Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Booker Ervin - The Good Book by Simon Spillett Parts 1-4 Complete

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 The following appeared in the blog as four, separate feature features in May/June, 2018. It's a lot of research to digest in one sitting, let alone to format all at once from manuscript to blogging platform, so it was easier to do it this way initially.

I spoke with Simon about combining all four parts in one piece for ease of access and location, and he agreed so here it is in one posting.

Part 1: BOOKER ERVIN – THE GOOD BOOK, by Simon Spillett



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:



BOOKER T
ERVIN


TEXAS


A3C


824 MTR VEH SQ


AF


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.

Part 2: BOOKER ERVIN – THE GOOD BOOK, by Simon Spillett

© -  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.


Part 3: BOOKER ERVIN – THE GOOD BOOK, by Simon Spillett

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Simon Spillett prepared this piece 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.

NEW YORK - “Man, you better be good...”

“Booker Ervin liked New York. He liked its performance opportunities and its vibrancy. He liked its disparate cast of musical characters and its many clubs. Above all, he liked its air of positive musical stimulation. And in 1958, the city was alive with the toughest of competition for a young player wishing to make his way up the ladder of notability.

Stop for a moment to consider what was going down tenor saxophone-wise in the city during the year he arrived. Sonny Rollins was then at the height of his pre-Bridge phase, without doubt the most influential tenor of the day, riding the crest of a series of high-profile poll wins and releasing one classic album after another. To some listening at this point though, Rollins now had a serious contender in John Coltrane, then still a sideman with Miles Davis' group, but in possession of one of the most sophisticated harmonic minds within the music, seeking new ways to drive the music forward toward the 1960s.

The Hard Bop tree continued to bear fruit too; Hank Mobley, its sturdy trunk, was a key influence on a raft of younger players, enraptured by his subtle mix of lyricism and rhythmic brinkmanship, including Junior Cook, Tina Brooks and George Coleman. Other styles flourished too. Tenor twins Al Cohn and Zoot Sims represented the best of the city's swing-to-bop. Then there were the founding fathers – Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – both then addicted to a jazz-lore lifestyle that would end their days far too soon, but still capable of sounding as modern as tomorrow. To stand out among these men, Ervin knew that not only did a young player have to have something to say, he had to be damn good at saying it. “You just have to be good,” he said of New York's pressures in one interview. “It's not a question of whether you want to. Man, you better be good – else you don't work.”

And for Ervin being “good” meant that within a few months of hitting New York, other leaders besides Charles Mingus were also helping ink in his diary. In August 1959 he appeared at the city's Randall's Island Jazz Festival with pianist John Bunch and in December of that year he was part of a quartet led by another pianist – Roland Hanna – that worked a stint at the legendary Five Spot café. Occasionally, he travelled much further afield (a 1962 USO-organised trip to Greenland, for example) but for the most part, Ervin was a firmly East Coast jazzman, often leading his own groups, but occasionally playing the part of hired gun. During the early 1960s there were scattered club dates and recordings with organist Don Patterson, vibraphonist Teddy Charles (partnering Ervin with jazz's other great Booker – trumpeter Booker Little), vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan and drummer Roy Haynes. But it was to be pianists, it appears, who had the softest spot for Ervin, most notably Randy Weston, a musician whose adventurous compositions had a strong African bent, who he began an association with around 1960, and with whom he would travel to Lagos for Nigeria's Performing Arts Festival in 1961.

Talking to Rashidah E. McNeil in 1993, Weston helped unlock part of the mystery of Ervin's failure to reach higher into the jazz firmament; “He was very sensitive, very quiet - not the sort of guy to push himself or talk about himself. You know what happens with Black artists - they [the music business] can never let too many come out at the same time. There was a big emphasis on Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. And everybody was into Coltrane but meanwhile Booker Ervin was kind of left out.”

