Julian Priester: Spirit Child

Originally published in Earshot Jazz September 2011, Vol. 27, No. 09

Outside room 209, on the second floor of Kerry Hall at Cornish College, flattened cardboard boxes and a hand cart lean against the wall. They await Julian Priester, Professor of Trombone and Jazz History. He retired on May 14th, 2011 with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts after thirty two years of service. With the help of a student, the boxes will transport Priester’s teaching materials from his studio back to his south Seattle home.

Inside the studio, nine boxes full of scores, books, recordings, trombone mutes clump in the far corner. Sun filters through two tall south facing windows that gaze over the corner of Roy and Boylston streets. Cracked and chipped white paint ornament the stark walls, high ceiling, and radiator. A crisp black Kawai baby grand piano rests atop utilitarian grey industrial carpet.

Silence hangs in the air. On a small chalk board, neatly written scales and rhythms hint at the sounds that filled this studio. Here, and in nearby rehearsal rooms, Priester shared his skills, stories, and studies. A quiet end to this chapter in his career belies the length of experience, depth of artistry, and breadth of creativity Priester carries forward into every situation.

Humility gained from Captain Walter Dyett at Chicago’s DuSable High School, the pit orchestra of New York’s Schubert Theater, and work as an on-call studio musician set a positive model for students. Practical experience gleaned from Priester’s world travels with Sun Ra, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Max Roach, Thad Jones, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Holland add depth to his lessons. Recordings of his compositions by Ray Charles, Maria Muldaur, Patrice Rushen, Abbey Lincoln, Eddie Henderson, Philly Joe Jones, Sam Rivers, Reggie Workman, Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Timmons, Clifford Jordan, and Lee Morgan testify to the significance of studying his written music. An extensive discography of improvising with these and other creative artists for more than fifty years authenticates the lineage of jazz offered to students in his “spontaneous composition” ensembles.

To teach “spontaneous composition” he helped students identify what they heard so that they could respond musically. One technique involved instructing a student how to relate to pitch through their voice. First, a student learns to identify the lowest note they can hum. Next, the student identifies the interval between a heard note and the lowest hummed note. Then, the student develops a musical response given the harmonic and melodic implications of this interval. With practice, this can open up a student’s ears to assign a harmonic picture from the sound a group is producing.

Acquiring this skill can be difficult, especially for young students experiencing life away from home for the first time. “I encourage students to stay open minded when they get discouraged. I remind them that bad experiences are only temporary.”

In addition to collaborating with and encouraging students, Priester developed ensembles and performed with other Cornish faculty members. His first concert was July 15, 1979 with pianist Art Lande. Over three decades at Cornish he performed with Hadley Caliman, Jay Clayton, Chuck Deardorf, Denney Goodhew, Jerry Granelli, Randy Halberstadt, Wayne Horvitz, Carter Jefferson, Jim Knapp, Joni Metcalf, and Gary Peacock.

Priester’s work in Seattle extends beyond academic circles. He performed in the rhythm and blues band Jr. Cadillac. He even helped journalists evolve vocabulary to communicate an appropriate level of artistic respect to jazz, for example “play” became “perform” and “local musician” became “regional performing artist.” In 1984, Priester was quoted in the Seattle Times, “Seattle is basically a rock and roll town. It’s a good place to cultivate jazz. I’m optimistic.”

Priester’s positive attitude about jazz was instilled at an early age. “My dad was a Baptist minister and my mom was an avid Christian. I was exposed to jazz through my older brother jamming with his friends. I was fascinated with jazz musician’s names – Monk, Diz, Bird – and the excitement of my brother and his friends while they were listening. I developed my ear by going to the piano and picking out the melodies from the records. Then my parents got me piano lessons.”

“My high school band director Captain Dyett outlawed the word ‘can’t.’ He emphasized positive thinking. Positive thinking attracts positive things. I attribute my success to being in the right place at the right time. Benefits came my way. I was always rescued from crises.”

Dyett may have emphasized the positive, but he would challenge students. “Music came pretty easily to me so I guess I was a little too sure of myself. I had a little trombone solo in one piece. Dyett came over to me in the rehearsal and put his hand on my shoulder. It destroyed my bravado. I have been more humble ever since. Now I study instead of relying on instincts. I carry that around with me beyond music.”

