Andrew White, Prolific Multi-Instrumentalist, Scholar and Washington, D.C. Legend, Dies at 78

Nov 13, 2020

Andrew White, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, musicologist and entrepreneur who proudly styled himself “the most voluminously productive self-industrialized musician in history,” died on Nov. 11 at an assisted living facility in Washington, D.C. He was 78.

Washington radio personality Rusty Hassan, a neighbor and friend of White’s for 50 years, confirmed White’s death to WBGO. The cause of death has not been disclosed; however, White had been recuperating from a series of strokes.

Though never widely known, White’s stature among jazz musicians and cognoscenti is enormous — and in Washington, he was a totem. 

Credit Larry Appelbaum

Over 60 years, he built his reputation as a performer, complementing his robust, slightly coarse tone on both alto and tenor saxophones with a garish wardrobe, extraordinary stamina — he was renowned for his marathon 12- and 24-hour concerts from the 1970s through the ‘90s — and a boisterous persona, especially when it came to self-promotion.

For example, in his 1980 book Trane ‘n Me, an idiosyncratic but serious treatise on the music of John Coltrane, a casual drop of the phrase “Who Got de Funk?” yields a footnote: “‘Who Got de Funk?’ —That’s my fourth album … Git it todaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

White’s outsize character masked a fierce musical intellect. In the larger jazz world, he was best known for his scholarship on Coltrane, having transcribed and published 840 of his saxophone solos. White was also a formidable Coltrane interpreter himself.

A 2017 performance of “Giant Steps” at The Jazz Gallery — his first New York gig in some 20 years — demonstrates his ability to capture the spirit and intensity of the master’s sheets-of-sound conception and refashion it into a personal statement.

White also worked in musical settings at far ends of the formal spectrum. From 1968 on, he spent several years as principal oboist for the American Ballet Theater — at the same time that he played electric bass for Stevie Wonder, for pop-R&B group The Fifth Dimension, and on Weather Report’s album Sweetnighter. Later in the 1970s he became a prolific composer and solo performer, producing and distributing nearly 50 albums through a self-owned and -operated company based at his home in northeast Washington. (He called it Andrew’s Musical Enterprises, Inc.)

Though he was born in Washington, D.C., Andrew Nathaniel White III grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and immersed himself in music while working for his father, Andrew Jr., the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s executive director for music education. He returned to the nation’s capital in 1960 to attend Howard University, where he studied music theory and oboe. He later studied at the Paris Conservatory.

While a student, he formed the JFK Quintet — named for the young president and his “New Frontier,” which also described the band’s aspiration — which became the house band at the famed club Bohemian Caverns. (The quintet would ultimately record two albums for Riverside Records.) White often spent his set breaks checking out musicians at nearby clubs, thereby discovering John Coltrane’s experiments and incorporating those ideas into his own music.

After his tenures as classical oboist and pop bassist ended, he began building his jazz career in earnest. Between 1971 and ‘80, he self-produced and released 39 albums, and drew both a Washington fan base and an international cult following with his dense, often frenzied attack on alto and tenor. The sound leaned avant-garde, à la Coltrane, but White applied it with equal force to a hard-bop context, as on 1979’s “Tearitup Tenor.”

By the 1980s, White was as celebrated for his scholarship as his music. His 16 volumes of Coltrane transcriptions were rapturously received by academics and Coltrane devotees. He worked as an adjunct professor at American University, lectured throughout the world, and published prolifically. He continued performing well into his 70s.

White was predeceased by his wife of 41 years, the former Jocelyne Uhl. He has no immediate survivors.

Andrew White, right, with Larry Appelbaum of the Library of Congress; between them is White's autobiography, 'Everybody Loves the Sugar.'
Credit courtesy of Larry Appelbaum

But the legacy he leaves behind is massive. Along with his 48 albums, there are those hundreds of Coltrane transcriptions (and others, including solos by Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy); numerous videos; scholarly studies; and an 800-page autobiography, Everybody Loves the Sugar, among other writings. All told, the Andrew’s Musical Enterprises catalog numbers some 2,900 items. (Here, too, White put his flamboyant personality out front — as the longtime greeting on his answering machine can attest.)

He also leaves behind scores of musicians — Coltrane aficionados, students, and fans in Washington and elsewhere — inspired by his remarkable accomplishments.