An Interview with Steve Turre

By Bob Bernotas • November 01, 1998 • 23 min read

Steve Turre"When I was ten years old, I wanted to play violin," Steve Turre recalls with a laugh. "My dad said, 'Beginning violin sounds like a cat in the alley. Pick a horn.' We were at a parade and the trombones were out front, because of the slides. I said, 'Oooh, that looks neat.' I wanted to try it. The first time I played it, I liked it."

By the time he was 13 Turre was gigging around his native Bay Area with his older brother Mike, a saxophonist. As Turre matured, the gigs just kept coming--Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, etc--until he grew into one of our most accomplished (and visible) trombonists. Since 1986, Turre has been a regular member of the Saturday Night Live band, a gig that helps pay the bills and allows him to explore less lucrative, but more satisfying, musical avenues.

Turre is also the undisputed king of the shell players. Inspired by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, he began experimenting with sea shells in the early 1970s. Since then he has mastered the craft of creating musical instruments out of Neptune's castaways, trained many of his brass colleagues to play them, and formed a shell choir. Turre's 1993 release, Sanctified Shells (Antilles), opened up many ears to the warm, peaceful beauty of his shell music.

But most of all, Turre is, as a perceptive writer once described him, a "trombone evangelist." Tired of the trumpet-saxophone monopoly, he is out there spreading "the Gospel according to J.J. and Slide," demanding due attention and respect for his instrument.

You've spent some time in academic settings, first as a student and later as a teacher. I'd like to hear your views on jazz education.

Generally speaking, there are a few institutions, like Berklee, North Texas, Indiana (because of David Baker), William Paterson, that offer a degree in jazz. But most schools, even the ones that offer a degree in jazz, treat jazz like a second-class music compared to European classical music, when in fact, jazz is America's classical music.

Why do we always have to say, "I'm better than you?" And why does it have to be, "It's either this one or that one?" They're both quality, world class art forms. I would put Charlie Parker up with Liszt or any great classical musician.

European classical music is part of the root of jazz, but it's not all of it. The harmonic conception of jazz comes from that. But the main thing that makes jazz different is the African connection, the rhythmic concept, and the collective consciousness and the improvisation and the responsorial structure of African music. But because of slavery--and there's still a lot of racism in this country--there are a lot of lingering effects to overcome.

Also, when you are the major classical school in a city, say, Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, San Francisco Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, each of these major cities has a symphony orchestra. The faculty at these schools are professional, working classical musicians. They're teaching at the schools and they are out there doing it.

But what we have institutionalized in this country in jazz education--although it's starting to change--is that in a lot of the schools that have jazz, the people are teaching because they couldn't make it playing. They don't have any idea what swinging is about. They haven't been out there. They haven't even been to New York. And so they teach you some watered-down stuff, instead of telling you how it is, 'cause they don't really know how it is.

Now that's starting to change. Jackie McLean is up in Hartford, Rufus Reid is out here in William Paterson, and David Baker is in Indiana. But nonetheless, there should be a way for real musicians to continue performing and still teach.

Also--and I want to stress this explicitly--from what I've discovered in my clinics, the kids, with rare exception, have big problems with rhythm. A lot of them understand their scales and their changes and they've learned tunes and stuff, but they have a hard time swinging with the African concept of rhythm. So they need to teach rhythm.

Maybe these schools should have, for instance, an African master drummer in residence. And he could do drum classes, because that's the root of the music. The stronger you make the root, the stronger the tree is, the more fruit it will bear, the taller it will grow.

Do you feel that it is necessary for a student musician to go the academic route in order to develop as a jazz player?

Do you know what school's good for? School is good for reading and writing. You learn to read music, you learn to write music, you learn your music theory, you learn your sight-singing, dictation, counterpoint, arranging. It's good for these kinds of things, skills. School is not going to teach you how to play. I learned how to play working with Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I learned how to read and write in the school.