Positive thinking and humility didn’t guarantee smooth sailing. “I had a crisis early in life. I was married at age seventeen with two daughters. I was working with Sun Ra. He was more of a legend than a supplier of funds. I was not yet established as a professional musician. It was hard on the family. I found an apartment in the projects but I couldn’t even make that rent.”

“Lionel Hampton asked me to go on the road in 1956. I was making $25 a night but had to pay for my food and room and send money home for rent. Hampton stranded me in New York City. That was a GOOD thing.”

“The tenor player from Hampton’s band, Eddie Chamblee married Dinah Washington and asked me to go on the road with the band. One day Dinah got in a fight with Eddie and fired him. She threw his saxophone against the wall. She called the maid back in New York to get all his clothes out of the apartment. Dinah offered ME the jobs of being band manager AND her lover. I declined both opportunities and went back to Chicago.”

“In 1958 I decided to move to New York. Three of us drove straight from Chicago to the Five Spot in New York. When we got there, [Chicago saxophonist] Johnny Griffin was playing with Thelonious Monk. After the gig we went back to Griffin’s apartment and cooked breakfast.”

“Griffin introduced me to Orrin Keepnews, the producer for Riverside records. Orrin hired me in the shipping department. Through that relationship I got to record with Blue Mitchell, Johnny Griffin, and Philly Joe Jones. Max Roach heard the recordings and asked me to join his band to replace Ray Draper.”

“I left Max in 1961 when he broke down. He was abusing some medication he was taking and his body could not absorb the alcohol from beer he was drinking. We were at Peps in Philadelphia to play a benefit for Lem Winchester. Lem played vibraphone and was classmate of Clifford Brown’s. [Trumpeter Clifford Brown age 25 and pianist Richie Powell age 24 died in a car accident while on the road to a gig with Max Roach in 1956.] “Booker Little [the trumpet player in Max’s band at the time] was very ill [Little died of kidney failure at age 23 later that year]. His hands were swollen and couldn’t play.”

“Ted Curson subbed for Booker but he didn’t know the music. Max lost it. He got on the microphone and was talking to the audience about how sad the music sounded.”

Priester stepped to the side of the stage during the tirade and lit up a cigarette. At some point Max stopped talking, walked over to Priester and cold cocked him right in the chin. Julian headed backstage to pack up his things. The club owner interceded and said, “Max apologizes.” Priester said, “Why can’t Max come back here and apologize?” Max came back and through clenched teeth said, “I’m sorry. The band will be fired if you leave.” Priester decided to stay.

During the next set, Julian was playing a solo and started to bear down. Suddenly, Max stopped playing. Julian turned to see Max climbing over his drums in a rage. They wrestled on the floor and fell into a bunch of whiskey bottles behind the bar. The bartender tried to break up the fight. The band got fired. “We made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Right after that Max invited me to come with him to a therapist. I went back with Max in 1964 but left after another incident in 1965.”

Lucky for Priester, not all of his employers hit him. His first record as a leader came out in 1960, a year before the fight with Roach in Philadelphia. The album was titled Keep Swingin’ and featured a picture of a boxer standing behind Priester. Who knew the album’s title was a premonition?

Priester’s second record as a leader also came out in 1960 and the title Spiritsville, was echoed later in his career. In 1970, Priester joined Herbie Hancock’s sextet that blended electronics, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, to explore funk, ambient, and free music. Everyone in the band acquired Swahili names to deepen the bonds within the close knit ensemble. Trombonist Julian Priester almost got the Swahili name for “great cook” because the band appreciated a breakfast he prepared. Instead he adopted the name Pepo Mtoto which means “spirit child.” For the band’s first album, Mwandishi, Priester wrote a long open vehicle for exploration called “Wandering Spirit Song.”

Throughout his career, Priester’s spirit animates his music, breathes warmth into his voice and instrumental tone, imparts courage and determination to students, lifts the mood of those in his presence, demonstrates loyalty and dedication to his peers, and reveals his soul to the listener. His artistry touched a wide swath of improvised music. When Priester’s peers heard about this article, several contributed comments. A selection of excerpts appears below.