Left out by others that was; the saxophonist was an integral part of Weston's musical vision, and, like Mingus, he wrote some of his compositions with Ervin firmly in mind. “African Cookbook, which I composed back in the early 60's, was partly named after Booker because we [musicians] used to call him 'Book,' and we would say, 'Cook, Book.' Sometimes when he was playing we'd shout, 'Cook, Book, cook.' And the melody of African Cookbook was based upon Booker Ervin's sound, a sound like the north of Africa. He would kind of take those notes and make them weave hypnotically.” In fact, so definitively was Ervin able to cast his spell on Weston's music that several of the pianists compositions quickly became sacrosanct property. “The song I wrote for my mother, Portrait of Vivian,”  Weston maintained, “only [Ervin] could play it; nobody else could play that song.”

Weston and Ervin were close off the bandstand too, but he remained tightest of all with Horace Parlan, the pair launching a cooperative band together in 1960, known as The Play House Four owing to the rhythm section – Parlan, bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood – being the resident trio at the iconic Minton's Play House, legendary incubus of Bebop back at the dawn of the 1940s and then still in business. The bands existence was sporadic at best, as Parlan remembered in 1977; “we made a few records together [actually the albums That's It! issued under Ervin's name and Parlan's Up and Down, with Grant Green added to the Four] and the group lasted for about one year...economic conditions forced us to disband at the end of that time.”

The fiscal uncertainties of freelance work weren't the only dangers in New York either, as Ervin found out in frightening fashion in 1961. “A few year ago, he was held up a knifepoint by a gang of thugs and relieved of his tenor”, reported Mike Hennessey in a 1965 article for Melody Maker (the horn stolen appears to be the King Super-20 which Ervin plays on the majority of his 1958-61 sessions). If this were not bad enough shortly after “he left his [replacement] instrument in the boot of his car, went into Count Basie's [club] for five minutes and returned to the car to find the tenor gone.”

OUT OF THE MIDDLE – the style of Booker Ervin

Jazz critics love the label game. In fact, it could be argued that many jazz journalists would be at a total loss for any opinion about a musicians work were it not for the fact that another writer had already tagged the player in question with a handy little earmark saying “Parker-derived” or “Cool School” or “Hard Bopper” or whatever other sound bite deemed fit. This isn't to imply that tracing a musicians influences or stylistic lineage is merely an academic parlour game or a waste of time, but in the case of Booker Ervin the majority of his critiques illustrate two woeful failures; one, a tendency to repeat, almost tautologically, the same observations about the impact of his music and, two, an equally insulting insistence on viewing Ervin's playing in the light of others. The former is quite understandable as, like it or not, certain aspects of a musicians playing will always ultimately defeat even the most creative wordsmith – after all how many times was John Coltrane called a “groundbreaker” or “challenging” or even “spiritual”? The latter is slightly less excusable; like all jazz individuals, Ervin's playing should be appraised for what it is not what it isn't. Indeed, the “was he or wasn't he like Coltrane” argument ought now to be laid to rest, once and for all, as should the rather overblown suggestion that Ervin was among his generations most daring harmonic adventurers.

First, let's deal with the critique. A quick glance through the sleeve notes to Ervin's sixteen or so albums as leader (or co-leader) reveals him to be a magnet for colourful adjectives and metaphors. In his notes to his début album – The Book Cooks – taped in spring 1960, Ira Gitler called Ervin's style “a shouting, sometimes screaming sometimes tender thing...just as likely to come out in long tones as in rapid flurries”; Tom Wilson, writing for Cookin', Ervin's second album, recorded in November 1960, noted “wild sweetness...dizzying virtuosity and..angular modernity...not devoid of warmth, beauty and humour.” Moving further along the time-line we have “a definiteness in execution, an absorbing sense of thematic and rhythmic continuity, and enveloping pulsation” (Nat Hentoff, That's It!, 1961); “a blowtorch tone in the service of a beat that wallops like Sonny Liston's fist” (David A. Himmelstein, Exultation, 1963);  “fire and conviction...nothing strikes the ear as forced or meretricious” (Dan Morgenstern, The Song Book, 1964); “heat, intensity, raw emotion and a relentless sense of swing...plus his straight-from-the-soul sincerity” (Mark Gardner, Heavy!!!, 1966) and finally, to pick one example from a posthumously issued album, “his sound was loud and strong; his playing conveying jubilance or sorrow with equal power; he had complete command of the blues and bebop and wasn't shy of leaving Earth's orbit for unchartered territory.” (Michael Cuscuna, Tex Book Tenor, recorded 1968, first issued 1976).