But it all helps. Anything that's going to help me to be a better musician, I'll do. If I have to go to school for a few years to learn to read I'll be happy to have that opportunity, because if I can read well, it will enable me to work a lot more gigs than if I can't. And it will enable me to write my music down, not only to get it recorded, but so other people can play it and I can get some publishing. So from an economic point of view school has benefits, too.

Starting early on, and throughout your whole career, you've had the chance to work with some of the true masters of jazz. Could you talk about how these people influenced you as a musician?

I guess I want to highlight it chronologically. The first contact I had that really, really changed my life was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. This was my first year out of high school. I sat in with Rahsaan at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and it felt like we had been playing together all our lives. It clicked immediately. We'd breathe in the same place. We would phrase the same, intuitively. I was just able to tap into his brain waves. There's been two people in my life that this has happened with--Rahsaan, and later with Woody Shaw.

We really struck up a wonderful friendship, and every time he would come through San Francisco he would call me for the gig. I was a kid. He'd give me 50 bucks for working six nights and I'd be happy. It was a real inspiration and it encouraged me to continue.

See, I had been aware of New Orleans and tailgate, and then someone gave me a J.J. record and I tapped into that, and some of the more modern music that came after that--Curtis Fuller, Julian Priester. But Rahsaan made me aware that I was missing a very important link in the chain, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. He turned me on to Vic Dickenson and Trummy Young and Dickie Wells and J.C. Higginbotham and Jack Teagarden--the cats from the swing period that were between J.J. and Kid Ory. You've got to build the house from the foundation on up. Rahsaan stressed this to me and I took it to heart.

The first traveling I did was with Ray Charles. I auditioned and won a spot with Ray's band for 1972 and I toured with him that year. I mainly was just playing in the big band. I got a few solos now and then, but it was such a thrill to hear him sing every night.

And hearing him sing taught me a lot about phrasing. Sure I like Charlie Parker, too, but all Ray's got to do is sing a slow blues and it knocks me out just as much. It isn't about how many notes you play or how high you play or how fast you play. It's about what you're saying, whether it be slow or fast. And Ray really rung a bell with me on that, 'cause whatever he does, he's feeling it.

When Ray's tour was over at the end of the year I was back in the Bay Area and I met up with Woody Shaw. I sat in with him and we clicked and became very close friends. He said, "Listen, in two weeks Art Blakey's coming through town. He wants me to do the gig with him and I want you to come down and sit in."

So Woody introduced me to Art and I sat in, and then Art asked me in his famous voice [imitating Blakey], "Want to join the Jazz Messengers and go to New York?" I said, "Well, when?" And he said, "Now. Pack your bags, we're going." I was excited and nervous and thrilled to death all at the same time. It was like a dream come true.

And the very next day after I sat in they were in the recording studio. Woody wanted me to be there and he said it was cool with Art. He wrote out some harmony parts on a couple of the tunes and I sat in on a blues, and I was scared to death.

After that gig at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco we came east. We played in St. Louis at La Casa, at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and the next thing I know here we are in New York City at the Village Gate. Boy! And that's where I met Curtis Fuller, opening night there. We've really had a wonderful friendship since then and he's been nothing but an inspiration to me.

Playing with Art Blakey, the things that he'd put on you musically would take you years to realize. "Where're you goin'? Don't play everything you know in your first chorus. Take your time. Tell a story." You know, all those kind of things: how to build a solo, not just go out there and start playing. And so that was "graduate school." Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, that was a degree right there.

It's funny, during that period, it wasn't popular to play with Art Blakey. All the press was going to fusion, which was the new kid on the block, and free jazz. And I played free jazz--I still do--and I like all the cats and everything. I remember at that time Anthony Braxton was making that big double album he did with the large ensemble, and the titles were mathematical formulas. I knew a lot of the guys in the band and they wanted me to play on the record.

I said, "Well, I got a gig with Art Blakey." "Oh man, later for that old shit. That's dead, man. This is what's happening now. This is the future."

I said, "Yeah, but Art's music is kicking my butt. If I walk away from that music now, before I've mastered what it has to teach me, how am gonna play this effectively? I'd be shooting myself." But you know what's funny? I'm glad that I didn't walk away from that school. I've been with everybody now and that training has served me in good stead all these years.

