Connecting The Dots; Jazz Trumpet Legend Charles Tolliver Talks About His New Album And More…

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Those with a superstitious nature will regard the number 13 as unlucky and a portentous harbinger of unfortunate things to come. But for veteran American jazz trumpeter Charles Tolliver,  the number that is sometimes referred to as a “baker’s dozen” has proved something of a boon because thirteen years after his last studio album, 2007’s ‘With Love,’ the 78-year-old Florida-born musician revives his recording career with a keenly-awaited new long-player. The album’s called ‘Connect,’ and was recorded in London in 2019 for the UK’s rising jazz indie label, Gearbox.

“I was on tour back in November last year and my agent in London knew the founder of Gearbox,” reveals Tolliver, talking on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “So we worked it out that when we came to London to play, we would go into the studio. We had a one-day window in which to do it.”

Tolliver took his well-honed American road band – featuring jazz legends, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, alongside saxophonist Jesse Davis and pianist, Keith Brown – into London’s RAK studios and laid down four extended tracks, two of which feature a cameo from the young London tenor saxophonist, Binker Golding (left). “The founder of Gearbox, Darryl Scheinman, suggested that I bring someone from the younger generation in for a track or two,” explains Tolliver,  “so I agreed to do that, and he was very good.” He adds: “If Binker is any indication of the newer generation then I think things are going to be just fine with the music there in London.”

Emperor March

Golding appears on ‘Connect’s’ magnificent musical cornerstone, ‘Emperor March,’ which Tolliver first recorded as the title song on his live big band LP for High Note in 2009.  “It was originally a small group vehicle that I added to the big band repertoire,” he reveals. “I had not recorded it as it was originally intended, as a small group piece, so I took the opportunity to do it like that this time around.”

Though the piece lacks the rich brass sonorities that defined it in an earlier large ensemble setting, it’s leaner and meaner in a small group context; and no less majestic. Tolliver says the song was inspired by a TV documentary he saw. “It was on the Emperor penguins doing their migration in Antarctica to breed. It was incredible and as I watched it, I realised that nature had not programmed any other of its animals to endure that kind of environment just to procreate.”

Inspired by how those remarkable flightless birds that not only survived but also thrived in a frozen world at the end of the earth, Tolliver wrote lyrics as well as music, though the album version is purely instrumental. On the album’s insert, Tolliver’s words to the tune (and two others) are listed as “ghost” lyrics.  Explains the trumpeter: “I wanted the songs to have lyrics just in case there are any vocalists who may want to attempt that in the future.” 

London Connection

Certainly, ‘Connect’ is an apt title for Tolliver’s new album as it brings his career full circle; he cut his debut album, ‘The Ringer,’ in London back in the summer of 1969. Tolliver says that the seeds for what became ‘The Ringer’ came two years earlier on the trumpeter’s first visit to London. “I came to London the first time with the new Max Roach quintet in 1967,” he recalls. “In fact, Ronnie Scott’s had just opened (at the club’s second and current home in Soho’s Frith Street) and we were more or less like one of the first bands to inaugurate it. It was a double bill with the Bill Evans trio, who played opposite us every night for nearly a month.”

In London, Tolliver attracted the attention of a producer and A&R executive at Polydor Records called Alan Bates, who around the same the time would form his own label, Black Lion, which famously recorded Thelonious Monk in 1971: Bates would also form the Freedom label, and later, Candid, which put a young Jamie Cullum on the music map in the early 2000s. Tolliver remembers that the songs that later ended up on ‘The Ringer’ he demoed with British musicians in London to give Bates an indication of what he could do as a writer. “I had Mick Pyne on piano and Tony Oxley on drums, and I took them into the studio to see how well they sounded. I let Alan Bates hear it and so we worked it out that the next time I’d come to London, I’d record those same compositions.”

