© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In a correspondence to the editorial staff at JazzProfiles, Simon Spillett put forth the following explanation about how this piece came about:
“It was written to accompany a 2017 release on the Acrobat label - Booker Ervin: The Good Book (Acrobat ACQCD 7121) which compiled his three earliest albums - The Book Cooks, Cookin' and That's It! together - with sideman appearances on recordings led by Teddy Charles, Mal Waldron and Bill Barron.
This boxed set received favourable reviews in several English jazz publications (Jazzwise, The Jazz Rag) and one nationally circulated newspaper, The Financial Times, who gave the collection a four star rating, praising Ervin's "passion with a positive vibe".
Although this is essentially the same piece included in the booklet for the Acrobat box, I have corrected some minor errors and added a small amount of significant "new" information. I believe this may be the first extended essay on Ervin and his work.”
In addition to fronting his own quartet, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).
Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
BOOKER ERVIN – THE GOOD BOOK
“I suppose I'll go on striving until I die...Every time I play I try to play as if it's the last time I'm ever going to blow”
Booker Ervin, Melody Maker, January 30th 1965
EAST FARMINGDALE 1970; “One of the heroes...”
There are all sorts of clues that a musician may be an unsung hero – failure to become a seminal influence on others, top polls or win awards: less recording activity when compared to his or her contemporaries: minimal press notices, even the misspelling of a surname – but it's hard to find any more undignified a confirmation of unsung status than discover journalists repeatedly managing to get the date of a players' death wrong. Indeed, if ever there were proof needed to argue that Booker Telleferro Ervin II remains forever destined to never get his right and proper due in the jazz history books one need look no further than the pages of Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler's Encyclopedia of Jazz In The Seventies (Horizon Press, New York), published in 1976.
One of the most distinctive and hard-working of post-bop's many legions of tenor saxophonists, Ervin had only just qualified for inclusion in this, the latest volume of Feather's masterwork, having died in 1970, aged 39. He had made his first appearance in the Encyclopedia series back in 1960, wherein Feather had called him “[a] forceful and persuasive modern soloist”, a rather oversimplified description to give a musician who had already forged a quite remarkably identifiable and personal instrumental voice. Although Feather then had little to say about Ervin, he had accurately recorded the date of his birth – October 31st 1930, as well as the location, the city of Denison in Texas. Sixteen years on, Ervin's entry in the 1976 edition of the Encyclopedia fleshed out some of the interim detail, listing the saxophonists' various compositions and album appearances and praising how his “powerful, typically Texan sound on the tenor sax project[ed] into the 1960s.”
While Feather and Gitler can be forgiven for not affording Ervin a more expansive biographical entry – after all, there were a significant number of tenor saxophonists then living whose work was of much wider import than Ervin's and who clearly required more extensive assessments – their brief summary nevertheless contained one glaring error, itself setting the blueprint for virtually every biographical account of Ervin's life published since: “On 7/31/70 Ervin died in a NYC hospital of a kidney ailment,” the tenorists entry notes dryly, a single sentence that not only records the date of his passing incorrectly but also fails to acknowledge the specific cause of death.
It's hard to know why Ervin's entry includes this error – Feather and Gitler were both respected jazz authorities whose work otherwise showed a clear eye for detail. Perhaps it was simply a typographical slip, an unproofed goof, the tiniest of mistakes that only those in the know would pick up on? The few obituaries of Ervin that were published upon his death – including those in DownBeat October 15th 1970 issue, the New York Times on September 2nd and the British music paper Melody Maker on September 15th 1970 – had all certainly reported the facts correctly, that he had passed away in New York's Bellevue Hospital on Monday August 31st 1970, a whole month later than Feather and Gitler maintained. One month might seem like a little to quibble about, but, in the case of Ervin, who died at such a young age, this mistake was yet another example of what might be termed euphemistically as jazz oversight, adding posthumous inaccuracy to the insult of critical indifference he'd endured while living.
Whatever the reason for Ervin's incorrect death date in Feather and Gitler's book, the volumes' own definitive reputation has inevitably led to its “facts” being quoted in many subsequent pieces on the saxophonist – sleeve notes for reissues, online articles, even Wikipedia, which up until this writer corrected Ervin's entry a few months ago, still contained in black and white the date July 31st 1970. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to reiterate this “fact” once may be regarded as misfortune; to repeatedly do so does indeed begin to look like carelessness, as if the saxophonist's isn't a life worth examining with anything more than mere surface detail.
