Discussing Steve Grossman (4): Interview with Jerry Bergonzi

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.

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

L: Steve Grossman (photo by Maurizio Zorzi) / R: Jerry Bergonzi (photo by Antonio Porcar Cano)

London Jazz News: What was your first encounter with Steve Grossman?

Jerry Bergonzi: I first encountered Steve because I knew his brother Hal Grossman, who was a trumpet player. Hal was always talking about his younger brother, how he was a great saxophone player. He was playing alto and he was transcribing this and transcribing that. Hal said he sounded kind of like Cannonball on alto. Then, finally, I flew to New York with Hal – it was the first time I’d flown anywhere – and we hung out with Steve. By that time he was playing tenor, and we went to different clubs, hearing people play and sitting in. I remember we sat in at this place with Jimmy Lovelace on drums and Jymie Merritt on bass. Just bass and drums, it was a learning experience for me. At that time, Steve was really kind of upbeat. He was totally straight!!

Then there was a bass player Don Pate, who used to play with a lot of people, and I played for his senior recital at New England Conservatory. He had Webster Lewis on organ, Lenny White on drums, this other drummer… He had two of every instrument except bass. It was myself and Steve Grossman on tenor saxophone. By that time, Steve was already playing with Miles and I could see a shift in his demeanour.

LJN: What did that shift in his demeanour look like?

JB: He was more withdrawn. I could tell he wasn’t as extroverted or as enthusiastic. Later I moved to New York City and he came over to my loft with Greg Herbert. They were both tripping, and Steve slugged down a pint of I.W. Harper bourbon in record time. Other times he would come over looking for a mouthpiece he could sell. I could tell you so many weird stories about Steve Grossman, but that’s not the point. The point is Steve had his issues but always sounded amazing. He was a great player. 

LJN: What was it about his playing that you admired?

JB: He really had great time feel, great technique, played with great authority and energy. He was just a natural saxophone player. I know he took lessons with Joe Allard and all that stuff, but so did a lot of people. You could tell he’d put in his time studying the jazz language. I never heard anything of him playing that I disliked. I didn’t care if he was trying to sound like Sonny Rollins or whatever, he just sounded great. Everybody admired Steve.

LJN: Some have observed Grossman elements in your playing. Is that something you’re aware of?

JB: Oh, for sure, but it wasn’t like I got it from Steve Grossman. I got it from the people we all listened to: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and of course Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine… But yeah, everybody was influenced by Steve Grossman. He was on the top of his game. He was playing with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and making records, so he always had a lot of notoriety. There was a time where I really checked out Steve, like I checked out this person and that person. You know, you just keep checking people out and finding out how it fits into your artistic, musical scheme of things.

LJN: Is there a particular recording of his that stands out to you?

JB: It’s probably the one I used to have – I lost the tape – that was at a club called Sonny’s Place with Andy LaVerne on piano. They played standards all night and he just sounded so great playing them.

LJN: Do you remember what year that came out?

JB: It was probably around 1973/74. That period.

There’s also a great recording live in Boston with Steve Grossman, Masabumi Kikuchi on piano, Gene Perla on bass, and Elvin. It’s a quartet and just sounds outrageous. It’s Steve at the top of his game. I never heard him sound better than that, really. He’s still early twenties at that point.

I think that some people peak early. Like, to me, Stan Getz: There’s nothing I like more than early Stan. Early Steve: Ridiculous! But the thing is, I don’t really think Steve got any better at a certain point. Unfortunately he had a problem with drugs. He always sounded great, but I wonder, had Steve been a bit more mature and didn’t have the drug problem, where could he have gone with his music? I know Bob Berg was into drugs, but he stopped. Mike Brecker, he stopped; Bob Mintzer, he stopped. But Steve said, “I want to live the ‘Bird book’”. Cool, but that’s a short-lived book…

Steve Grossman. Photo credit: Jacky Lepage

LJN: Dave Liebman has said several times that Grossman was ‘the best’ of the post-Coltrane generation. Is that something you agree with?

JB: Yeah, he would say that. I mean, it’s a hard thing to say who’s the best; I don’t view things like that. There’s things I like about Liebman more than Grossman, like his creativity and the fact that he doesn’t play clichés. Steve, you know, had his favourite clichés that, no matter where he is in the tune, he’ll just pick one out and play no matter what the chord is. But he was, from that echelon of tenor players out of New York, on the top of list.

LJN: That’s pretty much the unanimous perspective among your generation. But you have a unique insight into the younger generation as a long-time educator also. Do you hear your students discussing Grossman at all?

JB: Not many. They don’t know who Steve Grossman is compared to Mike Brecker: Everybody’s talking about Mike, and for good reason. I do have one student now who just idolises Steve Grossman: All he wants to do his play like him. And, having heard it before, I did kind of get tired of listening to it. It’s hard to recreate something like that because that’s what was happening back then. Steve was bringing out the Coltrane language at that time, and the fusion-y, modal language, which he played great.

LJN: Would you care to speculate as to why they remember Brecker but not Grossman?

JB: Steve Grossman was not exactly the nicest guy in the world at times. That’s not the case with Mike Brecker: When you meet Mike Brecker you just love him from the get go. He was a great, encouraging person.

LJN: So you think it’s more to do with personality than art?

JB: Yeah, I think he peaked too young. He needed to grow up in some respects and get more human. But I know that when you have a drug habit, it’s stronger than you are: Drugs can make anybody nasty.

LJN: As this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Live at the Lighthouse, you and Adam Nussbaum are joining Gene Perla and Dave Liebman – the surviving members of the quartet – for a celebratory tour. Your role will be, in a sense, to sit in for Grossman. Is it an honour for you to be asked to do that?

JB: Well first, nobody could sit in for Steve Grossman, so I don’t even think about that. Nobody could play like that. Steve Grossman is Steve Grossman. I’m sitting in for me. I can only play as good as I can play. That’s hard enough for me (laughs). But yeah, it’s an honour, definitely.

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

JB: He had a great feel; authentic for the most part. Later on I think that it could be a little bit derivative sometimes, compared to early Steve Grossman where he was playing language that we hadn’t heard. He had his own take on it, but he kind of abandoned it. I wonder if people just pigeon-holed him as a Coltrane disciple, so he decided not to go in that direction. But anyway, Steve Grossman’s legacy is his playing, NOT the fact that he was a drug addict. When they made that motion picture about Charlie Parker, all they did was talk about his drug habit… Man, he just made great music. Well it’s the same with Steve Grossman: He sounded fantastic.


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