At the Jazzclub Unterfahrt with Greg Osby May 17, 2003
By Evan Tate
This interview was conducted on the 17th of May 2003 at the Jazzclub Unterfahrt in Munich, Germany. Greg was currently on tour with the 'New Sound Collective' (currently re-named "Structure") along with Terri Lynne Carrington, Steve Khan, and Jimmy Haslip. I spoke with Greg after the gig in the musician's room.
ET: You were born in St. Louis. How did you come to play saxophone?
GO: Well, you know (in) the junior high school band, 7th grade, 12 years old, there was a choice of playing trombone or clarinet. And of course I jumped to the clarinet because it looked more interesting. And one year later, this is 1972 actually, I got my hands on a saxophone and immediately fell in love with that because it was applicable to more contemporary performance situations. But I stuck with the clarinet as well because of the challenges. So I was doubling. And a year later I got a flute. So, by the time I was 13 I was playing saxophone, flute and clarinet. So, I took to it very rapidly because I enjoyed it so much. And after two years from the beginning, I was good enough to play with some the local bands. I was playing in Blues band, pop bands and soul bands, and R&B. Because you know in the 70's, they didn't have synthesizers so the bands all had to have a horn section. So, I learned to play in the soul bands, and to play and blend in a section. It was really good. It was important and critical to my development.
ET: Do you come out of a musical family?
GO: No, no musicians at all. It was just a stroke of fate, and I'm really happy that it happened that way. Because as the sole musician I could stand out and it was unique and music posed a whole set of challenges, and it gave me something to work on and to work towards.
ET: You mentioned that you played with local R&B bands and such. What brought you to jazz?
GO: Well, I guess while I was playing in those bands, it was a bit frustrating for me. Although we did take instrumental solos it was usually over one chord like a groove or some vamp. And even though I didn't know much about the higher properties of music, I learned that there was a lot more that could be done. There was a lot more potential. So, a friend of mine, he gave me a Charlie Parker record and I had never heard anybody play like that. I never heard saxophone played so intricately and with so much detail and complexity. So, I got my hands on every Charlie Parker record that I could. And then Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt followed. You know, saxophone technicians. Master players of my instrument. So that started it. Because I said, "Wow! I didn't know that this was possible." And then I studied on my own and I questioned a lot of the older players around St. Louis. I always asked a lot of questions. Not formal study, but badgering them. Actually, following them around to their various gigs and being a pest. When you're young you have to be shameless and full of will. You can't afford to be shy. And you can't be afraid of rejection and you can't be afraid to expose the fact that you don't know something. Wherever the information lies, you have to go for it. From players in your peer group to players who have been playing a little longer, or older players. So, I just jumped in headfirst.
ET: Who were some of the older players in the St. Louis area?
GO: People like saxophonists Willie Aikins, and Freddie Washington, and guitarist Richard Martin, these were local players in St. Louis. People may not know them on a national level, but they were important to the local scene and very inspirational to me, because I was able to see and hear at a young age, great players on that level, of that caliber, on a professional level. They were actually very generous with the information (they gave me). They told me exactly what I needed to study, and what I needed to approach and do. So, it was good. I was informed properly at an impressionable age.
ET: You studied at the famous Howard University and Berklee College of Music. Could you tell us what were the greatest "highlights" of what you got out of these institutions?