When he returned in June 1969, Tolliver was leading a quartet called Music Inc. featuring noted pianist Stanley Cowell, whom the trumpeter had first met and played alongside in the Max Roach quintet. Under Bates’ supervision, they recorded five tracks released by Polydor as ‘The Ringer’ (it was later issued in Europe and Japan via  Bates’ own Freedom label and got a US visa via Arista in 1975). 

From Jacksonville To The Big Apple

Rewinding to Tolliver’s formative years, he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but moved to New York when he was ten. The change in his environment was startling. “Everything was big,” he laughs. “Growing up in a rural area of the country, you don’t see sidewalks. One of the first things I noticed as a child when we got to New York was how high the sidewalks were. And they still had trolley cars at that time in certain sections of the city.”

Tolliver grew up in a family immersed in music. “I had already started my knowledge of jazz by the time I was five because my parents had one of those original Victrola gramophone players with the heavy arm,” he recalls. “They had 78s of the ‘Jazz At The Philharmonic’ concerts, Norman Granz’s first recordings. And so the music was in my head by the time I was five years old.”

It was Tolliver’s grandmother, in particular, who nurtured his interest in playing music. “She was very influential to my upbringing and my life,” he reveals. “She played the saxophone and one day I told her I saw this cornet in a little shop in Jacksonville and she saved her little pennies and got it for me. So I am who I am because of my grandmother.”

Career Crossroads

Although Tolliver practised on his horn assiduously – especially after he got into bebop as a teenager – and dreamt of being a professional musician, he almost embarked on another, very different, career path. “In my senior year in high school, I was working for an apothecary, delivering the medicine to the local folks,” the trumpeter reveals. “Original apothecaries were where there was the actual making of the medicine in the premises itself. While I was waiting for the medicine to get made, I would watch the apothecaries mixing the medicine with a mortar and pestle and it was clear that if they made a mistake, somebody might die. And that really piqued my interest.”

Tolliver’s fascination with the pharmaceutical world was so strong that he elected to study a degree in it.  “I was accepted at the famous college of pharmacy at Howard University,” he discloses and says that he found himself more and more drawn to music during his stay there.  “In my junior year, most of my time was spent in the fine arts building in between pharmacology classes working on my trumpet,” he laughs.

Discovered By Jackie McLean

Ultimately, at 21, he decided to quit college in Washington DC and pursue his dream job as a musician back home. For a young jazz hornblower in New York, the place to advertise your wares and get noticed was at local jam sessions.  And it wasn’t long before Tolliver’s dazzling horn lines brought him attention. “The original jam sessions in New York spawned people that became household names later and at one session in Brooklyn, after playing on the bandstand, I came down, and there was a gentleman there called Jim Harrison who said he had created Jackie McLean’s fan club,” recalls Tolliver.

Jackie McLean (right) was a famous alto saxophonist who was seven years Tolliver’s senior and was making groundbreaking records for Blue Note in the first half of the 1960s that blurred the divide between hard bop and a freer, more exploratory type of jazz. Harrison was impressed by Tolliver’s playing and told him that McLean was on the lookout for a new trumpet player.  “I thought that was rather odd because there was always Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd, who were still very strong,” reflects Tolliver, but he went to see McLean, informally auditioned for him and to his surprise, got hired.

“When I  told people that Jackie said ‘okay, I’ll put you on my next record date,’ they said: ‘you have to be kidding!’ That’s because he didn’t hear me in a real playing context on any club dates where he could really see or hear how I played. He was just going on the word of the guy who created his fan club.”

Charles Tolliver is eternally grateful to McLean for exposing his talent. “If it had not been for Jackie Maclean, I most certainly would not be where I am today,” he states, evidently still amazed by the stroke of good fortune that altered his life and career trajectory forever. McLean used Tolliver on two of his mid-’60s Blue Note sessions; ‘It’s Time!,’ and ‘Action.’  On both albums, McLean allowed his young protégé to submit material. Recalls Tolliver: ” I don’t know how he knew – he must have heard from the way I was playing that I also composed stuff – but when I went to his house, he asked me if I had any compositions. I said yes, and showed him what I had, and he said we’ll put those on the recording too.”

