James Spaulding gets real

James Spaulding


I've been dying to interview the Indianapolis-born jazz legend James Spaulding for years. When I saw Mr. Spaulding's name listed among the honorees for this year's Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame induction, I jumped at the chance to speak with the maestro. With a career stretching into seven decades of performance and recording, I knew any single conversation with the 78-year-old alto saxophonist and flautist would be incomplete. But I covered as much ground as possible during our 90-minute talk.

There are very few living musicians with a discography as impressive as Mr. Spaulding's. I quizzed Mr. Spaulding about a handful of the celebrated avant-garde LPs he contributed to while also inquiring about his early years in Indianapolis. While this Q&A comes nowhere near documenting the full scope of Mr. Spaulding's career, I hope it will provide a starting point for the uninitiated as the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation celebrates Mr. Spaulding's work tonight for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Jewel Arts & Events Center.

I spoke with Mr. Spaulding via phone from his home in New York City.

NUVO: Your father James R. Spaulding was a professional musician in Indianapolis. He played guitar during the '30s and and '40s with a popular local group called The Brown Buddies. I would guess you grew up hearing a lot of music at home?

James Spaulding: As far back as I can remember my father would bring home recordings for the family to listen to. Everything from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington to Lester Young. The record player was very important in our family.

My father would bring home jazz records. That's the music we loved. Especially Charlie Parker. When I heard Charlie Parker it gave me a spark. It was something special. I related to it very quickly and I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to play the same instrument and eventually I was able to purchase a used alto saxophone from a schoolmate for ten dollars.

The music thing was very strong for me. Like I said, I was I listening to Charlie Parker and I also listened to Illinois Jacquet. He was really a screamer. When he played he got the people excited, especially when he hit those high notes. It was so uplifting to me.

NUVO: I know you attended high school at Crispus Attucks. I always hear a lot about an important music educator there named Russell Brown. What did you get out of studying music at Attucks with Russell Brown?

Spaulding: He was our band director. Eventually I was able to read music good enough to get into the orchestra which was headed up by Mr. Newsome. I played the flute in the orchestra with Mr. Newsome and I was in the marching band with Mr. Brown. He was very strict. He gave me a clarinet, which I hated. I had to learn the clarinet before I got my alto saxophone. But he was great. I studied with him through my freshman and sophomore period. I didn't stay in school any longer than that.

NUVO: You grew up around the legendary music scene of Indiana Avenue. Aside from Walker Theatre, there's virtually nothing left from the glory days of the Avenue. I don't think a lot of younger folks understand how vibrant and important the Avenue was. Can you share a few memories of what the music scene was like on the Avenue when you were a young man?

Spaulding: I used to go out to the jam sessions at the Cotton Club on Saturday afternoons. There was another place I used to go called George's Bar. And there were other clubs on the street that would feature great music.

Oh man, Jimmy Coe was one of my favorite saxophone players at the time and I'd go listen to him at George's Bar. Melvin Rhyne would sometimes work with him on organ.

The scene was exciting. There were restaurants up and down the street. You could have dinner and then go to the clubs and hear the music. But it's gone now man. Last time I was in Indianapolis I went down to Indiana Avenue and I couldn't believe it. It was like it had disappeared. It was a very supernatural feeling.

NUVO: You know Mr. Spaulding, one of the few reminders left of the amazing music history on the Avenue is a pair of sculptures your brother John Spaulding created. I've written about these sculptures in the past, and one of them depicts a jazz quintet with a representation of you playing saxophone.

Spaulding: Right, and somebody broke off a piece of mine! (laughs) Did you hear about that?

NUVO: I remember reading that one of the statues been vandalized.

Spaulding: Yeah, it was me! It was the one that was supposed to be me and they broke off a piece. (laughs)

NUVO: Right, and the work depicts a quintet with you on sax, your father on guitar, "Killer" Ray Appleton on drums, Larry Ridley on bass and…

Spaulding: And Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. Yeah man, but we didn't get a piano player though.