Nobody could argue against any of the above descriptions of Ervin's playing – his was indeed a hot, relentless and angular style – but what made this style so, in definite technical terms? Jazz critics never seemed to be able to say for sure. (Perhaps the most frequently quoted description of Ervin's playing – again by Ira Gitler – is worth reprising here, if only to show how mixed metaphors and too much creativity only add romantic confusion to our understanding Ervin's methods; “'[his] tenor is like a giant steamroller of a brush, painting huge patterns on a canvas as wide and high as the sky.”)

We've already seen how several Ervin's colleagues viewed his talent – Horace Parlan's observation that “[Ervin] plays with such fervour and honesty that each performance becomes a part of him” can serve as a neat summary here – but what did he himself think made his style? By all accounts, Ervin was a quiet, no-bullshit kind of guy and of the few statements on record about his inspirations, influences and ambitions are typically pithy and direct, perhaps the most expansive being his comments made during a 1967 Blindfold Test in DownBeat, during which he said “as far as style [goes] I like Dexter. My influences were Dexter and Sonny Stitt when I was coming up. Then Coltrane and Sonny Rollins came on the scene, and I tried to come out of come out of Dexter Gordon's and Sonny Stitt's style and come into my own style. I tried not to follow Trane, which a lot of tenor players did, and I can see why they did it. You know Trane was a very strong influence on a lot of tenor players. I tried to come out of the middle of that.”

Ervin had earlier told another writer that “after a while you have to develop your own individual sound, your own style. You get to a point where you must branch out and develop entirely on your own, using all the knowledge you have gathered on the road, in music school, from 'woodshedding', and what you learned from life.”

By the early 1960s, this quest to find his “own style” had become paramount, as he told Nat Hentoff; “I'm playing, or trying to, like myself now. It's the only way to make playing worthwhile. Music means so much to me that it wouldn't figure to play like anyone else.”

These statements reveal no great technical analysis; Ervin simply wasn't wired that way (neither was Coltrane. Despite his enormous theoretical knowledge, his interviews were also remarkably free from overt technical exposes). Booker’s most revealing comment on his own playing, made in a 1965 interview in Melody Maker, says virtually everything we need to know about how he approached music; “Every time I play I try to play as is it's the last time I'm ever going to blow.”

Rather unsurprisingly, performing at this level of intensity inevitably led to alignments to John Coltrane, a player who at various times Ervin was both like and unlike. True, the two men shared some similarity of tone quality; in the late 1950s both favoured a narrower, more channelled sound than that hitherto expected from Afro-American tenorists (although their instrumental equipment was quite different, Coltrane favouring Selmer saxes and Otto Link mouthpieces, Ervin King horns and Berg Larsen 'pieces), yet beyond this the coincidences were marginal at best. Mingus, Randy Weston and other players went out of their way to state that Ervin's sound had been developed independently of Coltrane's, and even the greatest of all jazz genealogists, writer Leonard Feather wrote of Ervin as early as 1961, “I hear little if any direct Coltrane influence.”

Another point is key - unlike many Coltrane-inspired saxophonists Ervin rarely used the tenor's altissimo register – only towards the very end of his life do we hear him soaring away up there in what is a superficially Coltrane-like manner (in particular on 204, from 1968's Tex Book Tenor). If they shared one thing it all, it was a dedication to using sound as a calling card. In Ervin's tone - as in Coltrane's - one could certainly hear the essence of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt (Ervin recorded with both in the mid-1960s – the albums Setting The Pace, with Gordon, and Soul People, with Stitt – enabling one of those quirks of recorded jazz history in which one hears the master and pupil together) but right from his first on-record appearance with Mingus (Jazz Portraits) there was no way he could truly be mistaken for another player. And many observers think it is Ervin's sound that remains the key to unlocking his entire identity; the Texas Tenor tradition and his apprenticeship in touring blues bands were heavily played up in his critiques (Ervin himself had said in 1961, “Sure I keep working a lot of different harmonic things but I still feel the blues and keep coming back to them”) while others heard in Ervin's questing tone a far wider frame of reference. Randy Weston believed Ervin's sound was “like the north of Africa” and, in his 2007 retrospective of the saxophonist, Neil Tesser opined that “it reflected  far-flung points of the African Diaspora, from the Moroccan muezzin to the delta bluesman, from the lyric swing of his native Texas to the complex demands of his adopted New York.” Not for nothing was one of the saxophonist's albums called The In Between!

