© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Originally a trombone player, Ervin taught himself saxophone while in the services and instinctively veered towards the kind of blunt, blues-soaked sound of fellow-Texans like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. He had his big break with Mingus, who liked his raw, unaffected approach. The career was painfully short, but Booker packed a lot in. He's still missed.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“Booker Erwin is a powerful, swinging, story-teller.”
- Ira Gitler, insert notes to Booker Ervin/Groovin' High [OJCCD-919-2/P-7417]
During a recent listening of tenor saxophonists Booker Ervin and Zoot Sims on Booker’s The Book Cooks [Bethlehem Avenue Jazz R2 76691], I was really taken by the difference in sound that each got on the same instrument.
While Zoot’s tone was its usual bright, buoyant and bouncy self, Booker’s was darker, denser and more driving; one floated over the rhythm while the other pushed through it.
Hailing from Denison, Texas it’s easy to associate Booker’s style with the big bluesy, and wailing style that has become known as the Tenor Tenor Sound, a sound that the late Julian Cannonball Adderley once described as “the tone within the moan.”
Or as Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler describe it in The Encyclopedia of Jazz: “With a sound as big as the great outdoors, and a tidal rhythmic drive, he was in the lineage of the Texas Tenors.”
While Booker’s approach to Jazz improvisation was certainly rooted in The Blues, it seemed more expansive and more expressive. But what were the qualities that made it so?
I thought it might be fun to share some observations by other Jazz writers and critics whose ideas about Booker’s approach to Jazz helped shed light on my quest to know more about how he achieved his singularity.
Sadly, Booker didn’t have long to share his secrets as he died in 1970 at the age of 40!
Let’s begin with this overview of his career by Mark Gardner which is drawn from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz:
“Booker Ervin (b Denison, TX, 31 Oct 1930; d New York, 31 Aug 1970) was the son of a trombonist who worked for a time with Buddy Tate, and he inherited his father's instrument: between the ages of eight and 13 he played trombone. He taught himself to play saxophone while in the air force (1950—53), then studied music in Boston for two years. His first professional engagement was with Ernie Fields's rhythm-and-blues band, with which he made his earliest recordings (c!956). Ervin rose to prominence as a member of Charles Mingus's group (1958-62). He also worked frequently in a cooperative quartet, the Playhouse Four, with Horace Parlan, George Tucker, and Al Harewood, and with Randy Weston. His best work as a leader was on nine albums recorded for Prestige (1963—6).
Ervin was a powerful player whose hard tone and fondness for the blues marked him as a member of the Texas school in the tradition of Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb, and Illinois Jacquet.
He never allowed his formidable technique to obscure the emotional intensity of his playing, and he was one of the very few tenor saxophonists of his generation to remain untouched by the influence of John Coltrane and develop a wholly personal style.”
[There seems to be some debate about Coltrane’s influence on Booker, for example, Ira Gitler maintains that “Although Booker named Coltrane as his favorite, he was less indebted to him than were the majority of his contemporaries.”The Encyclopedia of Jazz.]
Continuing on with Ira’s assessment of Booker’s talents, the following is drawn from one of the many “Book” LP’s that Erwin made for the Prestige label from around 1963 66.
“If jazz had a bible it surely would be known as The Book of the Blues, for without the blues, jazz would be a salt-water fish in fresh water. This album is not the The Book of the Blues but it is The Blues Book [Prestige OJCCD-780-2/P-7430], or how Booker Ervin feels about the blues. "There's all kinds of blues," said Booker, "and I just wanted to play some of the different kinds."
That is stated simply enough (the blues for all their variety are basically simple, too) but when Ervin becomes involved in his highly emotional blowing, all is not that simple. It is not a matter of having to break your brains to comprehend his story — Booker plays from the heart of jazz directly to your heart — but the depth, breadth, and width of his approach arm it with ramifications that are anything but plain.
The pressure exerted in a hard, extended kiss doesn't always indicate the lack of equal intensity behind it, but if that surface force is really representative of the underlying feeling then you are dealing with something powerful. The loudness or hardness of a musician's delivery doesn't necessarily stand for true depth or sincerity, but if it does, look out, for you are in for a steam-cleaning from the convolutions of your cranium down to your entrails.
Booker Ervin's tenor is like a giant steamroller of a brush, painting huge patterns on a canvas as wide and high as the sky. There is nothing small about his sound, his soul, or his talent. … His passionate music is of the '60s but it has not lost touch with the tap-roots of jazz.
Booker's phrasing (the highly-charged flurries and the excruciating, long-toned cries), harmonic conception (neither pallid nor beyond the pale), and tone (a vox humana) add up to a style that is avant garde yet evolutionary, and not one that bows to fashion or gropes unprofessionally under the guise of "freedom".
“As I am writing these notes for Booker Ervin's third Prestige album, the yearly chore of filling out my Down Beat Critic's Poll ballot is very much on my mind. It is a chore because there are so many excellent musicians to choose from, and one is often forced to make rather arbitrary exclusions. But there are always a few instances in which there can be no doubt or equivocation. This year, Booker Ervin's name is one of those I'll put down without the slightest hesitation.
‘There's nothing on earth I like better than playing music,’ Booker Ervin once told me. His playing sounds like that. It is full of fire and conviction: nothing about it strikes the ear as forced, contrived or meretricious. It is no wonder that Charlie Mingus—a man who likes his music naked—has used Booker whenever he could get him.
Booker is his own man now, though. Not that that means he can't play with others ... his work with Randy Weston and Mingus in recent months proves well that he can. It does mean, however, that Booker has his own stories to tell and that he knows how to get them together without being coached. The best proof of that is his playing on his two previous Prestige albums …..
And even better proof is the album at hand. Not that it is necessarily a better album all around; each of them has its points. It's that it is an album of great pieces from the jazz repertoire, and that such a collection represents a challenge to a player: the challenge of saying something definitively on themes that have already had definitive readings; the challenge of proving that you have your own voice not only when playing your own things on your own turf but also when playing on regulation fields with traditional rules. That's major league stuff, and Booker has what it takes.”
Perhaps Ed Williams summed it up best when he wrote this about Booker in his insert notes to Ervin’s 1968 Blue Note LP - The In Between [CDP 7243 8 59379 2]:
“BIG, FULL, OPEN, "LOUD." There are other ways of describing Booker Ervin's sound. Those just happen to be a few that I think are particularly apropos. "LOUD" as I mean it, connotes a basically honest projection of his emotions, without any special regard for modulation. That, coupled with his appreciation for the "big," "full" sound his instrument is capable of producing makes him seem "loud." The important thing is the fact that it's Booker, and his way of doing it. Self-expression is indeed a precious possession.”