NUVO: Outside of Indiana Avenue I've heard that there was segregation and discrimination within some of the Indianapolis jazz clubs. They may have let the Black musicians in the back door to play, but they wouldn't necessarily let the Black audiences in the front door to watch the show. Did you have any experiences like that as a musician during your time in Indy?

Spaulding: Yeah my first experience like that was in Indianapolis at a place called the Turf Club. It was a few miles outside of Indianapolis. I used to drive down there. Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridley and I had gotten to be friends. We would jam together and go hang out at the Turf Club which was a segregated club. They'd only let people of color come out during the Saturday afternoon jam sessions. The rest of the week Black people weren't allowed to come out and hear Wes Montgomery and his brothers play. We could only listen through the kitchen if we wanted to go out during the week. It was sad that had to happen like that, you know?

When that sunk in it really started to make me angry. It was happening everywhere, even when I was in the army. There was a lot of that going on and it's still going on unfortunately. Man's inhumanity to man. I don't know what's happening. This thing in Paris really upset me because I was there a couple times to play music. The people there really loved the concerts and the music. I worked there with David Murray's band and the people didn't want us to stop playing.

I remember I was staying across the street from this place and they had a Charlie Parker Theatre there! That was so wonderful to see that! Yeah, I remember we were staying at a Holiday Inn and across the street was this beautiful concert theatre. I hope it wasn't the same place where the horrible damage was done. Oh man, I can't imagine what happened there. They were listening to some music when it happened right?

NUVO: Yeah, it was a rock concert.

Spaulding: A rock concert. What was the name of the band?

NUVO: It's an unusual name. They're called the Eagles of Death Metal.

Spaulding: Ooooo! Yeah, I heard that and I said, "Wow!" Man, what do you think about that title?

NUVO: I think it's a silly name. But what happened was such a horrible, horrible tragedy.

Spaulding: Yeah, it was a horrible tragedy Kyle. Oh man, that was horrible.

NUVO: Sorry we had to get into that.

Spaulding: It's alright. That stuff will never go away.

NUVO: Maybe we should get back to some happier memories? I know you went to Chicago in the late '50s. You made a big splash as a musician when you got to Chicago. You joined an early incarnation of Sun Ra's Arkestra which went on to become one of the most infamous and notorious and ultimately celebrated groups in jazz history. What do you remember about meeting Sun Ra?

Spaulding: That was quite an experience. I met him at a jam session in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel. They used to have what they called breakfast jam sessions. They started early in the morning when the musicians got off their gigs. They'd come down there and have breakfast and they'd jam afterwards until ten in the morning. I went down there and I was jamming. I met two of the musicians who were with Sun Ra. I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. They approached me and said "listen man, would you like to make a rehearsal with Sun Ra?" I said, "Oh wow, yeah! Who is Sun Ra?" (laughs)

He was sitting in the back listening to the jam session. He was a very quiet individual. They told me the time to be at the rehearsal. I thanked Pat and John and the next day I went to the address they gave me. Sure enough they were all there. It was so amazing to see Sun Ra writing out the parts to all the different instruments. He'd write the parts out without using the piano. That's the thing that amazed me about him. He passed out the music and gave everybody their part. He gave me my alto part. We kicked it off and played this piece. I got through it okay, but then he told me to get up and play a solo. I said, "I don't see any chord changes." John Gilmore saw I was having some trouble, so he nudged me and said, "play. Just play what you feel."

That was my first experience with Sun Ra's band and I began to understand what he was doing. I was awestruck by the stories he'd tell us about the music, the planets and the universe. It was quite exciting to visualize these things with him. I'll always remember that experience.

NUVO: You recorded a few albums with Sun Ra including Nubians of Plutonia, Sound Sun Pleasure, and Jazz in Silhouette. This was during the late '50s and Sun Ra had started incorporating electric piano and other new sounds into the orchestra. He was also beginning to incorporate his Afro-futurist mythology. How did all that strike you at the time? Did you think this guy is crazy, or did you think he was a genius?

