Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. This week, we visit with modern saxophonist Charles Lloyd. He played alongside everyone from Ornette Coleman to the Beach Boys. But before all that, Charles Lloyd discovered his love for the saxophone in the blues, in his hometown of Memphis. To hear the full program, join us Saturdays at 7 or Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at Americanroutes.org
My mother had a large house and the lady who ran the ticket office at the theater, she asked my mother would she rent some rooms out to the musicians because there weren’t adequate hotels for Lionel Hampton and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and all these great bands. So I was in heaven - I couldn’t wait for them to wake up, I had questions, you know.
NS: So you’re in this musical environment, you’re starting to hang out and play and be part of that scene.
CL: I would play with Phineas Newborn, and he would put me in his father’s band with Calvin and him and then we would play like white dance halls, and there was a place called the Plantation Inn where I worked with them, and Elvis used to come over every night because he was crazy about Calvin on the guitar, and then he wanted to move his legs like Calvin and stuff. And he’d go over to Phineas and Calvin’s house every day and eat Mama Rose’s food and stuff. That’s the interesting thing about the South; the South was a rigged game, but us musicians, we were kind of a community of loving the sounds.
NS: So tell me, why leave this garden of jazz, blues, soul and creativity that you were born into. Why leave it and go to Los Angeles.
CL: Well, there were a lot of modernists around and they were turning me onto the music of Stravinsky and Bartok and J.S. Bach and Beethoven and all that stuff, and I wanted to be a composer. I wanted to open that stuff up and find the magic of these waterfalls and these sunrises and sunsets.
NS: Out on the West Coast, you also kind of were being known more and more by that emerging rock scene that was there, and you know, you think of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane,
CL: Howlin’ Wolf would come to town and he would want to hire musicians and he paid a few dollars - maybe five dollars more than other musicians, so it was always great to go with Wolf. And so Wolf would say, “you play with Wolf, you eat pork chops. You play with them other bands, you eat neck bones.” And he just would tear everything up wherever he played. He was just amazing guy. I can now see why those women were trying to pull his pants down when he was singing.
NS: You mentioned medicating yourself, you mentioned troubles, getting away from the system, it was rigged. You spent a pretty long time being quiet to the public world.
CL: Well, Tragic Magic and all that stuff in New York had gotten to me because, you see, it made it so that all the other stuff seemed to go away and you just had one problem and that problem was medicating yourself. And I realized that that was a problem I didn’t need. So I moved back to Malibu for a time, and I began to fast and I became vegetarian, so I just cleaned myself up. And then I moved up to Big Sur and I stayed up there for a decade or more. And I pretty much stopped touring and just kind of lived a simple life and probably around ’81 Michel Petrucciani showed up at my door. And he’s a great pianist, but he’s got a glass bone disease - he’s about three feet tall and he wasn’t going to have a long life span but he was a genius and he came up and he was looking for me. He wanted me to come back and play.
As I go deeper and more personal into music and merge with the ocean of the infinite, something happens where the individuality merges with the universality.