Saxophonist Bennie Maupin talks about meeting Priester, then playing with him in Herbie Hancock’s sextet from 1970 to 1973.

“The first time I met Julian was at Van Gelder’s studio for McCoy Tyner’s record Tender Moments. I knew about him before that. He was right up there with J.J. Johnson and the other great trombonists.”
“We played our first gig [with Herbie Hancock’s sextet] in Seattle in 1971. [According to the Seattle Times, the sextet first played in Seattle at the Seattle Center Arena on October 4, 1970 for the Northwest Jazz Spectacular. They shared the bill with Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Joe Brazil then booked them at the Club Ebonee at 1214 E. Pike October 9-11.] The horns [trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Priester, saxophonist Maupin] got together in the hotel to rehearse our parts. The rhythm section instruments were already set up on stage so they [pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Billy Hart] rehearsed there.”

“The first time we played together as a band was on stage. It was a real coming together that was so magical. It was so amazing that after the first two hour set, we went to the break room and we couldn’t even talk to each other.”

“For the next three years, every night was amazing. Julian never played the same thing twice. He was my teacher every night on the bandstand. He is a master improviser. I was continuously blown away by what he was playing. Julian is a remarkable soloist. The experiences we had together were fantastic. When I go back and listen, it still blows me away.”

Pianist Dawn Clement talks about being a student of Priester and performing with him in Priester’s Cue.

“Julian is an amazing teacher. He's very methodical, articulate, and patient. He had such a huge connection to the history of the music, bringing in guests like Pharaoh Sanders and Eddie Henderson.”

“Julian fills a room not with volume but with a quiet presence. He doesn't boast or talk too much in fact he only says things at the perfect time and only what needs to be said. He carries himself with a proud posture.”

“His music has a way of challenging you as a listener and as a player. Within the challenge lies a simplicity that is unique to only his hand and character. The same could be said of his playing. As soon as you hear that first note you know it is Julian. He manages to always be himself and compliment whoever he is with. He is a true artist and innovator.”

Drummer Byron Vannoy talks about being a student of Priester and performing with him in Priester’s Cue.

“He still approaches music with the enthusiasm and interest of a beginner, but with the knowledge of a true jazz master. Julian always played in every ensemble he taught at Cornish. He allowed all his students to experience performing with him no matter what level they were at. Julian listens very deeply at all times to the whole sound of group he’s playing with and plays or doesn’t play based on what he hears. He is an extremely thoughtful player and has a wonderful sense of space.”

Multi-instrumentalist Steve Moore (a.k.a. Stebmo) talks about being Priester’s student.

“Probably because he's been in so many different musical situations, Julian seems to be able to teach just how to be the most Musical in any given situation. I've heard so many musicians express how being next to Julian and hearing his sound, how he navigates and improvises in the moment, teaches you all that can be taught regarding music. The music above the music!”

Drummer Jimmy Bennington, Cadence Recording Artist, talks about his recording Portraits and Silhouettes.

“To play with one of my heroes in this music and hear those melodies that belong to Julian alone unfold in front of me was beyond description. After the recording session, Julian was kind enough to sit down with me for an oral documentation telling of his early life and musical beginnings to round out the music we had made.”

“That recording earned us an Honorable Mention in AllAboutJazz New York's Best Recordings of 2007 as well as a featured spot at the 30th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival. We made two nights at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge in Chicago with Mr. Anderson as well as former Arkestra members in attendance. Words cannot describe the absolute thrill of sharing the stage in such settings with this legend.”

Relieved of the teaching load at Cornish, Priester looks forward to opportunities as guest clinician and lecturer. With plenty of time to log the required three hours of daily trombone practice, his physical energy is not always up to the task. A liver transplant in 2000 stabilized his health. Now, dialysis improves his energy and he is in line to receive a kidney transplant. Meanwhile, he searches for a way to release a 2007 recording of his band Priester’s Cue made at Van Gelder Studios with the help of Don Sickler. Keep swingin’ Julian.

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