Bud Shank has something to say on the saxophone.
At age 75, there’s an urgency about it, too; he wants to perform as much as possible while he’s still able, while he still has the tools and the inspiration.
After all, Shank believes, that’s the point of the art form — to communicate. “Like a tree falling in the middle of the woods,” he explains with a twist on the metaphor, “if there’s nobody to hear it, what the hell difference does it make?”
His voice is raspy with the last stages of bronchitis, but he’s pushing on, making sure he’s heard. Last year, in fact, was the most productive of his busy career. Shank names the continents toured, the cruises, clubs and festivals played — as a single, in duos, with his quartet and sextet — the recording session, the new CD. This month he’s off to Hawaii and then to Laguna Beach for a tribute to the Lighthouse All-Stars. When we spoke at his Portland-area houseboat in August, the saxophonist was limping on a bad knee. Yet he’s playing the best he ever has, many listeners argue, full of vitality and new ideas.
And no wonder. Only during the past 15 years has Shank finally achieved a complete and unified instrumental voice and begun to play the way he’d always wanted. At last he can say without reservation, “A jazz alto saxophone player — that’s what I am.”
In his recent music, we hear the joy that comes of finding his voice, of reconciling extroverted bebop exuberance with melodic development and compositional integrity. In the process of becoming himself, Shank was compelled time and again by circumstance to restrain his own voice. Fortunately, he’s had a life of second chances, of frustration leading to breakthrough, and his saga eventually becomes a tale of triumph.
Of course life never fits neatly into a story — Shank’s triumph is somewhat limited by the realities of the music business, and the compelling circumstances were sometimes of his own making. Especially after 75 years, life weaves a tangled web. Seeing it up-close, while its maker is still spinning, may cause us to miss the pattern or, in our zeal to make sense, mistake a part for the whole.
Shank feels he’s been the victim of such generalizations all too often in his many-splendored career, especially because his complex evolution as a performer and composer has been perceived as simply West Coast jazz — a style that never fit him comfortably even as he gained initial fame with it.
But here is one account of his career that Shank believes is accurate:
Until his 60s, his life was a struggle to escape the bounds of one box or another.
Personal and psychological limitations hemmed him in as a youth. Then he was trapped in the symphonic ponderousness of Stan Kenton’s Innovations in Modern Music orchestra. From there he moved into the strictures of West Coast jazz. And then, as he was breaking out of that mold, he was forced into the confines of studio work for 15 years. Escaping from there, he found himself in the equally restrictive box of the L.A. Four. Finally, he trapped himself briefly in a box made of his own anger and frustration.
This view of Shank’s history does help make sense of the changes in his music and explain his late flowering. But that interpretation is just one angle on a web that shifts with changing light. It offers us a beautiful story, though, of a man who reinvents himself in the late stages of his career and emerges the artist he always wanted to be.
The early years — “I decided when I was ten years old that I was going to be a professional musician.”
Born Clifford Everett Shank, Jr. on May 27, 1926, he was raised on a farm outside Dayton, Ohio. Later, his family moved to North Carolina, where he became a music major at the university. In 1946, he and his friends quit school to go on the road playing jazz. Those early years were not always easy, Shank recalls, partly because he lacked self-confidence in social situations due to a condition called “lazy eye” and two front teeth that had been broken and turned black.
Though that first band didn’t last, Shank was determined to make his way as a professional musician rather than return to school. According to Ted Gioia in his book, “West Coast Jazz,” the young musician borrowed money to buy a flute and hitched a ride to Los Angeles, where he acquired a piecemeal education on the flute before he landed a job with the Charlie Barnet Band. He had primarily been playing tenor at the time, but after a year, the lead alto chair came open and Shank made the first big musical change of his life by switching to the smaller horn. After all, the alto was where the excitement was in 1947, when Charlie Parker first brought bebop to the West Coast. Though Shank was fascinated by Parker’s sound, he had already developed a few distinctive features of his own.
“I learned to swing by listening to Lester Young and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn,” he says. “My foundation was as a tenor player, and it never really left me. I’ve had people say, ‘You play the alto but sound like a tenor player,’ and that’s why — it’s still there.”