Sadly, Ervin was no stranger to the game of jazz-lore dominoes – rereading the liner notes to virtually all the albums he released during his short lifetime it quickly becomes apparent that what one writer penned about him, others then more or less repeated with only the slightest of alterations, a not uncommon occurrence in jazz literature but, in this instance, effectively reducing Ervin's playing to a series of almost template-based sound-bites. Worse still, since his death, Ervin has been described an “unsung hero”, a musician overlooked and lamentably never given the recognition he should have been, countless times, almost as if this were now an unalterable fact rather than something that might still be rectifiable.
Anyone wishing to find visual confirmation of when Ervin died can simply use Google. Type in the saxophonist's name and the word “grave” into an image search and the very first photograph that springs up is of a simple headstone with the inscription:
824 MTR VEH SQ
OCT 31 1930
AUG 31 1970
The letters beneath Ervin's name refer to his stint in the US Air Force during the early 1950s, but this aside there is little to reveal anything much about his life, save its brevity, and nothing whatsoever to acknowledge that by far the greater part of that short existence was spent as a professional jazz saxophonist, a musician who, although he never quite broke through to the front rank of exponents on his chosen instrument, nevertheless held his own with some mighty fast company.
The omission of any reference to jazz is by no means the most surprising aspect to Ervin's headstone. No, it's the marker's location that provides the biggest revelation, adding an almost inevitable twist to his story, one that intriguingly mirrors a particular circumstance Ervin himself had experienced for much of the last decade of his life. He is interred at Long Island National Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Suffolk County in New York State, a plot established in 1936 by the purchase of 175 acres from the adjacent Pinelawn Cemetery. A short distance away, Pinelawn is, rather ironically, the final resting place of John Coltrane, the saxophonist to whom Ervin's name was linked tangentially throughout the 1960s, and who passed away three years before Ervin's passing. Adjacent burial plots were just one more thread connecting the two men; both their funeral services had been held in the same place – St. Peter's Lutheran Church at New York's Lexington and Fifty-fourth Street, presided over by the same pastor, Reverend John Garcia Gensel.
To find these two men so close together in death is a reminder of how far apart their music was alleged to have been during life. Even early on in his career, a great many of Ervin's supporters were at pains to state that Coltrane's influence had never touched him, making the bold claim that during the mid-1960s, at the very height of Coltrane's impact on his fellow tenorists, Ervin had maintained his own course, wholly unswayed by that of his older and better-known contemporary. “He never imitated Coltrane,” Ervin's regular employer, bassist Charles Mingus stated unequivocally in 1961. “He was playing that way before he'd ever heard Coltrane and the two in any case are quite dissimilar.” Others agreed, including pianist Jaki Byard, with whom Ervin recorded a celebrated series of albums for the Prestige label. “Critics used to to put him with the Coltrane school,” Byard remembered in 1977, “but Booker had his own thing back in 1950.”
Some were prepared to put Ervin on a par with his more celebrated contemporary. Perhaps the saxophonist's most ardent supporter, and a close personal friend, the pianist Randy Weston wrote in 1993 that “Booker Ervin, for me, was on the same level as John Coltrane. He was a completely original saxophonist.”
A brave few even tried to argue that Ervin was superior to big hitters like Trane and Sonny Rollins, an assertion which although loaded with partisan sentiment smacks more of sleeve-note hyperbole that sharp fact. “I doubt if any tenorman of his generation (and that includes the slightly older Coltrane and Rollins) is playing as much as The Book today,” wrote Michael Morgan in the notes to one of Ervin's albums in 1966, “and he is still growing.”
The one thing Coltrane and Ervin could undoubtedly be said to have shared was a foreshortened career, with each man's musical development cut short by cancer, ironically around the same age. Today, we understand the extent of their growth far better and with hindsight we know just how much further time Ervin had left in which to extend himself after Coltrane's death – barely a few years, in which his career, far from emerging out from under the imposing shadow of his formidable fellow tenorist, actually began to fall apart.
