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Jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd makes his home in Kerhonkson but is known throughout the world as a musician of exceptional brilliance and creativity. Erik Gliedman photo
The high priest of mo' honk!
Former frontline man with Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy and
Carla Bley blows a mean horn
By DB Leonard
ROSWELL RUDD IS A TROMBONIST FROM THE GENERATION of musicians that has forever defined jazz and all the free-form improvisation that comes with that title.
He has discovered more than a decade’s worth of inspiration in Kerhonkson and become intimately involved with the creative community, which has embraced and expanded Rudd’s take on music.
“My official moniker these days is the funky high priest of Mo’ Honk,” says Rudd. “Meaning more honk.”
On his 78th birthday on Nov. 24, Rudd will celebrate the release of his latest album, “Trombone for Lovers.” A preview of the record brought a sold-out audience to the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock in August.
Considered the father of free-jazz trombone, Rudd was a near-permanent fixture at all the hot spots in the West Village and the New York City clubs throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
“The Metropol, Birdland, the Five Spot,” lists Rudd. “And I mean the old Five Spot. The important thing for me was to be in the presence of great improvisers. In order to do that I needed to go to New York City and get around to the clubs and the great old players to get a foundation.”
These “great old players” included saxophonists Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy, pianist/composer Carla Bley and double bassist Charlie Haden. In the early ’60s Rudd performed with Herbie Nichols, who became an esteemed mentor for the blossoming trombonist. In 1962, Rudd joined trumpeter Bill Dixon and his free jazz group, which included Shepp.
The foundation Rudd established as a trombonist has lasted to this day. At 75 years of age, Rudd was awarded best trombonist of the year by Downbeat Magazine, the culmination of a 65-year musical journey.
A church lady inspires
“Music in my house consisted of Protestant hymns that my mother played all the time and a little European parlor music on piano. My maternal grandmother was a real church lady who came from a long line of preachers from Wales, England,” says Rudd.
“She could do something called ‘descant,’ which goes back into religion in Europe. It’s a technique that you hear in a lot of gospel music in which a singer who can embellish and improvise just takes off over the choir. That’s what my grandmother did, and I immediately hooked into that,” says Rudd.
His father developed a deep affection for jazz music in the Roaring ’20s. If he couldn’t find somebody to accompany on the drums, he played along to a vast collection of 78s. Playing a tightly syncopated beat on his coffee table, Rudd says, “This is what I woke up to every day.”
An introduction into the New York state public school system in the mid-’40s offered Rudd an unexpected opportunity. Music was held at the same level of importance as English and mathematics. “Every day was a chorus,” says Rudd. “Each grade had a band, and that’s when I got started. I started with the mellophone and then moved to the French horn.” Word got out about his potential. Rudd says that the regional music director learned that “there was a kid over in the middle school who really liked to blow.”
Playing and performing in a French horn section with seven others, Rudd fell so deeply in love with the symphonic band (everything but the strings) that on his lunch hour he would polish the instruments. He was 10 years old; the year was 1945.
From Yale to the West Village
Rudd credits his transition to the trombone to his father’s influence and extensive record collection. “There were no French horns on those recordings,” says Rudd. “I just had to get me a trombone to play along.”
Following his early education, Rudd was trained on the street and in the conservatory. The conservatory was Yale; the streets were New York City. The combination was potent and translated into some unsuspecting musical conversations. In these, on his sliding instrument, Rudd could sputter and groan and wail with the best of them. (He still can.) “It was good to have both, but I like the street better,” says Rudd. “When it comes to improvisation and infusing your personality with spontaneous music making, it’s good to be around people who are doing similarly.”
Surrounded by masters of the genre, Rudd was invited to join his mentors onstage, a recipient of the overwhelmingly oral tradition of free jazz. “There was always a band leader who said, ‘Come on, kid,’” he says.
“You really had to learn from these guys,” says Rudd. “It wasn’t something that was being taught. When I was around them I tried to play like them. In making the attempt, you find out about yourself. Maybe that’s the system that’s imposed to bring yourself out.”
With the intimate level of performance inherent in improvisation, in some ways to play with a band was to get to know them in a deep way. “There’s so much practice that goes into it,” says Rudd. “The fraction of the stuff that gets heard publicly is very small compared to the hours that go into preparation and development.”
What does it take to compose and perform that level of jazz?
“It’s multi-influenced. You know, when you’re an improviser, you just take in what’s around you and you put your personality into it and you develop a style. (John) Coltrane, I would say, was educated as well as informed musically. He was all over the world with his musical influence.”