If there is one particular aspect of his style that unites all these opinions, it is the “seizing 'cry of jazz'” which Nat Hentoff notes on That's It!  - Ervin's repeated (literally) use of held, keening notes, a wailing, mewing sound, often trailing off in pitch, that can be wildly exciting and is instantly recognisable, like a musical signature.

Energising it may be, but like any personal musical tick it could also occur all too frequently, especially if inspiration were running short - some listeners even find it a very real impasse to appreciating Ervin's work.

Online music forums are rarely the place to get a balanced, authoritative take on a jazzman's work but a few years ago one such board – Organissimo – contained a heated thread in which Ervin fans defended him against some extremely pointed criticism. Inevitably his “moaning” tone was a talking point, coming in for a thorough hammering from one especially virulent individual, while another contributor described how he thought Ervin had two solos - “one fast and one slow.”

Freed from the need for any obsequiousness – the curse of the contemporary sleeve note writer – these listeners had scored direct hits on several raw nerves, causing the biggest jolt by calling into question what – if any – were Ervin's claims to be among the “great” jazz tenors of his age. He created his own identity, for sure, they argued, but how can anyone say he was great in the way Coltrane, Rollins or Dexter Gordon were?

Forty-seven years after Ervin's death, we can now be much more objective, and we can see his individuality for what it truly was - resolute, non-showy, unconcerned with dazzling technical exploits - but back in the 1960s, there were some pretty thinly-argued attempts to elevate him to the musical pantheon, especially in the notes to his albums on the Prestige label. Some of these now need to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt, for example Michael Morgan's statement that “I doubt if any tenorman of his generation (and that included the slightly older Coltrane and Rollins) is playing as much as The Book today” in the notes to Groovin' High (1966), a declaration that, even at the time, would have hardly held up to serious scrutiny.  In another note, Morgan went one better, claiming Ervin to be “one of the top practitioners of his very popular instrument today... no other tenorman can out-think and out-swing Booker in the idiom of today's jazz.”

But before we dismiss these  encomiums out of hand, it's also worth remembering that by the early 1960s Prestige had lost both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane from their roster of artists and were – up until the signing of Dexter Gordon in 1968 – somewhat bereft of heavyweight modern tenor talent. Ervin was clearly being touted as the labels “answer” to these other men, entirely understandable as a commercial proposition in the cut and thrust world of the independent record label.

On the one hand, these comparisons were practically helpful – Ervin was being talked up rather than down for a change – but simultaneously they slighted him. Indeed, it's altogether depressing to find that exaggeration was the only way many critics could show their support. This understandable sycophancy (a phrase which can explain away many a sleeve note) wasn't just limited to Prestige though. When Ervin switched to Pacific Jazz in 1966, the annotator on his first album for the label, Leroy Robinson, wrote “he is an innovator and creator in his own right”, a statement that offers in a few words the very crux of Ervin's dilemma.

Like all jazzmen, Ervin was certainly a creator, in that he quite literally created improvisations, but an innovator? At one level you can argue that, yes, he cultivated a tenor saxophone identity that was unique – thus innovative – but the very word innovator implies that whoever owns the title changes the nature of his or her chosen art form, and as a result spawns many other copyists, stylistic descendants and so on. In Ervin's case this is a fantasy. It's difficult – almost impossible, in fact – to name one musician who has since taken him as a seminal influence. This needn't be viewed negatively though, and in some regards it speaks volumes for Ervin's individuality that nobody has decided to – or perhaps can – copy him. Perhaps his is one of those jazz styles that is so personal, so tied up with the man creating it that it's impossible to extricate and duplicate it?  Just think of some of the others with this kind of gift – Pee Wee Russell, Henry Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Giuffre, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry - all distinct voices upon their instruments yet none of whom has left a trail of copycats. Like theirs, Ervin's was a honest style, in every sense, neither aping others nor chasing fashion, but quite simply reflecting who he was and how he saw jazz. As Ed Williams notes in his sleeve text for one LP; “The important thing is the fact it's Booker's [style], and his way of doing it. Self-expression is indeed a precious possession.”