But Art wasn't working a lot. I'd work two weeks a month for that period. It was a slow period for him, but it was wonderful. Jon Faddis was playing lead trumpet with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra. I went to see him at the Vanguard and he said, "Steve, we need a trombone player for the tour this summer in Europe. Why don't you sit in?" I sat in and Thad asked me to join the band. And so I left Art and toured with Thad and Mel, and that was a real milestone for me 'cause that's the best big band I ever played with. It was incredible.

And it was not just Thad's writing. It was Thad's conducting, the way he would command the band and change the charts every night. While somebody's playing a solo he'd give you audibles like a quarterback and the chart would come out a little different every time. It wouldn't just be, "Read it down from top to bottom." There was no routine about the thing. It was always alive and fresh and something unexpected would happen.

It was such a wonderful band. I used to get the chills and bumps sitting in the section hearing the music around me. What it taught me about blend and ensemble playing was invaluable. And I used to go by Thad's room sometimes and he'd be writing scores and I'd ask him questions about writing that have proved invaluable to me through the years.

The next major thing was when Woody Shaw had the concert ensemble and he did his first record date in New York for Muse, which was called The Moontrane.  That was my first recording with Woody and it also the first time one of my tunes had been recorded. Woody showed me how to open my publishing company. So it was monumental for me in many ways. I worked on and off with the Concert Ensemble until I joined his quintet in '81 through '85.

Then the next major influence, or turning point, was after Rahsaan's stroke. He asked me to join his band when he made his comeback and I worked with him for two years, until his departure. That was another institution, the Vibration Society. That was school.

But it wasn't school the same way as Ray or Art or Woody. It was more of a historical perspective, but on the gig. Rahsaan would play New Orleans or Ellington and be himself within that, but still be authentic. It wasn't superficial. It was heartfelt and true to the groove, feeling, and style of the music.

And that taught me about these guys who have this attitude: "If your music doesn't sound like Miles' quintet with Tony, Wayne, Herbie, and Ron, if you're not playing that kind of bag, then you're not playing really hip." That's just not true! I love the whole family. It's all valid to me. Anyway, Rahsaan was about really putting my foundation in order, those two years with him.

Rahsaan was the only bandleader that I ever worked for that not only paid us, but he took the taxes out and he also did unemployment. When we were off he said, "I want you to be there for me, so I'm gonna do your unemployment. When you're off, you can get your little check, take some other gigs, but if I call you, you got to be there." Let me tell you, when he passed away I appreciated that so much because it gave me a base for a little bit 'til I could get working with some other bands.

For two years I went to University Without Walls and got a bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts. While I was doing that, I was working with Cedar Walton's quintet, with trombone and tenor. That was polishing the Blakey experience. Cedar is such a marvelous accompanist, he spoils you. It's so easy to play with him.

Next I worked with Slide Hampton and the World of Trombones. Slide is not only a dear friend and an inspiration, but also a wonderful human being. And he made me realize the importance of opening my sound up and being consistent in your performance. That's a very big challenge, consistency, and he really got on me about that. In the World of Trombones there were two sections--two fours and the ninth trombone was Slide--and Janice Robinson and I were the split lead in each of the two sections. And that was a real challenge. I also played with the Collective Black Artists in New York for a couple of years under Slide's direction.

The next real, real big thing was when I joined Woody's quintet. It was just trombone and trumpet. And that was very unusual, 'cause even today, three-quarters of the groups out there are trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone. I'm so sick of trumpet-saxophone.

It's just getting redundant, 'cause you're not going to get any better than Diz and Bird or Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown or Miles with Trane or Miles with Wayne or Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson with Horace Silver. I mean, it's all kind of a rehash of that. It's a great sound. I still love it, but that's the only sound that's out here.

Woody took a chance and did a trombone and trumpet thing. The people loved it, but the club owners used to give him a lot of grief. Dig this: the club was packed, the people would love the band, say it was a fresh sound, he'd get good reviews, everything, and the club owner would be griping about it. "Well, it ain't jazz unless you've got a saxophone." That's bullshit. Write that.

