Introducing Booker Little
[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970. Little died in 1961, just a few months after this interview was originally published in Metronome, by Robert Levin.]
Booker Little, twenty-three year-old composer, arranger and trumpet player (the order is arbitrary, each role has equal importance to him), has lately come to demonstrate, in recordings and as the musical director of the Max Roach group, a talent that promises size.
As is true of many jazz players of his generation, Little is a product of the conservatory. He’s found that experience to be “invaluable,” but has discovered that it can tend to bind one to conventional concepts and result in an excessive emphasis on the technical aspects of making music—at the cost of the emotional aspects.
“My background has been conventional,” he says, “and maybe because of that I haven’t become a leftist, though my ideas and tastes now might run left to a certain degree. I think the emotional aspect of music is the most important. A lot of guys, and I’ve been guilty of this too, put too much stress on the technical, and that’s not hard to do when you’ve learned how to play in school. I think this goes along with why a lot of trumpet players have come up lately sounding one way—like Clifford Brown. They say everyone’s imitating him now and that’s true in a way and in a way it isn’t.
“Clifford was a flashy trumpet player who articulated very well. He started a kind of trumpet playing that’s partly an outgrowth of Fats Navarro—insofar as having a big sound, articulating well all over the instrument and having an even sound from top to bottom. Most of the younger guys, like myself, who started playing in school, they’d have the instructor driving at them, ‘Okay, you gotta have a big sound, you gotta have this and that.’ Consequently if they came in sounding like Miles [Davis], which is beautiful for jazz, they flunked the lessons. They turned toward someone else then, like Clifford. Donald Byrd is a schooled trumpet player and though he’s away from that now he’ll never really be able to throw it out of his mind.”
Little was born into a musical family in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 2, 1938. His father was a trombonist in a Baptist church band and his mother was a church organist; an older sister sang for a time with the London Opera Company. Little began playing trumpet in his high school classical and marching band. “At first I was interested in the clarinet, but the instructor felt trumpet would be best—because he needed trumpet players. Jazz records were very scarce in Memphis at that time, but there were a lot of guys who were interested in it. George Coleman was one. He was probably one of the most progressive people around town at the time, and there was also Louis Smith, who is my cousin. They were listening. I was rather close to George because he was in the same high school. He was sharp enough to take things off records. I was fourteen or fifteen then, and he sort of got me started. I played with some groups around town and then, when I graduated, I went to the Chicago Conservatory. Being in Chicago gave me greater exposure to things, because guys were always coming through.”
At the conservatory, Little majored in trumpet and minored in piano. He also studied theory, composition and orchestration. In his third year, when he was nineteen, he met Max Roach through Sonny Rollins, and not long afterwards Roach called him for a record date. About that time he decided to quit school. “I gave it up because I realized there wasn’t much I could do as a far as being a classical musician was concerned.” The record date eventually resulted in a regular working association with Roach’s quintet, an association that continued through 1958 when Little took a leave of absence to freelance in New York. During the latter period he gigged and/or recorded with John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Slide Hampton, Ed Shaughnessy, Teddy Charles, Mal Waldron and Abbey Lincoln, among others. He also recorded an album for United Artists and another for Time. In early 1960 he rejoined Roach.
Of late, however, Little has been considering the possibility of forming his own group. Its repertoire would consist exclusively of his own compositions.
“I think I’ve found the way I want to play on my instrument and now I want to concentrate on the sound I’d like to build around it.” Currently, Little has a working agreement with Candid Records, for whom he’s already made an album (with Eric Dolphy) comprised entirely of his own writing. At the time we spoke, he was working on the orchestrations for an album that will feature Coleman Hawkins “in a modern setting.”
“I don’t think there’s very much of my work prior to these Candid albums that expresses how I feel now about what I want to do.”
What Little wants to accomplish as a composer involves drawing on his knowledge of what he terms “the legitimate aspects of writing” without being confined by them.
“Those who have no idea about how classical music is constructed are definitely at a loss—it’s a definite foundation. I don’t think it should be carried to the point where you have to say this is this kind of phrase and this is that kind of development. Deep in your mind though you should maintain these thoughts and not just throw a phrase in without it answering itself or leading to something else. Say I know the chord I want the pianist to play and I give it to him. But the other instruments won’t necessarily be playing that chord. Most of the guys who are thinking completely conventionally, they’d say, ‘Well maybe you’ve got a wrong note in there.’ But I can’t think in terms of wrong notes.
“In fact, I don’t hear any notes as being wrong. It’s a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong, I think you’re thinking completely conventionally—technically—and forgetting about emotion. And I don’t think anyone would deny that more emotion can be reached and expressed outside of the conventional diatonic way of playing which consists of whole notes and half steps. There’s more emotion that can be expressed by the notes that are played flat. Say it’s a B flat, but you play it flat and it’s not an A and it’s not a B flat, it’s between them. And in places you can employ that and I think it has great value. Or say the clash of a B natural against a B flat.
“I’m interested in putting sounds against sounds and I’m interested in freedom also. But I have respect for form. I think sections of a piece can sometimes be played, say, on a basic undersound, which doesn’t limit the soloist. You wouldn’t necessarily tell him how many choruses to take. You say ‘You blow awhile. You try and build your story and resolve it.’ One thing I wrote for [producer] Nat Hentoff on the Candid date is like that completely. The undervoices were playing a motif and I just improvised on the sound. It had a definite mood, and the mood didn’t warrant my running all over the trumpet.
