Lake smiles, which I take to mean: This is a funny life for a guy approaching retirement age, except I can't imagine retiring.
The next day, I come back to Pillsbury House on Chicago Avenue to talk more with Lake during a rehearsal break. As I approach the theater, he calls out from a bus shelter where he's eating his lunch. We linger outside for a while before heading in for a more formal interview. He tells me about sitting in the previous Monday night at the Turf Club's Clown Lounge with bassist Anthony Cox.
While in town, Lake is staying with an old friend, writer-director-performer Laurie Carlos, whose 2003 show, Marion's Terrible Time of Joy, benefited from a Lake soundtrack and drew a bit on the experiences of Lake's wife Marion, a clothing designer and boutique owner. As he does back home in Montclair, New Jersey, the musician spends a half-hour each day painting. Because of his free style of playing, everybody expects his paintings to be abstract, which isn't always the case.
"A friend of mine came to my first show last year, and she was a little bit disappointed," says Lake. "She said, 'Wow, I was expecting more abstract stuff. There are too many people in these paintings.'
"But I'm kind of obsessed with these lips and faces," Lake continues. His own face is broad and handsome, and while several of his album jackets' photos depict a very serious-looking fellow, today he doles out smiles liberally and laughs often. He's tall and wears his moderate sexagenarian girth well. "Now, I'm doing something that's kind of autobiographical about safety pins," he continues. "When I was in high school, there was this strange character who used to come around the neighborhood. Even if it was 90 degrees, he had on a full topcoat and a hat, baggy clothes. And he had all these safety pins all over everything. He told me he wanted all the kids in the neighborhood to join the 17 Club. I said, 'What do you have to do to be in the 17 Club?' He said: "You got to wear a safety pin, and you got to be good.' He would pin safety pins on all the kids. So now I'm painting all these safety pins, and writing that little poem: All you have to do is be good."
Lake's clothes aren't festooned with safety pins. But watching him play with the young cast of Under the Gun, you can tell that he enjoys being around kids, and that he takes them seriously as artists. Lake says he's learned a lot, especially about new music, from his own six grown children, four of whom are musicians. He frequently performs with his sons Gene, an in-demand drummer (David Sanborn and others), and Jahi, a rising DJ who spins as DJ Sundance.
Lake himself didn't consider a career as a musician until he was in college. He grew up in St. Louis, and didn't take up the alto until he was in his late teens. "My friend [the late trumpeter] Lester Bowie had started playing when he was 10, 12 years old," remembers Lake. "I kept telling him, Man, it's too late for me to start playing. He said, 'If you practice every day and really work, in 10 years, nobody will know when you started, so stop talking about it.'"
In 1965, Bowie moved to Chicago, where he would eventually co-found the influential avant-garde collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and later the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Back in St. Louis in '68, Lake, alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and a variety of poets, actors, dancers, and painters formed the Black Artists Group. By the mid-'70s, most of these regional experimentalists had relocated to New York and were dominating the avant-garde jazz scene.
Whether or not the World Saxophone Quartet was the first unaccompanied sax foursome, they were the first such group most people had ever heard, and their rich harmonies and gut-bucket experimentalism caused a minor sensation. Lake, Bluiett, Hemphill, and California-bred tenor player David Murray were all free players with deep roots in blues, gospel, swing, and R&B. They could be loud, squawky, dissonant, and cerebral, but they were also accessible and soulful. If you haven't heard the group, I strongly urge you to check out W.S.Q. or Plays Duke Ellington from the '80s. Start there, but if you can't find those albums, you could do a lot worse than the group's '04 release, Experience, an elegant WSQ-plus-guests set of Jimi Hendrix tunes.
In the '80s, the WSQ was a jazz supergroup, and they were atypical among avant-garde critics' favorites in that they actually sold some records. These days, Lake is somewhat off the radar. Jazz, of course, is considerably less ageist than pop is, but media attention and bigger record contracts still tend to go to the young. So even when oldsters make great music, like the new WSQ album or the Oliver Lake Big Band's lovely 2003 outing, Cloth, their efforts are often overshadowed by newer, allegedly fresher stuff.