Spaulding: He was amazing. We all loved and respected his mind and music. He was a genius really. I don't know how to describe his talent.

NUVO: A big part of Sun Ra's mythology was his insistence that he was born on the planet Saturn. Had he started that legend yet when you joined the band?

Spaulding: No, but he did talk lot of about the universe. I didn't have too much knowledge of what he was talking about. I just wanted to play the music. That's why I didn't stay with his band. I wanted to travel around and meet other musicians.

NUVO: You were with Sun Ra's band when he gave what is to my knowledge his only concert ever in Indianapolis. It was at a very important local Black YMCA chapter. Was his music received well in Indianapolis?

Spaulding: I remember the people at the YMCA contracted him to come out and play during what they called the Monster Meetings. These were meetings where Black men and women would get together and talk about racial relations in Indianapolis. They discussed race problems and then we played our music. They just loved it. They wanted us to come back. I was right there at home with my brothers and sisters. I think my parents showed up. It was an exciting time.

NUVO: To skip ahead a few years later, you left Sun Ra and Chicago for New York City under the guidance of Freddie Hubbard. You developed a good relationship with the legendary Blue Note Records label and you played on so many classic Blue Note albums - it's almost unbelievable to me when I review the list of Blue Note albums you contributed to. You played on unforgettable albums by Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young and so many others.

If folks aren't jazz fans I'm not sure if they understand just how important and globally revered that label was and still is. Recording with Blue Note is comparable to a ball player making the starting line-up of the Lakers, or getting signed to the Yankees. Can you reflect on that experience of working with Blue Note?

Spaulding: Oh yeah man, Freddie Hubbard brought me into the Blue Note stable as they called it. If the A&R man liked you they'd keep calling you. Duke Pearson was the A&R man at the time and he liked my sound. When Freddie brought me in for his first date, which was Hub-Tones in 1962, we rehearsed for a day and then went out to Ven Gelder Studio in New Jersey and recorded. After that my phone was ringing quite a bit. Duke Pearson would call me in for this or that record date. In fact I think I played on three of Duke's own albums. The Right Touch, you remember that one?

We'd have two rehearsals before the recording date and they'd give you ten dollars a piece for transportation or to get a little sandwich or whatever. The third day you'd go out to Van Gelder's studio to record. We'd ride in taxis unless somebody had a car they wanted to drive. We'd go out there and it was a beautiful place the way he had it set up. Recording was wonderful with me being chosen for so many Blue Note dates and then later at Atlantic Records when Freddie went over there.

NUVO: While you were at Blue Note you were writing music. For example, Wayne Shorter recorded your composition "Kryptonite" and Bobby Hutcherson recorded "Time to Go." Did Blue Note ever offer you a solo contract? You didn't record a solo project until 1970 when you released the self-produced 45 RPM "Uhuru Sasa".

Spaulding: Yeah, Frank Wolff from Blue Note called me down to sign with them. He was the producer. He asked me if I wanted to sign with Blue Note and I said "yeah!" Shoot, I was excited and happy. So he had me come downtown for lunch somewhere on 61st Street around Columbus Circle. He told me he wanted me to sign me and he said "I know you have a family. You need to make some money and record some music for the jukebox." I was listening and thinking "what?" I wasn't looking to play music for the jukebox. I was trying to expand musically and look for new things. So I didn't say anything. I just got up from the table and shook his hand. I said, "I'll call you. Let's stay in touch." It ended right there. He never called me and I never called him. It just kind of floated off into the sunset. (laughs)

NUVO: So you turned down a solo contract on Blue Note because you didn't want to get boxed in to playing commercial music?

Spaulding: Right, I wanted to keep stretching out and expanding. I wanted to create something fresh that would connect spiritually to our reason for being here as human beings. Music is part of our spirit and soul. The musicians I know put their heart and soul into presenting their music. There's no money in it though. (laughs) A lot of musicians have a lot of fun — but no money.