Recording For Blue Note

McLean’s trust in his young sidekick’s ability – both as a player and writer – paid dividends. Tolliver’s first Blue Note session with McLean was ‘It’s Time!’, where he played in a quintet alongside a young pianist called Herbie Hancock and an experienced drummer, Roy Haynes. He remembers it vividly.  “Until this day, I consider it one of the best things I’ve done,” he says. “It’s also perhaps one of the best jazz recordings ever because it’s the only studio recording by a label with Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes recording together.”    He adds: It’s just a magnificent display of musical rapport for a classic Blue Note recording done by Alfred Lion.”

According to Tolliver, Lion (right), who was Blue Note’s founder, had a set procedure when he was preparing for a session in the studio. “He would have the group assembled for that recording session rehearse for a couple of days during which he would time everybody with a stopwatch and decide how many solos there’d be,” reveals the trumpeter. “Then we’d go off to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and the recording would be done inside of three hours.”

What did Tolliver learn from working with someone of McLean’s stature? “How to continue to improve,” he says. “And one of the ways in which you improve is so that you get at the quintessentials of this music is in live performance. The more you play the circuit and the clubs with each other, you can hear the development of your playing partners in the band and the improvement of your own delivery.”

Joining Art Blakey’s Hard Bop Academy

After working with McLean, Tolliver joined drummer Art Blakey’s famous “hard bop academy,” The Jazz Messengers, for a time but didn’t record with the group. “I spent about eight months or so with them in 1965,” he tells me. “That particular line-up had John Gilmore on tenor saxophone, John Hicks on piano and Victor Sproles on bass. I left the band just before (trumpeter) Lee Morgan came back.”

Tolliver reveals that when he joined Blakey (right), there was no audition or practice session beforehand; he was immediately thrust into the deep end by playing a concert with the Messengers right off the bat.  “When you were asked to play in his band, he would say ‘okay, let’s see what you can do,’ but there were no rehearsals,” he says. “You were expected to have already listened to all of those great recordings of his and have already mastered the songs and the harmonies necessary to solo.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, the trumpeter says that his nerves weren’t shredded at his first gig with Blakey; he maintains that it was because he was well-prepared. “As teenagers, we had already learned everything he was cutting,” reveals Tolliver.  “It was automatic; you had to learn those songs. You had to know them so you could go up on jam sessions and play them.”

Tolliver says that for young jazz musicians back then, their tutorials were listening to the latest recordings of their heroes.  “There weren’t schools, like in classical music, where you could go and spend four years learning harmony, theory or go into a specialised instrumental thing,” he says. “So the school for jazz delivery was the recordings, and you learned those recordings note for note, and you learned how to play the chord changes, so that you would be ready to get your ‘degree’ when you were called by one of these iconic bandleaders.”

Of course, nowadays, jazz can be studied formally at a university or in a conservatoire; something that wasn’t available in Tolliver’s day. Even so, not every facet of jazz can be taught in the classroom. “It’s wonderful for young people to get a bachelor of fine arts degree from all these universities around the world that are now offering jazz courses but it can never be learned how to perform this in that setting,” states Tolliver.  “You will have the theoretical look of it but it will only be dispensed and learned properly by doing it on the bandstand.”

It was on the bandstand playing every night where Tolliver learned and perfected his craft.  He rose to prominence during a period when charismatic bandleaders ruled jazz – and after his stint with Blakey, in 1967 he joined the band of another dynamic sticks man; Max Roach (left), who had helped to establish the language of bebop drumming during the late 1940s.   “It was the dream of any young trumpet player to play in a group of Max Roach’s, so it was a great honour and privilege to occupy that spot for two years,” says Tolliver, who idolised trumpeter Clifford Brown, who had led a band with Roach in the early 50s.  “Max was quite a regal individual and you learned a lot just by watching how he did things. I learned how to perform better musically with a master percussionist like him and how to deal with other human beings.”

