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Vincent Herring on the legacy and influence of John Coltrane

Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring

Recently, saxophonist Vincent Herring stopped in at WBGO to chat about jazz icon John Coltrane, his influence on all musicians, and the ongoing challenges for musicians in facing Coltrane’s music today. Vincent also talked about his participation in the 10th Annual Countdown 2023: A John Coltrane Festival, upcoming at Smoke Jazz Club in New York City.

Watch their conversation here:

Vincent Herring with Gary Walker

Interview Highlights:

Gary Walker: You started out many years ago. In fact, it was after John Coltrane was on the scene. How was he an influence on you as you were coming up as a developing saxophonist?

Vincent Herring: I think playing jazz saxophone it's hard to imagine John Coltrane not being a part of your life. It was just kind of the core curriculum of everything that I was working on. The people I listened to, most of them had associations with him. I was just attracted to his music and of course wanted to investigate and learn more about it. I felt like absorbing it would contribute to my musical identity and would help to make me more interesting as a player as well.

Hearing his music genius when he played, how daunting was that technical facility of his as it applied to your playing, and how did you address it?

It's interesting you say that because certainly his technical facility at the time was extremely exceptional. An interesting thing has happened in jazz education now that the music in the schools, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane at one time, their technical facility was so exceptional. It was hard to imagine how to gain that kind of technical facility. Not to say it's not still exceptional, but it's no longer the most important factor. When I think of John Coltrane, I don't think of his technical facility as something that separates him from us, makes him special.

What makes John Coltrane special?

I had this conversation with a kid the other day because he was saying, you have to have as much technique as Charlie Parker. Not necessarily true, but it's what the kid said. And I said, “Listen, the difference between me and Charlie Parker is creativity. I mean, that just ends it all right there. While Coltrane was special technically, the longer time goes on, the less special that becomes. What’s most important to me about John Coltrane was his level of creativity and originality, in terms of his melody, the way he approached harmonics and rhythm.

How do you characterize that contribution?

It goes to his creativity. Here’s a guy growing up in the era of Charlie Parker who can't help but be enamored and spellbound by the music of Charlie Parker. And you say to yourself, how the hell do you find anything after that? It's like the guy who at one time after the cotton gin was invented was, “Well, we might as well close the patent office now.”

Growing up under Bird and just Bird’s music being in the air, he had to have that kind of a feeling. There are the earliest tapes of him playing with the Army band. He's playing alto and he's playing a bunch of Bird themes. Not very well, but okay, it is what it is. Hard to believe that yhis is the great John Coltrane., but he develops. Picking up the tenor, he sounds pretty much like early Dexter Gordon. He morphs and he finds just his own voice through all of this. Keep in mind as he's finding his own voice, it's very different because all the tenor players of the day coming through Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, something like Stan Getz was much more palatable. It's just coming out of the tradition. You can hear the lyricism of his playing.

But once you get to Coltrane, his sound is radically different. There's a record called Tenor Conclave with Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and John Coltrane. When Coltrane speaks, it’s completely different. His voice has such a clarity and it's also much brighter in the sound. At the time when that happened, people weren't necessarily embracing his sound as being this great sound. In fact, you can read in many of the jazz periodicals at the time that his sound was considered abrasive, this kind of obnoxious, loud, bright sound. Now we listen to it, it's normal, but at that time that was what was going on.

This guy is super creative, to harmonically take the same devices that had been going on and expound upon them and just build upon them. He went through multiple styles in his short lifespan. If you listen to John Coltrane when he first comes on the scene, let's say with the new Miles Davis Quintet, and you listen to his last thing, that is a radical difference. It’s just incredible the music that happens and how personal it is to me, but the technical facility of John Coltrane, while special, is no longer exceptional. It's not something that I would use to define him, although it was absolutely incredible. What's incredible about him, and what separates me and anybody else from him, is his creativity and innovation.

We're chatting with Vincent Herring today and I can't think of a better example in terms of innovation.

Look what he did with kind of a simple, corny tune, if you will, in “My Favorite Things.” When you listen to what Trane came up with, that innovation just jumps right in the middle of that. Throughout history, the things that separate us mortals from the gods of the different industries is creativity. The technical standards, while exceptional and great, as more time goes on, it becomes less of a distance factor and it becomes creativity.

He was an innovator, as you said. And one of our absolute incredible innovators and just like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane’s intent was, “Should you approach his music and his compositions that you innovate in your own special way and come up with your own special voice?” Case in point for you, Vincent Herring might be the record Night and Day where you took the changes to “Countdown” and turned them into UNE June Lee on the alto saxophone.

