Saxophonist, bandleader, and composer Kenny Garrett has not had the benefit of a college jazz education, but that has not set his career back one iota. Garrett, who has released several critically acclaimed albums for Warner Brothers, earned his master’s degree in the jazz clubs around his native Detroit. He relocated to Brooklyn in 1982 and now lives in Glen Ridge.
Garrett’s current album, "Standard of Language," a 2003 release, is a joyful ride into the world of bebop, and opens with his unique take on the standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Garrett’s next album will be released next year on Warner Brothers’ Nonesuch label. He comes to the Swig Center at the Peddie School in Hightstown, on Friday, December 2.
Garrett’s father, a carpenter, was a tenor saxophonist who pursued his music strictly as an avocation. His mother worked in a factory.
"I got my first saxophone as an eight-year-old," Garrett says in a phone interview. "My father taught me the G-scale, and he sent me to music school. That was that. My father did play gigs around Detroit, but it wasn’t his main source of income."
Garrett’s first few shows were with Detroit jazz musicians, many of whom have national followings, including Marcus Belgrave and Gerri Allen. "My first professional gig was with the Duke Ellington Orchestra led by Mercer Ellington, and I first played with them when I was 18 years old. I skipped college, went out for the summer with the Ellington band, and stayed with them for three and a half years instead."
Garrett says one of the most important things he learned on the road with Ellington’s big band "was how to blend in with all those instruments. Also, Cootie Williams came out of retirement to go on the road with us, and he’d see me noodling around with the piano from time to time. He used to tell me, ‘Cookie Baby, you need to write your own songs.’ He used to call me Cookie Baby."
Aside from soprano and alto saxophones, Garrett also uses the piano to compose, and he occasionally plays piano at concerts.
Garrett, now 45, made his recording debut with the Criss Cross label in 1985 and then was signed to Atlantic Records, a major label that had an interest in rebuilding its once glorious jazz legacy in the late 1980s. "Ahmet Ertegun sought me out, but then later on, I went to Warner Brothers," he says of Atlantic’s abandoned attempt at revitalizing its jazz sales.
Garrett says New York is not necessarily still the best place to be if you’re a jazz musician. "Everything has changed with the Internet. New York is still a great place to live, but now, you can live where you want to live and come to New York to perform so many times each year. These days, we’re traveling so much, I’m not on the New York scene as much as I used to be."
The "we" Garrett refers to are his bandmates: Carlos McKinney on piano; Kris Funn, bass; and drummer, Ronald Bruner. "This is the unit I travel everywhere with and that I’ll be bringing to Hightstown with me," he says.
Asked about the jazz scene in Detroit in the 1970s, Garrett says it wasn’t quite as vibrant as it was in the 1960s, but there were and still are some great jazz musicians there. "In high school, I played with an organist, Lymon Woodward, and after I graduated, I ended up leaving with the Ellington band," he says. "But until then I played in concert bands and stage bands and would travel an hour or two hours just to play some music."
On "Standard of Language," recorded at a New York studio, Garrett says he was shooting for a live-in-the-studio feel, as if the listener were sitting at the Village Vanguard or Birdland, listening to his quartet. "We tried for the live feel on the album, and so we tried to stretch out some more on the music. I guess a theme running through it was trying to shoot for that live, one-take feel."
Garrett says 2005 has been his busiest year yet; he and the band have performed short and extended tours in places like China, Japan, Iceland, Finland, Poland, and Barbados. "This year we all enjoyed going to Japan and to China for the first time. We also performed in Hong Kong as well."
Unlike so many modern jazz or smooth jazz sax players on the scene today, who seem to get so much more support from "smooth jazz" radio stations, Garrett remains firmly rooted in traditional jazz, bebop, and the blues.
"Without blues there is no jazz. You have to have that blues element in there," Garrett says. "There were some great jazz players who used to also be able to play that gutbucket blues, people like Joe Henderson and Charlie Parker. If you listen to them, you can hear they always had that element of blues in their playing."
At the Peddie School on December 2 Garrett says he expects to play a wide range of selections from his releases for Warner Bros. "There’ll be a little bit of everything," he promises, "because my music encompasses a lot. We do a version of ‘Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues,’ inspired by B.B. King and Miles Davis that I put together, we do some funk and hip-hop flavored things, and we even do some Asian-inspired tunes," he says. "You can think of it as a little trip you can take for 90 minutes, a musical jaunt to different places around the world."
Kenny Garrett, Friday, December 2, 8 p.m., Swig Arts Center, Peddie School, Hightstown. Preconcert chat at 7 p.m. $15. 609-490-7550.