Discussing Steve Grossman (3): Interview with Gene Perla

Among the post-Coltrane generation of saxophonists, Steve Grossman is commonly believed to have been the one with the greatest raw talent. He set the saxophone world on fire when he burst onto the scene with Miles Davis in the late 60s and built on that reputation with the Elvin Jones Quartet in the early 70s. By the time his debut recording, Some Shapes to Come, released in 1973, the future looked bright for an emerging tenor heavyweight. But this was not to be, as he developed a pernicious drug habit that severely hampered his development as an artist. He released some recordings of quality over the ensuing years and played on many great sessions as a sideman, but the output was inconsistent at best. 

Though he lived to be 69, passing away in 2020, it’s not hard to see how Steve Grossman has become an obscure name to today’s generation, overshadowed by similarly talented and far more driven contemporaries like Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. Most jazz historians pay little attention to his place as an innovator on the instrument (though Mark Stryker’s obituary is highly recommended), a reality for which he largely has himself to blame. Discussing Steve Grossman is a five-part interview series that aims to correct those aforementioned oversights and help to rebuild the tarnished legacy of his life and music.

This conversation is the third of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.

L: Gene Perla (photo by Richard Stopa) / R: Steve Grossman (photo by Alan Nahigian)

London Jazz News: How did you first meet Steve Grossman?

Gene Perla: I was thinking about that the other day and I don’t really remember, but something tells me that it was probably in a club somewhere. I don’t know if I was playing or he was playing, so I can’t really give you a definitive answer for that. I believe that I met him and we hadn’t played, and then Don Alias, who was my part-time roommate at the time, invited him to come to my loft; Don would stay with me when he was in town. And that’s where things started musically, at that loft. 

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LJN: Do you recall your first impressions of him?

GP: Well, I was already impressed with him because he had gotten the gig with Miles Davis at such a young age. So I had to say to myself, “What the hell, this kid’s gotta be able to play if he got a gig with Miles”. I found him to be pleasant enough. He was self-insulated, and I think that was probably because of his immense talent. In a way, because of the pressure coming from others, I sensed that he stepped back. But I never found him nasty in those days. He was always quiet and had a good, dry sense of humour and he was pleasant enough to be around. That’s the beginning… (laughs)

LJN: You convinced Elvin Jones to hire Grossman and Dave Liebman for his quartet, so the story goes. How did you do that?

GP: When Elvin called me to join his group, the next time I saw Liebman I told him, “I’m gonna get you in that band and then I’m gonna get Grossman in there”. Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were good musicians in Elvin’s band at the time, but neither one of them to me was on the same par as Coltrane. I felt that Dave… well certainly he’s proved that. And Grossman had this capability, you know. And because I was close to them, getting them into the band was my goal. I finally was able to get Elvin to agree. I didn’t have to push him. I just said, “This guy Dave Liebman is fun”, and so he said one night, “Tell him to come down to Slugs’ Saloon”. Dave came down and he got hired. Joe Farrell left and I don’t remember the transition exactly; It was probably the same kind of thing: Elvin knew about Steve already because you knew about who was playing with Miles in those days, and so he got in and Frank left. 

LJN: What was it like to be a part of that quartet?

GP: For me, it was a thrill to have those two guys in a band with Elvin because they fit. We were all hitting on the same thing and it was just thrilling. It broke my heart to a certain degree when Miles came to the Village Vanguard while we were playing there and stole Liebman. I say stole, but it was all straight above board. That was the end because Liebman went with Miles and Azar Lawrence came in. 

LJN: After Elvin, Grossman went on to release Some Shapes to Come on your label, PM Records. Aside from playing on the record, how involved were you in bringing it about to begin with?

GP: We had been playing with Don Alias almost daily during that time and Jan Hammer was my roommate. So I said, “Steve, we should make a record and you be the leader”. But it came about because there was a school in Manhattan called the Institute of Audio Research. So I went there, it was upstairs in this building, and on the first floor was a restaurant called Bradley’s, which was a famous place for jazz musicians. So I went downstairs for a drink and I met this fellow Mark “Moogy” Klingman, and we started talking. He said, “You want a job at a recording studio?”. I said yes, so for a bunch of months I was there six days a week for no money learning recording. You know who his partner was: Todd Rundgren. So I was there at the studio, and because I wasn’t getting paid I said, “You’ve got to let me use the studio”. So that’s how that recording came together.

LJN: Had you been working on the music as a band prior to the record date?

GP: If I remember correctly, there are seven tunes on the album: “WBAI”, I don’t know if we ever played that tune before. Maybe he just made it up in the studio, I have no idea. “Haresah” we had played. I don’t know if we played that with Elvin or not. “Zulu Stomp” is a Don Alias song. And then there’s “Pressure Point”, and that’s Grossman’s tune. I’m sure we played that in jam sessions cos I knew that one. But the other three tunes – “Extemporaneous Combustion”, “Alodian Mode” and “The Sixth Sense” – were all made up right on the spot. That was total improvisation and all four of us were high on LSD for that recording…

Many years later Don Alias was working with David Sanborn and I think at that moment Christian McBride was playing bass with them. They were someplace backstage at a festival and Matthew Garrison, Jimmy Garrison’s son, was there. Don Alias told me this story… McBride asks Matthew, “Do you know what the bible is?” and Matthew answered him right away, “Yeah, it’s Some Shapes to Come”. Man, if that isn’t an endorsement I don’t know what is.

LJN: In many ways, that was the birth of Stone Alliance…

GP: Absolutely!

LJN: So how did the band actually come about and why did it end up being a chordless trio?

