Jazz can soundtrack genteel cocktail parties, it can help sell coffee at Starbucks, it can fill lecture halls in sober college symposia. But it's still weird. Harmonically, rhythmically, economically weird; weird in musical theory and in everyday practice. To wit: I'm watching one of the foremost talents of modern saxophone, a hero of the avant-garde who's already in the history books and on the list of all-time greats. And he's accompanying a bunch of 13-year-olds while they play a sort of walking variation on bumper cars.
Actor-teacher James Williams is directing a rehearsal in the studio of Minneapolis's Pillsbury House Theatre. "Today I just want to do some trust stuff," he says. There are 11 kids in attendance this afternoon. All are from Richard R. Green Central Park School. Williams, two younger assistant teachers, and the aforementioned saxophone player are running the exercise, which will lead to an original production about gangs and violence called Under the Gun: The Story of Our Lives. On the room's mirrored wall are eight big sheets of paper with notes from an earlier brainstorming session. One sheet bears the heading "Gang." Underneath are the words "guns," "prostitution," and "killing." Another sheet is labeled "What Is Important?" What is important to this group are family, poetry, music, pets, religion, dancing, protecting the earth, and, my favorite, tae kwon do.
The first trust-stuff activity I observe goes like this: Student A keeps her eyes closed while Student B guides her around the room. Student B can't touch Student A, or say anything other than Student A's name or "stop." Student B's job is to make sure Student A doesn't run into anything, like walls, or Students C through K (or Teacher L). A few times, Williams has to clarify this point--you don't want your partner to run into another kid or a wall, no matter how great the comic potential of such a collision.
The saxophone player is wearing an artsy two-tone shirt. Some of his thinning hair is tied into dreadlocks that hang down his back. During the game, he runs through the series of four-note lines from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Then, it being April 14, he gets called away to take a call from his accountant.
None of the kids here know that this guy, Oliver Lake, is a rather big deal. He's famous. Or famous in jazz terms, which is to say, not that famous at all. But as a founder of St. Louis's Black Artists Group (BAG), and as a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Lake has been a major figure in left-of-center jazz for over 30 years. He's one of the four or five best alto players of his generation. His tone is part dirt, part air, caustic and bluesy, but pretty, too. His compositions and solos follow the sort of wonderfully circuitous paths once trod by Eric Dolphy, and they have the grit of Maceo Parker.
Am I gushing? Sorry. And I can't stop before I mention that Lake is also a wily arranger and a versatile sideman who moonlights as a painter, poet, and performance artist. His collaborators, sidemen, and employers have included many biggish names in free jazz, plus writers Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Patricia Williams, and bohemian pop stars such as Björk, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and Mos Def.
So why, again, is he serving as one-man pit band to a bunch of pubescent environmentalists and tae kwon do enthusiasts? Well, because it's enjoyable work, it's good work, and he got a McKnight Foundation grant to come here and do it. During his Minneapolis residency, Lake is composing solo-violin interludes for local eminence Carlyle Brown's new show, Talking Masks, a collection of short plays about six different women and the literal and figurative masks they wear. Plus he's helping with Under the Gun and has been performing with Pillsbury's improvisation troupe, Breaking Ice. This is the sort of thing jazz luminaries do these days to make a living.
Lake has been a professional musician for 40 years. When we get a chance to chat, in the lobby of Pillsbury's second-floor offices, I ask him if the economic realities of the artist's life feel vastly different today than they did in the '70s or '80s.
"No, it feels the same," he says, laughing. "I had always thought that when I reached 60, everything would be just floating along and I wouldn't have to hustle as much. But I find that I have to hustle as much now as I did when I was 40, as I did when I was 30. My name is more out there, and a lot of things happened for me. But I still can't just expect my phone to jump off the hook. I have to initiate things.
"For instance, I had to write a grant to get this commission to be here and do this. I'm piecing all these different ways together, without having to be a full-time teacher. Not to put teaching down. A lot of my friends are full professors at universities, and I might want to get to that at some point. But I like the fact that I can leave here and go work with Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and then two days after that I'm working with Flux String Quartet, then I'm out to California to do something with Leo Smith, and then I come back to Minneapolis."
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.
"There have been some ups and downs," says Lake. "When I had [R&B- and reggae-influence band] Jump Up, we really were kind of taking off, although it didn't make it quite as far as we thought it might. And the World Saxophone Quartet has been a ride. For a while, we were so hot, and working all the time. And all of that just kind of dwindled away. It's been an interesting journey, even through the downs and the ups. And now I feel like I'm in an up period, because I'm involved in so many different things. So you keep evolving, you keep being an improviser."
It's about time for Lake to get back to practice, so I pull out my LP of Lake's Heavy Spirits, a great free-jazz album from 1975, which he signs, "Oliver Lake, 2004, 'Music Power.'"
James Williams askshis student actors to take off their shoes and socks, and roll up their pants, which tend to run three to six inches longer than is recommended by GQ's Glenn O'Brien. One student worries about exposing his "Flintstone feet," and is assured that no one will be giving his feet a close inspection.
Lake has just returned from the brief teleconference with his accountant. He takes a seat on the folding chair that is his temporary bandstand and improvises some more. Today, Williams doesn't ask the students to do a full-fledged backward fall into somebody's arms, the granddaddy of trust stuff. They'll work up to that, starting this afternoon with an exercise involving a slow, dramatic faint that's more like a backward bend. The group walks slowly around the room, until someone announces, with a funny melodramatic delivery that Williams has modeled for them, "I'm falling! I'm falling!" Then the rest of the group rushes over to catch its suddenly weak-kneed colleague.
This is an early rehearsal. The falls are tentative at first, especially that of the troupe's portliest member, who at least doesn't exhibit any signs of serious embarrassment when the group is even more tentative about catching him. But after 10 minutes or so, things are running pretty nicely. The falls are freer, the rescues more urgent and assured. The saxophonist plays one of his own improvisations, deliberately falling out of key, catching himself. He plays part of a familiar blues lick, but then resolves it in entirely nonstandard fashion. Which, really, is a jazz musician's greatest art--knowing how to make an odd, winding course seem inevitable and absolutely correct.