We also have a far more rounded picture of where he sits within the overall stylistic and chronological patterns of the music. “A virile, garrulous, sensitive and unsentimental panorama of jazz in the Sixties,” was how broadcaster and writer Neil Tesser described Ervin's approach in an 2007 essay, duly noting that coming from the twin influences of Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon, the same sources that brought forth the mighty oaks of Coltrane and Rollins, Ervin was in essence “a distant cousin on the same family tree”, whose “portmanteau approach” had made him much more a musical barometer of the times through which he lived than an especially startling innovator.
Time may have robbed Ervin of the claims of “greatness” which some writers trumpeted for him on the back of those albums in the 1960s, perhaps for the better, and yet it's also done him a further disservice, clouding much of his story in myth. There has, up to now, been little in the way of in-depth research into his life and work, and, as noted, the majority of retrospective critiques of his music have tended to regurgitate what's already well known, or, worse still, distorted the picture to suit their writers own whims. Digging a little deeper reveals Ervin's story to be equally as fascinating as those of far more celebrated contemporaries. When one observer described his path from obscurity to noteworthiness as an “odyssey” it was with good reason – it was a complex and convoluted route and he took an age to reach a true musical home; another called Ervin's “a somewhat bizarre career” and while nobody could truly argue that his body of work or legacy had or will ever have the impact of those of a Coltrane, a Rollins or a Getz, there seems to be a rather unfortunate by-product of this reality; that, having failed to reach the front-rank, the details of Ervin's background and achievements are nearly always glossed over, or ignored altogether, as if they matter not. In this, he joins the ranks of several other undervalued (one hesitates to call them unappreciated) tenor saxophonists of the same generation – Hank Mobley, Tina Brooks, Richie Kamuca, Paul Gonsalves. None of these men has yet received an adequate musical or biographical memorial, despite their standing among their contemporary peers. In the post-Marsalis era of the 1980s and '90s, when there was interest in all manner of Hard- and post-Bop musicians from the golden age of the music, Ervin's was a name rarely mentioned. His albums likewise have never really been given a proper retrospective treatment, in and out of print on myriad different labels, especially in Europe, often with the scantiest of information appended them. This set, therefore, although it contains only recordings made during a brief but pivotal two-year period at the dawn of the highest-profile stretch of his career, seems the ideal place to tell the story of this most captivating and yet enigmatic musical figure. It's high time Booker Ervin got his due, so way overdue, and the story of the Good Book got told chapter by chapter, place by place.
The truth of Ervin's neglect is all too well known - “the same old story of little recognition, poor working conditions, meagre financial rewards and the standard diet of racial and political blockades that our society so generously and frequently constructs”, wrote Michael Cuscuna ruefully six years after Ervin's passing – and in this his story is almost stereotypical of many a modern jazz musician in the mid-20th century. Ervin's playing, however, was anything but homogenised. Indeed, although one of his posthumously issued albums – Tex Book Tenor – ostensibly plays its title around the saxophonists home state of Texas the pun also offers a knowing wink to those who are intimate with Ervin's music; his was never, by any stretch of the imagination, a text book way of playing the saxophone. “His voice...was heartfelt, special and uniquely personal,” Cuscuna maintained in the albums' notes. “There was only one Booker Ervin, and there will never be another.”
“It would have been nice to be able to write that Booker Ervin died just as he was on the verge of attaining the wider acclaim his playing had always demanded,” Melody Maker's Richard Williams began his obituary piece for the saxophonist, published three weeks after his death. “Unfortunately, it was not so...It's too late now to do justice to Booker Ervin. He was the stuff of which jazz is made, just as much as those whose names are heard across the world, and the passing of time won't dim the concrete achievements he's left behind.” Williams was right; forty-seven years after Ervin's death, time hasn't dulled the impact of his playing – still more molten lava than concrete – but is has obscured the details of the life that supported those same accomplishments. In fact, what better way is there to contest the assertion that “it is too late now to do justice to Booker Ervin” than to finally unravel as accurately as is possible Ervin's back story.
