© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Simon Spillett authored this article on Booker Ervin 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.
QUITE A FAMILY MAN - 316 East 6th St., NYC: Jane, Lynn and 'Mr. Boo Boo'
“Alan Dawson's abiding memory of Booker Ervin was that of “quite a family man.”
“Actually, that was one for the things that we spoke about during the first week we worked together”, he remembered in 1970. “He said he enjoyed the playing and everything but then he said to me “Boy, I miss my family.”
Ervin had married Jane Wilkie around 1959, and within a year they'd had a child, a boy named - with inevitable continuity - Booker Telleferro Ervin III, but, as a baby, known affectionately by the nickname 'Mr. Boo Boo.' Soon after, the couple also had a daughter, Lynn. Both children were commemorated in Ervin's composing – Boo named for Booker Junior and an eponymous song for Lynn, recorded in 1968.
Home for the Ervin family during the early 1960s was 316 East St., an apartment which became the hub of Booker's career up to the end of 1964 when he, Jane and the children headed to Europe. To those that knew Ervin, it was apparent that, away from the demands of music, family was everything to him. “His main concern was taking care of them, and everything he tried to do, he had them in mind,” remembers the artist Richard 'The Prophet' Jennings, a close friend best known jazz-wise for his cover contributions to Eric Dolphy's Prestige albums Outward Bound and Out There and for whom Ervin would pen Tune for Richard, heard on Horace Parlan's Happy Frame of Mind.
At home, Jennings remembers Ervin being “a fun-loving regular guy who could be kind of devilish.”
It was the saxophonists wife, however, who best knew Ervin's ups and downs, the true price of the his hard-wired devotion to his craft. Life as a freelance jazz musician in New York in the early 1960s – especially a tenor saxophone playing one – was a frustrating, never-ending game of finding work and suitable remuneration. Despite signing a contract to Prestige Records in 1963 (whose advances were by no means as generous as those Coltrane and Rollins were enjoying at Impulse! and RCA-Victor at the same time) and the ardent support of his producer at the label, Don Schlitten, life could still be a struggle financially. Interviewing Ervin in early 1965, English journalist Mike Hennessey found the tenorist remarkably open about his cares and woes. “He sits crouched behind an Art Farmer moustache and heavy-rimmed glasses and he worries,” Hennessey began. “For five years I've been saying things'll get better. They never have. I can't really complain personally but I haven't got rich, but I'm living comfortably.”
“I still get discouraged. I feel I can do a lot better,” Ervin went on, “and I suppose I'll go on striving until I die. Sometimes things get very lean and I feel like throwing the horn out of the window. But my wife, Jane, keeps me going. She really lifts me up.”
Hennessey also learned how Ervin's dedication and ultimate commitment sometime rubbed up against a blasé attitude among his fellow players. “It's the thing that bugs me most – the lack of enthusiasm in musicians when they play. If you have guys like that with you, you get two different things going...I think if I were coming up now, I'd give up. It's not an encouraging scene for young musicians.”
Nor was in an encouraging scene for those who had already gained some sort of a reputation.“The Freedom Book [Ervin's 1963 album for Prestige, released in mid-1964] had caused a lot of excitement in New York,” remembers Michael Cuscuna. “But New York isn't America...which meant that [Ervin's] triumphs were mixed with incomprehensible dry spells.”
“He was so underrated in the sixties,” adds another respected jazz scribe, Gary Giddins, who as a young fan in New York witnessed first-hand what public indifference was doing to Ervin's career. “Everybody was talking about Coltrane and Shorter and Rollins and the big guns, and Ervin was really something of a cult figure. Those Prestige records were hardly best-sellers.”
Ervin eventually cut a total of seven albums for Prestige – which if there's any justice at all should be gathered together and given the boxed set treatment – all of which have gripping moments, but it was The Freedom Book of which he remained most proud. Ervin's Saxophone Colossus or Soul Station – if not quite his A Love Supreme – it's an album brimming with the leaders personality, and remains an essential jazz document of the times, not least for A Day To Mourn, Ervin's unusually moving tribute to John F. Kennedy, assassinated two weeks prior to the recording. (In an eerie coincidence, on the morning of his murder, November 22nd 1963, Kennedy had flown from Ervin's old air force stamping ground, Carswell Air Force Base, to Dallas)
The personnel for the album – pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson - although all friends of Ervin's, had never previously played together as a unit, but so felicitous were the results of this initial session that Prestige united them again for The Space Book (1964) and Heavy!!!! (1966) with Davis and Dawson also going on to grace the albums The Blues Book and The Song Book. As a rhythm section they were unlike anything else in jazz - in the words of Michael Cuscuna, “as elastic, innovative and exciting as the trio of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, which Miles Davis was incubating at the time.” And with such individuality on hand, there was no way an Ervin quartet date could truthfully be mistaken for one by any other tenorist then operating. The Freedom, Space and Song Books proved hands down that Ervin most certainly wasn't a Coltrane clone.