Another equally misleading and frequently encountered assertion is that Ervin's style was notably musically advanced, especially in the area of harmony. A typical example of this “Chinese whisper” summary is that in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz (Salamander Books, 1978) wherein Ervin is described as “harmonically adventurous” without any qualification give to the label. Another is the back-label copy on one reissue of The Space Book, which stated Ervin “superimposed alternative harmonic patterns that stamped his music with an exploratory edge”.

The truth is that, for all his post-modernist intensity and drive, Ervin's musical language remained highly diatonic – and even in settings where modes were the basis for improvisation rarely did he exercise much in the way of radical harmonic licence, in the manner of John Coltrane (hear the So What-derived S'bout Time, recorded with organist Don Patterson in 1964). Nor was he ever an inside-style bopper along classic Mobleyesque lines. No, it was the blues that remained Ervin's default mode, even when the music around him became ever more challenging.

This emphasis on emotion over harmonic sophistication was no secret to musicians  - think of Shafi Hadi and Charles Mingus' comments in the late 1950s – and occasionally it was alluded to in sleeve notes. In 1965, Ira Gitler wrote “[Ervin] does not play 'changes' in the manner of the bop and immediate post-bop changes [but] he has the imagination to build his own harmonic sequences with huge invention in modal or limited-chord situations,” an opaque way of saying that the saxophonist was at his best on simple harmonic frameworks, as indeed he was. Ervin's albums are littered with them and, as the 1960s increased, his comfort and contentedness to trade in ever more limited harmonic stasis was to reach epic proportions (The Trance, a nineteen minute modal churner recorded in 1965, is a rare example of a jazz composition's title mirroring exactly the music its appended to). Outside of this comfort zone, Ervin occasionally reached a dead-end. Listening his version of All The Things You Are, from The Song Book (1964), one of the ultimate harmonic test pieces in jazz pre-Giant Steps, one hears a player who sounds not full of daring and drive but at times almost as if he's flailing.

Accordingly, The Song Book en masse, on which Ervin addresses “standards” with more involved sequences, come off as the least successful of his celebrated 'Book' series, and it's telling that its best moments come of the themes with what might be termed semi-modal construction, such as The Lamp Is Low and Yesterdays.

Ervin's work as a composer also stressed simplicity and tended to fall into two main categories – brisk, often melodically simple blues lines (“he has a special penchant for writing good basic blues lines”, said Horace Parlan in 1961) or longer themes with a marked tendency towards static or modal harmony. The former are littered throughout his discography while the latter come in various tempos and bar-lengths, ranging from the moody ballads Uranus and Largo, through to the nervy energetic sketches like One For Mort (The Blues Book), A Lunar Tune (The Freedom Book), Sweet Pea (The In Between) and Tune In (Exultation). Sometimes, one could detect the trace influences of Tadd Dameron and Dexter Gordon in his themes, such as the delightful Lynn's Tune (Tex Book Tenor).

Ervin's ballad playing, whether on standards or originals seemed to bring all these sources together, his crying tone making sad songs sadder still, no matter where they might hail from. And, like Sonny Rollins, Ervin could take material from highly unlikely places, from performers as disparate as Louis Armstrong (Black and Blue, Exultation, 1963), The Andrews Sisters (Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, Heavy!!!, 1966) and even Tony Bennett (I Left My Heart In San Francisco, Booker and Brass, 1967) and forge it in his own image. Once again, more often than not, the more spare the harmonic movement the better Booker played.

