Charles Lloyd, in Conversation
by Stanley Naftaly
Tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd’s career has spanned more than 45 years. Born in Memphis, Lloyd was bathed in the music of Phineas Newborn, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker at a young age, and came to California at the age of 18. He joined Chico Hamilton’s quintet in 1961 and played with Cannonball Adderly in ’64 and ’65 until, in 1966, he formed his own quartet, which included Keith Jarrett on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The group played and recorded Lloyd’s composition “Forest Flower” at the Monterey Jazz Festival that year, and the resulting album became one of the most popular jazz records of the era, even crossing over to the rock audience. Lloyd later retreated from the public eye for almost 10 years in order to pursue his spiritual destiny, an aspect of which led him to reside here in Santa Barbara.
Since his return to public performance and recording in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lloyd has demonstrated great maturity, both as a person and as a musician. His music has grown ever more free, spontaneous, and spiritual. His recent work with the late Billy Higgins and with his world music group, Sangam (see interview with Zakir Hussain on pg. 69), has met with strong critical and popular acceptance. Charles Lloyd is an absolutely sincere man of the most pure intent. Speaking with him was both an honor and a pleasure.
When did you first know that music was going to be your life? By the time I was 7 or 8 I knew that I was supposed to be a music-maker in this lifetime. I was a lonesome child and I couldn’t get the setup of the world right. I got an instrument at about 9 and that kind of helped me out a lot. Even as a very young child, when I heard music I knew there was some way to achieve harmony in the world. My mother said, “Do whatever you want to do, but just be the best at it.” I’m still coming up short.
I once read a quote of yours that fits perfectly here. You said, “I’ve never gotten good enough at music to quit.” Precisely. I’m moved by sound. I hear that universal sound — it’s in my mind’s ear and I come close to it sometimes. I’m not able to articulate that in the word, but in the sound I’m working at that. I’m better at what I do than I was as a young man. I don’t have to use as many notes to say something. You have to approach making this music with humility because you’re up on the high wire and there’s no net except your character.
It is 40 years since you set the jazz and rock worlds on fire with Forest Flower at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. The night after the Lobero concert, you’re headlining Monterey again to commemorate the occasion. What does all this feel like? Well, I’m a kid. I’m still tryin’ to be better at what I do. Fame and fortune is not what it’s about. I like to work a spiritual life because it takes you into a zone where you have nothing to cling to except the silence of the center. I’m sincerely enthralled by that and it informs my work. There’s no possibility for me to stop doing what I do now. For me to be a music-maker in this lifetime is a special blessing, and I want to do this right. I want to finish up.
At the Lobero you’ll be playing with Geri Allen, Eric Harland, and Reuben Rogers. How did you put this quartet together? Geri is from Detroit and she’s of the lineage of the great pianists that have come out of there, like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan and way back to Mary Lou Williams. I met her in the ’80s at Montreux. I liked her and remembered her. We did a benefit for Billy Higgins at Lincoln Center in the early ’90s and Geri and I played together with Ron Carter and Louis Nash, and then I invited her to play with Dave Holland and Higgins and me. So, she’s been playing with me since then. I met Eric Harland in New York after hearing about him from my then-drummer, Billy Hart. I invited Eric to join me five years ago.
When our bass player left, Eric brought his dear friend Reuben Rogers in and he’s been playing with us for a couple of years now. He’s amazing — you’ll love him when you hear him. So, that’s the group, and we all have the love of the tradition in us, and we’re all spiritual aspirants and making this music with love in our hearts and minds. It’s kind of like flying, but we don’t need fossil fuel.
I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me. I think the reason I’m doing this is so you can inform the sensitives around our town that something’s going to be happening on September 15 over at the Lobero. It would be great if you had some lonesome child soul such as we’ve been discussing come and meet up. They might not know anything about jazz, but they may know something about life and the spiritual quest.
4•1•1 The Charles Lloyd Quartet plays the Lobero Theatre this Friday, September 15, at 8 p.m. Call 963‑0761 or visit lobero.com.