But he wasn't Davis either. There simply wasn't enough work to maintain a steady band of his own, and he could only watch as others gained the plaudits. “I know he felt under-appreciated,” says Richard Jennings of his friend. “Without him saying it specifically, I knew what he meant. That's one of the reasons he went to Europe – to get recognition and to make a living for his family.” Other reasons may have fuelled this decision to quit New York; in 1964, Ervin won the tenor saxophone category of the annual Talent Deserving Wider Recognition poll conducted among leading jazz critics by DownBeat magazine (a profile of him had appeared in the magazine two years earlier, one of very few pieces ever written about the saxophonist during his lifetime) but like many such accolades in jazz, the net result was largely academic; following the win there was still no more work forthcoming and the very title of the award itself seemed almost to offer a patronising affirmation that, a decade into his New York career, Ervin was still seen as a “second-string” talent only appreciated by the cognoscenti. According to Michael Cuscuna, by 1964, things were getting desperate for the saxophonist. On a scene in which you were “either a revolutionary or a cliché” Ervin's choices were stark - “you exiled yourself to Europe or starved.”
Ervin's European sojourn began in October 1964, following the offer of a months' worth of work at Copenhagen's celebrated Montmartre club, a venue that had already enticed several other US saxophonists, including Johnny Griffin, Don Byas and Dexter Gordon (a broadcast from Ervin's Montmarte stint can be heard on YouTube). All three men were by then living in Europe, part of a veritable exodus of American jazzmen to the continent, lured not only by work opportunities and increased critical respect (“Jazz musicians were, in America, just horn-blowers. A kind of musical weirdo” – Dexter Gordon) but also by the prospect of living free of the United States' frightening domestic issues. With John F. Kennedy dead, America seemed on the brink of social implosion and for Ervin - a black man in a mixed marriage - the clincher had been the hoo-hah surrounding Senator Barry Goldwater's election bid in 1964. “I really thought he would win,” he told Mike Hennessey. “I saw him on TV and I said 'What!' It reminded me of those old movies about Hitler. The racial business really frightened me. I didn't want to be caught up in that – so I planned to come to Europe for good.”
EUROPE 1964-1966 - “Not the musicians' paradise...”
American jazzmen had been living and working in continental Europe since the 1930s, each, almost to a man, following the pattern laid down by Coleman Hawkins' during his epic pre-war stint as a peripatetic soloist; secure one firm booking and let word of mouth do the rest. This method had certainly worked for others, most notably Dexter Gordon, who arrived in England to play Ronnie Scott's club in the autumn of 1962, moved on to play engagements in Paris and Copenhagen and then wound up staying for the next fourteen years (with annual trips home to record and see family). Ervin went one further, packing up Jane, Booker junior and Lynn to take his chances where and whenever they might come. After the initial Montmartre gig – which found him working with fellow ex-pat, pianist Kenny Drew – he headed to the Blue Note in Paris (Ervin had visited France four years earlier with Charles Mingus). For a hot minute, it seemed he had found what he was seeking, with news filtering back to New York that “there seems to be no indication that “[he] will be coming back to the United States for quite a while” (Ira Gitler, The Space Book). But it was all a false alarm. Almost straight away, it was apparent that there were as many obstacles to be surmounted in this new racially tolerant, artistically respectful environment as there had been in New York's frustrating maze of thwarted opportunity. Local indifference was by no means exclusive to the US jazz scene. By mid-1965, Crescendo magazine pointed out “Booker Ervin, who intended to stay a while in Paris [has] gone south to Spain because [he] was unable to find work in France.”
Although he would perform in several countries during his European episode – including Holland, France, Germany, Sweden and Italy (the 1966 San Remo Festival) – the place where Ervin and family put down its firmest roots was Barcelona, which, according to well-respected Catalonian jazz legend, drummer and composer Rámon Farrán, the tenorist had been hipped to by Lionel Hampton and Dexter Gordon. Another plus was the presence of the blind piano virtuoso Tete Montoliu, a player whose reputation extended far and wide, and who was a close friend of Gordon's. It was Montoliu who alerted Farrán to Ervin's arrival “calling me up and asking me to come to Barcelona to meet 'a very good American sax player'.