GO: Well, interestingly enough, while I was there (Howard Univ.) I was very resistant to what was being taught at first. The fundamentals that were being presented to us were primarily Western European theory, choral writing, counterpoint and things like that. I was resistant because I didn't see the value and purposefulness in that. I couldn't see how that information could be applicable to any kind of contemporary situation. By "contemporary" I really meant "moneymaking". I called it "powdered wig" music. [Outburst of laughter] [Terry Lynne Carrington: "Powdered wig" music?] Yeah, I said; "I can"t make any money playing this. I'm not going to get in any orchestras playing saxophone." So, then I became very impatient during my second year there and visited the Berklee College of Music. I had some friends studying there. And after sitting in on a couple of ensembles there, those instructors wrote letters of recommendation about me to the Director of Admissions. So, I got offered a scholarship to study there also. So, the next year I transferred from Washington, D.C. to Boston. There was a higher caliber of players, there were a greater number of players and it was also much more intense because it wasn't a university, but a music conservatory. So, it was great. Now, in retrospect to look back at the things I learned initially, the choral writing, figured bass, counterpoint and all that - now, that encompasses a great deal of how I approach music. Dealing with form and structures. I refer to all of the lessons that I've learned.
ET: Now that you found a medium where you actually can apply it, it makes sense.
GO: Yeah. So, it's all relative. There's really no such thing as disposable information for me. Some things you may not see the purpose for or value in initially, but there are various ways you can incorporate that information into your craft. You just have to figure out how to make it work. That's the challenge.
ET: You display a phenomenal technical ability on your instrument. Do you have a certain type of philosophy about how you approach the saxophone on the technical aspects?
GO: Well, during my formative years, particularly the years that I was in college, I endeavored to try to develop a technique that was unique, that was exclusive to me, that was readily identifiable. When people heard it, they would know that it was me. This was in the early 80's when I was a young player. To be honest,I really had no business thinking that way, but that is what I wanted to do. I knew I would eventually be up against legions of saxophone players, all going for the same gigs, and I said, "What can I do?" So, as opposed to exclusively studying Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and other established players of my instrument, I also studied a great deal of piano players. It almost superceded my study of saxophone. I transcribed a lot of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, Hernie Nichols, Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Andrew Hill, Teddy Edwards, Phineas Newborn, Eroll Garner, really technical and intellectual players - Jaki Byard, Earl Hines. Those kind of players.
ET: It's funny that you mention that, because that's my impression when I hear you play. To me it sounds like youâre trying to play piano. I mean, I can hear the piano influence.
GO: That's right on the head. I'm trying to play a simulated polyphonic technique on a monophonic instrument, like a two-handed duality kind of thing. A pianist can play in different directions, they can "comp" for themselves, and they can do different kind of things because they have two hands and ten fingers. So, I'm playing a simulation of that. You know, jumping registers and doing real technical kind of things and in larger groups, or sometimes smaller intervals and smaller clusters of information. So, that's exactly what it is. I would take a 4-bar, or 8-bar or 16-bar phrase from Bud Powell, so to speak, transcribe that. Sometimes the whole solo but more likely, only exactly what I wanted which would be a great melodic run, or a great passage. And I would put that on the top line of some manuscript paper and consequently, I would transpose it into all twelve keys. So, as opposed to working on that line in one key, I would work it in all keys. So, I would work on that until I had it under my fingers, for a week or two. Then I would that take same line and start altering accidentals, changing rhythms, changing the stress points and accents. So, that by the time I had modified it after a month or two or so, it no longer sounded like the original line. It sounded more like a Greg Osby line. So, therefore I could retain it and refer to it much more more readily on the bandstand or in a jam session because it sounded like something that I made up, but its origins came from somebody who really knew what they were doing.
ET: So, you were really going through the process of getting the most out of the material that you were picking up.
GO: Sure. Itâs an evolution, it's like theme and variations and it taught me how to modify things and think quickly on the spot. Say, for instance, you're on a tour and you're playing the same songs in the same sequence every night. You have to figure out different approaches to the material. Otherwise you'd be bound to repeat yourself and would wind up playing a lot of stock phrases and rehashed content.
GO: So, by doing that, if you have four variants of the same line, I have four different ways of doing it. I can change rhythms and delete things, add things, and stagger things, you know, it's endless. So, it really baffles me when I hear younger players tell me, "I don't know to practice. I don't know what to study." You know, there is a great deal to be done with smaller fragments of information. You can change rhythms, you can add accidentals, and you can delete things but you have to have an imagination and just say to yourself "What if?"
