Discussing Steve Grossman (5): Interview with trumpeter Damon Brown

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 fifth of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.

Steve Grossman & Damon Brown. Photo from the cover of This Time the Dream’s On Me

London Jazz News: How aware of Steve Grossman’s music were you before you met him?

Damon Brown: Not very much at all. I mean, I knew of him but I didn’t have a Steve Grossman album when I met him, let’s put it like that. When I met him, I hadn’t been on the jazz scene in England for that long. To cut a long story short, I moved to Paris when I was 31. At that point, I’d brought an album out which had done very well; my first album. I’d done quite a lot of touring with acid-jazz and that kind of stuff, but when I moved to Paris, I made a decision that I was going to stop doing as much reggae and funk as I’d been doing in my twenties. I kind of decided that I needed to get my shit together, so I became quite dedicated to the jazz scene in Paris and studied pretty hard. 

I’d been in Paris for maybe two or three years when I met Steve for the first time. It happened because a saxophone player called Renato D’Aiello put me in contact with this guy called Antonio Ciacca, a piano player and agent who was playing with Steve. So Antonio asked me to go to Italy to meet him and talk about gigs. He wanted to play in Ronnie Scott’s and to get his foot in the English scene, so we had this arrangement where I started to use him on gigs in England, and he started booking me in Italy. The first time I went out to Italy, I met Steve Grossman. I had eight or nine days with Antonio, and two of them were with Steve in Napoli. I remember picking him up in the minibus in Bologna, where he lived.

LJN: What was he like to be around?

DB: He was quite a handful at that time because, on top of his methadone and whatever else he was taking, at that point he was a proper alcoholic. He was a handful, but dynamic, loud and very positive. We did that gig and it went really well. It was really nice and he made me feel so good about myself. We were chatting in the morning and I said, “I’d like you to come and play with my band and let’s do some dates in England”, and he was very keen.

Playing with Steve in Bologna was a massive motivator for me. I really practiced my butt off once I knew that he was coming to England. He had a repertoire of tunes that he loved and I flew out to Italy just to hang with him and learn that repertoire. Subsequently, over a period of about six or seven years, every year we did a tour of England. Sometimes we played at Ronnie’s, sometimes we played at Pizza Express (Soho). For the Pizza ones, I usually got Pete King to guest, and it became quite a nice, regular thing for a little while. 

LJN: Was he aware of Pete King prior to them playing together at Pizza Express?

DB: Before we played at Pizza, I’d already played a bit with Pete King. Me and Steve had talked about him, and Steve knew all about Pete’s career; they may have even played together before that, I don’t know. They had a massive mutual respect, but it’s amazing how much Steve respected Pete. He was like a little boy around him. That’s the only time I ever saw Steve like that. He was so humble.

LJN: You mentioned that Grossman had a repertoire of tunes he liked to play, and there are a few songs that appear several times on different albums of his in the 80s and 90s. One that seems to crop up a lot is “Star Eyes”…

DB: Yeah, he did have his favourites. It also depended on whether he was with a band that knew his originals. A lot of the time with Steve, when you went on tour with him he might not have touched his horn for weeks. When he wasn’t gigging, he didn’t really practice when I knew him, so there were a lot of tunes that kept cropping up: Like you say, he’d always do “Star Eyes”, there were a couple of Tadd Dameron tunes that he loved playing, and he loved that Fats Navarro period of bebop. We got into playing his originals as well. A lot of his tunes are fantastic vehicles for improvisation because they’ve got bridges that sort of hark back to standards, but with very modal-based A-sections: “415 Central Park West”, “Extemporaneous”, there were a bunch of them we used to play. That’s interesting for me because I think that sort of mirrors the things in his playing from when I knew him. When we’d start a tour, he’d be playing almost exclusively with that late-Sonny Rollins language, which he could play the absolute hell out of. But then, after like three or four days, it would become a mixture of that and his Live at the Lighthouse language. As soon as he was warmed up and his playing was back where he wanted it to be, it would just go to another level every single time.

