Sep 19, 2014 - INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN JAZZ SAXOPHONIST MAKES OKLAHOMA DEBUT
Although jazz saxophonist and flutist Greg Abate works well over 200 engagements a year, traveling to venues all across the world, Sunday will mark his first time ever to play in this state.
However, that doesn't mean he doesn't have any Oklahoma connections. One of his closest friends was the late Tulsa musician and jazz aficionado Buddy Hawkins, to whose memory Abate is dedicating his Jazz Depot concert. And while it will be Abate's first time to meet the other musicians on this show, he and bassist Bill Crosby – thanks to Hawkins – already have a strong connection.
“Buddy played conga drum, and he was friends with Bill Evans and all the great jazz players. He was one of Greg Abate's best friends, and one of mine, too,” explains Crosby. “Before he died, Buddy gave me all his vinyl [records] and CDs, and I have four CD's that Greg signed for him. Greg even wrote a song for him called `Buddy's Rendezvous.' It's the first tune on one of those CDs.”
“Buddy Hawkins – what a great friend he was,” adds Abate, who met Hawkins after the latter had moved from Tulsa to Ohio. “I really miss him. He used to mention the [Oklahoma] Jazz Hall of Fame to me a lot.”
All of that makes it fitting that one of the numbers Abate plans to perform Sunday is “Buddy's Rendezvous” – his tribute to a Tulsa jazz figure and friend. Other than the Hawkins association, though, the closest Abate has gotten to Oklahoma goes back decades, to a time when he was still a student in Boston.
“I've never played in Oklahoma, but I've played the play,” he notes. “I played in the [orchestra] pit back in the late '60s. My teacher at the Berklee College of Music couldn't make one of the shows, so he sent me to do it. I subbed on clarinet and tenor [sax] for him.
“They didn't like me,” he adds, “because I would embellish the parts. The dancers were looking back at the conductor, and there were complaints because I was swinging, playing with a jazz style.”
While the orchestra for a production of Oklahoma! might not have been the best place to air out his jazz chops, Abate soon found loads of other opportunities. After graduating from Berklee College, he went to work for soul-music giant Ray Charles, playing lead alto sax in the Charles band for two years. Following that, he formed his own jazz group, Channel One, and then joined an orchestra playing the music of another legendary name, big-band leader Artie Shaw. Shaw had put down his clarinet and retired from the music business in 1954, but in the early '80s, he'd organized a new band, placing clarinetist Dick Johnson in charge. Abate, who'd played several jobs with Johnson prior to his taking over the Shaw band, calls Johnson “a great player, and my mentor.”
“I joined the band in '86, and Artie was at my audition,” recalls Abate. “Through the two years I played with them, he would go with us on certain tours. When we'd back up Rosemary Clooney or Mel Torme at the Hollywood Bowl, Artie would come out and say a few words, putting down the rock 'n' roll people.
“One time we were at Disneyland, playing six nights at the Cinderella Ballroom outside, and people were really dancing to Artie Shaw's music. And Artie came out in a topcoat and hat, looking like the Bardahl Man, and sat in the crowd. All of these people are dancing to his music, and they didn't know that the Artie Shaw was sitting there, watching them dance. It was wild.”
Abate also recorded with the group, which led to a hard lesson he remembers to this day.
“I did a recording session with the Artie Shaw band, and then we flew to Texas, and within the next day or two Dick Johnson called me up to his hotel room. When I got there, he told me that Artie Shaw had cut my solo out [of the recording].
“Dick said, `He said you didn't tell a story when you played. You just played a lot of notes.'
“I was devastated,” he concludes, “But it taught me a lesson.”
In the decades since, Abate has kept busy as a critically acclaimed soloist, bandleader, and recording artist. His 2004 disc Evolution was nominated for a Grammy in four different categories, but perhaps the most high-profile CD of his career to date is 2012's The Greg Abate Quintet, featuring Grammy-winning saxophonist Phil Woods. The two sax giants had “never played a note together,” Abate says, before they went into the studio to record that disc. A live Abate-Woods collaboration was recorded in August; it's set for an early 2015 release by the Massachusetts-based label Whaling City Sound.
“Phil and I have this camaraderie thing going,” says Abate. “He was always one of my idols, one of the great alto players. Everybody picks up a lot from Phil Woods.”
One of the things Abate picked up was a ringing endorsement that Woods gave him to use on the back of the Greg Abate Quintet disc. Woods wrote, simply, “I sleep a lot better at night knowing that there are alto players like Greg Abate out there.”
“That's a really nice quote,” says Abate. “Sometimes, people just give you a gift.”
And Abate is sharing his own gift: education. “We’re so lucky to have Greg bringing his talent here, leading several master classes at the Jazz Depot and working with our award-winning Tulsa Jam'bassadors,” says Jason McIntosh, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “It’s such a tremendous opportunity for our young musicians to be granted the opportunity to learn from such a talented musician whose gracious and sharing nature lives up to his musical skills.”
Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2014 Autumn Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fameis a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.