That harmonic sequence from Coltrane again is one of the things, as he's growing as a musician, he goes through these different stages. Of course, we are still playing catch up, trying to deal with this stuff. His growing stages leading him to where he ultimately, got to. I have to say something about Cedar Walton because there are two recordings of “Giant Steps.” There's the alternate recording for “Giant Steps.”

Cedar told me that he used to go by his place all the time. He said it was kind of boring because he was always practicing. He never really socialized or anything, but he often would have a set of chord changes and he would say, “Cedar, why don't you play these?” Cedar would play the chords and John would play on it. And part of that was “Giant Steps” and “Countdown.” When they did the recording date, he used Tommy Flanagan. Cedar said Tommy Flanagan was one of the most respected piano players. No one questioned anything when he selected him to do that date, including Cedar. Then when it comes out, Tommy Flanagan was a little hung up on the chord change on “Giant Steps.” Someone said he thought it was a ballad and he didn't prepare for it. I don't know. All I know is this great genius of the piano was handcuffed, stopped in its tracks.

So when they decided to go back and rerecord it, Coltrane asked Cedar to do it, and Cedar said he was terrified, but of course went to do it. I said, “Well, why didn't you take a solo?” He said, “Man, are you kidding me? I was just terrified.” You just have to imagine that because I could not imagine somebody like Cedar being terrified. That's the power of John Coltrane, these unique harmonic devices that he was able to come up with and expand upon in the music. We're still dealing with those today. Much like when, before Charlie Parker, the style of swing music and the way they were improvising. All of a sudden this guy comes along as radically different. I really wonder about Sonny Stitt being a few years younger, the development in him because by the time you hear Stitt, he's like this incredible player and the years are so tight. We'll never know. Both were two great musicians and both influenced John Coltrane. We have these standard bearers that have laid the foundation for our music going forward. We keep trying to build upon it and make some kind of worthy contribution to the music as we go forward.

What you're saying here today is that Coltrane's message, if he was here on the planet today, might be: Before you put the horn in your mouth, make sure you open your eyes and your ears to all the possibilities that are there in front of you. If “Giant Steps” was a ballad, what would it feel like to you?

I've played it as a ballad. But somehow, the definitive recording is just amazing.

Do we have Ronnie Scott to thank indirectly for your approach to the tenor saxophone? Where did you get your first tenor?

Basically the first time I worked with Cedar Walton, at the end of the week at the Village Vanguard, he said, “Well, young man, you're very promising, but not ready.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” He said, I'll call you again in a few years when you're ready.” I was a little depressed about that. Damn, that was horrible. Sure enough, he calls me a few years later and he said, “I want you to make some jobs with me until I find a tenor player that I like.” I said, “Oh, alright.” This time I was more mature and I could actually play. I asked him, “What songs are we gonna do?” He said, “Well, we're gonna have a rehearsal. Meet me at Sweet Basil’s. I'll give you some of my tunes, music we're gonna play.” So I met him at Sweet Basil’s and he gave me a Cedar Walton Jamey Aebersold record. I was like, “Really, Cedar?”

I went home and I transcribed and learned a bunch of his songs. When I came in to do the rehearsal, I handed him a list of all the songs that I knew could play. He looked at that listening. He was like, “Oh man, you can play this, you know this?” I said, “Yeah, we can do any of those.” Then I was on the gig. We would do gigs and going on for years he never did find a tenor player that he liked. But he said, “Man, why don’t you try playing a little tenor?” I said, “Cedar, come on, man.” I slowly started playing tenor a little bit here, a little bit there. It's funny because when you listen to someone like Sonny Stitt, he's so amazing on both, even when Charlie Parker played alto and tenor.

I kept trying, but I could not get it. I think subconsciously I was not committed at that time. I started playing a little more, practicing a little more, and then Ronnie Scott passed. And Ronnie Scott's family loaned me his 84,000 Mark 6, which was an incredible horn, a Ferrari kind of thing. That certainly gave me incentive to practice more. I met and knew Ronnie Scott. He was super nice guy. I was honored to play the horn and certainly it motivated me a little to get some things together. I got better a little bit, slowly.

But interesting enough, once Cedar passed, of course I had to give that horn back. Then I wasn't playing tenor at all. Steve Turre calls me and he says, “Hey man, can you make a couple jobs with me?” I say, “Okay.” He says, “On tenor.” I was like, “Oh Steve, come on man, you should get somebody else.” He said, “No, man, you can play tenor. I heard you with Cedar.” I was like, “Jesus Christ, man.” I went to Yamaha and, and I got a new tenor saxophone. I started practicing and got a mouthpiece and all of a sudden I broke through a certain plateau that I never could get past. You can credit a little bit to Ronnie Scott's family, but actually more recently to Steve Turre who really made me get back to it. I went back to it with a renewed interest and determination to really find my voice on the tenor. I just got back yesterday from a tour in Europe where I played all tenor. That's the first time I've ever done that. The fact that I felt comfortable enough to do that kind of tells you where things are.

