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Vincent Herring: Not the End of the Line

The saxophonist’s life and livelihood were seriously threatened by the coronavirus, but he’s determined to carry on

Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring (photo: Jimmy Katz)

There is an urgency to the music on Preaching to the Choir. It zips and soars with imperative vibrance. This isn’t something one often thinks of when considering Herring’s music, but he’s one of the last notable jazz players to get the bulk of his education on the bandstand, playing alongside canonical greats like Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and many, many others. Although the saxophonist, who was born in Kentucky and raised in California, dabbled briefly in academia, his stage matriculation was swift. It shows; rather than impress the audience with technique, he desires to move them, perhaps not to dance but to feel the impact of his music.  

This is evident from the outset on Preaching. The strolling pace of Herring’s “Dudli’s Dilemma” is given a bright, shiny veneer that highlights the saxophonist’s searing tone. The Burton Lane/Yip Harburg standard “Old Devil Moon” cross-pollinates with Benny Golson’s evergreen “Killer Joe” via Nakamura’s bass intro. The vibrant mood is reinforced by Chestnut’s skittering piano solo on “Ojos de Rojo,” written by another key Herring mentor, Cedar Walton. On Wes Montgomery’s “Fried Pies,” all four members of the quartet sound like they’re determined to burst from the speakers and jam in your living room.

Herring’s style is often associated with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and for good reason—he’s played both with Cannon’s brother Nat and in a Cannonball tribute band—but increasingly the personality of both this music and other recent albums that feature Herring leading a dynamic group of peers recalls another idol, Freddie Hubbard. He was the lasting impression from one of Herring’s first jazz concerts.

“I went to a place called Keystone Korner in San Francisco, and I was going to hear Joe Henderson, who was playing with Freddie Hubbard. I was trying to discover all these saxophone players and find out who could play and who couldn’t, you know? I remember hearing Joe—I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, obviously, this guy’s a great player,’ I didn’t really know anything. But Freddie! I remember saying to myself, ‘Man, if this is what it is, to be a professional, this is impossible!’ His charisma, stage presence, and musicianship … this guy had it all.”

Herring pauses, leans back, and smiles. It’s easy to read his saxophone influences; they include most of the major post-war American alto players, along with some less obvious figures like Sonny Stitt. But musicians have other, less linearly identified interests, and upon reflection it’s also easy to hear Hubbard’s influence on him. 

“FOR ME IT’S ABOUT FULFILLMENT”

By the time Herring and I had been talking for 40 minutes, an easy rapport was developing. We were both middle-aged African-American men, who had gone through parallel experiences and found that our post-youth years had included some fears that our younger selves would not have anticipated. We were both storytellers. Herring’s Hubbard anecdote followed one of mine about seeing McCoy Tyner at the Village Vanguard in the late ’70s, one of my first NYC club gigs. The interview exited the question-and-answer phase and entered something closer to call and response.  

The subject of McCoy triggered a memory for Herring. “I remember being on an airplane, going to Japan with Nat Adderley, and I have my headphones on, and he comes by: ‘So what are you listening to?’ ‘McCoy Tyner.’ He said, ‘Yeah, McCoy is always a great player. Can’t swing!’”  

“I was like, wait a minute! You know, years later, as I thought about it, for him swing was Wynton Kelly and Bobby Timmons, and so McCoy didn’t swing. But he was a great player.” He laughed and shook his head with an avuncular smile.   

A few minutes later, the conversation turned to Sonny Rollins and Herring began to solo again.  

“I remember once getting in a big argument with Horace Silver. Why? Because I’m stupid. We were riding in a van. And Sonny Rollins comes on the radio, and Horace Silver looks back at us and declares: ‘Sonny Rollins, greatest tenor saxophonist ever.’”

Herring took the bait. “‘Wait, what about Coltrane?’ Years later, I certainly understand what he meant by that. And, you know, jazz has always been a kind of apprenticeship—you work with all these old guys and you hear all these stories, and you learn inside things. I told Jimmy Cobb that story and Jimmy said, ‘Listen, Sonny Rollins was the undisputed motherfucker. It wasn’t even close. When I was working with the house band [which house is unclear, and sadly we can’t check this with Jimmy now—Ed.], Sonny and Coltrane both would be on the gig. Every song, every day, every minute, Sonny Rollins would kick Coltrane’s ass up and down the stage, and everybody knew it.’”

We stared into our respective screens, both giggling slightly in wonder at the idea of being in a band with both Trane and Newk. The past is glorious, but the future is uncertain. I asked when he expected to resume touring, and Herring turned serious again.  

“We’ll have to wait and see. Normally I go to Europe twice a year. And I usually go to Asia once a year. Everything is up in the air right now.” He considers himself fortunate that his rent isn’t dependent on making the gig, but there are bigger stakes in play. “Spiritually and emotionally, man, I want to play music. I’m making less money playing music than I do sitting here at my computer every day. But life, at this stage, is not about money. For me it’s about fulfillment, and personal legacy; those things matter more to me.

“I will look to be out there as soon as I can,” he continued. “Little things are starting to come in. I did get a call from someone in Russia, but I have mixed feelings. Even best of times, I have mixed feelings about that one. Certainly right now, I don’t think it’s a great idea.” As for America, “[with] the masses being vaccinated here, I get the feeling the U.S. is probably going to be prematurely opening by summer. The following summer, though, should be cool.”

Then he paused to consider the state of the union. “We’re in such different places, you know, the citizens in the United States, and you wonder, how can people live in the same place and experience the same things you do, and come up with the complete opposite idea and scenarios? It’s really disheartening and scary. The past president that we had”—a fellow victim of COVID, lest we forget—“I know a lot of people agree with him, I know a lot of people follow him or whatever. I just want to understand how we’re looking at the same thing and we have such different outlooks on it.”