It was only a short hop from modal to free-form and, as with many musicians coming up in the early 1960s, Ervin's energy, intensity and curiosity naturally edged him towards the fringes of the avant-garde. Work with Charles Mingus – always one of the more capricious of jazz's performers – certainly helped, putting Ervin toe-to-toe with Eric Dolphy, the multi-reed maverick whose improvisations brokered a new ground between bop and free. The influence of Dolphy upon Ervin is rarely noted, but one hears it in parts of The Space Book – in particular the driving Number Two with Ervin's jittery, conversational improvisation shooting out in all directions at once in much the same manner as Dolphy. The two men also came together on The Quest a 1961 album led by pianist Mal Waldron – a curious musician whose compositions are as exciting and edgy as his piano playing is not – in which the music moves from near-avant garde to Third Stream and back again. Once more, Ervin runs the middle ground, proving that, like Dolphy, he was ultimately a transitional musician, neither old school nor new thing. (There is remarkably little footage of Ervin but one piece – filmed at the Antibes jazz festival in summer 1960 – captures him with the Mingus band featuring Dolphy. The two men’s contrasting appearances are fascinating - Ervin stands rigidly when playing, while Dolphy wriggles about as if connected to a mains socket. The resulting music sounds much the same; one man's contributions earnest and focused, the others' charged and overblown).

Ervin's attitude towards the avant-garde was recorded during his April 1967 DownBeat Blindfold Test, for which he was played a recording by Albert Ayler, whose controversial music had slammed down one of the most imposing artistic gauntlets of the 1960s.  “The music gave me no feeling of direction or anything,” Ervin began.“I heard no arrangement. I just heard guys running up and down their instruments and making sounds. I don't particularly like that. I don't have anything against avant-garde - I like some of it that is good, and I've heard Albert Ayler play some good avant-garde. I've heard Coltrane play some things that I liked with Pharaoh Sanders. But this thing, I couldn't make it...The music had no direction - not to me. I'd give it one star.”

The criticism of “guys running up and down their instruments and making sounds” reveals a lot about Ervin's thinking; his was a musical ideal still rooted in certain traditional instrumental roles, in the idea that a rhythm section should still function as such. As Michael Morgan noted in 1966; “He has his own 'new thing': a thing that combines real freedom, the kind that retains logic and balance, with that creative discipline without which there can be no art worthy of the name.”

The notion of creative discipline is also key. If one looks at Ervin's albums from the mid-1960s – especially the famed 'Book' series, which Mark Gardner once compared to the Miles Davis' Quintet Prestiges of the previous decade, “inject[ing] a new spirit into the sagging mainstream of our music”  – one hears a player staying just this side of wholesale freedom and, at times, especially when pianist Jaki Byard is at his most subversive, appearing to want to reinforce a sense of form over mounting abstraction. This contrast can be hugely exciting, but it can also wear, which is why Ervin's two later sixties albums – The In Between and Tex-Book Tenor, which feature less “interactive” pianists in Bobby Few and Kenny Barron, in some instances give a better picture of him as a soloist. Sadly, by the time these two recordings were taped, there was precious little time left in which to expand his canvas.

BOOK'S ON TAPE: “Well, that's the way I play...”

The early 1960s were a hot-bed of recorded activity for New York jazzmen, and, as “new horn in town” Booker Ervin soon found himself making albums under his own leadership, the first three of which tell something a story within a story.
His initial album  - The Book Cooks – was recorded in April 1960 for the Bethlehem label and was produced by vibraphonist/composer/bandleader Teddy Charles, once a ubiquitous figure on the NYC jazz scene but now all but forgotten. Charles was a man with connections to all manner of jazz figures old and new and accordingly Ervin's first date featured an eclectic line-up of trumpeter Tommy Turrentine (brother of Stanley and then a member of the Max Roach Quintet), pianist Tommy Flanagan, one of the most versatile accompanists of the era, bassist George Tucker, Ervin's colleague in The Play House Four and drummer Dannie Richmond, a regular confrère from the Mingus band. In addition, Charles had booked another tenorist, Zoot Sims, a player whose style could sit comfortably within virtually any sphere of jazz. Featuring a collection of blues pieces, original compositions by Ervin and one standard song, the album was hardly ambitious, but it did provide Ervin with his first opportunity to shine under his own spotlight, with the driving title track, a blues duel with Sims -  illustrating the influence of Lester Young at its broadest - proving to be the albums highlight. As if sensing commercial potential, Bethlehem also released edited versions of two of the tracks – Ervin's themes Git It and Little Jane – as a 45rpm single, which, rather unsurprisingly, sunk almost without trace.