Jazz is so often a music as much about the how and where as it is the performers themselves, and, in uncovering the steps Ervin took towards his own qualified version of jazz “stardom” a story emerges of a man whose determination and faith in his own ability overrode virtually every obstacle imaginable. Telling it in full is no easy job though. One only need look at the sleeve notes of Ervin's three initial albums as a leader, taped during an especially focused period of recorded activity in 1960/61, to find subtle but significant discrepancies as to his movements prior to arriving in New York in 1958. Verifying some of this information is now nigh-on impossible, but we can at least set some things right. Some of what follows has not previously been included in any published accounts of Booker Ervin's life.
Uncovering certain information in the piece occasionally took on the air of forensic detection, with a number of discoveries adding a hitherto unknown personal side to Ervin's life – searching out two touching photos of him as a teenager, hidden in plain sight on a school association website, seeing his signature, even discovering the whereabouts of his son – all adding to the sense that not only was Booker Ervin a talent taken too soon, he was also a real person, a young man who should, by rights, have been given much more than thirty-nine short years on the planet; his wife, Jane – the woman he claimed “really lifts me up” - was left a young widow with two (under ten years of age) small children to explain things to – a human tragedy that can't be downgraded simply because the man who'd passed on wasn't a John Coltrane or a Charlie Parker.
Hopefully, these words will reach still more of Ervin's fans, who have long been – and thankfully still are, judging by the internet - many in number, each applauding their favourites' individual take on 1960s jazz tenor, appreciating it for its marked individuality and its rootsy, blues-hewn candour. After all, here was a man whose admirers included British blues guru Alexis Korner and prog-rock prince Robert Wyatt, alongside the likes of Roland Kirk and Dexter Gordon, each of them moved by the honesty of Ervin's message. When Wyatt was interviewed after Ervin's death, he called the saxophonist as “one of the strongest” of the musical family Mingus, and was in no doubt that Ervin deserved the title of hero, plain and simple and not unsung. “His playing...is just beautiful,” Wyatt stated. “He was one of the heroes.”
DENISON, TEXAS, 1930 - “Moving forward, kicking back”
The odyssey of Booker Telleferro Ervin II begins in the city of Denison, Texas, located in Grayson County, around 75 miles north of Dallas, and close to the Oklahoma border in a region which straddles both states, referred to as Texoma.
At the time of Ervin's birth – 1930 – Denison was still a relatively young city, having been established in 1872 in conjunction with the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad company – known commonly as the “Katy” - who had extended their depot on the site to make a small city, named in honour of its vice-president George Denison. The city's motto “moving forward, kicking back” appears not to have been coined until the 20th century, although the first part of the couplet certainly applied to the population numbers within its first fifty years, rising from the mere 3,975 recorded in a census in 1890 to around 13,850 at the time of Booker Ervin's birth. (In 2016, African-Americans comprised only 8% of its population).
Denison has several notable claims to fame; it is the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of World War Two's most brilliant military figures and the 34th president of the United States, born there in 1890. Although Eisenhower's links to the city can be called tenuous at best (his family left in 1892), Denison still trades effectively on the association. Another famous Denison resident, who stayed for even less time than Ike - barely a few months – was John Henry 'Doc' Holliday, the legend of the old west who briefly practised dentistry in the city in 1875, in between exercising his passion for gambling and shoot-outs. Hollywood's vision of the west came to Denison in 1948, when the city's Rialto cinema hosted the world-premier of Howard Hawk's masterly film Red River, named for the powerful body of water which marks the state line to the north of the city. And it was the real Red River that provided by far the biggest talking point for Denison's residents during the 1940s, making possible the construction of the nearby Denison Dam, commissioned in 1939 and costing a then staggering $5,000,000 to build. The need for this electricity-generating marvel - and an indictment of the widespread lack of basic domestic amenities in the area – was highlighted when Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Denison on his re-election campaign trail in June 1936, revealing to its citizens that of the “thirty-one thousand farms in the region...only seven hundred of those farms have electricity.”
Even within the city limits, accommodation could be basic, especially for those of African-American blood. The Ervin family two homes during the 1930s – first on West Elm Street and then, from 1938 on, West Morton – were both unremarkable, small, single-story, clapper-board designs, examples of which survive in these streets to this day.
