INTERVIEW: US Alto Saxophonist Dick Oatts (Pizza Express Dean Street / Jazz Legends Series, 7 April)

Dick Oatts
Photo credit: Sara Pezzato Carpentieri

Iowa-born alto saxophonist DICK OATTS, a major presence on the New York scene, is a relatively infrequent visitor to the UK. He was here in 2016, and flautist Gareth Lockrane wrote a profile for us (link below), in which he described Oatts as one of his very favourite musicians, and ended with the words: “I urge everyone to get out and see this gig!” 

Oatts is over here again, doing two sets with quartet at Pizza Express Dean Street on Saturday 7 April in the club’s Jazz Legends series. This interview by young saxophonist Josh Heaton has some remarkable, bookmark-able thoughts on being a student… forever. 

This interview starts at a life-changing moment for Oatts in the late 1970s, when he received the invitation to join the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band…

Josh Heaton: What was the story with Thad Jones hiring you to play in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band? Where had he heard you play?

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Dick Oatts: I was living in Minneapolis/St.Paul, Minnesota from 1972-77. My flat mate was playing lead alto in the Univ. of Minn. big band and Thad Jones was their guest clinician/soloist in May of 1977. Thad had asked my roommate if he would like to come and sit in in NYC at the Village Vanguard some Monday night. My friend, Randy, was not confident enough of his abilities at that time so he recommended me. He came home with Thad’s phone number and told me to call him. I thought it might have been a joke but I called anyway. I asked him if this was really Thad Jones and he laughed and then asked who I was. I said it was Dick Oatts and he said ” Oh Yes, Randy told me all about you. When can you come to NYC?”

I then said, “How about in two weeks?” He said fine so when I got to NYC, I called him from the airport and he told me that since it was a Monday night, I’d be playing tonight. That was June 7, 1977. I was subbing for Larry Schnieder who was out for the summer with Horace Silver. I played that night and it went well. Thad asked me the following week to join the band for some gigs in NYC (Carnegie Hall, Newport Festival, Jazz Mobile, Vanguard), and other various Jazz festivals and then to tour for eight weeks in Europe with the band. This was all on the tenor saxophone.

After the tour, Mel came up to me and said that Larry was coming back from Horace’s band to play with the band and that I could sub from time to time. I was very grateful being how on my first day in NYC I got a tour with one of the greatest bands and experience of a life time. Mel then said: “It’s too bad that you didn’t play alto.” I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Pepper Adams is leaving the band and Ed Xiques (2nd alto player) is moving to the baritone chair to get a chance to play some more solos.” I told him I was really an alto player and so later that night at Pepper’s going-away party, Thad asked me to stay on and play underneath the great Jerry Dodgion. A year later, Jerry left and I took over the lead chair. It was quite the “Cinderella story”.

JH: Were there important musical friendships that started in that band?

DO: I made incredible friendships especially in the band itself and in NYC, nationally, and internationally – many have become lifetime bonds of respect and admiration. I had no other ties in NYC before I moved there. That band was definitely my family. Every member past, present, and future will always have that bond.

JH: And you still play in the Village Vanguard’s big band…

DO: June 7, 2018 will mark my 41st year playing in the band. When Thad left, it became the Mel Lewis Jazz Orch. When Mel passed, we incorporated and changed our name to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Mel never wanted us to continue on as a Ghost Band. He wanted us to keep the ideals of the band but not be shackled by playing all the old direction.

JH: Are lead alto players in big bands born or made?

DO: I think lead alto players are the ones who persevere and crave insight with blend, listening more acutely, experience in a lot of ensemble playing, articulation, different styles, and that understand the functions needed for different composers and styles. It’s not just about loud commanding leadership but rather getting the cats to want to listen to you instead of just following blindly. Everyone has such an integral part and a lead alto player is only as good as the section they are suppose to influence and lead. It’s a responsibility that I didn’t want but after Dodgion left, Thad told me I had no other choice. It was either the door out or to step up to the plate. You can’t be lazy and indifferent.

JH: Do the European Big Bands you have played with eg DR, UMO , Norbotten, have different strengths?

DO: There are so many unique styles and big bands all over the European continent. I feel it’s individual and based on the music and tradition emphasis of each country. I have been so fortunate to have performed with so many incredible European bands. I particularly like the risks compositionally and the depth and skills of each band. It’s refreshing to know the large ensemble playing will continue on.