It’s instructive to note, however, that the one instrument Shank took on his first trip to Los Angeles was the flute — the start of a long and ambivalent relationship.
Apprenticeship with Kenton — “It was a hell of an experience for kids that age.”
Ironically, Shank’s next big break came precisely because of his skill on flute. Kenton’s Innovations in Modern Music orchestra boasted a host of excellent jazz players, from Art Pepper to Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers to Maynard Ferguson, but its primary composers, including Pete Rugolo and Bill Russo, were aiming for a combination of European classical music with jazz. As a result, Shank told Gioia, “The band was too clumsy to swing.” With a string section and emphasis on instrumental colors, Shank was often called upon to play the flute (Pepper took the bulk of the alto solos). And the music was a challenge.
“Stan told all those composers, ‘Write anything you want,’ so they wrote without in anyway whatsoever being concerned about who was playing,” Shank recalls. “They were anticipating James Galway playing first flute, not me, and that music was hard, man. I heard a band of professional studio musicians try to play “City of Glass” a couple of years ago, and it was the worst thing you ever heard. But we did it somehow.
“All the guys on the horn side were in their early 20s,” he continues, “and it was a hell of an experience for kids that age. It was a great training ground for us who had to later go into the studios to make a living in the ’60s, too.”
Of course they didn’t know it at the time, in 1951, when Shank began working and recording with the Lighthouse All-Stars, with the Brazilian classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida and with Bob Cooper in flute/oboe duets. They didn’t know that the jazz business would end for them in ten years; they were just entering the years of peak popularity for the music that was coming to be called West Coast jazz.
West Coast Jazz — “Bebop arranged.”
“I really hate when they keep tacking that label on me now,” Shank says. “Even at the Mt. Hood Festival, the guy says, ‘Here’s that West Coast sound again.'” Shank shudders. “I wasn’t trying to do that.” And then he laughs.
Sure, there was an approach to playing jazz that seemed to be shared by a number of California modernists during the early ’50s, and Shank participated in a number of recording sessions that helped to define that sound (many issued on Pacific Jazz). And he will admit that there were differences between the dominant West Coast style and what was called hard bop and identified with New York City.
“There was more writing being done, as opposed to what was happening in New York at the time,” he agrees, “and writers were doing things for groups larger than a quintet, maybe for an eight or ten-piece” (Shank played in and recorded with Gerry Mulligan’s noted Tentette in the early ’50s). “And the improvisation was a little bit cooler, a bit more subtle, a little more intellectual approach.
“Shorty Rogers was sort of the self-proclaimed leader of all that,” he says, “and he was a very soft player, because he couldn’t play any other way.”
He sees no geographical basis for the label, however.
“It was also said that, had the group of guys they tacked that label on moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Shank avers, “they still would have played the same way, and there aren’t any orange trees there.” Gioia disagrees, however, arguing that conditions in California — a group of local record companies who presented the music to the public, and opportunities to play in clubs that attracted musicians to the area, for instance — helped establish some stylistic uniformity. But Shank sees another hand at work in the generally pejorative definitions of West Coast jazz:
“It had a lot to do with the critics,” he says. “All of a sudden something happened they didn’t know anything about and weren’t responsible for.” It was necessary, some claim, for Kenton’s manager to drive the Downbeat magazine editor from New York to Los Angeles in order to get him to listen to the Kenton band. There were few critics of stature on the West Coast at the time, and those from the east seemed to describe the emerging California school as the mutually exclusive opposite of what was being played in New York — despite the fact that the recording that gave birth to the West Coast sound, “The Birth of the Cool,” was made in New York by New York musicians.
Though the music had wide popularity with listeners, as evidenced by record sales and jazz magazine reader poll results, it came to be viewed by influential critics as a watered down, polite version of bebop. And a few of Shank’s recordings helped to lock him into that bag.
He didn’t stay there long, though. By 1956, Shank had left Los Angeles to take his quartet on the road, where he began to assert a more individual sound. But first he had to realize the limitations of the form himself.