Working With Andrew Hill

Tolliver was busy as a sideman in the late 60s, also appearing on significant recordings by pianist/composers Horace Silver (‘Serenade To A Soul Sister’) and Andrew Hill.  The latter musician’s style was much freer than orthodox hard bop, and Tolliver’s presence on several Hill recordings,  for Blue Note, including his final album, ‘Time Lines,’ in 2006, exemplified the trumpeter’s versatility. “Andrew allowed you to use your style with the musical guidelines of his works,” explains Tolliver, “and if he was satisfied that you had accomplished that, then he would call you again.”  

Though Hill (right) wasn’t one of Blue Note’s most popular or heralded artists, due to his unique, avant-garde approach to jazz, Tolliver has no doubts about the lasting significance and value of the pianist’s music. “Andrew Hill was a genius,” he states. “Working with him was one of the grand experiences in my career. His music was free of form but not as free as people would think because he gave you melodies and chord changes, though it wasn’t exactly required that you stick to the chord changes that he had written out.”

Tolliver’s sessions with Hill informed his own approach to playing, writing, and arranging. “I learned how to craft a work that didn’t limit the performer by having to stick to exactly what was written and leaving you enough room to express something; and also add something to it without eliminating the basic idea of a particular piece. So I spent a number of years, up until Andrew passed away, performing and recording with him.”

For Charles Tolliver, the main take away from his apprenticeships to jazz masters like Hill, Blakey, Roach and Silver was finding his own musical voice, identity and confidence as a performer. “What I learned from them all,” he says, “was that you not only formulate how you want to deliver your sound in the company of individuals who are icons on their instruments but also  how that helps to increase your own thoughts about which way you would like to take the music yourself.”

If he had been born a few years earlier, it’s probable that Tolliver would have made recordings as a leader for one of the big three jazz independent labels in New York; but when his career started to blossom in the mid-’60s, jazz’s popularity was rapidly declining with the music beginning to be significantly marginalised by the rise of pop and rock. “The normal procedure was that if you were allowed to record for one of the iconic labels, like Blue Note, Prestige or Riverside, finally, you would be given your own leader date,” explains Tolliver. “Probably, I would have had my first recording under my name through that process but when I broke in, within a couple of years Alfred Lion sold Blue Note records and the owners (Liberty Records) moved it  to the West Coast.”

The Rise Of Strata-East

The lack of recording opportunities for jazz musicians in America during the late 60s may account for Tolliver releasing his first album overseas, in Europe. It also spurred him to form his own record label, Strata-East, in 1971 together with his Music Inc. cohort, Stanley Cowell. Few jazz musicians – and even fewer African American ones – had tried to start a record company before; the notable exception being Charles Mingus and Max Roach who had founded the short-lived Debut label in the 1950s.

For Tolliver, the main motivation behind Strata-East was offering black musicians a platform to not only record and promote their music but also do that without suffering from the suffocating artistic and financial constraints of major label contracts. In short, the musicians would no longer be a vassal in bondage to the men in suits and would own their copyrights. It was a revolutionary concept; especially in America, the land where any notions of sharing the means of production would incur charges of  that dreaded “C” word: Communism.

“For once, musicians could be the major recipient of something in their field and if Strata-East caught on, it would bring infinitely more back than it would if they were under contract to a record label,” says Tolliver, explaining the philosophy underpinning his record label. “It gave the musicians an opportunity to become the major recipients of what comes back when they own their intellectual property as opposed to that of an artist under contract to a label.”

The business model for Strata-East went against the record industry grain and epitomised musical and financial independence. “There was no artist under contract,” states Tolliver.  “The deal was that the record would be an agreement with us and the artist was free to go and record with whoever they wanted to.”