I remember a night when we were doing a tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk at St. Peter’s at 53rd and Lexington. Billy Harper was on the tenor, but it was the night before the gig and Steve Turre reached out to you and said, “Can you bring your flute and add something? We're doing this tribute to Rahsaan tomorrow night.” I'm telling you, not only did you show up, you showed up and really dug in.  It told me a lot that how you approach your instrument and how you approach your life in music is to know as much about different styles, different types of music as you possibly can, because you never know from where that next approach might come.

I certainly wish I had that attitude when I was younger, but thank you.

Your playing on alto has many times been described as having the fire and intensity of not only a Charlie Parker, but also a John Coltrane.

I love that. I love tenor almost as much as alto. I really love them both. There was a time, especially when I was with Cedar, when I would say I love alto more than tenor. But now, I would actually say it's pretty close to 50/50. It was a combination of things that now's the time. If I had embraced the tenor when I was younger and had the same type of attitude towards it, I certainly could have developed it more. On the tenor now, I'm trying to play it at the highest level possible. So I look forward to it and I will be playing both alto and tenor during this Coltrane tribute and enjoying every minute.

When I think about the music of Coltrane as it applies to you, I'm directly brought to a recording done by Harold Mabern on Smoke Jazz Sessions, Mabern Plays Coltrane, and there was a front of friendly fire. The way you two are together in a room. There's some fireworks going on there, my friends.

We've been playing off each other for a while. I really enjoy playing with him. I enjoy hanging with him on a personal level and I love him just listening to him play. He is a tremendous player. And you know what's funny is he's actually playing a little bit of alto. He hasn't heard me in my new revamp of my tenor stuff. So it's gonna be interesting next time we get together and he whips that alto out. I got something for it. Many people might think that if you can play the alto, it's just picking up a different instrument to play the tenor and that's just not true.

I remember one time the great record producer Ira Gitler gave me a cassette one day and he says, “Here, man, listen to this. I think you'll like it.” I listened to it and I said, “Well, who is this?” It was a cat playing soprano saxophone. He said “That's Dexter Gordon in his hotel room, learning the soprano saxophone after being such a giant on the tenor saxophone for so many years.” It’s like you referred to Coltrane earlier, it was there. But it was not Long Tall Dexter.

Right, it takes a lot of work.

That’s something I'm sure that you inspire in your students at William Paterson University. And when you think about, say, John Coltrane, rather than just going in and learning how to play Coltrane’s because the technical acuity of the young students coming up today is probably the highest level it's ever been. So that's not the focus, but the focus is on the other elements. How do you impart to your students the legacy of John Coltrane and what to look for and what to listen for in his music?

I teach at William Paterson University. I also teach at Manhattan School of Music and I have a beautiful pool of students, really tremendous talents. What you said before about the pool of students being much better, that's not your words, but they are better than the pool of students earlier, like at the time when I was entering college. This is my hypothesis. I was like that one special guy in the pool of a hundred, right? But now you have twenty guys in the pool of a hundred. It's outrageous. I have students that are so technically more advanced than I was as a student. I just cannot believe that they come in this prepared.

On the other hand, it's really good because I can really get to working with the music with them, because they're so technically advanced harmonically. For me, I had to learn these things the hard way over time. I guess it's the times we live in and also the music scene is in school now, where before it was an apprenticeship program, coming from these old guys. It's just a different thing. So the music felt better. We had another kind of feeling to it. But the music now can get very academic sounding and, by that nature, extremely predictable.

When I first moved to New York in 1982, Barry Harris had the Jazz Cultural Theater going on and that was like a university of the streets for people who wanted to learn and then take it in and at the same time express it.

First of all, Barry Harris' Jazz Cultural Theater is how I actually got the gig with Horace Silver. Horace heard me playing alto. He said, “Man, you sound good. What's your name?” He asked if I played tenor. I said, “Well, I do play tenor.” Really? I said, “Yeah.” So I borrowed a tenor from Branford Marsalis and I got a mouthpiece from Ralph Moore. I remember calling Ralph up and I said, “Man, what kind of mouthpiece did you give me? This mouthpiece sounds terrible.” He's like, “Man, bring my shit back.” I went back over and I said, “Look man, you play it.” Of course, he plays it and it sounds great. I'm like, really? So I was trying to play tenor and could not. Then I wasn't very developed as a musician.