Ira Gitler’s sleeve notes gave little description of the music, preferring instead to tell Ervin's back story, and, in some senses there was no need: each soloist was readily identifiable and the performances themselves were as direct and forthright as the list of featured players would have you expect. Sales and reviews were hardly startling though. Issued at a time when figures such as Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey were making some of their most profound recorded statements, the album got somewhat overlooked. When released abroad in 1962 it was a rather different story, with British music journalists in particular welcoming the chance to hear the man they'd enjoyed on Mingus Ah Um stretching a little farther. “An entertaining and swinging album” by “a consistently interesting player” was Melody Maker's verdict, their reviewer hearing “a good deal of John Coltrane and a little of Sonny Rollins in [Ervin's] harmonic make-up and phrasing.”

Jazz News' asked no lesser figure than the legendary blues supremo Alexis Korner to review The Book Cooks, which he found “a good LP” full of “natural ferocity” with Sims “most pleasingly seem[ing] to catch some of Ervin's 'prickly heat'.” But there were doubters too, among them Jazz Journal's Gerald Lascelles who began his review unpromisingly by saying “if the boot fits, this is modern jazz”. Lascelles actually said very little about Ervin, but was moved to commend Zoot Sims performance on The Book Cook's for “retain[ing]...tone and sense of proportion with great dignity against a rather shrill assault.”

Ervin's second album – Cookin' – was recorded seven months later for the Savoy label, a key jazz imprint going back to the 1940s for which Charlie Parker had recorded much of his seminal work. By 1960, however, Savoy was headed off-radar. Although it signed some interesting new artists during the Sixties – pianist Paul Bley, clarinettist Perry Robinson and tenorist Bill Barron, among them – its production values had clearly begun to slip. Gone were the days when the labels sets would be taped at Rudy Van Gelder's studios; by the time Ervin recorded his sole album as leader for the company (he would appear as a sideman on one of Bill Barron's Savoy dates, the rarity Hot Line, in 1962) Savoy were using Medallion Studios in Newark, New Jersey, a room whose piano had seen better days and whose engineer never quite struck the right recording balance for those present.

Cookin' is, accordingly, a rather more informal album, largely comprising Ervin's straight-forward originals – including the catchy Mr. Wiggles – with an ad-hoc blues (the powerful Well, Well) and a couple of busked standards, Autumn Leaves, appended with an ethereal introduction and You Don't Know What Love Is, a theme Ervin would record again several times and in this version an early indication how his haunting tone could lend a heartbreaking ballad still more poignancy.

Ervin's sidemen on the date were less of a mixed bunch than on The Book Cooks; trumpeter Richard Williams (with whom he'd record again in 1968) was then something of a rising star, a player whose big sound and powerful delivery then made a marked contrast to the fashionable, delicate muted stylings favoured by Miles Davis. Cookin's rhythm section comprised Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Dannie Richmond, all regular Ervin associates. As with The Book Cooks, the albums sleeve notes concentrated more upon the leaders life story than the music on offer, producer Tom Wilson mitigating that “the highly evocative uncontrived musical performances contained herein will be self-explanatory to everyone who is not so inhibited or so over-intellectualized in his approach to jazz that he cannot tap his foot or pop his fingers.”

The gem among Ervin's pre-Prestige discography, and his first “classic” album proper, is undoubtedly That's It!, recorded for the Candid label in January 1961.
Launched as a jazz specialist subsidiary of Cadence Records in 1960, Candid enjoyed a brief moment in the sun during the early Sixties before folding ignominiously. It did, however, survive long enough to establish a house style and graphic look almost as striking as Impulse!, another new jazz imprint launched the same year. The music the label offered occupied similar stylistic ground too, covering the avant-garde (Don Ellis, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy), blues (Memphis Slim, Otis Spann. Lightnin' Hopkins), classic jazz (Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell), mainstream-bop (Phil Woods, Clark Terry) and important works by the two great iconoclasts from the days of bebop, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Candid liked its new stars too, usually offered a one-shot album deal, many of them brought to the label by A&R director Nat Hentoff, including Jaki Byard, Richard Williams and Booker Ervin.

