Tim: Bert, you knew Sonny Stitt; reflect on his tenor style.
Bert: You have to study and compare how he played tenor saxophone and how he played alto saxophone. He played alto sorta like a Bird style; but not totally Bird. On tenor he blended Lester Young’s influence with Charlie Parker’s. Then he did it and his approach influenced every tenor saxist for a long time including John Coltrane! Stitt’s style taught me to blend influences, in listening to more than just one artist. I could blend all of the influences into my playing and become Bert Wilson.
When you hear Sonny Stitt on tenor he does not sound like Lester Young; nor does he sound like Bird on tenor, ’cause when you listen to Bird when he played tenor, the closest person to that would be Sonny Rollins-tonally and especially rhythmically. Stitt’s style taught me how to take the approach of learning from all of the great artists in the music and blend their influences into my personal playing. All the young saxists should listen to Sonny Stitt; it will really help your style.
Tim: As a force in modern day sax, what drew you to Colman Hawkins?
Bert: Everybody says Hawk was the daddy of the tenor sax. And as much credit as they give him, I feel they don’t give him enough. Hawkins invented jazz tenor saxophone. It was through Hawkins’ studies playing cello and piano as a child, and working out his own approach to the horn. Hawk said there were others that were earlier than him who played the saxophone, but they all played the instrument like it was a clarinet! And Hawks figured out how to play it like a sax; he gave it its own voice and its own style. We all wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for Colman Hawkins. If not for Hawkins we might all sound like Bud Freeman. What drew me to Hawkins was his terrific beat! The way his sound leaped off the record into your ears. As soon as Hawkins blew, the music became supercharged with energy, reached a new level of creativity, and a total feeling of command. It just grabbed me! His harmonic feel was just so advanced, and all over the horn. It was totally and wonderfully Colman Hawkins; it was something special. Throughout his life, Hawkins would pick out the parts he liked and add them to his style, sound more like Colman Hawkins than ever, and drop the rest. What a great genius! Every note, every solo is something special. It tingles my ears and wakes me up.
One more thing needs to be said about Coleman Hawkins is that everybody talks about Colman Hawkins and not enough people listen to him, and they should. There’s a universe of music to listen to in his music.
Tim: When did you first hear Stan Getz?
Bert: Around when I was 11 or 12; in about 1951 or ’52 I heard the Royal Roost records. The disc jockey in Chicago played Johnny Smith’s “Moonlight in Vermont” every night. I had no doubt in my mind it was Stan Getz.
I had listened to Lester, and you could hear Lester in Stan Getz, but even the young Getz was himself. Stan’s sound and special placement of tone in the horn were so beautiful; he was very special.
The “West Coast Jazz”, and “Diz and Getz” records are just dynamite. Everyone should hear those, especially that one called “For Musicians Only”. A total class of music by itself. How many hundreds of us would like to sound like Stan Getz. Oh boy, I wish I could. Coltrane even loved Getz. Because Getz played so smooth, so pretty, his playing was accessible and commercial to the extent that he could play any style.
Here’s a good example of Charlie Parker’s influence on the tenor sax. Getz’s drops and the way he ran through changes are you can tell the difference between Stan and Lester. Lester often chose common tones and held across the bar and across the chord and hold one note there.
Getz could do that, but run the chords in a way that was both vertical and horizontal. He would make a line that involved the melody using all the notes in the chords; and the color changes would be really outstanding like they were in be-bop. Plus this lyrical beautiful line that was more across the bar; very much his own.
Tim: You know John Coltrane’s music; you played with him. Can you reflect on his playing?
Bert: I don’t want to do just another technical analysis; that’s been done over and over. I don’t want to talk about his sainthood ’cause that’s been done over and over. John Coltrane taught us all how important practice was! What dedication really means. He gave his life, body and spirit to it.
He was in the forefront of an entire cultural movement! It changed the entire face of art in this country and in Europe. Because of his young death, the bottom fell out of the profit margin that people who ran the record industry were seeing in the new music, the creative way of thinking, the new approach.
Because of what happened to the culture at that time, at least an entire generation of jazz musicians went undocumented, unaccounted for, unappreciated to the point where now there’s a whole raft of musicians who range in age between forty and sixty who are totally unknown, who should have been the leaders of that new movement in jazz.
The fact that I happen to be one of those doesn’t in any way make it more important to me ’cause I’m one of a crowd that includes Sonny Simmons, Barbera Donald, Zitro, Michael Cohn -- fantastic musicians who should have been the great artists of this generation.
Smiley Winters, Perry Robinson, Henry Grimes, Jim Pepper, Albert Stinson -- all of those people should have been leaders in a big way. Trane was a wonderful person; not only that dogged resolve to practice his instrument-no matter what, bt he had a warmth about him, too. He always made time to talk to a young musician, time for help, time for a word, a question, anything. Trane would make time for everyone. As a result, everyone loved him, myself included. He was a wonderful guy. One night at Shelly’s Manhole in Los Angeles he just knocked out the entire audience. Occasionally someone in the audience would scream because of the intensity of the music, myself included. So I went backstage to tell John how much I loved it. And I told him how much he moved me, and he said, “I can’t get anything going tonight. I practice so hard; I don’t understand.” That’s a perfect example of the artist hearing what goes in and the listener hearing what goes out, and it’s always, most always, unrelated - Unrelated!
It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s spirit; that’s what makes us musicians. We feel it inside. Because nobody could pay us for the kind of spiritual awakening we can get from the act of making music. That whole sharing thing between creatures.