NUVO: There's one particular date you recorded in the 1960s that I wanted to ask about. You played flute on Pharaoh Sanders' epic spiritual jazz recording of "The Creator Has A Master Plan" from his 1969 album Karma. That's such an iconic album in avant-garde jazz and I understand it was also a big seller for the Flying Dutchman label. It's such a beautiful track with the one-of-a-kind yodeling vocals from Leon Thomas. What do you remember about making that date and working with the legendary Pharaoh Sanders?

Spaulding: Oh man, I loved that. It was amazing and beautiful. I got a call from Pharoah's manager asking if I could make a date at RCA's Manhattan studios. I went on down there and Pharaoh was there warming up on saxophone. The band was warming up and Leon Thomas was there. In fact I'd already recorded "The Creator Has A Master Plan" for Leon's album on the Flying Dutchman label called Spirits Known and Unknown. That was the first version of the "The Creator Has A Master Plan."

Getting back to the RCA date, Pharaoh told me to play these same notes on the flute that the bass was playing. [sings bass line] So that's what I did. We just recorded that one piece for the album, right?

NUVO: Yeah, that Pharaoh Sanders' version of "The Creator Has A Master Plan" was over 30 minutes in length.

Spaulding: Oh goodness! Thirty minutes long? Wow, man.

NUVO: From what I understand the song became something of an underground anthem among the youth at that time. And oddly enough, even though this was a very avant-garde piece, Louis Armstrong recorded a version of the song on his 1970 LP Louis Armstrong & His Friends. I understand you were part of that session?

Spaulding: Right man! Oliver Nelson was on that date. Oh man, that was such a beautiful day. I was the only wind instrument on that. There were all these strings. Oh man, I felt so warm being in there with all those violins and Louis Armstrong was there sitting on a stool singing. He couldn't play his trumpet anymore and right after that he passed away. It was around the time of his 70th birthday I think and they had a big party for him. Do you remember that?

NUVO: I've definitely read about it. I understand there was a lot of music royalty on hand for the celebration.

Spaulding: Yeah, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Ornette Coleman and all these musicians came down to wish Louis Armstrong a happy birthday. They had this giant cake with a golden trumpet made out of icing. I'll never forget that, because I wanted a piece of it. (laughs) They had all kinds of food there, and his friends were there. I met his wife Lucille. It was beautiful. Yeah man, I got some beautiful memories.

NUVO: Louis Armstrong is one of the most revered instrumentalists in music history. Were you nervous playing in front of him?

Spaulding: I was sitting in the orchestra and Oliver Nelson was conducting. So he'd written out all the parts. I played the same introduction that I played on the Leon Thomas date. Oliver Nelson took my solo and arranged it for violins. I was amazed by what he did. That set up the song and they dubbed Leon's vocals in their later somehow.

NUVO: Starting with your time in Sun Ra's band you've performed and recorded with some of the most profound and revolutionary avant-garde musicians in jazz history. We're talking about names like Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Charles Tolliver, Pharaoh Sanders, David Murray and others. Some of this music was very advanced for its time and it still sounds advanced today. How did you feel as a musician approaching the more experimental and avant-garde sessions you were playing on?

Spaulding: It felt like we were all traveling on this journey together and trying to make the world a better place as Michael Jackson sang. All of us musicians like Oliver Lake or David Murray, for us it was almost like we were on a mission. We were obsessed with trying to make things better for ourselves and on this planet. Having dreams beyond this physical existence, reaching for the stars and the planets.

NUVO: You had a chance to explore your own artistic ideas in 1970 when you released your 45 RPM "Uhuru Sasa". Can you tell us about that release.

Spaulding: Yeah, I produced that with Larry Ridley on bass. At the time I was working at a recording studio on 57th Street. I got a little job up there. It was something to do and I wanted to learn about the techniques of recording.

The guy that had the studio allowed me to bring in musicians to record. I didn't have any money for that at that time. He liked me, and he let me record my own music. I thought that was a blessing. I wasn't able to pay the musicians. I wasn't even able to pay their car fare, but they were happy to do that date for me.