The hand given to Ervin by Hentoff was far more generous – artistically speaking – that those afforded by Bethlehem and Savoy, and the saxophonist repaid in kind, bringing in a sheath of new original material; “I had done some other record sessions, but I've been saving these songs for the right time, and I felt this was it.”

In tandem with Horace Parlan (appearing under the literary pseudonym Felix Krull, owing to his exclusive Blue Note contract), George Tucker and Al Harewood – thus making this the only recorded document of the band known as The Play House Four – Ervin delivered a six-tune resume of his contemporary approach, mixing moody, semi-modal originals – Boo, Uranus and Mojo, the latter to become something of a theme for the saxophonist – with yet another down home blues (Booker's Blues) and two surging transformations of standard songs, Speak Low and Poinciana. The success of the album, from both an A&R and personal standpoint, was celebrated in its exclamation point title. “Listening to a playback”, recalled Hentoff in the LP's notes, “[Ervin] nodded, 'Yes, THAT'S IT!'”

Others clearly thought so too, with the English jazz press especially welcoming That's It! as the tenorists finest outing on disc to date. “An attractive record, particularly for those with a leaning towards the new wave in modern jazz”, reported Melody Maker's Bob Dawbarn, who praised the leaders marked individuality: “Ervin is always recognisably Ervin and, and despite a marked predilection for for unexpected intervals, his playing has directness and a somewhat angry charm.”

“The slow, sinister 'Booker's Blues' is one of the highspots of the album,” another reviewer, Jazz News' Danny Halperin opined, noting “on the second side of this excellent LP Booker Ervin...plays a ten minute blues that is about as relaxed and basic as you can get,” He also offer unstinting praise for Ervin's successful meeting of a “tough test for as new tenor man; an LP all on his own...Ervin comes through magnificently.”

But as always there were doubters, including Jazz Journal's editor Sinclair Trail who took the opposite view to Halperin, carping “[Ervin] hasn't yet enough to say to fill a twelve-inch LP by himself.” He also puzzled over the saxophonists' “strange bag-pipish tone” and use of original material “I can't see...ever being performed again.”

Whether they liked Ervin's “angry charm” or hated his “bag-pipish tone” all of these writers had agreed on one thing; that these albums had successfully captured a sound unlike that of any other jazz saxophonist. To their respective producers, The Book Cooks, Cookin' and That's It! had also revealed much about Ervin's working modus operandi while in the studio, one refreshingly free from egocentric concerns and creativity-sapping multiplicity of retakes. Another musician who recorded frequently with the tenorist – drummer Alan Dawson – remembered how liberating this attitude could be. “Ervin in the recording studio, playing with him was as close to a pure emotional experience as you could get,” he told Bob Blumenthal in 1977. In a memorial for the saxophonist penned shortly after his death in 1970, he went into more detail; “the way he went about his recording sessions was always the way that I felt I would want to do jazz records...we would only do one, two or three takes maybe and that was it. And he was willing to stand up and be counted and say, 'Well, that's the way I play and that's the way we play. Go ahead and take it.'”

Dawson's recollections provide yet another example of the quality Ervin appeared to have by the bucket-load, both on and off the stand – honesty. And it is this frequent and consistent display of confidence in his own identity that makes all the Coltrane and Rollins comparisons both redundant and insulting. If Ervin ultimately lacked Coltrane's harmonic savvy – so what? If he didn't quite have the high-level rhythmic nous of a Sonny Rollins – who cares? His recordings – right from the off - proved that he had the most valuable assets a jazzman can ever possess – his own voice, and that must remain something worth applauding in its own right."

Part 4: BOOKER ERVIN – THE GOOD BOOK, by Simon Spillett

© -  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.”

Simon Spillett
August 2017


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