A lot of people who only imitate Coltrane missed out on a lot by only digging Coltrane. They missed Lester Young, Don Byas, Wardell Gray, Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Lucky Thompson. So we got three generations of players who sound like they only listen to John Coltrane and are trying to copy Trane too hard. And they missed Lester and Hawk, or Budd Johnson, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Benny Golson; and Johnny Griffin.
There’s the problem that evades and invades jazz today; because people won’t do that; they miss the real tradition of jazz, the real creative process. One style seems to be the trend now, which is that funk R& B style, mixed with Coltrane. There’s so much more than that! Dedication, understanding and study by a young musician is what creates a young musician. Study of the jazz history and hours of listening to masters. Not cloning in on a trendy style. You can’t do it that way. Its deeper. There’s a spirit, and the work. You got to get them from yourself inside.
Tim: When’s the first time you heard Sonny Rollins?
Bert: On that radio show in Chicago. It was very overwhelming to hear, I could see between Coltrane and Sonny Rollins they were reinventing saxophone-ology. And in a very complete way. Sonny Rollins plays like a dancer. And because of my early training as a dancer, I really heard Sonny’s rhythm and the tapping, bouncing dancing way he has. I bet one of Sonny’s influences is Fred Astaire! It’s quite plain to hear.
Sonny Rollins knows more about the saxophone than anyone who’s alive today! He can control two lines at once. People need to study Sonny Rollins for the spirit, the heart and the creativity.
Tim: What about Sonny Simmons? What space does he hold?
Bert: He shoulda got the crown when Coltrane died. Sonny Simmon’s music was ready. He was one of the first saxists to play the new way. His music - the shapes and the way he played form without a preset form - it was much a part of what some other musicians and I were doing that it just set the whole pace for us. We all went that way when we heard Sonny. It put it in focus for all of us!
Simmons has the best parts of Bird, Dolphy, Coltrane, Ornette wound tightly into a personal experience that is his alone. He has a natural amazing facility on the instrument. He taught himself how to play alto saxophone after studying classical oboe and English horn for quite a long time; as a child. He picked up the sax on his own. He was a rock ’n’ roll star in his teens playing tenor, walking the bars in Oakland.
During the early parts of the free jazz movement is when Sonny committed himself to the thing that he was doing all along.
Sonny also studied out of the Nicholas Slominsky book of scales and melodic patterns, and also had been studying Schillinger composition and theory out of the Schillinger books and really coming to grips with the fact that there were more than 8 notes in each scale, and ways to relate them together, and exploring those sounds. He also pushed the constraints and limits of the instrument.
He was a very advanced player. He taught me a lot. We played together all the time. The one record I’m on with him -“Music of the Spheres”- which was done in 1966, is not even close of how far we took it.
Simmons had the most exciting, together, well-formed and most swinging; it was a perfect example of how a unique voice was created from many voices of influencing one person. When you listen to the best musicians and learn from each, you come up with your own voice. He absorbed be-bop totally, before he became influenced by people like Trane and Ornette and Eric Dolphy. What he did was draw the things that he heard the best in his own ears and mind and blend and combine them into what sounds to all of us like Sonny Simmons. Like anyone can do if they try, they’ll come up sounding like themselves, not who they studied, because that’s what happens when you study the masters.
Tim: What about some solos on records you’ve done over the years that you really like?
Bert: The first records I did in 1966 and 1967 have only recently been reissued on CD on the E.S.P. label with the fact that they’ll be out at the same time with my CD called “Further Adventures in Jazz”. There is some very interesting correlations when comparing these discs with the music that first came out and the music that’s happening today. One thing that’s happening is that if you go back to those E.S.P. discs, I used several sounds on sax during that period that had never been on records before. At that time Albert Ayler, Phariah Sanders and a lot of people, including Coltrane, were using extensive sounds that had never been used in this music before. Each one was different and highly personal so it really wasn’t noticed at that time during the entrance of my solo on the “Zitro” record (on E.S.P.) that I played eleven tone clusters in a row that were all melodically and harmonically organized. It didn’t get noticed at all at the time it came out. It will be interesting to see today if those sounds get noticed in context.
I did a double record in 1968 for Arhoolie label in California in Berkley. It was called “Smiley Etc”. On that record, which is still available by the way, there’s a track called “Love is Enlightenment”, and I played a lot of things on soprano sax at that time, a lot of which had never been used at that time, such as tone clusters, overtones and extended ranges.
On one track, called “Two Tranes”; which is a tune of mine, I played several melodic quotes in tone clusters including one which is a direct quote from Wayne Shorters “Nite Dreamer” which I voiced in tone clusters, melodically and harmonically, and exact.
It’s interesting nobody ever noticed that! On the new recordings we’re much more in the context of straight be-bop tunes with order, changes and melody, in swing time in the regular way. But my thing is that I use all of those extended techniques in the music still. You can hear those sounds on “Ionic Implant”or “Happy Pretty”. There’s places in the melody of “Truth” where you can hear multiphonic clusters against the melody. On the earlier record, “Kaleidoscopic Visions” there’s a piece that’s conceived as a study in multiphonics; song and solo are chock full of clusters and multiphonics. Both records are available through North Country, Cadence Magazine. (Write: Cadence, c/o Cadence Building Redwood, NY USA 13679). The title tune is what I’m referring to, it covers a lot of sounds and harmonic areas.
This Cd, " Endless
Fingers" is one of a few others that Tim Price has created liner notes
A working band that is tight is rare these days. A flute player, Nancy Curtis who plays beyond the norm is also rare. Dig her sound and ideas- talk about saying something.
As a creative musician in this century, in Tim's mind, Bert Wilson will be talked about on into the next few centuries. He's that far advanced and his message is never ending.
Dig him at;