JH: Your work with Harold Danko is significant. How did all that get started?

DO: I first played with Harold when I joined Thad & Mel’s band and for years in other situations in NYC and East Coast. Harold is one of my favorite orchestrators in comping. He makes all my ideas better and challenges me to develop them. He is a truly selfless and always in the moment of the music. Thad just loved Harold’s playing. After Roland Hanna left, Thad’s other favorite was Danko.

JH: What do you enjoy about playing in a duo setting and what challenges does it present?

DO: I have to play differently and can’t rely on so many to prop me up. The intimacy is wonderful. I feel like I’m playing with a miniature orchestra. It’s a huge responsibility for the pianist and I have really come to admire how much talent it takes to be so complete. I too have to play, comp, and understand the music on a deeper rhythmic commitment. Intonation and tonal blend, dynamics are also crucial

JH: Is there a favourite album from that collaboration ?

DO: I like a CD I played with Harold Danko on Steeplechase called  Sweet Nowhere (LINK)
I also like From the Clouds Above with Soren Moller (LINK)

JH: Do you make time to get together and play with people casually and why?

DO: It gets harder to do that but I feel it is still so important. I need to express in different formats, sizes, dynamics, styles, difficulty, and expression in order to keep evolving forward. Now at 65, I want to remain a student like was in my teens and through my mid 60s. It’s always been my way and if I give up that challenge I stop growing.

JH: The Steeplechase label has been significant. How did that relationship get started and what have been the consequences?

DO: I started with Steeplechase when I was working with Red Rodney in the Mid-’80s. I recorded with Red’s quintet and Nils Winther at Tivoli Garden (Copenhagen). I floated around a bit but in the mid-’90s I asked Nils if it would be possible to do some more recording on his label. He was great and always let me record anything without getting in the way. Complete artistic freedom and it was scary at first but very good for me in the long run. I am very fortunate to have had Nils and Mihoko in my corner. Five hours to record 60 minutes worth of music – that made me get my shit together.

JH: Do you still practise much? When you don’t have much time to practise, what do you like to work on?

DO: Conventional practice is tougher. Finding the time is difficult and then organizing it is a challenge.

The usual routine of practice that I had when I was younger always evolves to fit age, growth, and evolution. So, I don’t practise the same way. Practice comes from working out the music that I am scheduled to perform or working at the piano to understand it. Also working on my own compositions gives me incentive. I usually try to compose a lot to open me up to new intervallic and rhythmic directions.

Practice now comes more in overall percentages, like 33% listening, 33% playing with others, 33% with a piano, practice room, working on music I have to perform and especially composing music that kicks my ass sometimes. The 1% I have free is when I eat or nap.

JH: In your teaching work what do you try to bring out in students’ standards playing?

DO: Do you mean playing on standards? If so, finding freedom within the melody and a variety of ways before you start blowing over chord changes. If you mean what standards of ability or excellence they should try to achieve? They need to have the ability to perform, compose, and educate. It’s not a four to six-year package deal, It’s a life time commitment. College is just an introduction to the rest of your quest in creative music. If you do it right, you will always be a student – and then you die.

JH: Do you still enjoy touring?

DO: I enjoy playing with great musicians and teaching all the talent. I am tired of all the security changes, red tape, scheduling conflicts, airports…

JH: Do you have any nice memories (or indeed unfulfilled ambitions?!) regarding London?

DO: I always have nice memories of London and its great tradition of creative music. So much of what America is (good or bad) comes from all of Europe and, in particular, England. The saxophone tradition over here is incredible. I love London and will always try to patiently endure how expensive it is for a jazz musician to exist here. Fantastic food and art and a lot more history than in the USA.

I got thrown out of the country at Gatwick Airport for insufficient documentation once but I’m over that.

The Pizza Express sets are on the fourth night of a tour: 4 April Barcelona (Jamboree), 5 April Monzon, 6 April Lleida. The same quartet will be at the San Sebastian Jazz festival in July with other dates TBC

Pizza Express Bookings for 7 April
Dick Oatts website
Preview feature about Dick Oatts by Gareth Lockrane from 2016

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