Except for big band performances and occasional Latin outings, you don’t see or hear trombones very much these days. But boneman Steve Turre is nonetheless one of the most in-demand jazz musicians around.
“Yeah,” he laughed when we spoke recently, “for a trombone player!
“I have no complaints—I picked the trombone and I love it. But let’s say I had picked the saxophone or the trumpet or the piano, and ended up being as successful as I am on the trombone. I would be on a whole ‘nother level!”
He is, in fact, on a level of his own. When he comes to the Granby Theater Thursday night for the final Port Folio Weekly Music Series concert of this year’s Virginia Arts Festival, he’ll bring with him four decades of experience playing with the greats—Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. He started playing when he was in elementary school:
“My older brother played sax in the school band and I wanted to play too. But they said you’ve got to wait until you’re in the fourth grade. So when I got to the fourth grade, I went to the band room and told the guy I wanted to play. He said, ‘pick an instrument.’ I looked up on the wall that had a picture of all the instruments and I said, ‘let me try that one.’ It was a trombone. I ended up liking it right away.
“It was a challenge. There’s no instant gratification. It’s similar in a lot of ways to string instruments like a violin or a cello because they just have to know where to put their fingers; we just have to know where to put the slide. You have to hear it before you play it.”
Turre grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where his father was a doctor. His mother had been a professional dancer and played the piano.
“They were big band aficionados,” he said. “In fact, my mom and dad met at a Count Basie dance. Before I was in high school, they had taken me to see Basie and Ellington, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton—all the great big bands, the real ones.
“I remember seeing Ellington at the Oakland Auditorium. Ella Fitzgerald was the guest vocalist, Coleman Hawkins was the guest soloist; Clark Terry, Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges were in the band. It was exciting, let me tell you!”
When he was a freshman at Sacramento State University, he met Roland Kirk.
“My brother had some records of him,” he recalled, “so I heard him a year or two before that on record. But ’66 is when I went to see him live and ended up playing with him. That was a real discovery. I just went up and talked to him. It just felt natural. He was awesome; it was a bewilderment how he could do what he did.”
He played with Kirk often over the next decade while working his way up through the ranks.
“They’re trying to teach about the business of music in schools these days,” he noted, “but that’s not the way that I did it. Maybe I caught the tail-end of the real stuff, but my whole thing was based on the music. I would sit in with people and hang out with my friends in other bands. That’s how I ended up sitting in with Art Blakey, and he asked me to join the Jazz Messengers. He brought me to New York and introduced me to other people like Philly Joe Jones.
“Those were the days. Back then it was about music. Now it’s about marketing.”
He also spent time in Ray Charles’ band. Brother Ray was reputed to be a tough task-master.
“I didn’t have a problem with it,” he explained, “because I just played the music. Sometimes there are people that are talented that don’t know how to be on time, [others] are talented but they don’t know how to dress for the gig. Ray was professional all the way, and he wanted to get paid so he wanted to start on time. If you were late, you’d get a couple of warnings and then goodbye.
“They provided a clean suit and tie for you, and if you couldn’t get your white shirt and patent leather shoes together you’d get fined. Well I didn’t have a problem with that. I just wore the white shirt and brought the shoes. But some guys couldn’t do that.”
Besides being the best known trombonist of his generation, Turre has also carved out a niche turning the conch shell into a wind instrument.
“In 1970,” he said, “I did a week with Rahsaan in San Francisco. He had a seashell and he would blow it. People would be talking and he’d want to play a ballad, so he’d pick up the shell and just hold the note, circular breathing, and after a few minutes they’d stop talking. Then he’d go into the ballad.
“I liked the tone quality of the shell; it was a beautiful sound. So I went and got one, and that’s how it all started.”
A consistent poll winner for his work on trombone and shells, he’s built a solid catalog of recordings as a leader. Tributes to Kirk (The Spirits Up Above) and J. J. Johnson (One4J) are particularly strong, and his new HighNote CD, Rainbow People, is already on my “best of” list for the year. He’s also played in the Saturday Night Live band for the last 24 years.
“What’s hipper about it than the Tonight Show,” he said, “is that it’s just 25 days a year. I only go in the day of the show, and if something good comes up I’ll take off. We’re not in LA, we’re in New York, which is the jazz capital of the world. It’s not every week, and you’ve still got six days to do other things.”
Among those “other things” is Thursday’s trip to Norfolk. He’ll have a great band with him—Buster Williams on bass, Billy Harper on tenor saxophone, Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Ignacio Berroa on drums and young pianist Mark Terry. Like the new album, the show could easily be subtitled “the many facets of Steve Turre.”
“I played pop and rock in high school,” he said, “and I played in some orchestras. [But] my particular thing is jazz and the blues, and I also have my feet firmly rooted in the Afro-Cuban tradition. I’m not a one-trick pony because I enjoy it and it feels right. I’ve been so fortunate.”
Steve Turre Quintet
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
Thursday, May 15 – 7:30 pm