By all accounts, Ervin loved Barcelona, not just because of a regular gig at its Jamboree club, but also out of an affection for Antoni Gaudi, Catalan's great modernist architect, whose work is scattered throughout the city. The city's musicians loved him too. “He was very friendly and handsome”, remembers Farrán. “We did two or three concerts organised by Tete, [I think] in Valldoreig, Terrassa and Sabadell.” Sadly, owing to touring commitments the drummer missed an opportunity to record with Ervin on an album featuring vocalist Núria Feliu, his place being taken by another expat American, Billie Brooks.
While in Barcelona, Ervin also met English jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott, en route to Majorca to work at Farrán's Indigo club. England was a notable omission from Ervin's European jaunt and he never ever graced the stage of Scott's famous club in London. Nevertheless the two men became friends, as Scott remembered in one of Ervin's obituaries; “He was a marvellous guy, and we kept in touch with each other. In fact, we were hoping to have him in the [Ronnie Scott] club the next time he came over [to Europe]. He really knocked me out – a great player, very virile and forceful and, from my brief knowledge of him... a really nice person.”
The recording with Feliu wasn't the only session Ervin taped during his European stay. He also featured on an album under the leadership of old Mingus colleague Ted Curson – the magnificent Urge (Fontana, 1966) – and his contract with Prestige remained active, leading to producer Don Schlitten and aid David Himmelstein flying out to Munich in October 1965 to tape a summit meeting between Ervin and his original musical idol Dexter Gordon, yielding the album Setting The Pace. The planning – or rather lack of it – at the German end of the deal was almost farcical (and is explained at length in Himmelstein's impressionistic sleeve note to the resulting LP) but nevertheless the music is classic – two stretched out jams on Gordon's title track and Dexter's Deck – with Ervin showing a number of distinct facets: respect for his hero, a hint of gauntlet throwing and, above all else, remarkable originality. Listening to the two men together is like witnessing the handing on of a musical baton. That same long night, Ervin and the rhythm section of Jaki Byard, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Alan Dawson, also cut a quartet album, The Trance, the title track of which commemorated bassist George Tucker, a close friend from the days of the Play House Four, who had died of a cerebral haemorrhage in New York seventeen days before the recording, aged just 38. The loss hit Ervin like a sledgehammer and was certainly one of the contributory factors to what has become one of the most talked-of and controversial of all his recordings, that made two days later at the Berlin Jazz Festival, rescued from a radio broadcast and commercially released by the German Enja label in 1977 on an album titled Lament For Booker Ervin. (Ironically, given it was intended as an overdue memorial, even this records sleeve notes succeeded in getting the date of Ervin's death wrong.)
The circumstances behind this recording reveal a great deal about Ervin and his mindset at the time. Promoter Joachim-Ernest Berendt's assembly of American jazz soloists for the Berlin weekend was nothing less than starry, covering everyone from Swing Era veterans like Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge, through cool school mavens Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano and Gerry Mulligan, right up to the avant-garde, in the controversial shape of the Ornette Coleman trio. The presence of so many star names also led Berendt to assemble several never-to-be-repeated jam sessions, one of which, held at Berlin's newly opened Philharmonic Hall on October 29th 1965, created some of the most provocative music of the festival. Strap-lined “The Six Tenor Giants” the concert showcased Ervin as part of a truly mouth-watering line-up including Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Brew Moore and Sonny Rollins, accompanied by a rhythm section of Kenny Drew, Neils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Alan Dawson. Any real collaboration was almost instantly rendered impossible by Webster's all-too-apparent inebriation, the veteran tenor getting into a harangue with the audience before being marched off the stage by Berendt. Already raw from the recent news of George Tucker's death – just one of “many other emotional problems” Jane Ervin remembered from the night – this handling of Webster incensed Ervin. With each tenorist allotted a feature number, and a plan for them all to join in a six sax jam to conclude the gig, time was of the essence, but as Ervin began to play his chosen piece – a simple blues titled Grant's Stand, dedicated to New York DJ Alan Grant, and already recorded on The Freedom Book – the muse was suddenly upon him. Although he estimated the length of the performance incorrectly (it ran for 27 rather than 45 minutes), English journalist Bob Dawbarn's memory of the event, published in Melody Maker the following week captures the mood of the moment; “After 20 [minutes] the natives were naturally getting a bit restive. By the 30-minute mark, they were slow hand-clapping and the number ended amid scenes of general uproar.”
In spite of its apocryphal reputation as Ervin's Chasin' The Trane moment, the performance is not among the most creative of Ervin's discography, although its length and sheer stamina do make it a gripping listen. Nor did its commercial release support the legend of the night. “Berlin audiences can be the most critical in the world and they never hesitate to let you know if they are displeased,” recalled drummer Alan Dawson in the albums notes. “But they loved Booker and at one point they stated egging him on to keep blowing.” Kenny Drew too thought the solo a major statement, urged on by the crowd.