New Year’s Eve, 1955 — “I got away from the influence of the leaders of the West Coast stuff.”
“For me,” he says, “the height came when Jimmy Guiffre was trading fours between horn and rhythm section with Shelly Manne, and Guiffre played four bars of air (blowing through the horn and moving the keys so that they are heard but no notes actually sound). So Shelly followed that up by playing four bars of nothing.”
The limits of restraint had been reached, and for Shank, “the ridiculousness had been revealed.” So what did he do? “I just started being more myself,” he explains. “I had been sort of forced to play a certain way by the surroundings in which I was placed — quietly, politely, coolly, melodically, however you want to put it. But when I got out of there and put the quartet together and was on the road, it just brought more out of me. I became a little more aggressive, started playing better tunes I developed, I grew up. I got away from the influence of the leaders of the West Coast stuff, so I was entirely on my own.”
The change in Shank is documented on a boxed set issued by Mosaic in 1999 that covers his recorded output from 1956-1961, years in which, Shank says, “a big change in my playing happened.”
Though he exhibited a more aggressive, extroverted style on recordings made with the Lighthouse All-Stars, he felt increasingly confined in that unit, and his growing prominence as a leader made it inevitable: On New Year’s eve, 1955, he and pianist Claude Williamson (with bassist Don Prell and drummer Chuck Flores) left the Lighthouse to form the Bud Shank Quartet. The saxophonist hasn’t been a sideman since.
“Why did I become a bandleader? I’m an organizer,” he answers, “not a leader necessarily; I just put things together. It’s difficult for some guys to even put a show together, take care of the logistics of traveling. I can thrive on that; I don’t demand it, it’s not an ego thing. But I really do hate working for people — the example is Shorty Rogers — who can’t organize.”
It’s noteworthy that the recordings collected in the Mosaic set were heard by few listeners — Shank estimates that, of the ten albums he made during those years, only 1,000 copies sold. And yet he’s more proud of that material than the commercially successful albums he made before. He was on his way, he felt, when he formed his second major quartet of that period, with bassist Gary Peacock, guitarist Dennis Budimir and drummer Carmel Jones, which achieved “a marvelous floating feeling.”
Shanks feels he reached a peak with those groups in the early ’60s, and that made the next development all the more hard to swallow . “That’s when jazz went in the toilet,” he says. “I didn’t play any jazz for 15 years after that.”
The Studio Years — “All of us secretly thought that our lives as jazz musicians were over.”
“During those years,” Shank recalls, “I was a sailboat junkie. I had a boat at Marina del Rey that I raced, and I crewed on other boats, too. Racing dominated my life I was skipper of the boat instead of being leader of the band.”
A number of circumstances combined to bring jazz activity to its lowest ebb in the ’60s. As if in compensation, at the same time the number of studio jobs for musicians in Los Angeles increased, so “those who were equipped,” as Shank says, found work there. Being equipped meant, for Shank, playing the flute.
“Who needs a jazz tenor player in the studios?” he asks. “They wanted flute players or oboe and clarinet players. Almost all the work I did had to do with the fact that I could function as a classical flutist. The movies was a flute world.”
So the flute came to dominate Shank’s musical life, while he made money to support his family and race expensive sailboats. It was not exactly a cushy job, though.
“It was heart attack-ville for a lot of people,” he says. “Pressure. You sit by the phone and you never say no, because the first time you do, they’ll never call again. A very cut-throat business. It was a straight job,” he points out. “Spend all night in a recording studio for some stupid pop star, then get up at seven o’clock in the morning to play on a movie thing all day the next day. That’s the kind of industrial life it was.”
Though some writers have claimed that African-American musicians were denied those lucrative studio jobs, Shank disagrees:
“I so much disagree with this blackball thing that Leonard Feather and a few other writers put out,” he says. “A black saxophone player named Bill Green, who played all the woodwinds well, he worked constantly; Buddy Collette worked an awful lot; so did Ray Brown, Bobby Bryant, Snooky Young . Most of all it was, Are you equipped?”