ET: Along the way, did you have any saxophone instructors that were most memorable to you, or had the biggest influence on you?
GO: When I was playing in those funk bands in high school, we were playing exclusively by ear. We would learn Earth, Wind and Fire songs, Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Ohio Players you know, we played them from records, we were playing by ear. So there was no written music. So I developed a great ear, so that I could hear things and play it back. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, we had this turntable that was really temperamental. The turntable was a belt-driven turntable. It was affected by humidity, and heat. If it was too hot, it would run fast, if it was to cold it would run slow, so the key was always different. If the tune we were trying to learn was in C, we would invariably play that tune in B or C#. If it was supposed to be in F, the turntable would play it in F# or E. So we always played tunes in the most difficult keys, with the most sharps and flats. We didnât know. We really didn't know any better, we just thought that all tunes were in C#, and F#. (laughter) So, that gave me a great deal of facility in the really difficult keys. I developed a great deal of fearlessness, when I saw key signatures, because I didn't know any better. I didn't know that they were regarded as being difficult. And I also learned to play saxophone in a very unorthodox way, because I didnât have formal instruction until I got to college. I was fingering things really uniquely and unorthodox, it was quite interesting. I was doing everything the hard way. So when I did get to Howard University, there was classical instruction, you know, all the saxophone majors had to study classical. And I was really resistant to it because I really didn't like the sound of that French school of classical saxophone back then. I didn't care for the discipline required to get a sound that was so far away from what I enjoyed or was working towards, you know, they tried to make me play a small mouthpiece with a really soft reed and all that. I just didn't like it. So, I was opposed to it but I did it anyway just for the grade requirement. But in retrospect, my teacher helped me out a lot. I can say that now. There were keys on the saxophone that I didn't even know their purpose was! I played all my Bb's with two fingers and with the side key. I didn't even use the "bis" key at all, or even "one-to-one". So, I always used the most difficult fingerings for real easy things. When I learned other options, I had a lot of alternate fingerings and that's what I do now. I've worked out alternate fingerings for different keys, different passages, different tempos and stuff, which allowed me a greater flexibility than some players who had only one way of doing things.
ET: What advice would you give a young saxophonist today, according to the instrument and to playing music in general?
GO: Well, first of all, I'd encourage any player, young or old, to try to recognize and maximize what they are working with. "Play the hand you are dealt." For instance, a lot of saxophone players have this illusion that if they buy an Otto Link mouthpiece, they are going to sound like Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon or whomever else they admire who may have used the same type mouthpiece. Not only has that been done to death, but there is no guarantee that you will succeed. Those players were dealing with very personalized physiology; their oral cavity, chest cavity, lung capacity, bone structure, posture, all those issues factored into how they sounded. I won't even bother to discuss how the era they lived in affected how they thought, the frequency of actual playing time they enjoyed, the construction and fabrication of the instruments they used,
ET: It all pays a role.
GO: Right. So, the primary issue is to really examine how you play, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and capitalize on the strengths and to develop and hone the weaknesses into other strengths. You have to be honest. If your technique is faulty or if your tone is weak, or you don't have any endurance, you can work on these things. It's pointless to drill yourself in areas where you excel. If you can play your scales flawlessly, and play your arpeggios great, there's little point in doing that everyday. What you need to do is work on the areas that are weak. If your high register is thin, you need to work on your long tones. If, when playing in your low register you have to honk out notes, you need a softer reed. A lot of people won't do that. They're playing the setup that their idol played, not realizing that Cannonball Adderley was a husky person, and Charlie Parker had a lot of physical power, but everyone doesn't. You have to deal with your sound, and polish it. The sound that I'm playing with is basically the sound that I've always had. It might be a bit stronger now, and more centered and focused, but it's basically the same sound. I never endeavored to sound exactly like Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Charlie Parker or anyone else. I always thought it was futile to copy player's every characteristic. It's one thing to be influenced by someone or even several master players, but to copy any source outright runs counter to my philosophy concerning creative music. Get the information and customize it to fit your personal needs as an artist, I always say.
