Presidents Truman and Nixon tickled the ivories; Jefferson and Tyler played violin. But while Warren G. Harding studied alto sax and cornet as a youth, it’s not until this week that the White House gets its first bona fide jazz fan and sax player in Bill Clinton. Picks & Pans asked a number of leading jazz musicians to recommend great saxophone albums that belong on the President’s shelf—or on yours.
The ebullient, halo-haired entertainer, 36, who first jammed with Bill Clinton at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles last June, will be playing his soprano sax at the inaugural festivities this week. His latest album is Breathless (Arista).
Bill was fun to play with and fun to be around,” Kenny says of their first musical meeting. “He doesn’t play every day, but I could tell this was someone who at one time did play quite a bit. He came in late, and I said, ‘We go on in like six minutes. What do you want to work up real fast?’ And he pulled out charts for two of my songs and said, ‘Will one of these do?’ I thought that was real classy.
“I think Bill would enjoy any Stan Getz record. He has the same vibe as Getz—a mellow tone, and he likes to slide into his notes, which Getz did.
“I look at Bill and see another horn player, not the President. He’s a big man who plays tenor a certain way—definitely a tenor guy.”
A formidable improviser renowned for his stamina, tenor saxophonist Rollins, 62, was one of Clinton’s boyhood musical idols. His latest album is Here’s to the People (Milestone).
I think President Clinton would garner a lot of strength from listening to Coleman Hawkins play ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘The Man I Love,’ ” Rollins says. In the ’30s, Hawkins perfected a burly, embracing style that made him “the first great tenor saxophonist in jazz. He was a master improviser, advanced intellectually, a pioneer of the intricacies which later evolved into bebop.”
Next stop would be the mellifluous and elegant Lester Young. “He was the poet of the saxophone,” Rollins says of the great ’30s Count Basie star. “Lester was very introspective, easily hurt by the many indignities he had to put up with. He was an extraordinary man—a great musician and a very gentle person.” Rollins recommends the tune “Afternoon of a Basie-ite,” 1943, from The Complete Lester Young on Keynote (Verve).
Another must is “Just Friends” from Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve) by alto saxophonist and bebop innovator Charlie Parker and the ballad playing of altoist Johnny Hodges, the Duke Ellington star. “Hodges was one of the great individualistic players,” he says. “When he slides down that horn, playing a ballad, it’s just completely Johnny Hodges. It would be a good sound for the President to wake up to some morning.”
Drummer Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr., 43, son of the great piano innovator, has organized all-star jazz bands for three Clinton fund-raisers as well as this week’s celebrations. His latest album is Take One (Blue Note).
At the fund-raisers, Clinton was a little bit awestruck because he’s such a big fan of the music,” Monk says. “He found himself talking to one of his idols, Illinois Jacquet, a guy whose solos he used to practice when he was a kid. I also saw him talking to Wayne Shorter for 20 minutes about saxophone mouthpieces.
“Sonny Rollins is the greatest living tenor player,” he adds. “He’s a master of all styles, including calypso. On Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 [Blue Note, recorded 1957] he embodies everyone before him and pushes in the direction Coltrane was starting to go.
“Although I want to push the old cats, Clinton may well take us into the next century, so he should listen to what the young cats are doing. Joshua Redman is very inspirational. [Warner Bros. will release the 23-year-old tenor player’s first album, Joshua Redman, in March.] He’s also a great intellect—summa cum laude at Harvard—and has shown some interest in going into law. Who knows, we might find him on the Supreme Court in 30 years.”
The alto saxophonist and funketeer, 49, is best known for his 20-year tenure with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. His latest album is Life on Planet Groove (Verve).
I would suggest the President come over into the Maceo thing, because every now and then you want to just party, party, party. It might open up a whole new perspective on governing,” Parker says. “He should also dig King Curtis. He did most of the saxophone solos on the great Coasters songs like “Yackety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Young Blood,” as well as on some of Aretha Franklin’s songs. His music gives me a happy feeling.”
Dr. Billy Taylor
Educator, author and pianist Taylor, 71, covers jazz for CBS’s Sunday Morning and was a 1992 recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. His latest album is Dr. T (GRP).
Since Clinton is going to Washington, he should listen to a great saxophonist from Washington, Frank Wess,” Taylor says. “Frank is the reason I don’t play saxophone. We went to high school together at Dunbar H.S. [in the District], and when I heard him I said, ‘I think I better stick with the piano.’ His Frankly Speaking [Concord, 1984], with Frank Foster, is a hell of a record. They both played with Basie and have an incredible rapport.
“But at the top of all my lists,” Taylor says, “is Ben Webster. No one else has played with that same soulful passion and melodic feeling, and he will swing you right into bad health.” Start with Ben and “Sweets,” with Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, recorded in 1962 and available on Columbia.
A ’50s protégé of Charlie Parker’s, Morgan, 59, survived heroin addiction and jail to emerge in the ’80s as one of the most expressive alto saxophonists in jazz. His latest album is You Must Believe in Spring (Antilles).
To put the President in a good mood to make the right decisions,” Morgan says, “he should listen to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.” Recorded in 1963 and reissued on GRP/Impulse! the album pairs saxophonist John Coltrane, the avatar of the exploratory ’60s, playing behind the velvety crooner Hartman. “It’s the epitome of what jazz is about,” says Morgan. “Johnny Hartman made them all go to their deepest romantic bag, and Coltrane showed how beautiful and unselfish he was by playing sparingly. It’s an album truly about peace and love.”
Murray, 37, often called the most exciting tenor saxophonist of his generation, composes and arranges for his own quartet, octet and big band. His latest album is MX: Dedicated to the Memory of Malcolm X (Red Baron).
My all-time favorite is Blue Saxophones [most of the material from this 1957 compilation is available on Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster: Compact Jazz (Verve)]. They were getting older when they made it, but they played well right until they died. There’s so much vibrato and fullness of breath on this record, and the lyricism is so strong. They’re not just playing the chord changes, they’re telling a story, a real man’s story.”
An actress, songwriter and painter, Lincoln, 62, is best known as a vocalist whose smoky, charismatic style has been compared to that of Billie Holiday. Her latest album is Devil’s Got Your Tongue (Verve).
Clinton should listen to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme [recorded in 1964, reissued on GRP/Impulse!] because as President he’s going to need a supreme love to pull us all together. Coltrane had a lot of compassion. And he was softspoken, like the President.”