At some point, now that we have YouTube, someone started posting things from that time when I played with Horace. They would only post the melodies and Dave Douglas solos. I was like, “Thank you, God, thank you, Jesus.” But then they started posting the whole thing. I was like, “Oh, no, no.” Now my students are like, “Oh, I saw you playing with Horace Silver.” And they have a little smirk in the back of their minds now. Certainly there were better players than me at the time but I'm grateful for the opportunity that I had and it's terrible to have to learn on that level what you can't do and what you're not capable of doing. In the long run, it certainly motivated me to get my stuff together.

The best place to learn many times, Vince, as you seem to be alluding to, is on the bandstand. In the moment, it's not the prettiest time. Bob Mintzer told me a story once that he used to go to those Sunday afternoon jams at the Village Vanguard. One Sunday afternoon it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Bob was living up in Westchester County. He took the train down with his saxophone. He walked in, took his turn up on the stage and it was like a 4/4 kind of blues thing. And Bob was playing his thing and he's going, “Wow man, I'm really doing this. This is great. I'm playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.” The tune gets done and Bob starts to walk off the stage. And Rah could just sense things. He goes, “Where you going? You're not done.” So Bob returns to the stage and Rah just goes one, two one, two real fast.  And I asked Bob, “Well, what'd you do?” He said, “I went home and I practiced for 20 years.”

Those kinds of experiences will stay with you forever and are also great inspiration to improve your skill. I would imagine in the educational setting that you have the scenario where, like you said, if it used to be one out of a hundred, now it's 20 or 25 out of a hundred who will have this incredible facility on their instrument from a technical standpoint. It's being in that same room. It's like when you and Eric are on stage together, there's a fire. You inspire each other, you call it friendly fire, but you're getting it right.

No question. I certainly appreciate that we have that kind of camaraderie and are able to do that. Going back to Horace, I wish I could have been better, but, I certainly got better after that. I wish I had gotten better before that, but Coltrane wasn't always Coltrane.

But he was constant about his shedding and it would take place almost anywhere. Rudy Van Gelder told me the day they did the Coltrane Hartman recording that during the downtime, Coltrane was over in the corner and he was practicing.

I used to study with Phil Woods and I remember going to the first lesson with Phil Woods. I heard all these records and now I get to study with Phil. I drive out to his house in the Delaware Water Gap. I'm thinking I'm going to learn all this hip bebop stuff as the first thing we do. No, thirds and sevens through the chords of this tune. [Sings slow notes.] I’m like, “Really? Shoot me some hot licks or something, man.” Here I am so many years later and so grateful that he forced me to do the most boring thing in the world to me at the time. It really changed my development concept of at least knowing when I'm wrong. It definitely helped me immensely and I'm grateful to Phil Woods for that.

I have an Art Blakey Ensemble at Manhattan School of Music and I have a Cedar Walton Ensemble at William Paterson. I get to hear all these kids do all of this stuff and it's super exciting. I’m really enjoying it. It also gives me motivation and keeps me on my toes. Back to what I said in the very beginning, the difference in the technical level is not what separates us from Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. It is the creativity. It really is.

I used to go to Long Island University and Pete Yellin was the director of the jazz program there, and he was like, “Hey, I'm getting Mike Brecker to come in next semester.” I was like, no problem. I'm saying to myself, “What is that gonna be, right?” And he says, “Yeah, he's gonna play with your own time.” I said, “Fine, no problem.” In my mind, it's like, I wanna show this guy right. First of all, he's the nicest guy you ever want to meet in your life. Genuinely humble. He says, “Let’s play a little ‘Tenor Madness.’” We played the melody. Then he starts playing, little tears come out of our eyes, because you couldn't believe it. You could not believe it. The separation between us and him was just so radical. That’s part of the growth of being in New York. Having those experiences and hearing those kind of things. Having those things happen to you can make a great difference in your life.

Vincent Herring "Hard Times" Video

Now when I play, I really want to get inside of Coltrane’s music. The trick is trying to find a path to growth for myself, but every day is a tribute to Coltrane. When I can get inside the music of John Coltrane, what does that involve? Well, it involves playing those themes and harmonic progressions and playing through them thousands of times until you really digest it, and you can contribute with your own personality on it. In order to get to that, you have to put in a lot of time. In my earlier days, I didn't really know what that was. I really didn't know what it really meant. I worked with Nat and I was into Cannonball’s music just cause I was into his music. And so it kind of happened naturally. But it's a process.

Let me also say that Paul [Stache] at Smoke is a guy who loves the music, and so hosting a Coltrane tribute is a natural for him. What a job for him because he gets to host, having the music that he loves to hear. And he loves Coltrane. He is a fan, and that club has been renovated in such a way that it is amazing. I'm really happy and honored and elated to be a part of this Coltrane celebration.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.