GP: The most time spent in jam sessions at my loft was with Don and Steve. Hammer would be there sometimes, Liebman would come by and so would Mike and Randy Brecker; a lot of people would come by. But the real core was just the three of us and we spent a great deal of time not playing songs so much, but we wanted to really get the time in our blood. So I’d just start playing some tonal centre, then I’d change it and Steve would hear me and he’d blow on that, just to get the time going. So there was a real synergy between the three of us.

Alias and I were talking one time and I said, “Maybe we should try and form a group here”. I’ve always been the business guy, so I come up with the ideas; I came up with the name Stone Alliance also. And so we met at Don’s mother’s apartment in the Bronx and we sat down around the table and, when it was clear that the three of us wanted to do it, at that point Alias said: “Steve, you play the saxophone,” – (laughs) that was his job, that was it – “Gene, you take care of the business”, and he says, “and I’ll be the leader”. And he was a great leader. He knew how to talk to people, he’d run the show. If we were supposed to start at eight o’clock, we’d start at eight o’clock. It was a serious band. Serious music, serious business.

Stone Alliance. Photo courtesy of Gene Perla

There are certain things that come by, and sometimes they take hold, and other times they don’t. For instance: I was asked to play with Bill Evans and I turned him down. Did I make a mistake? I don’t know; circumstances… Jimi Hendrix heard the record Don, Jan and myself made with flautist Jeremy Steig, and said to the engineer Eddie Kramer: “I’m going to England. When I come back I want to make a record with these guys.” He never came back, but can you imagine what that would have been like?

LJN: Did Grossman’s drug addiction ever cause you issues?

GP: The deal with Steve was his penchant for drugs and it was always a thorn in both Don’s and my side. I mean, we liked to get high, Don and I, but not to the point where drugs overtake you.

So I’m working at the Vanguard with Elvin in 1971, and during the break, this fellow comes up to me and he says, “Would you like to put a group together and come to Chile?”. I said, “Yes, I’d love to do it”. He said, “Do you think Elvin would go?”, and I said, “We can ask him”. One thing led to another and we went to Chile; Steve and Dave and myself. So I had a connection there.

Now it’s 1976 and we form Stone Alliance, I get in touch with the guy. Next thing I know, he sets up a fifteen-day tour of Chile, so the three of us go to South America. We left in October of ’76 and we didn’t come home until April of ’77. We made a record in Brazil, we made a record in Argentina, and it was a complete blast. But Grossman… these drugs, they cause issues, tension. We came back after he met a woman in Buenos Aires, and I had gigs booked in Central America and I had to cancel them all because he said, “I’m not leaving until I marry this girl and bring her back to New York”. (Laughs)

Finally he comes back and I set up a tour of Europe. At the end of the tour, Ronnie Scott’s gave us two weeks; six nights a week. The first week was opposite Joe Henderson, and the second week was opposite Stan Getz, and Grossman didn’t show up. I got in touch with him: He was at this well-known pharmacy in Belgium getting high. He said he didn’t have any money to get to London. Something just went off in my head. I’d just had enough. At that point, Don’s girlfriend was Joni Mitchell and she was in London waiting to hear us play. And Joni, she’s got a little money, she says, “I’ll rent a jet and we’ll go over and get him”. But I’d had enough and I cancelled the two weeks. We were just on the edge, we probably could have signed a major label deal. I think we were just about ready. It was a long time before I saw Steve again.

LJN: You never considered replacing him at the time?

GP: No. We had the music, it was our shit. Nobody was playing any stuff like this.

LJN: How were the drugs affecting him?

GP: It was detrimental. I certainly saw, any of us who were paying attention saw, what it was doing to him over time. He became a nasty son-of-a-bitch to people. I don’t know, he went over the edge.

LJN: Did you have much to do with him after his no-show at Ronnie Scott’s?

GP: I got a call from George Garzone, and he said, “There’s this group of jazz whackos in Rome, Italy, and they’re wondering if you and Steve would come and play along with Fransisco Mela”. He said, “Would you call Grossman?”, so I got in touch with Steve and he said, “yeah, okay, I’ll be there”. So I show up in Rome, get into my hotel room. Then the phone rings and it’s him: “Hey, come up to my room”. So I go up there… He was ridiculously fat, he looked like hell. The bed was broken, there were broken beer bottles on the floor and he was walking around with nothing on his feet. I said, “What the hell’s going on with you?”. “I’m dying”, that’s what he said. He was so not in control of his body that someone had to help him up on stage. He was drunk, just a complete mess. He did not play well at all. It was a two-night gig, I fired him for the second night.

Steve Grossman in concert at Jazz en Baies in 2014. Screenshot from Video by Télénantes. Permission sought.

I found out later that Steve, on his own volition, checked himself into the hospital the day after. And that was a turning point because a year later, I was in Italy and I went by Bologna to see him. He was still a little overweight but there was a tremendous loss of weight and he said, “I quit drinking, I haven’t had a drink. I’m done with all these drugs. I am taking methadone because I’m an addict”. He turned his life around.

A year later, we did a gig in Switzerland and then I didn’t see him until he came back to the US (in the 2010s). I took him out to lunch one day and he couldn’t have any solid food because he had no teeth. Heroine does that shit to you. So I hooked him up with Miles Davis’s dentist and he was having work done. But then he went downhill and they put him in a home somewhere and that was the end.

LJN: What is Steve Grossman’s ultimate legacy in your opinion?

GP: He’s the greatest sax player after John Coltrane. You know, I have a recording of Elvin saying that. Everybody was impressed by him, but I think there was a tremendous amount of jealousy over skin colour. That book, The Lighthouse Omnibook, I published that. When I got around to putting it together, I called everybody up for a line or something that I could use for promo. Not one black guy contributed. To me, that’s a sad thing because you just have to look at the great ones. I understand where it’s coming from, and they’re not wrong with that, but when it comes to music, man, come on!


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