At the time of Booker Ervin's birth, modest was also the word to describe work opportunities within the city. As with every other city and town in the United States, the after-effects of the Wall Street Crash had hit Denison hard. Just under a year after Ervin was born, the Denison Press, the city's newspaper, was announcing a “Planning Move To Aid Unemployed of Denison” “providing for every idle person who wants to work during the next six to eight months.” Fortunately, Booker's father had retained his job for at least part of the Depression, according to one census occupying the position of “dining car steward.”
ERVINOLOGY: 311 West Morton Street
If certain aspects of Booker Ervin's lineage appear like outright clichés for a black American jazzmen in the mid-20th century, then other facets of his blood-line are remarkably anomalous. Both his grandparents – the Reverend Colonel F. Ervin (ca. 1880-1962) and his wife Georgia (ca. 1887-1954) had been born in Nova Scotia, off the eastern coast of Canada, not a location one associates much with Afro-American history. Quite how the Ervin's made it from Nova Scotia to Texas – a climate change in every sense of the phrase - can only be guessed at but it is known that for much of his time in Denison Rev. Ervin had dual occupations; by day, he worked as an air-brake repairman for the Katy, a job he appears to have held well into his sixties: at weekends he was the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church located at 700 West Walker.
Home for the Rev. Ervin and wife during much of the 1930s was 1101 West Elm Street - now a vacant lot - a house shared with their son Booker Telleferro Ervin I – saxophonist Booker's father – born around 1904. By 1930, all the Ervin's had moved to 311 West Morton Street, and, according to census records, the household also now included Booker T'.'s wife Mabel (born ca. 1907).
The couple already had one small child, a girl, when it was discovered in spring 1930 that Mabel was pregnant again. Thus, in an already crowded, tiny, single-story wooden house, on Friday October 31st 1931 – Halloween, no less – Booker Telleferro Ervin II first drew breath.
The name Telleferro remains something of a mystery – and although Booker Ervin would himself bequeath it to his own son, born in 1960 – no explanation of why Rev. Ervin chose it for his child has been forthcoming. However, when Ervin's career took off in the 1960s, few sleeve note writers failed to mention this unusual middle-name, perhaps entranced by its hint of the exotic (Chicago avant-gardist reedman Ken Vandermark's 2016 album Steam; Realtime, includes a track titled Telleferro, most likely a nod to Ervin). Otherwise Ervin's childhood appears to be a mix of the familiar patterns of many Afro-American jazzmen born during this era, especially where music was concerned. “Vivid meetings of [his mothers] 'sanctified church'”, were mentioned as an early influence by Nat Hentoff in his notes to the 1961 album That's It!, while another annotator literally referred to his background as in the “holy roller church”. That the black Baptist church, with its vocal, emotionally overt traditions was such a formative influence on Ervin will come as no surprise to those who've heard the saxophonists declamatory, preaching improvisations of Charles Mingus' Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. (Co-incidentally, John Coltrane's grandfather was also a preacher, in his instance for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church). However, his initial musical exposure wasn't all sacred. As a small child he “sort of took piano lessons indirectly by looking over his sisters shoulder as she practised,” reported another writer Tom Wilson in 1960, “learning to pick out the popular tunes of the day.”
By the late 1930s (a census for 1938), Booker senior and his family had moved to 311 West Morton Street, doubtless a welcoming the breathing space after so much cross-generational overcrowding, presumably taking the house piano with them. The musical instrument young Booker really wanted to learn wasn't the piano though - it was the saxophone but, according to Hentoff “his mother couldn't afford to buy him one, and accordingly she gave him his father's trombone.”
Many of Booker Ervin's previous essayists have made great play of his starting musical life as a trombonist – the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings noting “[how he] carried over some of the brass instrument's broad portamento approach into his reed work”, perhaps more romantic sycophancy than hard fact. And there is yet more romance in the repeated references sleeve note writers made to Ervin's father – according to one “who played for a time with Buddy Tate in a Texas band.”
