© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Simon Spillett wrote the following essay 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.
BOSTON 1954 - “a thin edge on an already sharp ear”
Upon his release from the services, Ervin returned initially to Texas, working a number of non-musical jobs in order to save money to enroll in the Schillinger School of Music in Boston. According to one writer, accruing these funds took a three months, and, as Ervin told Ira Gitler, he finally made it to Boston in 1954, planning to complete what was then a four-year course of musical education.
Founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk, the Schillinger School of Music had the distinction of being the first school in the USA to teach jazz formally, regarding the music with the respect so many other educational establishments failed to accord it.
Around the time of Ervin's stay the schools name changed officially to that of Berklee, since going on to become a mainstay of jazz education, its list of graduates forming a hugely impressive list of globally celebrated jazzmen ranging from Gary Burton to Branford Marsalis. Ervin's name would have been added to that list save for the fact that around a year into the course ill-health forced him to abandon his studies. This is the first mention of an unspecified “nervous trouble” which several later observers would pick up on. Writing in 1964, David Himmelstein noted that Ervin's career, even then, remained dotted with “bouts of illness” and that these “recurrent indispositions appear the more paradoxical” due to the apparent strength of the tenorists frame.
Despite this set-back, Ervin's brief time at Schillinger/Berklee did prove fruitful. For one thing, he studied the saxophone under the legendary Joe Viola, a formidable technician whose name is an integral part of the Berklee legend. “I've always tried to equip my students to play all kinds of music,” Viola once said, and in Ervin he had a willing pupil, one who quickly added the clarinet to his armoury under his tutelage. Viola also taught harmony and provided ear-training for his young charges, this “solfeggio training”, according to Tom Wilson, “put[ting] a hair-thin edge on an already sharp ear.”
As well as the formal instruction provided by the Schillinger School, Ervin keenly soaked up Boston's vibrant jazz scene, and in various informal sit-ins in the city's many nightspots already showed himself capable of grabbing the most alert of ears, including those of two musicians who would become his closest artistic collaborators in the year ahead, drummer Alan Dawson and pianist Jaki Byard. Having just returned from a European tour with the band of Lionel Hampton, the former shared a stage with Ervin at Boston's South End, declaring himself “knocked out by his sound” while Byard remembered hearing the young saxophonist “jamming at a place called The Rainbow, and even though he was clearly based in the approach of the time – Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons – he already had his own style.”
Byard's recollections of a Gordon influence were absolutely correct, according to comments Ervin gave to two writers in the 1960s. “I like Dexter Gordon – he has my favourite sound,” he told Leonard Feather in DownBeat in 1967, “[a] real hard, loud tenor sound. The Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins sound. My influences were Dexter and Sonny Stitt when I was coming up.” The latter in particular threw down a very real instrumental challenge.“[When] Stitt came on the scene...his fabulous technique really excited me,” Ervin revealed to Tom Wilson in 1960, declaring that, like Stitt, he too had “loved to play fast things on the horn since I first begun running scales.”
But it was not to be technical expositions for which Ervin would become noteworthy. It was his faith in a “real hard, loud tenor sound” that was to be the making of him. Even as early as 1954, observers like Alan Dawson heard something especially affecting in Ervin's tone, recognising him as the latest branch of an already deeply rooted stylistic tree.
“He really had that Texas Tenor sound,” remembered Dawson in 1977. “When I was coming up we used to say that all the tenor players from Texas got a big sound by standing in those wide-open spaces blowing down cactus. And you know, we weren't completely joking – all Texas tenormen had such a big sound we were convinced that the halls and clubs down in Texas must have been bigger than average, and that all those guys learned to fill up that space.”