After Woody Shaw, I started to work with Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy. Working with Lester Bowie really opened me up to colors and the possibilities of nuance, and not to be scared to just go for what you hear. Lester not only afforded me a lot of opportunities to develop as a soloist, but as also a writer. And so did McCoy Tyner. I started working with McCoy's big band from its inception.

Finally, Dizzy Gillespie. I started working with Dizzy in a small group setting and later in his United Nation big band. Dizzy was, perhaps, the most profound of all because he's the father of all the people I mentioned in a lot of ways, except maybe Art Blakey. Playing with Dizzy, there were so many lessons I learned from him that I can't even start to tell you about it.

You've worked a great deal in the Latin field, as well.

Being Mexican-American, I did play Latin music on the West Coast with the Escovedo brothers, and they were based on a New York salsa sound. When I came to New York, I used to go down to the Nuyorican Village on the Lower East Side and play with the cats down there, and that was the formation of Jerry Gonzales' Fort Apache Band. I'm on the band's first two records. In fact, in Latin music I've worked either in the band or as a soloist with just about everybody, from Celia Cruz to Tito Puente, Mongo Sanatamaria, Oscar DeLeon, El Gran Combo, Johnny Ventura.

I also hooked up with Manny Oquendo and Libre. Libre was a profound influence on me in terms of understanding the nuances of Afro-Cuban music, the clave, and the structure, and I really developed my voice as a shell soloist playing with the hand drummers. There's a real connection between the shell and the hand drum, and when I played with Libre it helped me put my whole concept into focus.

You've already started talking about the status of the trombone in jazz, so why don't we really get into it? It seem that every jazz trombonist I've ever spoken with has complained that the instrument is treated like a "second class citizen," and I can tell that you agree. Why do you think that is the case?

I know why. It didn't used to be that way. When they tell you the trombone won't sell, that's bullshit. Not that it was the most innovative jazz, but Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey were multi-million sellers on a par with anything of their day in terms of units sold. That's a fact. Look at your history. The instrument was popular and every kid on the block wanted to play a trombone. It just depends on what they're pumping at the time.

They got the saxophone on Jordache commercials now, so it's hot. Kenny G, he's hot. But any instrument they want to make hot, can be hot. It's not the instrument, it's the hype.

But let's look at the history. In the beginning of jazz, in New Orleans, the two greatest were King Oliver, of course, and Kid Ory. So one of the main bands that formed the music was led by a trombone player.

Then the next big innovation was the big bands. There were three horn sections--the trumpets, the trombones and the saxophones. Each one of them had stars and famous soloists in their own right that were popular with the people. Trummy Young had the big hit, "Margie" [with Jimmie Lunceford's band], along with Tommy Dorsey and Dickie Wells and Lawrence Brown and Tricky Sam, all those great soloists.

Then, the big change happened. Bird and Diz came along and their music was so technically challenging, so hard, especially for the trombone--for everybody, for that matter--that only one trombonist could stand up there with Bird and Diz, really, and that was J.J. Johnson. So once you had the whole field of trombones, like in the big bands where everybody was equally revered, now all of a sudden only one cat could get up there with these guys and really make it.

So the whole focus changed to trumpet and saxophone. It was a natural thing, that's the way it happened and it was valid why it happened. But, man, that was 1940. J.J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. He put it into a new existence. But since then we've all followed his lead and learned how to apply that music to our instrument.

And so it's not whether the people like the trombone or whether the instrument can play the music. It's just that the mold had been set and now the whole structure of the music industry in jazz, from the club owners and the concert promoters to record companies, is all trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone, trumpet-saxophone. And piano.

You look at the Monk competition--here's something else I want to talk to you about, and I want you to print this--they're on the second round already for saxophone and they've had trumpet and piano twice now. They've had drums. But they haven't had trombone and they haven't had bass, and they need to include them. These are very important instruments. They need to have vibes, too.

And this bias is especially obvious in the recording field.