And if you were, as Shank was, you worked. And worked. They thought jazz was over for them.
“At the time, nobody said it. But all of us secretly thought that our lives as jazz musicians were over. And as we began to see some light at the end of those years, people would occasionally say, ‘Man, did you know what I thought?’ ”
But Shank and his friends still harbored their original dreams of jazz. “That’s why the minute the door was open, I got the hell out,” he says. “Second chance!”
The L.A. Four — “We made it work for seven years, and then we just couldn’t go anywhere with it.”
Shank’s second burst of commercial success came with the L.A. Four — Ray Brown, Laurindo Almeida and Shelly Manne — a co-op chamber jazz group that, he says, “was an experiment from in front. On paper, a classical guitarist and three jazz musicians was totally impossible. But we made it work for seven years We played a lot of jazz adaptations of classical music and a lot of sambas. But when we played any straightahead jazz, we’d tell Laurindo to not play.
“He wasn’t an improviser,” Shank says. “But he was a very good classical guitarist and he played the samba well, because anybody who grew up in Rio played the samba well.” Gradually, Shank’s frustrations with the limitations of the group become more apparent. But part of it was due to personal changes that moved him farther away from wanting to play chamber jazz.
“Another huge change that happened to me in the mid-70s, when I was about 50 years old,” Shank continues, “was I had surgery to correct my eye. I was born with the lazy eye, which they didn’t even know about when I was a kid. I was one of these guys (he points a finger at a 60 degree angle away from his eye), and I was extremely self-conscious about it. It’s been 25 years and the surgery is still holding. Anyway, that did a lot for me — I could finally look somebody in the eye.
“And it made a big change in me musically,” he adds. “The unfortunate thing was that when this was happening, I was in the L.A. Four, and there was no place to really stretch out. So I held it back and held it back and then it finally started to explode in the middle part of the ’80s.”
Escape to Freedom — “When I threw away my flutes .”
The L.A. Four broke up in 1983, and by that time Shank had sold the sailboat and moved to Port Townsend, Wash., realizing that he didn’t need or want to live in Los Angeles anymore, and realizing that “All I ever wanted to be was a jazz alto saxophone player.
“I always felt flute was a strange jazz instrument anyway,” Shank reveals. “It lacks guts compared to the sax, trumpet and trombone. There’s a reason everybody uses those basic instruments in jazz. You start bringing in toys, that’s exactly what they sound like, even though I was pretty good at it. But so what?” He laughs derisively.
That move took him “back to the bottom,” he says. “In the mid-1980s, I was almost 60 years old and went back to working little $100 jobs in little joints in Bend, Oregon. I had to prove to myself that I could still do it, and I had to prove to other people that I was capable of it.”
He had to show that he was no “studio sausage,” no whimpy West Coast flute player. At first, it wasn’t pretty.
“I took it overboard and made it ugly,” he says. “And it went on for a few years that way.” Honking, over-blowing, ferocious bursts at odds with his previous fluid melodicism sometimes startled his fans. But with his confidence restored, Shank began to explore composition like he never had before, and a series of recordings — “After You, Jeru,” “Bud Shank Plays the Music of Bill Evans,” the current sextet album, “The Silver Storm,” and another CD upcoming with that group, “On the Trail” — established him as an interesting composer as well as a reborn soloist. And today, it’s again melody that drives his writing and playing.
“I think melody is an important part of my playing as an improviser. I’m a melody guy. I write melodies and let them swing as much as possible.”
In that sense, Shank is not really a different player from the young man who made those West Coast jazz sessions in the ’50s: “I can still play like I did in 1953,” he says, “I can still make that same sound; I do it occasionally, as one of the colors I use. I didn’t change all that drastically. I still have the same horn and almost the same mouthpiece.”
Out of the bebop tradition, Shank is writing new melodies and using the extensions of chords like many post-bop players today. He does it well because of the daily practice that allows him to maintain his tone and technique.
“Practice, practice, practice. Just me and my saxophone and my chair. I have an especially wide-open mouthpiece, which helps me get those colors. And if I don’t practice, my chops hurt. It’s necessary to practice for me to control that mouthpiece and do the things I want to do.”