The Texas Tenor tradition is rather more complicated than its localised name implies, and Ervin's connection with it, although a birthright coming from Denison, is not always as straightforward as critics allow. Michael Cuscuna, writing in one sleeve note for an Ervin album, described the approach thus; “The tone is strong, clean, and biting, almost to the point of over-blowing. The playing is passionate almost to the point of frenzy, but always vulnerable to the degree that a half-bent note can break your heart. The improvisations are crystalline and precise.” It was Cannonball Adderley, however, who perhaps best summed up the most basic component of the style – vocalisation - when he described it as “a moan within the tone”. Indeed, the biggest and most easily-recognisable aspect of Texas-style tenor is that it is heavily infused with the blues, whatever the tempo, as can be expected given the geographical location of Texas itself. The 1940s were the peak years for the style, as it crossed over into jump music and rhythm and blues and thus formed the language of many rock and roll tenormen of the immediate future.
A litany of those who fall into the Texas tenor category by birth location alone makes for interesting reading – Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, Tex Beneke, Arnett Cobb, Harold Land, James Clay, David 'Fathead' Newman, King Curtis, Don Wilkerson, Wilton Felder, Dewey Redman and Billy Harper are all members of this club, coming from different musical generations but each having something of the grit of the style within their wildly differing approaches. These characteristics are by no means exclusively favoured by those hailing from the lone star state; as Ed Michel pointed out in a masterful booklet note to a Coleman Hawkins album (Blues Wail: Coleman Hawkins Plays The Blues, Prestige, 1996), this style had exponents – and those drawing loosely on its methods - from all over the US, including men born in West Virginia (Chu Berry), Louisiana (Illinois Jacquet) and Kansas City (Ben Webster). If one also forgets the qualifications of age, race and national boundaries, then Texas Tenor has had its share of non-Afro-American, non-generational, and even non-US representatives too - think of Scott Hamilton (born Rhode Island, 1954) or Danny Moss (born Surrey, England 1927) or Jesper Thilo (born Copenhagen, Denmark 1941).
There is also a strong argument supporting the notion that musicians on all instruments hailing from Texas have something of this vocalised, down-home blues feel within their music – one could name Herb Ellis, Kenny Dorham, Eddie Vinson, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Christian, Jack Teagarden and Ornette Coleman as especially noteworthy examples of this, regardless of their particular “school” of jazz.
Booker Ervin most definitely had it – a sound which, as no shortage of jazz writers reiterated throughout his career, was shot-through with blues-forged quality, but which simultaneously also suggested something far more adventurous. And, although certain aspects of his technical command may have been tidied through his short time in Boston, it was to an on-the-road apprenticeship both back in his native Texas and further afield that was to fully form his musical voice.
THE ROAD 1954-58 - “Five dollars a night...”
Booker Ervin's musical movements in the years prior to his arrival in New York in spring 1958 are, like much of his early life, somewhat ill-defined. The majority of biographers agree as to where and with whom Ervin spent this, the most formative period of his musical journey but, once more, much of the information seems out of focus, covered with sweeping glosses like this from David Himmelstein; “between 1955 and 1957 Booker roamed the mid- south and far-west (as far as Oregon) working in jazz when he could and out of it when he had to.” (Exultation, Prestige, 1963)
Ervin himself wasn't much more illuminating. In one mid-1960s interview, given whilst based in Paris, he told a journalist that upon his return to Texas from Boston he had played “a few local gigs for five dollars a night”, hardly enough to sustain him as a professional performer. Biographers can't even seem to agree on exactly when he joined his first regular road band proper, that of Ernie Fields – some citing the year 1954, others 1955 or 1956 - or indeed how long his stay with this outfit lasted. What is clear is the impact that this stay with Fields had upon him.
Working out of Tulsa, Ernest Lawrence Fields was already a local sensation, a trombonist, pianist and arranger whose ten-piece band straddled the worlds of Rhythm and Blues, big band swing and popular entertainment to such good effect that its reputation travelled far and wide. This idiomatic mix was typical of many Afro-American outfits working the US dance circuit of the day, and although he would have to wait until the late 1950s to receive wider success as a recording artist, Fields' road bands played hard and often. It was a healthy apprenticeship for a young musician, one which prior to Ervin's recruitment had also groomed future Count Basie trombonist Benny Powell for the big leagues. Intriguingly, it also appears to be the nearest Ervin ever got to being in a big band, up to this point the traditional proving ground for most jazz saxophonists. Like Sonny Rollins, born a month earlier, he simply had no enthusiasm for such a task, as he told David A. Himmelstein. “I never cared to play with a big band. It's more secure [financially] I guess, but it restricts your freedom. You can't play the way you really want to, you know?”