The seed for the birth of the company came when Tolliver experienced an epiphany after learning of the decline in health and later death of a famous jazz musician, who died in 1972 at the age of  48 without a penny to his name. “I watched how Kenny Dorham (left), the great trumpet player whom we adored, left this earth unheralded,” confesses Tolliver. “I watched how he was never given his just due, and thought, how can someone be that great and not have anything when he died?”

At the same time that Tolliver was contemplating righting the injustices of the music business, he and Stanley Cowell were trying to stir up interest in a large ensemble project they were working on with their group Music Inc.  “We didn’t find any takers from the independent jazz labels at the time around New York to issue it, so I decided to take the bull by the horns and issue it myself,” says Tolliver. The release of Music Inc.’s  eponymous LP launched Strata-East in 1971.

Max Roach shared his knowledge with  Tolliver and Cowell about running a record company. The pair had a clear idea of what they wanted their company to be like. “If we were going to do it, I wanted it to have the look of a major record operation but in fact be run out of mine and Stanley’s living room,” laughs Tolliver.  It was the arrival of  tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, as one of Strata-East’s first artists, that galvanised the company. “That was the real impetus that made the idea of an artist-owned label really get legs,” admits Tolliver.

“The radio stations started to catch on,” says Tolliver,  recalling the growth of Strata-East in the first half of the ’70s. “I started to gather in the Moms-and-Pops stores around the country, which is a term that is not even used in today’s industry, but it was the driving force behind the big labels at the time. You had to have the Moms-and-Pops in different areas and little one-stop shops. The whole thing was to get whatever was the new thing and push it. So, we really started to move and then musicians in New York saw what we were doing and they started to come and ask if they could have a product put out.”  

The label’s biggest seller was a record by a jazz poet who would become an iconic figure: Gil Scott-Heron. “He had already done something with Bob Thiele at the Flying Dutchman label and eventually came to us with a package he called ‘Winter In America.’ It became a very big item and it helped to launch the label.”  The album, a collaboration with keyboardist Brian Jakcson, spawned a hit single in the shape of ‘The Bottle,’ a cautionary tale of alcohol abuse.

The label was initially active until 1980 and since then has been dormant from time to time, occasionally emerging for a reissue programme or two. Tolliver denies that the label went belly up. “It never went defunct,”  he says. “I crafted a company to basically run on its own so it would never interfere with myself musically.  I just went very quiet with it and continue to merchandise the products that I wanted to keep. And of course, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the advent of the CD, I retooled those products that I wanted to work with.”

Right Now

Tolliver still occasionally releases music via his Strata-East imprint; in 2019, he brought out a vinyl and CD reissue of his maiden studio session as a leader, a self-funded recording from 1968 with Gary Bartz, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers, which was first released in 1971 as ‘Charles Tolliver & His All-Stars’; Arista later issued it under the title ‘Paper Man’ and now Tolliver has given it a new title, ‘Right Now & Then.’ 

Returning to the present, and Tolliver is glad to be back with his first studio recording in 13 years but its release couldn’t come at a worse time because of the COVID pandemic. “Musicians’ livelihoods have been drastically affected,” he laments, “but there’s not much else that people in the entertainment business can do except to wait it out and hope that in 2021 the scientists can bring us back.”

The trumpeter confesses that during lockdown he hasn’t been writing or playing much but he has kept busy in other ways. “I’ve spent a lot of time gardening,” he laughs. “It’s a bit of work but it keeps you exercised and in the fresh air.” 

What the trumpeter’s missed most of all is playing in front of a live audience; after all, that’s the essence of jazz, a music that’s largely improvised and created in the moment.  “There are a lot of endeavours like streaming, but it can never replace the regular way and normalcy of a shoulder to shoulder live audience,” observes Tolliver. “But streaming is for young people who are into all these devices and media. That’s up their alley, but it’s not the real deal: everyone knows that you need live participation.”

Charles Tolliver’s new album ‘Connect’ is out now on LP and CD via Gearbox Records