“That’s one of the good things about being a flute player for so long,” he says, “besides making me a lot of money — the breath control I learned.”
For Shank, as for most bebop horn players, achieving an identifiable sound is the ultimate goal. “Your sound is what you hear in your ear, not what comes back from a tape machine or what goes through an amplifier and a microphone,” he says. “Most of the young people now, all they want to be is loud, blow the shit out of the thing. But the sound goes loud right to there (points to bell of his horn) and then it goes — flop.”
His concern with young players grows naturally from his position as artistic director of the Port Townsend Jazz Festival and the accompanying Bud Shank Jazz Workshop, which routinely fills its 225 student slots and employs 27 faculty musicians each year.
“It’s our duty to pass on what we have learned, if we’re the tribal leaders or whatever. The art form is so fragile anyway,” he observes, “with the businesses and record companies doing their best to destroy it. And if there aren’t enough of us holding up the good important principles of what was established before us, from an artistic standpoint, it really is going to go in the toilet.”
Shank’s hope is that his workshops produce not only future jazz musicians (alumni include Ben Wolfe, Diana Krall and Eric Anderson), but many listeners. “We can make five professional jazz musicians and 220 jazz fans who go out and tell other people what they’ve learned and felt, and expand it that way,” he says.
But for the most part, his main concern these days is his music.
“I feel I’m still improving as a composer and a player,” he says. “And when I get to the point where I don’t think I am improving, that’s the time to quit. And I will.”
Bud Shank on Composition
Shank’s favorite originals are all from the past six years, and include “After You, Jeru,” from the tribute album to Gerry Mulligan by the same name, and “Evanessence,” another tribute from “Bud Shank Plays the Music of Bill Evans.” He’s also fond of “Wildflower’s Lullabye,” dedicated to wife and manager, Linda, from “The Silver Storm,” and he’s written another ballad, “Sacajewea,” from the upcoming “On the Trail” CD.
Discussing the latter, he reveals his approach to composition:
“It’s a tribute to her. She came all the way to Astoria with Lewis and Clark after she had her baby and spent the first winter there. I wanted it to be lady-like, and that’s why I put that waltz in the middle I’m trying to stay away from AABA songs, because I think we’ve got too much of that. So I just let an idea, which is the opening statement, the first two bars, just let it develop, let it go where it wants to go. And somewhere after it’s gone there, I’ll pull it back where I can restate the original theme and tie it together.
“Since I threw my flutes away in 1985, I’ve had a chance to really study composition, not formally but by listening and looking. My keyboard playing is still atrocious, but it’s about ten thousand percent better than it was before, and that’s helped a lot.
“My synopsis of the whole thing is that we haven’t done everything that we can do to ‘All the Things You Are’ yet. We’re getting close, but there are still things that I and other musicians keep finding in those old songs that are new and fresh.
“I still love playing with a quartet. That’s the root of everything. But there’s not much room for writing there. So my new-found interest in writing has led me to the sextet. But writing for three horns is really hard. I talked to Manny Abrams and Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer. I was working on that first “Silver Storm” album, and I asked them, ‘How the hell do you write for three horns?’ All three of them said, ‘Write unison.’ So I just fiddled around with the intervals. And even counterpoint — you’ve got two horns on one line but you’ve only got one horn on the other line, so then it’s out of balance. So I started experimenting with these tight little things where I’ve got a half-step in every chord, either a half-step or a whole step, either melody way up here (gestures to music staff page) or way down here in the low part. That makes it sound a lot bigger. As opposed to using a triad, which sounds terrible. But that violates every rule in the orchestration books — ‘Never have a half-step or a whole step on the top.’Â But it works, it makes the group sound better. ‘On the Trail’ is an example, and there are elements of it in ‘Buster’s Last Stand.'” (Both are from the upcoming album, “On the Trail,” which chronicles an imaginary journey through the western U.S., with songs composed or borrowed for the occasion, from “The Grand Canyon Suite” for the title tune to “Avalon” and “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.”)