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Author: Richard J. Skelly. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
January 12, 2000. All rights reserved.
Steve Turre’s Odyssey: Trombone to Seashells
Even though he counts the great band leaders —
Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, Ray Charles, Art Blakey,
and Rahsaan Roland Kirk — as major influences on his approach
to jazz, trombonist, bandleader and seashell player Steve Turre
that his group, Sanctified Shells, is not a big band.
"It’s a large ensemble, it’s 12 pieces, but it’s not based on
a big band sound like Basie and Ellington," explains Turre
tur-ray), a 51-year-old jazz trombonist who has lived in Montclair,
a jazz musicians’ haven, since 1991. Turre, who is Mexican-American,
was raised in the San Francisco Bay area. His father is a
his mother was a dancer who became a housewife and mother. Both
were jazz lovers when they met at a dance hall where Count Basie was
Sanctified Shells came into being through a process of evolution,
he explains. The group features six brass players who double on
as well as drums, bass, piano, percussion, and saxophone.
"When I would take a solo on the shells, I would often play two
at once," he explains, "so one day I said, `Well, if two of
them sound like this, what would a whole group of them sound like?’
I was living in Spanish Harlem at the time, and [jazz bassist] Alex
Blake lived upstairs from me. He had an eight-track recorder, which
was a big deal in 1980," Turre explains. "He said, `Why don’t
you come upstairs and we’ll overdub it and see what it sounds
As soon as he heard the sound of six and eight seashells beings played
at once, "I realized this had possibilities."
In January, 1981, Turre recalls, he performed with his as-yet-unnamed
group in a performance loft in lower Manhattan with six brass players
who doubled on shells and one percussionist. A year later he brought
the group to Prospect Park bandshell and the Whitney Museum of Art
with a second percussionist and bassist. Before he knew it, he added
piano and saxophone so that he wouldn’t be limiting himself as a
and bandleader. Thus, the current version of Sanctified Shells
is composed of 12 musicians, including Turre on trombone and
Turre’s latest album for Verve Records, "Lotus Flower,"
some of the shell playing that made him famous, as well as plenty
of the trombone playing that landed him the gig as trombonist in the
"Saturday Night Live" house band. That steady job has allowed
him to make his home in Montclair and to go on the road with the
Anyone who knows the jazz business will tell you anyone who is touring
with a 12-piece band is not making a lot of money. And that’s where
the steady gig on "Saturday Night Live" comes in handy.
The music on "Lotus Flower" features Turre’s sextet with
another format he’s comfortable working with. His wife, Akua Dixon,
co-founded the Indigo Quartet in 1970, the first jazz string quartet,
with drummer Max Roach’s daughter, Maxine, long before Turre arrived
in New York as part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On "Lotus
Flower," and at most of his concerts, Turre pays homage to his
mentors: trumpeter Woody Shaw, drummer Blakey, and saxophonist,
and seashell player Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He offers up his own
of Shaw’s "Organ Grinder" and Kirk’s "The Inflated
"Woody had a profound effect on my development, and the same with
Rahsaan Roland Kirk," he explains. Kirk was a vastly talented
bandleader who influenced everyone from Jethro Tull to John Mayall
and his Bluesbreakers to dozens of contemporary jazz players like
Turre. Kirk, who became famous for long wailing solos and playing
three saxophones at once on the bandstand, died of a stroke in 1977.
It was Kirk who introduced Turre to playing seashells, although Turre
points out the bandleader didn’t show him anything about how to play
them. "When I was 18, I sat in with Rahsaan at the Jazz Workshop
in San Francisco, and we just clicked," he recalls. "Whenever
he’d come to San Francisco, he’d call me. I was a kid, getting maybe
50 bucks for the week, but it didn’t matter, for me it was like
paid for an education."
"Every time he’d come through, he’d have different instruments
and different tunes," Turre recalls of the Kirk, who continued
to challenge himself musically throughout his career.
"One time he had a gong and a shell on stage, and he just
everybody in the audience with it, including all of us on stage,"
he recalls. "After the gig, we were in the dressing room, I asked
him if I could try a shell. I said, `Oh man, I’m gettin’ one of
Shortly after that, while in Mexico City with Woody Shaw, Turre’s
relatives attended the show. After the concert he went to their house
and they told him he had ancestors who played sea shells. "So
I said to myself, I guess I am supposed to do this."