The idea was for me to make a recording dedicated to the East School in Brooklyn. The East School was a cultural center dedicated to African studies. The profits from the recording were to be invested in the school. But that never transpired.

NUVO: Original copies of your "Uhuru Sasa" record now sell for over $1,000 on the collector's market.

Spaulding: Oh man, good lord that's crazy.

NUVO: Mr. Spaulding I could ask you a million questions and keep you on the phone all day and night. I want to be respectful of your time though. There are so many tremendous projects you've been part of, but there's one last recording that I specifically wanted to ask you about. In 1983 you returned to Indianapolis to take part in the recording of a double-album organized by Russell Webster called Uncle Funkenstein. This recording featured an all-star cast of Indianapolis jazz legends including Melvin Rhyne, "Pookie" Johnson, Larry Ridley, Claude Sifferlen, Al Kiger, Clifford Ratliff and others. The Uncle Funkenstein album is a great celebration of Indianapolis jazz. What do you remember about making that record?

Spaulding: Russell called us together for a jam session. We went into this studio where a guy had some recording equipment in his house. We didn't get paid, but they fed us. I heard some guy over in London put that back out?

NUVO: Right, it was reissued a few years ago by Jazzman Records.

Spaulding: Yeah, I know that fellow. I did one of his first interviews over in Paris. Isn't that something?

You know Russell was a postman back in Indianapolis.

NUVO: Right, I understand they nicknamed him the "Whistling Postman" because he would whistle melodies while he worked his mail route.

Spaulding: You got that right. Everybody knew when he was on the route.

NUVO: That's another very rare and valuable recording. A copy sold for over $4,000 a few years ago.

Spaulding: Wow, man. Gee whiz, I gotta tell my wife that.

NUVO: This year you were selected for induction into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame. It seems like that distinction has been a long time coming. How do you feel about being inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame?

Spaulding: What took you so long? (laughs) You know I don't really worry about that. The thing I want to do is to get this music into the right trajectory for the young people so they can see this history and relate it to our survival. The music was meant to have a message in it, a message of learning, of cultural development and spiritual development.

Now that I'm not working and I don't do any more gigs or recording dates, I'm at home with my wife and it's given me a chance to think about what has happened down through the years. I've had time to think and that's helped me. Everything has a reason, a cause and effect, or karma. All of us need to realize the responsibility we have towards one another as human beings. There's only one race and that's the human race. I don't understand why we can't get that through our heads and if we did maybe we wouldn't be so quick to kill each other off. That's basically what I'm feeling these days.

I feel depressed sometimes, but I feel good when I hear the music. Music is healing, especially when it has lyrics of truth and understanding and education. Things will get better. I'm sure they will. Aren't you?

NUVO: I hope so and I think through the arts we can help to make people more tolerant and peaceful and in my opinion you've created a large catalog of music that certainly proves that.

Finally Mr. Spaulding, you came up in a generation of Indianapolis musicians like Freddie Hubbard, David Baker, and Larry Ridley that represent the pinnacle of jazz music. As we're looking back on your career on the occasion of your induction into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame, I'm curious what you feel your time in Indianapolis gave you musically?

Spaulding: It taught me a lot about people being in the situation of segregation. I think that was the biggest lesson of all. Segregation destroyed a lot of lives and stopped people from growing.

But Indianapolis was a springboard for a lot people who were blessed to do the things they wanted to do without too much interference. We've got to respect where we come from and look back at the past. We can't move forward without looking back to see what we left in our history. We've got to respect the history of the people who made the music great and the people who helped make the recordings and develop the technology. We need to be thankful for all their efforts to try to make this a better place to live.

Hopes and dreams is all we have We've seen enough destruction to last. We don't need any more of that. Hopes and dreams, right?

NUVO: Yes Mr. Spaulding, and I can't thank you enough for taking time to speak with me and taking time to answer all my questions. You're one of my musical heroes. I've wanted to interview you for so long and it's been a huge honor to speak with you.

Spaulding: Hey Kyle Long, thank you man. I enjoyed this.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.