We hear some of this encouragement certainly, but also (around the twenty-two minutes in) we also hear a voice on-stage – possibly that of compère Goetz Kronburger – actually shout “Stop him! Stop him! Stop him!” And there are as many boos as cheers as the performance finally hits the buffers five or so minutes later.
Many questions remain. Had Ervin actually done himself a disservice with such an extended outing? Was it a good thing to make heroes like Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon wait in the wings? (A three-tenor joust between them broadcast the same night can now be heard on YouTube) Having won his DownBeat gong just before his European self-exile, was Ervin, in fact, seizing this as his chance - at last – to prove his mettle within the big leagues? Is this the sound of a man almost literally fighting his corner? It's now impossible to know for sure, although he really does weigh in like a meaty contender. The only definite thing Blues For You (a title Enja appended the track, taken from Ervin's opening announcement) provides is a durable, highly evocative souvenir of his time as a European expat, an expedition that had so quickly moved from optimism to cold, hard reality. As Mike Hennessey recorded of the saxophonist in January 1965, barely three months into his trip, “he's already discovered that Europe is not quite the musicians' paradise it is sometimes cracked up to be”, an observation supported by his friend Richard Jennings. “That [stay in Europe] had its ups and downs; I don't think he ever got what he was looking for.”
“Plenty of work, but few musical challenges,” is Michael Cuscuna's summary of Ervin's time overseas, but while the saxophonist may not have uncovered what he himself sought, he did leave behind him something extremely valuable – one of the few surviving film clips of him in action, said to have been taped in Belgium around January 1966, in the company of a team of fellow ex-pats, including altoist Pony Poindexter and trumpeter Ted Curson. This line-up plays a succinct version of Milestones – you can find it on YouTube, apparently posted by Ervin's son – in which he takes a typically forthright solo. Filmed up-close, we finally get a chance to see what lay behind the torrential outpourings heard on disc. The result is actually rather disarming. Ervin stands virtually motionless, his mouthpiece buried beneath his extensive moustache, and he plays with an almost nerveless passivity. There are no Coltraneish knee-bends, no Rollinsesque horn waving, just – as Nat Hentoff noted earlier - “the implacable stance of a man for whom taking care of business was first and not second nature.” In fact, the only spectacle is the lack of spectacle, and therein may lay another key to Ervin's failure to gain acknowledgement; by the late 1960s, jazz had entered a period of of overt on-stage emoting – think of Coltrane's agonised expression or those fierce collective improvisations led by a dashiki-clad Archie Shepp (another tenorist Eddie Lockjaw Davis characterised this approach as “a guy in a sheet going rootle-tootle up and down the scale”). Ervin, on the other hand, looks smart and stands solidly – and we all know how infrequently words like smart and solid were used to describe the jazz styles of the time.
CALIFORNIA 1966: “There's a lot of love in the air ...”
“In the summer of 1966, Booker Ervin returned to the United States...because, he says, there are no musical challenges involved in working abroad,” Michael Morgan's notes for the LP The Trance conclude. “One hopes that his talents will be better appreciated by the American public now that he has returned. It's high time that people came out of their trance and got hip to Booker's.”
For a time it looked as if they might. In September, a week after cutting his final album for Prestige, Heavy!!!, a sextet outing including young guns trumpeter Jimmy Owens and trombonist Garnett Brown, Ervin headed to California to play the Monterey Jazz Festival as a guest with Randy Weston's sextet. The gig was recorded and eventually issued by Verve in 1994, bringing to light two of Ervin's most powerful post-European performances, the ballad Portrait of Vivian and a sprawling, fevered 25-minute version of African Cookbook.
