Friday, March 20, 2009

Crawford’s Alto ‘Sang’ With Fervor And Lyrical Passion

Hank Crawford is shown in two photographs by George E. Hardin. The photo on the left was made in Memphis in 1977, and the one on the right was taken in Austin, Texas, in 2005.

When the jazz chronicles for the last half of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st are written, Hank Crawford’s name will loom large among those who helped shape the music that is one of the hallmarks of creative improvisation. Crawford had an enduring impact on jazz and the other music styles he performed. He was an early purveyor of smooth jazz with its lyrical melodies. Although he was best known as a jazz artist, he was a versatile musician whose work embraced funk, bop, as well as rhythm and blues. He was respected as an alto saxophonist but also was competent on baritone sax, tenor sax, clarinet and piano.

When Bennie Ross “Hank” Crawford died Jan. 29 he had spent his entire working life as an inventive artist who was dedicated to his craft and to ensuring that his listeners heard the best music he could produce.

I interviewed Crawford in 1977 for an article for U. G. Railroad magazine, published by Larry Batchlor. The article focused on the idea then being expressed by some observers that jazz was losing its vitality, a view that Crawford soundly rejected.

Crawford pointed out that he began piano lessons at age 9. However, he said, “Manassas High School was really the launching pad for me. I started playing clarinet under the guidance of Matt Garrett. I played clarinet in the band two years and switched to baritone horn.” I had known Crawford since our student days at Manassas and had followed his career.

Upon finishing Manassas, Crawford attended Jackson State College and then transferred to Tennessee State University. While in Nashville he came to Ray Charles’ attention and earned an audition. However, it was about six months later, when Charles needed a baritone sax player, before Crawford was hired for the band. Crawford was on baritone about a year and half before Charles gave him a chance to pick up his beloved alto sax. Charles was so impressed with Crawford that he chose him as his music director.

Although Crawford saw in Charles a kindred spirit, after six years he wanted to take his career in a new direction. “I left the Ray Charles Band in 1963,” he said, “and formed my own group, which consisted of eight pieces – two trumpets, tenor, baritone horn, alto, bass, drums and guitar. And I’ve been on my own since then.” Crawford’s group made its debut at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop in June 1963.

Since the word “soul” was in the title of several Crawford albums, I asked how he viewed the term. “There are a lot of people who can play or sing but they don’t get through to you,” Crawford said. “Soul is a person expressing himself through his instrument. I actually play what I feel. When you are able to play or sing and can communicate to other people, when you can really get to another person’s emotions, make him feel what you feel and understand what you understand, then basically you have soul.”

He compared his beginnings in music to what was then taking place. “When I was playing,” he said, “we had orchestras in high school like the Manassas Rhythm Bombers and the Douglass Swingsters. We had to do a lot of section work. The kids now get five or six guitars and it’s all freedom. In a lot of groups now you can’t get a decent solo out of some of the instrumentalists. Eventually, they’re going to have to go back to the basics. Music changes when the social scene changes. They’re talking about staying in school for an education; well, this applies to musicians, too.”

Crawford mentioned James Moody as one of his favorite sax players. “I’ve always liked him, from the first time I heard him, and Charlie Parker was another. Then I like Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Stanley Turrentine. Believe it or not, I like the way Ray Charles plays alto sax, and, of course, David “Fathead” Newman is one of my favorites – alto or tenor.”

Newman and Crawford worked together as members of the Ray Charles Band. They helped create the soulful style for which Charles became noted and played on some of his best-known recordings. Newman, who was 75, died Jan. 20, nine days before Crawford’s passing.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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