Not that Fields outfit was a cutting-edge jazz one. As well as blues playing there was dues-paying too, the band playing sequences of dance dates that frequently involving lengthy travel; we know that during Ervin's time with Fields – accounts vary as to whether it was a year or two - the unit travelled extensively, according to Michael Cuscuna taking in stopovers in Mexico and Canada as well as the usual circuit of mid-, south- and south-western halls. It was a nightly education. Interviewed by Tom Wilson, Ervin was said to have “learned a lot about swinging from playing with the band's 'back-beat' rhythm section;” “The basic feeling,” he recalled, “you could say primitive feeling of this band, with the drummer 'chopping wood' all night long, gave you a big feeling of power; you wanted to just open up and wail.”
As well as this feeling of musical emancipation, the tenure with Fields also gave Ervin his first experience of recording, the band waxing two 78rpm sides in Los Angeles at an unspecified date around 1955 – Long, Long Highway b/w Skyway – which may have been issued on the Combo 77 label – and Daddy How Long and T-Town Mambo, the latter coupling appearing to have only received its first issue much later on the English Ace label. Intriguingly, the personnel listed for these sessions (an incomplete discography of Ervin's work was compiled by George Wattieau and published by Micography in 1987) also lists him as playing baritone saxophone. Unlike many tenorists of his generation, Ervin employed no other instruments in a jazz soloing context – there was no post-Coltrane soprano forays, for example – and his use of flute (which one annotator, Diane Dorr-Dorynek, lists as an addition to his instrumental armoury from around this point) was apparently limited, on record at least, to a brief and rather impressionistic group improvisation on The Muse, recorded in 1968. In a band as small as Fields', - just nine men and a girl vocalist - the baritone was probably a double used out of necessity rather than desire.
Ervin's time as a permanent sideman with Fields may well have been over by 1955. We know that that year he lived and worked in Dallas – declaring himself tremendously impressed by local alto saxophonist Buster Smith – known as Professor Smith owing to his huge technical command of his horn, and said to have been a key inspiration to the young Charlie Parker. Ervin remained in Dallas for at least three months, during which he and another young Texan tenorist James Clay, who like himself would soon mix R&B-derived directness with an appetite for post-bop, appeared together at the city's Harmony Lounge. This period also found Ervin venturing north to play a season in Chicago in the blues band of guitarist Lowell Fulson (one writer places this engagement prior to the Harmony Inn residency). A return to Dallas was less successful though, and, according to Tom Wilson “work ran out [so] he set out for Portland, Oregon on a Greyhound [bus]” sometime around 1956. But “like the man who came to dinner,” wrote Wilson, “he stopped to spend 'just one night' with a buddy in Denver and stayed for 18 months.”
As we've seen, Ervin's career was already full of such geographical quirks of fate – and there were yet more to come – but in some senses this stop in Colorado provides one of the most illuminating chapters of his early life, revealing something of his sensitivity, and, quite possibly, more evidence of the “nervous trouble” that had already afflicted him while in Boston.
Initially, Ervin worked local jobs in and around the Denver itself – including the Piano Lounge and as part of the house combo at Sonny's Lounge, one of these with a sadly unidentified band, remembering it “my first chance to really start playing changes because the guitar player on the gig could really play all the modern originals.” The thorny subject of Ervin's “playing changes” will surface again later, but, with hindsight and maybe a little romantic license it's not impossible to see a connection between this experience and what happened next. During this period in Denver, Ervin decided to abandon music – and his beloved tenor saxophone – altogether. “He didn't feel secure about a career in music,” reported Ira Gitler later, but this, it seems, might only have been part of the problem. Interviewed in 1965, the saxophonist remembered “I got disgusted with my playing. So I gave it up and studied for a year to be a mechanical draughtsman.”