ET: There's a certain "Kernel" to your sound that's always you, because it is you. It's your jaw, your teeth.
GO: It's like your speaking voice - you can't change it. You can't really change it. So the best thing to do is that you try to enunciate and try to have as much focus and proper musical diction as possible. It comes from dealing with articulation; tonguing exercises, and good reading, good posture, good attack, not being sloppy and not developing lazy and bad habits. My saxophone teacher, I'm happy now with the lessons I learned back then in retrospect, but at that time I was really angry at him. He used to hit my hands with a ruler. Gary Thomas, and I were at college at the same time, so we had the same teacher and he was into the "sticky fingersä" technique, where your fingers don't leave the keys too much. That's the Charlie Parker technique. He used to say, "Donât flap your fingers, Don't show people what fingerings you're playing, Donât use excessive body movement, focus!" My other teacher at Berklee, Andy McGhee, he would talk about, "Play to the exit sign, Don't play to the people in the first row, play to the people in the back row. Throw your sound back there." I want to give the simulation that, if you're a smaller framed cat, like me. if someone hears me playing on a recording, they should think that I weighed 300 pounds. He suggested that our sounds be wide, and fat. Broad and distinct - projecting. "You don't want your sound to come out of the bell and let it drop to the floor, you want to throw it like a ventriloquist - to the back of the room!" So, those types of things, you get a visual picture of and it was some very helpful information for me. He never told me what to do and what not to do. He said, just follow your instincts and just be honest. If you know that you need work on in a certain area, you have to do the work. It won't happen on a wish.
ET: No one else is going to do it for you.
GO: The results are directly reflective of the work put in.
ET: Who was your instructor at Howard?
GO: At Howard, his name was Reginald Jackson. He was a renowned classical cat on alto. He made the alto sound like.... it didn't even sound like an alto anymore.
ET: More like a cello probably.
GO: Yeah, he played a Buffet alto and he had half-moon cork in the low Bb and B keys and when he played he just had so much control. He could whisper a low Bb and come from complete silence. I just marveled at his control. However,as I recall he couldn't improvise, he couldn't sight-read jazz rhythms, -syncopation. He used multiphonics and played tricky fingerings. He was from the French school. He studied in France. So, I listened to him and extracted from that experience what I could. But I never wanted to pursue that as a lifestyle. But there are still remnants of those studies still in my playing. The control, the centering and the study discipline. Even though I don't fancy myself as a practitioner or die - hard fan of classical saxophone I definitely appreciate it and respect that area of focus. I know some players in France and Belgium who are no joke playing that music.
ET: I noticed also when I hear you play, I hear a lot of classical saxophone technique, as far as the control is concerned. I had wondered if you had seriously spent any time doing that.
GO: That may be by default. I never really paid attention, even when I was studying. I didn't like the sound of classical saxophone when I was younger. That sound wasn't reflective of my life experience and I thought it lacked balls. I was wrong, of course. But that's how the mind of an eighteen year old trying to learn jazz works. I respect anyone doing their own thing, especially when it's obvious that they're dedicated to their chosen craft.
ET: That's why I didn't assume. It could happen without having to deal with...
GO: Sure, because I would just cram for the lessons an hour before. [Outburst of laughter] I had a whole week to study the stuff, and I tried to shed quickly for an hour before each saxophone lesson, because I hated it back then. So, the classical influence that you hear is just by default. The technical references in my playing are from working things out in difficult keys and from studying piano music.
ET: So hey, that about wraps it up. It's been a great pleasure talking with you and you've shared a lot of great information. Many thanks to you, Mr. Greg Osby.
GO: My pleasure.