It was this latter performance – and its effect on the Monterey crowd in particular - that piqued Richard Bock's interest in Ervin. Bock operated Pacific Jazz, the independent label that had gone on from its initial unexpected success with cool-school discs of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet a decade earlier to encompass a much wider swathe of post-bop jazz, ranging from the organ-soul of Richard 'Groove' Holmes to the nascent funk of The Jazz Crusaders and beyond. Hearing Ervin, Bock thought he'd make a nice addition to the Pacific Jazz roster and so that fall he signed to a deal resulting almost instantly in the album Structurally Sound, a record rarely spoken of as such but arguably one of Ervin's best. Unlike Prestige, Pacific Jazz allowed more studio time – in this instance three days – and, based in Los Angeles, their production values were altogether more glossy and Californian, by this point even favouring gatefold sleeves. Featuring a quintet with trumpeter Charles Tolliver in the front-line – the latest in a series of interestingly non-fashionable names Ervin would chose as his musical partners – Structurally Sound was almost a post-bop catch-all, mixing jazz classics (Oliver Nelson's Stolen Moments, Billy Strayhorn's Take The 'A' Train), original material and choice standards (You're My Everything, Dancing In The Dark), but despite the potency of its improvisational content, the foreshortened nature of the tracks indicated where the label were to push Ervin next. When the album was reissued on CD in 2001, the discovery of a discarded version of White Christmas said it all: Pacific Jazz were really after an airplay hit not a genre-defining album. With commercial forces now leading over artistic desire, the fate of Structurally Sound was typical of that of many fine late-1960s hard bop-and beyond records – good as it was it simply got lost in a market becoming fixated with the latest innovations of Coltrane, Davis and Shepp and co. If anything, its follow-up was an even more spectacular miss-hit.
On paper Booker and Brass looked promising. Taped in New York over three days in September 1967, with the saxophonist fronting an all-brass ensemble featuring Freddie Hubbard, under the direction of another less-than-celebrated tenorman Teddy Edwards, it might have been Ervin's match-up to Coltrane's Africa/Brass or Sonny Rollins Brass/Trio were it not for the A&R decision that the music on offer document a travelogue of the United States. Thus Ervin fought his way – with some success – out of an unlikely repertoire embracing St. Louis Blues, Harlem Nocturne and even I Left My Heart In San Francisco. It spoke volumes for his integrity that he did so with no little style and although some of these covers – Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, in particular – were surprisingly affecting, the albums best shots were Ervin's two originals, East Dallas Special - a shuffling, blues-wail recalling his youth – and LA After Dark, a grooving cooker that if had it appeared a few years earlier might have provided Ervin's Sidewinder moment.
Nevertheless the critics were baffled – where was the edgy, daring saxophonist of The Space Book? Had he now gone forever? “If Ervin and Edwards had been allowed to combine [on more tracks like LA After Dark] something might of happened,” reported Billboard. “As it is, the album is a picture of a man often rising above his material. That says a lot about the size of Ervin's talent.”
For some of his time signed to Pacific Jazz, Ervin had stayed in California. A change of climate couldn't however overcome the chill winds of critical indifference blowing toward his brand of jazz. Los Angeles had never been an especially easy city in which to be a black jazzman and now, with the hippy movement in full swing and with the sounds of soul capturing many young Afro-American fans, he found himself fighting a losing battle. The recollections of one young listener, Dennis Wong, then serving in the Air Force – who caught a gig by Ervin in tandem with fellow Texan tenor Harold Land at this time – could almost serve as a summary of the saxophonist's fortunes at this moment; “me and four other people went to a now defunct jazz club in the Watts area in LA. The jukebox was playing Coltrane's 'Ascension' and we were the only people in the club but these cats really wailed with Booker the stand out. [Afterwards] Booker came over and thanked us for coming, and smiled and said, "There's a lot of love in the air".
Love there may have been, but audience there was not, and by early 1967 Ervin had returned to once more make New York City his permanent home.
NO MISUNDERSTANDING: The final years 1968-1970
Booker Ervin's final years in New York mirror almost exactly those during the time immediately prior to his relocation to Europe. He was back home but nobody much noticed. Indeed, the jazz capital had hardly trumpeted news of his return, although DownBeat did see fit to run a feature on him in its March 7th 1968 issue. From around the middle of the same year, he and his family occupied 204 East 13th Street, the apartment once lived in by Randy Weston, who had then just relocated to Morocco (Ervin commemorated the favour in his theme 204, heard on Tex Book Tenor). The same old worries applied: playing music and keeping a family had never quite added up, but as acoustic bop-derived jazz began to hit a period of doldrums, Ervin found himself playing to a city which didn't seem to know his worth. As Michael Cuscuna has noted he was now “suddenly too modern and sophisticated to play uptown, and too traditional and mainstream to play downtown.” As cute as this assessment sounds, at its heart was a very real truth that Ervin's cross-pollinating musical approach – straddling the border between post-bop ambition and tradition-honouring sensibilities – made him a hard sell. At one level he could still pull a crowd – the newsletter of the Hartford Jazz Society, Connecticut for spring 1967, for example, reported that his gig for them was “the pleasure predicted. He attracted nearly 150 listeners” - but in the Apple things were less enthusiastic. Gary Giddins remembers seeing Ervin play “as a sideman in Ted Curson’s quintet at a little mob-controlled joint in the Lincoln Center district called La Boheme”, still delivering his full-force playing to a small, less than enthralled crowd. Just occasionally, there were bigger gigs - a trip to guest with the Danish Radio Big Band in summer 1968, a further stint at Copenhagen's Montmarte and an appearance with his own quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1967, for which Ervin recruited the young Chick Corea. Despite his own work concerns, Ervin maintained a keen interest in new, younger players, pooling his sidemen from such left-field names as pianist Bobby Few, drummer Lenny McBrowne (a particularly inspiring partner) and now virtually forgotten bassists Jan Arnet (a Czech he'd worked with in Europe) and Cevera Jefferies. And, when the occasions arose to lock horns with another front-liner he'd plump for people like Jimmy Owens, Woody Shaw and Charles Tolliver. On some gigs he even found himself going head-to-head with musicians in whom he had spiritual heirs. Fan Jon King remembers “a session in Queens, hosted by one of the DJ's from WWRL...[at] a nondescript, carpeted basement” in which “Ervin was playing alongside Billy Harper, just arrived in New York from Texas, Junior Cook [and] Steve Grossman. The music was so hot...”