“I got pretty good at it,” he told Nat Hentoff in 1961. Quite how good Ervin is hard to gauge, although one friend recalled in 2007 how “he built some things around the house, like those large chests you could sit on, and some other things as well. He never talked about trying to do that for a living, because his love was in music, but I think he could.”
Self-disgust is an emotion neither alien nor unexpected for a musician, especially a young one who has yet to truly make his mark, and like many a jazzman before and since Ervin plugged the gap left by his lack of performing with other jobs, giving him time to rethink his future, including a stint working for the US postal service. “For three months I carried mail and fought off small dogs”, he recalled with amusement in 1965.
However, it was music – and not a over-reactive canine – that still had the firmest grip on him and at the end of 1957, after a year and a half in Denver, he resumed playing. Not quite yet ready for the demands of New York City, he decided to try his luck in Pittsburgh. Travelling to the city with a drummer friend who'd been stationed in Denver, upon arrival his high hopes were again dashed. Union regulations prevented him from working the city with any regularity, playing “one week of the six months he was there,” according to Ira Gitler. The stay wasn't an entire wash-out though – Ervin kept pace with the work of the most prominent tenor saxophonists on-record – in particular Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane – and established a deep musical kinship with a promising pianist a few months his junior, Horace Parlan, then a mainstay in the city's club scene and a performer who'd overcome the childhood onset of polio – which had partially crippled his right hand – to forge a powerful, gospel-fuelled approach (as with Ervin, Parlan had church connections; his father had been a preacher). The two men liked each other instantly, Parlan remembering Ervin as “a very warm, passionate human being...[leaving] a very powerful impression on me, so powerful, in fact, that I always...wanted to be associated with him from a musical standpoint.”
The pianists musical connections were many, having accompanied various visiting soloists as they passed through Pittsburgh, including one memorable jam around late 1956 with bassist Charles Mingus. Although the pickings in Pittsburgh were good, especially for as sympathetic accompanist as Parlan, he knew full well that sooner or later he'd have to try his luck in New York, which he duly did in October 1957, leaving for the Big Apple soon after Ervin arrived in Smoky City. By a sheer fluke, he found himself checking into the Alvin Hotel just as Charles Mingus was passing, a chance reunion that led to an immediate offer to join the bassists working band. Within a short while Parlan had cabled his friend Ervin, letting him know that should he want to follow suit, he'd do all he could to provide the right introductions.
Thus, in May 1958, Booker Telleferro Ervin II made the 370 mile-plus journey from Pittsburgh to the destination he'd for so long dreamed of - New York. He was twenty-seven years old and already had half a dozen years of heavy musical dues paying - as well as many dispiriting episodes of self-doubt and disillusionment - behind him. There was nothing concrete waiting for him, save for his knowing Parlan, and he was well aware that the Apple had more than its share of big-hitting young saxophone pretenders. But, steeling himself as never before, he knew that, after Denison, Okinawa, Denver and the rest, “there was no place to go but New York.”
MINGUS 1958-61 - “A strict leader, a perfectionist...”
No only did Ervin have no immediate musical employment upon arriving in New York, he also had no place to stay. Horace Parlan was ensconced in a full-to-bursting apartment already shared by two other hungry young musicians – trumpeter Don Ellis and fellow pianist Cedar Walton – and so Ervin had no other option than to check in at a Y.M.C.A. As far as gigs went, for the time being he would have to honour the traditional rite of passage of playing as many jam sessions as possible, hoping that some sort or work would emerge from yet more dues paying. But, as if the trip east had suddenly revived his fortunes, within weeks he had caught the ear of another of the city's young saxists – Shafi Hadi (originally Curtis Porter), then also working with Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop group. Around a year older than Ervin, Hadi had served a similar R&B apprenticeship, and was already garnering notices for his vocal, emotionally charged playing, getting the nod not just from his boss but also from New York's great cult-tenorist Hank Mobley. And, again like Ervin, Hadi's first hero was Dexter Gordon, whose impact he likened to “being shot with a pistol and I've still got the wound.” Hearing Ervin, Hadi had encountered a similar feeling. Horace Parlan was already pulling Charles Mingus' coat-tails about his Pittsburgh friend but Hadi went one further, famously telling the bassist “I just heard a tenor who cuts just about everybody. He doesn't play changes; he plays music.”