“There are a lot of people who think the new direction should be to abolish form and others who feel that it should be to unite the classical forms with jazz. The relationship between classical and jazz is close, but I don’t think you have to employ a classical technique as such to get something that jells. I think the main reason a lot of people are going into it is because jazz hasn’t developed as far as composition is concerned. It’s usually a twelve-bar written segment and then everybody goes for themselves. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to do either of these things to really accomplish something different and new. And I think sometimes a conscious effort to do something different and new isn’t as good as a natural effort.
“In my own work I’m particularly interested in the possibilities of dissonance. If it’s a consonant sound it’s going to sound smaller. The more dissonance, the bigger the sound. It sounds like more horns, in fact, you can’t always tell how many more there are. And your shadings can be more varied. Dissonance is a tool to achieve these things.”
Little has been impressed by the writing of Charles Mingus. “He’s been thinking rhythmically, in terms of breaking up rhythms, and that interests me. He’s definitely a giant as far as writing is concerned. He stems from another giant, Duke Ellington. Duke is one of my favorite writers. He’s a man who’s worked at a sound and never wavered, and his musical personality is always identifiable as his. Slide Hampton has impressed me when he’s writing for no other reason than himself. He has a terrific mind. And I thought the Gunther Schuller Atlantic date with Ornette Coleman had some terrific writing.”
As a trumpet player, Little concedes that his major influence, much for the reasons stated earlier, has been Clifford Brown. “Yes, to a degree I’m afraid there was an influence, but I do think I’ve rid myself of it. I remember when I was living at the YMCA in Chicago. Sonny Rollins was living there too. You had to go down to the basement to practice, and once he heard me listening to a Clifford Brown record. I was playing it over and over again, and I guess I was driving him mad, because he was trying to practice himself. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was trying to learn the melody. He told me that it was probably best that I go buy a sheet on it, because if I kept listening to the way he played it, it was going to rub off, and I was going to play it the same way. I never forgot what he said, though I did continue listening to Clifford Brown records.
Brownie was the easiest guy for me to really get close to, as far as finding out what was going on was concerned. I like the way he played his lines.”Little is preoccupied with remaining within the mood of a piece when he solos.”Jazz soloing, as a result of the methods Bird introduced, started a very involved technique, and Bird and some of the others reached a very high degree of emotion, higher than most of the soloists to follow. Sonny Rollins has reached the same height, probably because he was around to hear them. He not only heard them say this is an A-major or a D-seventh, he also heard, firsthand, what they did with it—the kind of emotion they got out of it. A guy learning as I learned—say, the first chord in the bridge is an A-minor seventh—well, the first thing he had to do was figure out every note in the A-minor seventh, and when it came to playing it, he had to make sure he hit all the right notes. I think this is important, but not half as important as concentrating on staying within the mood.”Say you’re playing ‘Blue Monday.’ I don’t think it’s saying very much if you start to play it and then just rip and run all over the instrument. But again, you can get so involved with the technical aspect of playing that you do that—it’s not hard for that to happen.
Miles Davis minimized how much trumpet playing you could do as much as anybody could minimize it, But many people have a misconception about him. They say he can’t play trumpet. But he’s a fantastic trumpet player with a fantastic mind. He was one of the first guys around who didn’t have to play every note in an A-minor chord to give you the impression of an A-minor chord and to get the mood that the section needed.”There’s so many areas of trumpet playing that can be employed, and they don’t have a lot to do with the ‘legitimate’ end of trumpet playing as such. There are a lot of notes between notes—they call them ‘quarter-tones.’ They’re not really quarter-tones, but notes that are above and below the 440 notes. This is something Miles employs a lot, and I doubt that he even thinks about it.”
As a result of the influence Clifford Brown has exerted on the younger trumpet players, Little said that he believes there is a serious need for everyone to break away and find his individuality.”The problem isn’t only with trumpet players, and that’s why I think it’s very good that Ornette Coleman and some other people have come on the scene. Ornette has his own ideas about what makes what and I don’t think it’s proper to put him down. I do think it’s okay to talk about what his music has and what it doesn’t have. I have more conventional ideas about what makes what than he does, but I think I understand clearly what he’s doing, and it’s good. It’s an honest effort. It’s like a guy who puts sponges on his feet, steps in paint and then smears it on the canvas. If he really feels it that way, that’s it.
“At one end you have a guy who does it from a purely intellectual aspect and at the other a guy who does it from a purely emotional aspect. Sometimes both arrive at the same thing. I think Bird was more intellectual in his playing than Ornette is. I think Ornette puts down whatever he feels. But I think both ways have worth, though I don’t believe Ornette himself has the worth of a Charlie Parker. Bird consumed everything, all that has been before and then advanced it all, and I don’t think Ornette has consumed everything, though I’m sure he’s heard it. I do think what Ornette’s doing is part of what jazz will become.
“You know, there are so many things to get to. Most people who don’t listen often say jazz is a continuous pounding and this is something I can feel too. I think there are so many emotions that can’t be expressed with that going on. There are certain feelings that you might want to express that you could probably express better if you didn’t have that beat. Up until now if you wanted to express a sad or moody feeling you would play the blues. But it can be done in other ways.”
Little is concerning himself with exploring some of the “other” ways. If his aesthetic remains bound to the conventional precepts in which his education is rooted, he is trying to find out how to make his conservatory education nourish rather than taint or restrain his music. His most recent work both in person and on records is evidence of his certainly growing skill and courage as a composer and instrumentalist who is likely to achieve real stature.