Kelliher, Babe Wagner, trombones; Ray Biondi, guitar; Ed Mihelich, bass; Krupa, drums. Recorded in 1941.

BEFORE: Can you stop it for a moment? I want you to continue to play it, but I want to say Pops was the first to show what you can do with this instrument. He’s the all-timer of all time, you know. We wouldn’t even be where we are, talking about this stuff, without Louis Armstrong. This is going in my autobiography, which I mentioned—I didn’t get to Pops first, sitting down at the Victrola. I had to come back to him. [Listens more] Whew! Now I know it’s not him and I’m thinking, “Who’s that trumpet player playing Pops?” Is that the JALC [Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra]?

AFTER: Oh, Roy Eldridge! I got a chance to meet him once and he was as he plays, cocky and assured. He was a bundle, man. I didn’t get a chance to chat with him because he and another favorite of mine, “Sweets” Edison, were engrossed. I was always quiet around anyway, I just watched. 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.