Turre began playing under his own name as a bandleader in the early
1980s, but all the while, on tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Blakey, Shaw,
and Ray Charles in the early 1970s, he had been perfecting his
Although he attended Sacramento State University in
1966 and ’67, Turre never graduated. Instead, he switched to North
Texas State University, but found the formulaic methods of teaching
jazz there not to his liking either, since he had already been on
tour and learned first-hand from the greats by that point. He finally
received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts’
University Without Walls in 1980.
Turre’s first big break was the chance to join the Ray Charles band
in 1972. He was just 22. "Ray had his own airplane, except when
we’d fly overseas, but for domestic dates, we’d use his four engine
turbo-prop," he recalls. "The musicians would jokingly call
it `the Buzzard.’ Some of the guys in the band were characters, and
they would be drinking. There were some rules in the band, no drinking
before the gig, but some guys would get a can of Coca Cola and just
pour rum into the can and then drink that on the plane.
"There was this older guy, Champ, an older trombone player, and
he was a heavy drinker," Turre continues. "We’d say, `Hey
Champ, how far is it from New York to Cleveland?’ and he’d say, `Oh,
about a half pint.’ `How far is it from New York to L.A.?’ He’d say,
`That’s a quart.’ That plane would go through the clouds, and it was
bumpy at times, but it was quite an adventure, and just listening
to Ray every night was such a treat."
Looking back, Turre realizes he benefited from the great blossoming
of music in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s and ’60s, and
his own music loving parents. In his youth, he was exposed to Mexican,
Latin, and Motown sounds in the 1960s as well as a variety of jazz,
blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.
"In the fourth grade, my parents took me to see the Ellington
and Basie bands," he recalls. He began playing the violin but
switched to trombone, which he loved.
"When I was in high school, a friend laid a J.J. Johnson record
on me. That completely turned me around, I didn’t even know you could
play a trombone like that," he recalls.
"I loved music, I wasn’t thinking about makin’ a living, I was
doing it because I loved it," he adds. Turre says Johnson did
for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone —
the conventional parameters of the instrument.
Aside from "Lotus Flower," Turre’s other albums include
Shells" and "Rhythm Within" for Antilles/PolyGram. But
Turre is particularly excited about his next album, which should be
out by late June on the Cleveland-based Telarc Jazz label. It features
Turre with just a quartet, his preferred group for shows at jazz
along with the piano playing of his longtime teacher and friend, Ray
Turre says he often feels Kirk’s presence and spirit when he’s on
stage playing seashells. "I was touring with Rahsaan up until
he passed," he recalls, "and definitely, there are times when
he comes to me on stage. He was definitely formative in terms of my
whole conception, he influenced me profoundly. Some guys would only
play one way, but he was eclectic and he’d play all kinds of music
a bunch of different ways. Rahsaan was open to all kinds of music,
not just jazz."
Asked about his days with Dizzy Gillespie’s last great big band, the
United Nations Orchestra, Turre laughs when he recalls how Gillespie
used his gift for humor to make people relax.
"It wasn’t just that he was funny, he was also deep. He would
use humor to put people at ease, because his music was so heavy, it
would frighten the other musicians, so he’d just want to make you
laugh first," he recalls. "He’d make you laugh, and then he’d
put that horn up and all of a sudden he’d play some impossible stuff
that would intimidate you. If you hadn’t been laughing, you’d be
I haven’t heard anybody who could copy Dizzy’s stuff."
Of the current version of Sanctified Shells, Turre says the group
includes pianist Stephen Scott, bassist Alex Blake, Abdou M’ Boup
on percussion, trumpeter Eddie Allen, and saxophonist Dan Faulk, among
others. At his Princeton University show, Turre promises to do his
part as an educator, taking time to introduce the background on each
Again, Turre stresses, Sanctified Shells is not a big band. "It
evolved out of a group with hand drums, so it’s a very
and groove-oriented," he says, "all the tunes we play deal
with rhythm, and the idea is that music and dance are connected."
"It’s all connected some kind of way," he adds.
— Richard J. Skelly
Concerts , Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The jazz trombonist
in concert with the 12-member ensemble on trumpet, sax, trombones,
piano, bass, drums, African percussion, congas, and the shells. $17
to $26; students $10. Saturday, January 15, 8 p.m.
[This author recalls meeting Gillespie backstage before a show at
Liberty State Park in Jersey City, around July 4th in 1985. Gillespie
was blowing off firecrackers and then looking around with a wide-eyed
expression, as if to say, `Who did that?!’]
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