LJN: Wow! That’s a really unique insight because the common criticism is that he stopped playing how he’d played on Live at the Lighthouse after the 70s and never got it back…

DB: Not at all, not at all. After three or four days, one minute he’d be sounding like Sonny Rollins but with his own take on it, and then the next minute you’d be going, “What the hell is he playing?”. It was just awesome, man. I don’t think he ever lost that stuff. The more he played, the deeper it got. I think everybody played to this idea that he wanted to be a bit more safe and mainstream, but actually, he didn’t want that. What he really wanted was for the band to be free, but it was hard with his choices of tunes, especially initially.

LJN: Did you consider him to be a mentor?

DB: Yeah, definitely at that time. I was pretty ignorant really, but he loved my playing and kept encouraging me. I don’t want to exaggerate, there wasn’t months and months of it. But when we were on tour, he’d write bebop heads out for me or teach me them by ear, however long it took. He was really in the mentor, educator mode and encouraging all the time. I think that the biggest single event of my musical development has been the time I spent with Steve, certainly from a jazz perspective, because I had a chance to develop something and keep working and keep being inspired by one person.

We did a lot of driving together and we’d listen to loads of music. He had perfect pitch for the trumpet because he started on trumpet, and his brother, Hal, played trumpet. But he didn’t have it for piano and he didn’t have it in general. We’d be listening to Ready for Freddie, and he’d just know that note because he said he could still feel it in his fingers. He hadn’t played trumpet for like forty years!

LJN: Can you remember some of the other stuff the two of you would listen to when you were driving?

DB: Strangely enough, he was really into Birth of the Cool. He had these cassettes of it. Compositionally he was so into it, and he was so into Miles. I remember him saying to me that categorically the best feeling he’d ever had was when he’d be soloing and Miles would come in over the top of him. He said that was the biggest thrill of his life. He was mad about these old tapes he had of Miles.

LJN: Grossman is featured on your 2009 album, This Time the Dream’s On Me. Talk about his role in that…

I remember feeling at the time that Steve wasn’t in the best condition on this CD. He plays pretty in on all of it. But when I go back to it and listen to him, it might not be the firing burnout that I wanted, but it’s still just awesome. Even Steve on like twenty-percent is awesome.

He didn’t charge me anything to be on that record. He just wanted to do it for me because we were playing together. But I remember thinking wow, because I know he charged other people quite a lot of money to be on their records as a sideman. He was a really good friend, man.

LJN: What state was his personal life in during the time you knew him?

DB: I remember being in his flat in Bologna. It was quite shocking to me, with his history and everything he’s done, to see him sleeping in a tiny room. He had these old cassettes of Miles stuff and bootleg stuff that he was on himself that he’d play all the time, and then he’d watch videos. It was quite sad in a way, but he was never sad to talk to. He never regretted anything. He always said, “I’ve done what I loved and I’m still doing it”. 

LJN: Did you have much contact with him towards the end?

DB: Not really. We had a gig at Pizza and he messed up on his methadone prescription and then couldn’t make it. We had a falling out at the time because it left me in quite a complicated situation. I was angry, basically, and I regret that. We didn’t speak for quite a while, but we did speak a little bit later on. But then maybe a year after that he moved back to America, and then I didn’t have much contact with him. I wondered what was going on and I remember being a bit worried about him, and then it wasn’t that long after that he passed.

LJN: What do you feel his legacy is today?

DB: I think his legacy is he was a monumental, iconic saxophone player. He’s not a household name – like John Coltrane – to people who aren’t super informed jazz fans, but he’s continually on so many sax players’ top lists. It’s really hard to think of someone like that. I’m very happy to have had a slice of it.


2 replies »

  1. I remember taking for Birmingham Jazz one of the tours of the UK with Steve that Damon organised. It was at the Polish Club in Birmingham that we were using at the time. I remember that Steve played well and on one or two tunes he played totally original brilliant solos. I drove the band to their hotel which was out of town and then drove them back the following morning to catch the train. Steve was initially rather distant, but began to show a dry wit as we went on.

  2. Yeah I loved Steve along with Brother Bob Berg I was truly shocked when he Steve ,and Bob passed I would catch every set both of them played at Ronnies over the years Have always thought they both were the foremost Tenor players ,along with Rollins Have all their records and cds Thanks for the great insights .

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