Jazz Man

Hamiet Bluiett understands the yin and yang of saxophone

Nov 26, 2003 at 4:00 am
"Most of the music I hear is not hard-core enough. If you're going to play, then play!"

Hamiet Bluiett has been back in southern Illinois for a year now, but when he talks, you can still hear New York City. The 63-year-old native of Lovejoy, often called the finest baritone saxophonist of his generation, pulls no punches, getting right to the point with short declarative sentences, occasionally expounding in vivid detail like a trip down a particularly interesting side street, and frequently punctuating his remarks with the interjection, "You understand?"

More than thirty years after he first left St. Louis for New York, it's natural that Bluiett has absorbed the city's fast pace and no-nonsense demeanor. The yin and yang of NYC is there in his playing, too -- one moment, he's brandishing his big tone and phenomenal upper-register control in a way that verges on brusqueness; the next, he'll abruptly digress into a more lyrical, sensitive passage.

As far as Bluiett has journeyed, coming home seems to suit him. "I've been doing a little woodshedding," he remarks, noting that here he can practice at any time of the day or night without complaints from the neighbors. One of the projects on his to-do list is preparing for his upcoming concert at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. Sponsored by the music department and scheduled to accommodate the weekly music appreciation class, the event will be open to both students and the general public free of charge.

Collaborating with Chicago-based percussionist Kahil El'Zabar and St. Louis' own Reggie Thomas on organ, Bluiett will present original compositions in a variety of styles, with an ear toward entertainment as well as education. "I'm constantly doing things differently. This is barbeque country, so we'll get some barbeque from the organ," he chuckles. "The music I do covers everything, I don't leave anything out."

Often pigeonholed as an avant-garde player, Bluiett is actually an exceptionally well-rounded modernist with a firm grounding in the jazz tradition. He's one of the founding members of the World Saxophone Quartet and of St. Louis' Black Artists Group, and he's known for his work as a sideman to such musicians as Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers and Abdullah Ibrahim, but Bluiett has also recorded more than two dozen albums as a leader.

Those recordings feature music ranging from complex, multipart original compositions to free improvisation to singular interpretations of bebop, ballads and blues. As a composer, Bluiett has also explored massed ensembles featuring multiple clarinets (with Clarinet Family) and baritone saxes (Baritone Nation) and even formed a group, the Barbeque Band, specifically to bring his blues, gospel and funk influences to the fore. As a player, he wields the big horn with the power, athleticism and grace of an NBA seven-footer who can bust through the lane and slam-dunk the ball in your face, or sink a 25-foot fadeaway jumper and hit nothing but net.

Bluiett began learning clarinet at age nine, then gravitated toward the baritone sax a few years later. From the beginning, he wanted to develop a personal sound, and he was determined to test the limits of a horn often relegated to simply filling out the bottom part of ensemble passages. "This is drum and bugle corps country, and I noticed that in the corps, the bigger the horn got, the bigger the sound got. When it came to saxophones, the bigger the horn got, the smaller the sound got. Something about that just didn't make sense to me."

To learn to do anything a tenor or alto sax could do, Bluiett grabbed every available opportunity to play music, no matter what the style or situation. "I did everything I could with this horn," he says. "What I tried to do was take this instrument and play it in as many places as I could play it. I would be playing different kinds of parts, taking tenor parts and playing them on baritone. Sometimes they wouldn't even want me there, but I'd just get up there up and make it work."

One of his early mentors and teachers was George Hudson, who had been a member of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. The Blue Devils were a territory band in the 1920s that included such outstanding players as trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page and alto saxist Henry "Buster" Smith, as well as bassist Walter Page, vocalist Jimmy Rushing and tenor man Lester Young, who all achieved fame working with Count Basie. As the leader of his own big band, Hudson hired many of the area's best young musicians, including Clark Terry and Oliver Nelson. As the music teacher at Elijah Lovejoy High School in East St. Louis, he shared with Bluiett and many other students the lessons he had learned through years of road work.

"We used to go to school early, stay late. Music was my thing, so he was the guy that brought me through all that," recalls Bluiett. "I would go to the regional concerts, where they would put all these musicians together from the different bands at different schools. The other musicians got their parts in advance, but he never gave me the music ahead of time. He made me learn how to sight-read, so my sight-reading now is off the hook. He taught me how to read ahead, looking eight or ten bars down the road so you can make whatever adjustments are needed."

Hudson also provided valuable tutelage in stagecraft. "When someone would make a mistake, other kids would turn around and laugh. He said, 'Don't ever do that,' like a football coach." Hudson knew that audiences simply ignore all but the most egregious errors, and he taught his charges that the true professional simply recovers and moves on. "Now when somebody does something, I don't even look at it like it was a mistake anymore -- that's just the sound that happened," says Bluiett.

Bluiett is in his third decade of providing the foundation for the World Saxophone Quartet, with a new album featuring interpretations of the music of Jimi Hendrix scheduled for release early next year. This time, Bluiett and longtime WSQ members David Murray and Oliver Lake are joined by young multi-reed man Bruce Williams, an alumnus of St. Louis-born trumpeter Russell Gunn's hip-hop jazz group. The WSQ added several guest musicians for the release, including Lake's son Gene on drums; bassist Matthew Garrison (son of Jimmy Garrison, bassist in John Coltrane's famous quartet); trombonist Craig Harris and, as a sort of surrogate lead guitarist on several selections, violinist Billy Bang.

"We can't do Hendrix like Hendrix. We can't just imitate him; we've got to conjure him up," says Bluiett. "Without the originality, you miss the point, so we got Billy Bang to do it on violin. It's a good record. I think it's one of the best things we've done."

All in all, the business of being Bluiett seems to be booming. In 2003, he's been to Canada twice and New York three times, toured Europe and done some multimedia performances in California. Before the year is out, he'll perform again in New York, then head to New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington D.C.

Bluiett is also starting his own record label, beginning with reissues of his long out-of-print albums on India Navigation. The masters were willed back to the label's artists when founder Bob Cummings died, and Bluiett plans to set up a Web site to distribute his own work online, reaching fans around the globe from the comfort of his living room. Though he'll be spending some time in New York, too, Bluiett says, "Right now, Brooklyn, Illinois is my home base for the world."