Charles Tolliver, Trumpeter
Self-taught as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger, Charles Tolliver seems constitutionally averse to doing things the easy way. “I like to rumble,” he told Down Beat. “I take the most difficult routes for improvisation. It's easy to play a number of choruses effortlessly and never make a mistake, never break down. That's no fun. You need to get in hot water by trying something out right from the jump, get yourself out of that, and move on to the next chorus”.
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean launched Tolliver's career in 1964 by hiring him as a sideman on his Blue Note album It's Time, used him on the subsequent albums Action and Jacknife, and made his composition “Right Now” the title track of a 1965 quartet date. As the '60s progressed Tolliver also appeared with Blue Note heavyweights Horace Silver (Serenade to A Soul Sister) and Andrew Hill (One For One, Dance With Death), as well as sessions for other labels with Max Roach, Booker Ervin, Gerald Wilson, and Gary Bartz. In 1969 he formed the innovative quartet Music Inc., which he documented on four albums for Strata-East.
Born in 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida, Tolliver moved to Harlem with his family at ten and to Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, then a musical hotbed, in 1958. He matriculated at Howard University as a pharmacy major, but the pull of music was too strong.
“If I could have brought my classroom from Howard University to New York with me while I was trying to get into the scene, I probably would have done both at the same time,” Tolliver says. “But I felt I was ready to try this thing, and there was no way to stay in Washington, D.C. and finish my studies. I was lucky to get in with Jackie McLean almost instantaneously when I got back to New York, so there was no need to go back to school”.
Adamant that “small group is my first love,” Tolliver cites Gillespie-Basie arranger Ernie Wilkins' arrangements for Sonny Rollins” 1958 album The Big Brass [Verve] as a formative big band influence. “I got hold of an arrangement from that record, and analyzed how Ernie Wilkins placed the horns and left the space to get a small group sound,” he relates. As the '60s progressed, Tolliver studied Thad Jones closely at his Monday night Village Vanguard sessions; during a sojourn to California around 1966, he played and recorded with harmony masters Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson.
After Tolliver and Stanley Cowell presented their early charts on the 1970 recording Music Inc. And Big Band, Max Roach commissioned Tolliver to write a long suite to be performed at the 1972 Montreux Festival. “That's when I started to really get into writing,” Tolliver recalls. “For both Stanley and I, the idea was to write for big band and keep the small group energy inside it somehow”.
Tolliver continued to evolve his concept through the '80s and '90s on various engagements as a soloist with European radio orchestras; after the 2003 rebirth of the big band, he resumed writing and arranging full force.
“Big band jazz is not about over-writing to the point where all these different sections are playing in different time signatures and all that nonsense,” Tolliver says. “It doesn't have to sound like you're writing for a symphony. After all, we are playing this so-called thing named jazz. Jazz is about theme, melody, call-and-response, counterpoint if you want, but not overly done--and always improvising. If you take away improvising and swing, then it seems to me that you are removing two of the prime elements that allow us to call ourselves jazz musicians. You know what jazz is because of the way the drummer plays. I take careful consideration in selecting the drummer, and anything I write will be drumcentric.”