King remembers this gig as taking place around 1969, by which point Ervin's recording career had cooled off almost completely. During the late 1960s, Pacific Jazz was operating under the corporate umbrella of Liberty Records, who'd also purchased Blue Note, and with Ervin now back permanently in New York it was expedient to transfer him to the latter label. The trouble was, by the time Ervin arrived on Blue Note, the demands of Liberty's head office had began to filter down to the shop floor. In fact, the only album Blue Note released of his (it taped a second and gave it a catalogue number but never issued it, the material first surfacing on the double LP Back From The Gig in 1976, then later as a single CD Tex Book Tenor) The In Between, is almost an archetype of the kind of records the label were producing in the final years of the 1960s - the music spirited and committed (indeed, Ervin's playing is, if anything, more together than at any time in his career) and yet missing something – the spark, freshness and imprint-associated “style” of the earlier Blue Notes, the music now smoothed out, more produced and far more generic than of yore. The records title also registers irony on many levels - just as Blue Note was was no longer the house of the cutting edge, Ervin was similarly caught between a rock and a hard place, neither as capricious and unfettered as Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, whose very out-ness actually made them a marketable commodity, nor as inside as veterans like Stitt and Dexter Gordon.
The In Between also showed another, subtle but significant sign of things being somewhat amiss; Ervin had recycled two existing compositions – Mour and Largo, taped earlier for Prestige and Bethlehem respectively – once upon a time an unimaginable sin on a Blue Note date (everyone knows the story of Sonny Stitt's one and only date for the label, ended by producer Alfred Lion storming into the studio as Stitt launched into Bye, Bye Blackbird, shouting in his loaded German accent 'who vants anuzzer version of zat?!). It was, perhaps, a worrying indication that, close to the end, Ervin's well was beginning to run dry.
Between August 1968 and the beginning of January 1969, he made just two more on record appearances as a sideman, on pianist Andrew Hill's Grass Roots, an album which was something of a stylistic volte face for Hill, aiming for the archetypal Blue Note jazz funk hit a la The Sidewinder, and even including Lee Morgan among its cast, and on blind reed sensation Eric Kloss's In The Land of Giants, his last known recording, reuniting him with both Prestige and the Byard/Davis/Dawson line-up that had earlier made the classic 'Book' series. There was tragic irony in Ervin's discography petering out at this point, the only real juncture in his career where there could have been said to be a genuine “gap in the market” into which he'd fit. Coltrane was now gone, Sonny Rollins was once more in retirement, Stan Getz had emigrated and Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin had yet to make a permanent return to the USA – Ervin may not have be a true contender for the crowns of these men, but he undoubtedly remained a worthy prince.
The only thing these final years really provided in Ervin's favour was a fairer, more rounded critical assessment of his own voice, typified by Ed Williams' notes to The In Between; “He's natural and he's honest,” wrote Williams. “If we accept him on those term there can be no misunderstanding.” Others agreed. In October 1969, Ervin was subject of a short study in the British music weekly Melody Maker, written by Alan Twelftree, who was quick to praise two of the tenorists greatest attributes – his connection to the “tradition” (“He is old enough to remember the way the others sounded when they all wore hats”) and his on-record reliability (“in the very best way...a very rare and enviable quality”). The article also spoke of Ervin's next possible step, with Twelftree thinking him “young enough to have evolved a style which should remain valid for a long time to come.”
Free from the over-cooked expectations of earlier writers like Ira Gitler and Michael Morgan, would the 1970s be the decade in which Booker Ervin might finally step onto the pantheon?
Alas, it was not to be.