Although there is little doubt that Ervin Senior did play with Tate – one of Texas' most forthright tenor saxophonists and something of a stylistic forebear of Ervin's – trying to find out the hows and whys is now all but impossible. Before Tate came to national prominence with Count Basie (replacing Lester Young in 1941) his career was highly peripatetic, working out of Texas during the late 1920s and early '30s with bands led variously by Roy McCloud, Gene Coy, Terrence Holder and Troy Floyd, the latter sometimes broadcasting over KTSA from the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio. According to English jazz author Digby Fairweather, for a time Ervin Senior was a member of McCloud's Night Owls, although given that many of these such bands were of the “territory” variety, whose movements and personnels often went unrecorded, it's possible that Tate and he may have also played together in several other line-ups. At this distance, it's impossible to know for sure. What we do know is that Mel Wright, the father of another Texan saxophonist who came to prominence during the 1950s – altoist Leo Wright – played alongside Ervin's father in another parochial band, Boots and His Buddies, led by drummer Clifford 'Boots' Douglas.
Exactly what attracted Booker Ervin to the saxophone is unknown, although he remembered hearing the Basie band (and therefore its star tenor Lester Young, his first hero) as a child – Ira Gitler mentions this in his notes to The Book Cooks. It's also tempting to believe that the young Booker may have heard his first in-person blast of jazz watching his father with one of these territory bands, although the fact that Mabel Ervin gifted their son with Booker Senior's trombone around 1938 does rather suggest that his (Booker Seniors) was not then an active career.
Frustratingly, Ervin never revealed much about his time as a trombonist, yet we do know he was proficient enough to play the instrument in the band at the local school he attended, eventually abandoning it altogether, according to Gitler, in 1943.
TERRELL HIGH SCHOOL - “Where Dragon's Love To Roam...”
The lion's share of Booker Ervin's education was undertaken at Terrell High School in the period between around 1940 and 1946. The school had been founded in 1927, named in honour of pioneering Afro-American teacher August H. Terrell, whose obituary in the Denison Herald (April 23rd 1929) describes him as “[a] recognised leader among Denison's colored [sic.] citizens.” Terrell was certainly a figurehead, not just as an educator but as a community well-spring, and he was a man of many parts; deacon of Hopewell Baptist Church, proprietor of a grocery business and a member of the Knights of Pythias, Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges.
By the time Booker Ervin arrived at Terrell, the school's staff consisted of the principle – M.S. Frazier – and fourteen assistants, assigned to teach some 500 exclusively Afro-American students (Terrell's full integration never really materialized, despite a lengthy campaign by the NAACP; when the school closed in 1968 its remaining 83 students were expediently absorbed into Terrell High School) and its excellence and community standing was recognised throughout the state, the school being praised as “one of the finest Negro High Schools in Texas” in Polk's City Directory for 1939. "Teachers were as much parents," remembered ex-Terrell student Thomas Wrenn (class of 1940) in 2002, one of several graduates who would later return to teach at the school. “[They] didn't just teach school subjects, but spiritual knowledge too. Not necessarily specific religions, but a belief that there is a supreme being and without it, there's nothing.” Once again, as with exposure to his grandfather's Baptist church meeting, this further emphasis on a non-sectarian spirituality helped lay a key foundation stone in Ervin's musical character. Terrell also taught him a certain community solidarity. "Everybody knew everybody and it really made a difference,” adds Wrenn. “All the parents knew all the kids. You couldn't walk down the street and do something without someone seeing you and telling your parents."
Pride of place went to school football team, The Dragons, whose pep song concluded with the lines “For Terrell High, the school we love, where Dragons love to roam.” The Dragons roamed somewhat further afield too, with great success. “When its present principle – E. T. Hardman – was coach back in the 1940's,” reported one newspaper in the late 1960s, “Terrell put together some of the finest football teams in the state. From 1946 through 1948, [they] reached the state-finals once and [were] co-champion once, and then state champions.”
One Dragon during this time was Booker Ervin, and a sift through the Terrell archive website eventually reveals two photographs from his time at the school, one taken circa 1946, in which he peers earnestly out from the second row of the Dragons, in a jersey marked with the number 12, the other from the 1947 school year book, a portrait of a young man minus the characteristic heavy moustache and glasses of later years but otherwise instantly recognisable.
The discovery of the seventeen year old Ervin in the 1947 yearbook has also answered a lingering doubt about his movements during this period. Most previous biographical accounts of his life maintain that he joined the US Air Force at the close of World War Two. (To pick just one, the sleeve of his second album as a leader, Cookin', released in 1961, asserts that “in 1945 he enlisted into the Air Force upon graduation from high school.”) At fifteen, Ervin would have been simply too young to serve, and if he indeed did spend two separate stints in the USAF, as believed, the 1947 yearbook photo seems to indicate that the first of these did not occur until at least later that year rather than in 1945, as previously maintained. It's also telling that his headstone mentions only one military deployment, with a unit we know he joined in 1950.
