William Carbone, Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, connected with Charles Lloyd prior to his upcoming tour of New England made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts. Lloyd and his quartet will play at the CFA on January 28th. What follows is a summary of their conversation:
There is a sundry collection of compositions and sounds on the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s latest CD Mirror, yet one sound rings constantly throughout: peace. Lloyd, a veteran saxophonist, and his much younger band mates—pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland, bassist Reuben Rogers—waste no notes, uniting their songs and improvisations with an endlessly persevering focus on melody. In those moments one might expect a burst of fiery showmanship and the thrusting forth of an individual identity, Lloyd and company sink in more deeply, creating space and allowing eighth notes to become quarters, halves, then whole; clearly, their relationship is one of absolute trust.
Hence Lloyd’s reaction when I inquired about who would accompany him on his upcoming Northeast tour: “Is this a trick question?” Unlike many, or even most veteran jazz musicians, Lloyd’s band is a band, and Moran, Harland and Reed are those who we should expect to see.
Lloyd has a condition that makes lengthy phone conversations uncomfortable, but he agreed to speak with me regarding his upcoming tour via email. Because his biographical informational is readily available already, I chose to ask Lloyd, who holds a Masters degree in music, more about his thoughts on jazz and education, particularly in university settings. His answers were brief, yet they allowed some insight to the inclusive approach that characterizes his work.
Charles Lloyd exploded onto the U.S. jazz scene in the early 1960s, first in collaborations with drummer Chico Hamilton and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Soon after, he shepherded a quartet of newcomers: Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Cecil McBee, all of whom are now household names in jazz. They broke boundaries musically with their effortless intermingling of jazz and avant-garde, non-Western and rock music; demographically by engaging the young and spiritually hungry audience of the late ‘60s; economically with the first jazz album to sell one million copies; and geographically when they departed on a non-state–sponsored tour of the Soviet Union.
Though Lloyd’s success was nearly unparalleled in jazz, he soon withdrew. As he told me in our recent dialog: “I performed at Carnegie Hall when I was in my 20s, as well as the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Royce Hall in Los Angeles. Claude Nobs [the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival] always likes to say that I was the first international ‘star’ to perform at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1967. By the end of the 60s, I was playing in stadiums and sports arenas, but I got off the bus because I did not like where the business of music was trying to direct me. It had nothing to do with music.”
After stepping off “the bus,” Lloyd retreated to the central California region of Big Sur and for a decade recorded and performed in public only sporadically. The few recordings he released under his own name during this period reflect both an extension of Lloyd’s inclusive view of music and the spiritual search he was undertaking in the mountains: Geeta (1973) features Lloyd on flutes and saxes accompanied by a combination of Western and Indian musicians performing both Hindu-themed material and a Rolling Stones medley; on Big Sur Tapestry (1979), Lloyd performs Chinese oboe and flutes and is accompanied only by harp. Though his time at Big Sur has often been characterized as an escape from the pressures of popularity, Lloyd also performed and recorded with the Beach Boys during this period.
Gradually, Lloyd reemerged in the 1980s, establishing a connection with the ECM record label that is now in its third decade. Since then, his work as a leader for the label includes ensembles featuring similarly maverick jazz performers—Billy Higgins, Brad Mehldau, Cedar Walton, John Abercrombie, Geri Allen—who glide comfortably into the borderless explorations of music Lloyd says are intrinsic to his being.
“Most of my childhood was spent on my grandfather’s farm in Mississippi,” notes Lloyd, “so I was steeped in the blues. Phineas Newborn was my earliest mentor. He heard me win an amateur show when I was about nine and got me started with lessons with Irvin Reasson. Later, when I was 11 or 12, he had me join his father’s band. I stand on the shoulders of all who came before me—Howlin’ Wolf, Bobbie Blue Bland, Johnny Ace, Willie Mitchell, Bird [Charlie Parker], Prez [Lester Young] and Lady Day [Billie Holiday], Trane [John Coltrane], Mr. [Coleman] Hawkins—they are all a fiber of my expression. Everything that I am today is the sum of my life’s experience.”
Lloyd holds a Master’s degree in music from the University of Southern California but suggests that the musicians of his generation primarily “learned ‘real time’ with on-the-spot training on the bandstand.” He adds: “We had to bake a cake without the advantage of technology. Today there are so many options that are just a fingertip away.” Other than a brief stint as a middle school teacher in the late ‘50s, Lloyd has not been a formal educator yet he notes, “I give master classes [at colleges and universities] from time to time, and the students seem hungry for information and direct experience.”
Given his stature and experience, Lloyd could easily settle into a role as an “elder statesman” and run a repertory band with a rotating cast of musicians, yet he has continuously surrounded himself with consummate improvisers who challenge him to reach new heights nonetheless. “I am a student everyday; I have a beginner’s mind,” says Lloyd. “Eric and Jason and Reuben are old souls to me. The chronological age does not impede the flow of the ancient and modern.”
Director, Center for the Arts