Ervin's playing on these last dates is as it always had been – strong, hard-boiled, brimming with energy - and it provides no evidence whatsoever of his fast failing health. And yet, throughout this time, cancer was eating away at one of his kidneys. If there were no clues to this in his playing, there had been perhaps been other warning signs; Ervin's weight had fluctuated during the 1960s – a classic sign of the disease. Just look at the slim young man you see in those photos from the sessions for Charles Mingus' Ah Um album in 1959 and compare him to the bulky, bloated figure one sees on the inset to Booker and Brass.
There was little that could be done. Admitted to New York's Bellevue Hospital during summer 1970, he was operated on to remove a kidney but never fully recovered, passing away on Monday August 31st, exactly two months shy of his fortieth birthday.
Ervin's funeral took place at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York, his eulogy delivered by The Reverend John G. Gensel, a pastor who worked closely with the city's jazz community and of whom Max Roach said “[he was] our spiritual guru, our psychiatrist.” As such, Gensel knew that any funeral for a jazzman was as much a celebration of his work as a formal closing of his life, even more so with those who, like Ervin, had never really got the breaks. Regardless of whatever ranking critics may have held him in, Ervin's fellow musicians knew him for what he was – a strongly individual performer, fiercely committed to the cause of jazz who had delivered a powerful message on the New York scene for a dozen years. He was part of their village, their tribe, their kith and kin. And, should the measure of Ervin's talent still have remained in doubt, there was no better confirmation of its true level than to look at the list of those who attended who lined St. Peters that day, many far better-know, far more influential, and far better documented than the man to whom they'd come to offer their respects, among them Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, Don Byas, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Ernie Wilkins, Joe Newman, Cecil Payne and Jaki Byard.
Ervin's death made the New York Times and DownBeat. It also prompted two especially thoughtful pieces in the English jazz press, one a remembrance of the saxophonist by his close friend and colleague, Alan Dawson, published in Jazz Journal in November 1970, the other by Richard Williams in Melody Maker, drawing in a series of tributes from leading British jazzmen. Dawson's memories mixed the personal (Ervin's love of the drummers children, his driving to Grand Central Station to personally collect Dawson for the Freedom Book session) and the professional (the saxist's attitude to recording, his dedication to musical spontaneity) while Williams' article contained a well-balanced and refreshingly free-thinking evaluation of Ervin's role within the wider jazz world. Summing up, Williams called him, quite rightly, “a force of nature...the stuff of which jazz is made.”
Besides the fact that Ervin had died right at the very moment when he could have filled the gaps left by the absent Gordon's and Griffin's of the world, his passing contained another deep irony, one which went unrecorded at the time: he had survived Denison's other famous son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, by eighteen or so months, Ike passing away in March 1969. The two men's lives couldn't have been more different - Eisenhower had died at 78, after a career which had seen him reach the highest office, that of President of the United States. Ervin had been moved on from Denison inspired by another kind of president – Lester Young – but had ultimately failed to gain a seat at the top table, dying not yet 40. Other than through an accident of birth the two men's lives did not intertwine – although, like Ervin's employer Charles Mingus, Ike had also once faced down Orval Faubus – but, if it's at all permissible to twist words from one context to another, Eisenhower did once utter a pithy statement that could serve just as well for those who fail to realise Booker Ervin's worth as it did for the students at Dartmouth College to whom it was addressed in 1953; “Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”
COMPLETELY HIMSELF – appendix to The Book
So who's fault was is it that Booker Ervin never reached the top of his tree - the critics, the record labels, the club owners of America, other musicians? And who's to blame for his name being, if not exactly burned from the history books, then at the very least scorched around the edges? The answers, of course, can't be pinned incontestably on any one individual or attributed to some sort of critic-led conspiracy. It lies simply in the fact that Ervin was born at exactly the same time as a hell of a lot of other marvellous jazz tenor players and that's that – nothing more, nothing less. He simply got lost in the shuffle of talent the like of which the jazz world will probably never see again. Those in that pack who pushed furthest ahead – the Coltrane's, Mingus's and Ornette Coleman's – understandably got the best press, those like Ervin - whose music wasn't nearly so controversial - simply weren't shiny and new enough to catch the child-like attention of much of the days jazz press and record industry. Ervin was by no means unique in this. Indeed, like all but a few jazz musicians, he left no real legacy outside of his recordings and the impression he personally made upon those who knew him or heard him live, a list that, as the years pass, grows ever shorter. No-one now would dare make the claims some writers made for him during the 1960s – especially those who placed him on a par with Coltrane or Rollins. These arguments haven't worn well, nor should they. In fact, without the need for contemporary sycophancy, we now see Ervin as he must rightfully be seen – as he should always have been seen – as one part of the vast, exciting, individual-filled jazz scene of the 1960s, a single player in a huge game of musical excellence, capable of moments of true brilliance, shouting out with a voice like no other. Without doubt, the thing he possessed in spades right from the very first notes heard on-record was a sound, one so unmistakably his that in the long-game it actually played to his favour, although he himself never lived long enough to learn it. Unlike Coltrane, Charlie Parker or even his first musical hero Lester Young, Ervin's sound never found a successful imitator – it is still too personal, too much a part of him, too hard to truly define that it simply can't be served in pastiche or, when all was said and done, really codified. Apart from all the purple prose about its heat, urgency and drive, people still don't talk much about Ervin in definable, harmonic terms. In fact, as we've seen, if those writers who praised him during the 1960s had taken him under a microscope they'd have seen more blues-based fervour than harmonic filigree – and this, in these days of worldwide jazz education, perhaps the only real way in which jazz styles can now be passed on, is certainly unteachable. To Booker Ervin sound – that “real hard, loud tenor sound” - was everything.