I feel very lucky in that, after countless albums as a sideman, once I started recording as a leader I've been able to sustain that and I've been recognized as having my own voice. That's all fine for me, but when you look at the records that are coming out today, Curtis Fuller doesn't even have a record deal. That's a shame. Slide records when he wants to, Al Grey records when he wants to. I'm sure they'd want to a lot more if they had more opportunity to do it.

But every young sax player that comes along, whether he wins the Monk competition or not, gets a record deal if he's competent with the music. The same with piano players and trumpet players. Now I know right off the top, I could spout names of about a half a dozen to eight young trombone players that have unique voices, that have something to say, and deserve to be recorded.

In the last ten years not one young trombone player has been recorded, and I think it's a shame. So I'll put this out here to anybody from the record companies: I would be happy to work with them on a project. It doesn't have to be an expensive recording. Let's say, a five- or six-record series of young trombone players that I would like to produce, 'cause I know some of the young cats out here that have really got something to say.

Would you like to name them?

Yes, I would. Jamal Haynes, Ron Westray, Steve Davis. Wycliffe Gordon could do a plunger album. He's a master with the plunger, a master! There's a couple of cats from New Orleans, Freddie Lonzo and Lucian Barbarin. Also in the Latin field there are some young cats, Luis Bonilla, Papo Vasquez. And there's a guy, he's not that young, but he's a master, Juan-Pablo Torres. Those are just a few, and they deserve the same as any saxophone player.

As a leader, you work with many different kinds of groups. Why is that?

I deliberately diversify and I enjoy doing it. Part of it is for economic reasons. But the most important reason is musical. Sometimes I go out as a single and I play with somebody or I front a big band or whatever. I have the duo that I do with cello, with my wife, Akua Dixon. We do duo concerts and club appearances and someday we'll do a duo album.

Then I have a trio. We haven't recorded yet, but the chemistry really works. It's Bob Stewart on tuba, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and myself on trombone and shells. Everybody has good rhythm, so we don't need a drummer. I have a quartet, straight-ahead. I've got a quintet, either with Robin Eubanks, the two trombones, or with tenor saxophone. After playing with Woody, I'm not too keen on playing with trumpet. I've already done that. Then I've got the sextet with the strings.

And then for the big budget, we have the shell choir. Plus I've written full big band things for McCoy and I've got some of my own stuff, too, that I do on clinics, and someday I may do a big band record. But the point is, if you play quartet all the time and just play one style, you get that down and become flawless at it. But you don't seem to grow as much as when you play in a lot of different settings. You get stretched more that way and that keeps you more flexible. It makes your conception grow more.

I really could feel this by playing with Dizzy. Look, he invented bebop. But when he played with Stevie Wonder, it fit. He played with Latin music, it fit. He played with African music, it fit. He played with Brazilian music, it fit. He played with Basie or Ellington, it fit. His aura, his spirit encompassed all of them. It wasn't exclusive. No, he included everything. He brought all the vibrations into his vibration. And then all the music becomes one. It was such a beautiful thing, and that's something that I aspire to.

I feel very, very lucky and blessed to be able to make a living playing this music that I love so much. It's truly America's classical music and even though we haven't gotten full respect at home, I feel it's coming.

And in the meantime, I'm still able to grow and be around people that share the same interest and inspiration and goals as myself. A musician's like a doctor, you're supposed to heal people. You make them feel better. As long as I can keep doing that, I'm a happy man. You know, it'd be nice to make money and all that stuff, but that doesn't make you happy.

Since this article was first published, Steve Turre has melded his shell choir and brass ensemble into a rich and unique orchestral concept, as his subsequent CD releases, Rhythm Within (Antilles, 1995) and Steve Turre (Verve, 1997)--which features a guest appearance by J.J. Johnson--testify. Although some of the young trombonists Turre mentioned have since recorded as leaders, this does not mitigate his charge that the instrument is sorely neglected by the powers that rule the music business. Case in point: the Thelonious Monk Foundation still has not sponsored a trombone competition.

© Bob Bernotas, 1994; revised 1998. Used by permission. All rights reserved.