Once again, the careful observation that Ervin wasn't a changes-playing bopper per se is telling; Hadi knew Mingus and he knew the bassist's insistence on emotional content above the casting about of fashionable licks. Soon after this jam session, Parlan introduced Ervin to Mingus, who hired him to fill in the last two days of an engagement at the Half Note in Manhattan, as a replacement for the departing trombonist Jimmy Knepper. Immediately, the saxophonist fit the bassists concept like a glove, and yet, having found what he realised could well be his true musical niche – finally! – fate stepped in to play yet another cruel blow. Mingus' next regular engagement – at the Jazz Gallery – didn't start until November, and although he had promised to call Ervin in as a permanent member of his unit when the gig began, for the saxophonist there was a suddenly another trying period of musical inactivity to endure. It was like Pittsburgh all over again. Sitting out the summer, he worked in the kitchens of a Horn and Hardart branch, as he told journalist Mike Hennessey, “washing dishes for 33 dollars a week.”
Booker Ervin's two year stay as a regular member of Charles Mingus' shifting Jazz Workshop line-up – roughly from the end of 1958 to around mid-1961 - is among the best-documented (on record) and best-covered (biographically) periods of his life. Indeed, his work and relationship with Mingus – one of the most demanding of all post-bop bandleaders, and a composer with gifts rivalling those of Duke Ellington – is almost so well known as to require only the briefest of outlines here. Given both men's powerful attachment to the blues (in all it varied forms), it was small wonder that, in the words of David A. Himmelstein, “the union was inevitable”.
Although Ervin and Mingus would work together both on recordings and live dates up to around mid-1964, it was this initial concentrated period of partnership that yielded their most memorable collaborations, as detailed succinctly by Michael Cuscuna in 1976; “Mingus' music...could not have been a better starting point for Booker's introduction to the top jazz ranks [being] drenched in the blues and unabashedly expressive cries of frenzy to sensual lyricism. Ervin's voice had found its ideal setting. He was making his own startling statement and contributing the groups music as a whole. The strong, impassioned Texas sound turned 'Better Git It In Your Soul', 'Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting' and 'Tensions' from [their recordings together] into the highest, sanctified experience. The saxophonist's power on 'Fables of Faubus' [dedicated to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, central to the infamous Little Rock race scandal] is as frightening as the man about whom the piece is written.”
But there was much more to Mingus' relationship with Ervin that using him as a conduit for socio-political rage. The most contrary and yet easily hurt of men, well known for his unpredictable and sometimes brutal handling of those he employed, Mingus liked Ervin - a lot - a feeling that was mutual. For the bassist it was Ervin's musical candour that counted first, as he told Nat Hentoff in 1961; “Booker means a lot to me. I prefer that musician-composers like Lester, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Booker to the guys who race through changes and scale exercises...Booker is more of my school, I think. I mean, he goes for himself.”
Mingus also praised Ervin's 100% commitment on the bandstand; “nearly everybody I've worked with whom I've liked seems to get into a trance when they're [playing] at their best. I remember when Booker was really going, I'd say something to him, and he just didn't hear me. He was somewhere else – inside the music.” And once inside, despite his leaders' somewhat despotic reputation for seeking and idealistic, unattainable artistic vision, Ervin found Mingus's music had plenty of scope for personal exploration. Between 1958 and 1963, he appeared on around a dozen Mingus albums, all of them classics, including Jazz Portraits: Mingus In Wonderland (United Artists); Mingus Ah Um; Mingus Dynasty (both Columbia); Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah (Atlantic); Reincarnation of A Love Bird (Candid) and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse), each an essential illustration of how the leader would re-tool his compositions to suit the player involved, creating vast, multi-layered, soundscapes that support the Ellington-comparison at every turn, such are their masterly qualities.