When Terrell closed its doors for good in 1968, one article covering the event noted many of the schools graduates “have gained top jobs in government, industry and even in the acting field” but failed to mention its saxophone-playing ex-student. Seventy years after he left Terrell however, Ervin now features on the schools memorial website, his name proudly included in the site's famous ex-alumni quiz. A memorial to the school itself, built from bricks taken from the original building, stands - appropriately enough given its epic struggle for integration - on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.
OKINAWA 1950-53 – The Odyssey of A3C, ERVIN, B. T, U.S.A.F.
As if he were setting a pattern for the somewhat troubadour-like existence he would live when becoming a professional musician, Ervin's life – and indeed whereabouts – during the very late 1940s had a mercurial nature. Regardless of whether or not the alleged first stint in the air force took place (Tom Wilson believed that Ervin served for only a year at this point), it's certainly clear that the final years of the 1940s were far from settled. In fact, from a biographer's perspective this is undoubtedly the most indistinct period of his life. Even contemporary writers who interviewed the saxophonist for various album sleeve notes were left somewhat in the dark, one simply whitewashing Ervin's movements during these years as “peregrinations.”
We do know that for a time he lived in Kansas City and worked an unspecified day job. He also appears to have worked variously back in Denison and further south in Dallas. What is certain though is that, in the words of one annotator, he had “little thought of becoming a professional musician” during this time. Indeed, the trombone gifted from his father now lay silent, and he had as yet to take a serious interest in any other instrument, or it seems, any particular career path. What happened next was recorded by Tom Wilson, who noted “in 1950, dissatisfied with civilian life, [Ervin] went...into the Air Force,” joining the 824th Motor Vehicle Squadron, based at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas.
Ervin served with the squadron for three years, at the rank of Airmen 3rd Class, spending the majority of his time not at Carswell but on the island of Okinawa in the Pacific, south of Japan, then an crucial US staging point for the war in Korea. The 824th's duties were strictly logistical, supporting the efforts of bomber crews who flew missions over Korea from the islands' Kadena Air Base, but for Ervin the time in Okinawa was notable not just for the unfolding drama of the nearby conflict and his first taster of life overseas – further fuelling his wanderlust – but for enabling him to at last knuckle down to learning the saxophone, the instrument he'd wanted to play as a small child.
Ervin had picked up his first tenor back at Carswell, in circumstances that are, yet again, rather glossed over. Most previously published accounts of his life mention only that he “borrowed a tenor sax from the Service Club” (Tom Wilson, sleeve notes to Cookin') or that “he happened upon a tenor saxophone in the officers club” (Michael Cuscuna, Tex Book Tenor). However, all biographers agree that having chosen the tenor, Ervin also chose to teach himself, the level of success of which can be gauged by the fact that during his Okinawa stint he began leading hs own band.
Another member of this unit was drummer Kenny Dennis - later to record with both Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt and, later still, to marry vocalist Nancy Wilson - thus forging the first of Ervin's pivotal relationships with several notable jazz drummers (a list eventually to include Dannie Richmond and Alan Dawson).
As with so many musicians of his generation, the trigger for Ervin's interest in the tenor was Lester Young, the poetic voice that had so enlivened the pre-war Count Basie band and yet another musician who had passed through his home state of Texas during his pre-Basie “territory” years. “He was the first man I heard playing swing with a smooth straight-ahead tone, almost no vibrato,” Ervin remembered in 1960, summing up Young's most ear-catching virtue – his sound. “And he seemed to swing without pushing, like he wasn't even trying. Lester gave me a happy feeling and I knew I wanted to give people a feeling like that.”
Okinawa - as Tom Wilson put it “not exactly the crossroads of the western world” - wasn't really the place in which to further his quest to “give people a feeling” but its relative containment did give Ervin plenty of time to focus on his craft, and by the time of his discharge in 1953, he had made up his mind to pursue music as a profession.
To be continued in Part 2.