No, Ervin's lot wasn't ever that of the innovator – nor was it either that of an anonymous musical footsoldier, a studio hack or an also ran. He remains forever somewhere in between. In fact, there is no better summary of his career than that found in one review of The Space Book, by English writer Mark Gardner who wrote how Ervin “hovered on the brink of greatness for a number of years.” Gardner penned those words in 1968, and knowing now what we do about how little time Ervin had left at this point, this assessment takes on a new meaning. Ervin never did achieve “greatness” in quite the way Gardner and others would have liked to have seen – instead, even today, he hovers like a satellite, close to the orbit of jazz innovation, in particular through his work with Charles Mingus, but never quite at the centre of things; an out-there talent still.
Who best to sum up Ervin's appeal and legacy then? First, Gary Giddins, the respected author and hugely panoramic jazz observer who has always had a knack for getting to the essence of those he appraises. What does he think made Ervin notable? “You know it's him after two notes” he says. “There is no more distinctive player than Booker Ervin. I wouldn't say he is more distinctive than Coltrane or Rollins...nor would I say that he is a great as them, and I wouldn't say that in his overall conception he is an original, and yet he is completely himself.” Another long-term fan, Michael Cuscuna delivered a useful overview of Ervin's place within a wider context in 2005, calling him “one of those immensely creative people who did not hold a proper official place in the evolution of jazz and did not have a whole school of followers or imitators...there was only one Booker Ervin, and there'll never be another.”
It's a recurring theme - that of identity - and one that begs the question, if one listens to jazz to hear how each musician in turn expresses the music, then if someone is “completely himself” then he maybe he does have all the hallmarks of true greatness, the only greatness that, when all's said and done, really matters in jazz – that you're great at being yourself. Ervin can certainly be said to have achieved that.
Ultimately, that's all that matters to us now; that Ervin existed and set down music that can still intrigue, enchant and entertain us on its own terms. If it offers a connective thread to the broader fabric of the times in which it was made, then that's all well and good, and if in it we can hear how Ervin's voice fitted within the jazz tenor jigsaw that surrounded him then it's provided some stylistic and chronological enlightenment too. We should also take with us that he was one of jazz's great many taken-too-soon casualties – not hugely eulogised like a Coltrane or a Parker, but missed all the same. He was a committed musician, for sure, but he was, as we've seen in the recollections of Alan Dawson, Richard Jennings and others, an equally committed family man. Let's not forget that he was a young father he died, leaving a young wife and two small children, who would never grow up to witness a further expansion (much less further recognition) of his talent.
I have no idea of the whereabouts of Jane Ervin, or even if she is still living, and have been unable to trace Booker's daughter Lynn, but his son is out there, leaving an online footprint of a military, aeronautical and aerospace industry-based career which has taken him across the US in much the same way that his father once journeyed as a touring musician. I have no idea if Booker Telleferro Ervin III will ever read these words, but if he does then perhaps I can speak for the many of us who believe his father was a musician of extraordinary personality, and who continue to find something enchanting in his bluff, “this is me” performances. The heat of his playing may have failed to melt New York's impasse of critical indifference, but it retains is warmth and power to move us, right here, right now.
By all accounts, Booker Ervin II was a warm man himself, softly spoken and gentle, who seemed to be able to express himself verbally with the same sort of no-nonsense candour that characterises his playing. The last word must surely therefore go to Booker himself. “There's nothing on earth I like better than playing music,” he once said.
When a man expresses himself with such commendable focus then the very least he deserves in our total, rapt attention in return.”