“It’s like asking, ‘Do you ever get tired of living?’ You do, but it’s always temporary.”
Chris Potter is laughing as he tries to explain how, 30 years after he arrived in New York as one of jazz music’s most heralded prodigies, he’s still motivated to write, record, and perform. For the acclaimed saxophonist, now 48, the reason is so fundamental that it almost sounds hyperbolic and a little dark—to say that playing is like breathing might seem like a line consciously designed to project seriousness, and Potter recognizes that as he says it. But for him, it’s also true.
“Music has always been a vehicle for me to investigate the things that are important about life. It’s been a way of figuring out what it is I need to say,” he says. “Plus, I keep learning new things about it.”
As much as music is intrinsic to Potter’s existence, there’s still some dissonance between his work as a player and bandleader and his presentation in person. He’s soft-spoken and utterly unpretentious—nothing about the way he looks or talks suggests that he’s one of the most successful jazz musicians of his generation. Sitting in a Park Slope coffee shop not far from where he lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter, Potter answers questions with such clarity and focus that there seem to be few he hasn’t already pondered on his own time. His presence is warm and steady, without a trace of the kind of affect that so often (mis)defines jazz in the public eye.
“It’s all about his sincerity, his diligence, and his work ethic—even though he wouldn’t proclaim that he has one,” says drummer Eric Harland, who has known Potter since 1998 and played with him on his 21st album as a bandleader, Circuits, released earlier this year by Edition Records. Those characteristics connect his personality and his playing; the difference is that while his playing is just as genuine as his person, it’s also virtuosically diverse. Potter drew attention early for his dexterity and athleticism, and he’s as prone to a brash squawk as he is to a florid melodic line. He’s had his share of brushes with the pop-crossover world, and has performed with a slew of jazz legends that have lent his oeuvre stylistic breadth.
But the common thread is that practically molecular devotion to the music and also to total, fearless honesty. It hasn’t always been glamorous, but that’s not really a concern for Potter, who has quietly built a rock-solid discography and reputation through that most un-jazz-like trait: consistency and repetition. There’s nothing buzzy or hip about his work, just the refusal to stop asking himself how to best play something true. In his own words, “It’s hard for me to imagine being finished.”
Heir to Tradition
“I don’t remember ever deciding to be a musician,” Potter says of his youth in Columbia, S.C., where he began playing saxophone at age 10. “There was never a moment where I was like, this is what I’m going to do with my life. But by the time I graduated high school, what else was I going to do? It was the obvious path.”
In typically self-effacing fashion, Potter skims over some of the reasons why that path—which for most people appears untenably daunting—looked so inevitable. At age 12, he won the International Association for Jazz Education Young Talent Award for Saxophone. At 13, he started playing professionally around Columbia. By high school, he was earning praise from legends such as Marian McPartland, and played regularly with the University of South Carolina big band. Potter was named America’s top high school jazz instrumentalist by DownBeat, and received a scholarship to study at the New School.
But Potter’s talent quickly transcended academia. “A lot of what I remember about music school is … spending as little time and energy on it as possible so that I could hang out in New York,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s good to put in or not—students are going to say, ‘You know, Chris said it wasn’t important to show up to class.’” After meeting trumpet player Red Rodney while still in high school, he joined the veteran’s band when he arrived in New York and became his protégé. A not-atypical night might include performing in front of people like Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody at the Village Vanguard, as Potter did with Rodney when he was 20.
At the same time as he was refining his straight-ahead skills, Potter was also getting exposed to some of jazz’s more experimental branches. “There were large holes in my knowledge that I didn’t really fill until I got to New York—a lot of stuff on the freer side,” he explains. “No one I knew in South Carolina was really into that.”
But even that education was shaped by masters. When Potter was 19, he heard from Rodney’s manager that Ornette Coleman—with whom he was barely familiar beyond his name—wanted to meet him.
“He wanted to play, but I didn’t have my horn,” Potter says, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I was thinking! So instead we sat and talked for three hours—mainly him talking and me scratching my head thinking, ‘Is this guy nuts?’ The main thing I remember is how much he thought of the saxophone as a voice. That definitely stuck with me. As a matter of fact, that’s kind of one reason that [Circuits] is the first record where I’ve even used some electronic effects on the horn. But it took a long time for me to be comfortable with that idea.”
Potter’s education connects him to an earlier era of jazz in two ways. First, he forged close relationships with people like Rodney, who played with Charlie Parker. Second, despite his enrollment at the New School and later at Manhattan School of Music, his most memorable lessons happened in jazz clubs and not in the classroom.
“At that time, jazz was further away from being this academic music,” he says. “There was the crowd that was at Bradley’s, for example—just regular folks who grew up listening to Dexter Gordon and other down-the-middle jazz. It was something that not just musicians listened to.”