For Ervin, the experience with Mingus was like entering the most demanding finishing school, one that required not only the learning of technical etiquette but also total emotional sacrifice. “Being with Mingus was very important to me,” he said in 1961. “I became aware of harmonic possibilities that I'd never heard of before, having to play his charts freed me imaginatively and technically. I became much more flexible all over the horn.” He also characterised Mingus, with barely concealed euphemism, as “a strict leader, a perfectionist”.
If Mingus's music made Ervin aware of broader possibilities within jazz, his stay with the bassists' band likewise alerted the wider jazz world to a powerful new saxophone voice.
Indeed, it was at this juncture that he began to receive at first national and then international notice. Among the first of the prominent jazz critics of the day to pick up on his playing was Nat Hentoff, frequent contributor to DownBeat magazine and the author of one of the best ever sleeve notes written about Ervin, that for That's It! (1961) in which he remembered – with forgivable theatrics and charmingly time-locked period references – his initial encounter with the young tenorist, which took place in New York “at the beginning of 1959”;
“I felt as if I had been hit by a blast of heat. Unmasked, uninhibited, boiling honest emotions exploded from his horn. He played, moreover, with a huge tone and a beat that might have even moved Barry Goldwater into this century. His ideas were fiercely his own and yet he understood Mingus' road and had no trouble committing himself to that challenging journey without losing his own strong sense of self-identification.”
The general tenor of Hentoff's words were to be echoed in virtually every other sleeve note penned for Ervin's album; in fact, they serve almost as a cut-out-and-keep guide for writers wanting to sum up his style as it stood at the dawn of the 1960s. Moreover, Hentoff had noted that even Ervin's appearance suggested a thinly veiled ferocity. Peering out from heavy-rimmed spectacles was “a broad, muscular man with a moustache that would have won respect from a Mexican revolutionary and the implacable stance of a man for whom taking care of business was first and not second nature.” (Another writer once compared his look to that of a “Tartar chieftain”)
Others tried to approach Ervin with a far cooler head, including Leonard Feather, who in another 1961 sleeve note, sought to defend the tenorist from accusations that he was just another tenorist in the fashionably aggressive, Coltrane-mode: “'Basically he comes out of two major traditions, Bird and Prez. The melodic continuity of his work is as important as his keen rhythmic sense. You always know where he stands in relation to the beat; this is a characteristic sometimes lacking in new saxophonists who reach so far for complex harmonic effects that the end result fails to swing.” (Feather's words chimed with those of Charles Mingus, who had declared of Ervin unequivocally the previous year, “he swings – he always has a definite swing whether he is playing on or behind the beat.”)
As outdated as the word 'swing' may have then seemed – and in Mingus' music soloists often drove or wailed rather than grooved – it was a quality that then still had significant currency in New York jazz circles. The rise of the avant-garde – the caprices of which were felt directly when Mingus hired multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy to partner Ervin in 1960 – may well have been the big news story on the day, but for a player like Ervin, well versed in all the jazz traditions of the era, the early 1960s offered plenty of opportunity to explore a far wider scope, from the roots to the outer reaches. In fact, if one looks at his albums (and those led by leaders other than Mingus on which he appears as a sideman) one finds a glorious mix of the musics then-current preoccupations: Hard Bop, Soul Jazz, Modes, Third Stream and a certain nascent freedom, all of which he could tackle with palpable élan. He also scores the distinction of featuring – either as sideman or leader - on albums on virtually all of the important jazz labels of the day (bar Riverside and Contemporary) - Prestige, New Jazz, Blue Note, Impulse, Candid, Pacific Jazz, Savoy, Atlantic, Columbia and RCA-Victor.
To be continued in Part 3.