Roswell Rudd tinkers on the piano in his Kerhonkson home. Rudd is not only a trombonist, but an ethnomusicologist with a deep background in the analysis of music. Michael Bloom photo
The language of improv
The history of improvisation can be traced back to the 1400s in Europe, where an entire shorthand notation was developed to communicate the evolution of a song. So, in some sense, there is some structure to jazz improvisation.
Rudd has taken this method a step further, inventing his own symbols to get what he wants out of a band. This evolving new language, by creating symbols with meaning, is, surprisingly, a tenet of many improvisers.
Speaking a similar language is Verna Gillis, an ethnomusicologist and Rudd’s partner for more than a decade. “It is where you are really analyzing the music in different ways,” says Gillis. “And you can do it live or you can do it on recordings. These musical analyses are connected into cultural traits. It’s an attempt to be able to look at music in the context of culture.”
As a promoter, Gillis represented some of the most unusual and far-reaching artists in the genre. “I worked with artists who were coming from traditional cultures, but were expressing themselves in a pop idiom. My goal was to work in the greater Western market.”
Cementing a partnership
To supplement his income as a jazz musician, Rudd was a research associate for folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. “I did field recordings,” he explains. “Once I started working for Alan Lomax I was analyzing music from all over the world,” says Rudd, an ethnomusicologist in his own right. “Previously it had been limited to classical European music.”
Rudd actually became Gillis’ mentor in coding music. “Lomax had developed a system for listening to world music,” says Rudd. “I taught Verna the system: cantometrics.”
Gillis ran a performance space in New York City called Soundscape. Roswell performed there. In the show, “Interpretations of Monk,” Roswell was the trombonist. Once she made her way upstate, Gillis ran a performance space in Accord from 1993-96, called the Accord Train Station. Here, the two discovered they were neighbors. A friendship that was spawned from the passing of both longtime partners evolved into a romantic relationship.
Gillis was no stranger to working with great musicians. And she was certainly experienced in field work. “In a sense my work with Roswell was a natural,” says Gillis. “I’m working with a great artist, and we travel around the world. I used to call him ‘Big Ears’,” says Gillis, “because he could hear everything.”
Gillis paired Rudd’s ears with world musicians who would push and pull the genre into an entirely new vision. For 13 years, Rudd’s label, Sunnyside Records, has supported his creative urges, as far out as they might be. In 2001 he released “Malicool,” featuring musicians from West Africa, and, in 2003, “Blue Mongol,” recorded with Mongolian throat singers. In 2007, Rudd expanded to the Afro-Cuban influenced “El Espiritu Jibaro.” The sounds he evokes on the trombone provide an organic fit to such widely eclectic, often celebratory, world music.
Kerhonkson’s ‘cosmic power’
The partnership of Gillis and Rudd seems solidly grounded in the historic land of Kerhonkson.
“There is plenty of power coming out of earth and sky round here,” says Rudd. “Plenty of cosmic power. I was raised as a country guy. It’s about getting back to that. I’ve always had that attachment.”
The landscape has had a direct influence on his creative output. One of the more linear connections has been “Kerhonkson the Musical,” which Rudd composed.
“You better be celebrating this, or else you’re gonna be overwhelmed,” says Rudd, referring to the land. “There’s a lot of history in these hills. The Hudson Valley used to be the breadbasket for the entire region. And it’s coming back. It’s got to be a community-inspired thing.”
It is a phenomenally talented musical community that gathered around Rudd for his latest endeavor, “Trombone for Lovers,” his latest full-length album, due out in November. The record is a collection of favorite pop standards going back as far as 1927 to the present. At the recent Kleinert performance in Woodstock, Rudd mesmerized an audience thirsty for his eclectic interpretations of classic jazz standards, many of which were his own.
There are some significant musical partnerships forged on his latest album, nearing his 30th overall.
“I lost count,” admits Rudd with a smile. Stellar performances by John Medeski, Michael Doucet, Steven Bernstein, Gary Lucas and Heather Masse are featured on “Trombone for Lovers.” On Nov. 24, Rudd will release the record at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, on his 78th birthday.
“It’s the old Village Gate,” says Gillis, remembering a different time. The show is scheduled for the afternoon. All the talent featured on the album will be at the release party – everybody right down to the New York City Labor Chorus.
“At this time of life, what time are you most in your body?” asks Rudd. “Mid to late afternoon is a great time.”
“We figured we should do the show when Roswell was awake,” says Gillis.
Verna Gillis, a freelance producer and music expert, and Rudd have been professional and romantic partners for more than a decade. Bloom photo