Keeping Ancestors Alive through Music: Steve Turre

By: Estefanía Romero
Photo by: Mónica García

This is the wonderful interview I had with the amazing composer, arranger, trombone and shells player: Steve Turre. We spoke about the way he discovered the sound of the shells, his Mexican ancestors, Ray Charles, Dizzy, and all those jazz idols he worked with, politics, Saturday Night Live… and the magic of music.

E: I am deeply moved. I have to admit it… that concert of Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra is one of my all time favorites. I mention this because I saw your concert with the Big Band at the Festival Internacional JazzUV in Xalapa and I couldn’t avoid to notice that you have created your own style through your arrangements. Your compositions are amazing and the way you conduct an orchestra is beautiful. Did you get a particular influence to do this from Dizzy?

S: From three people mainly, for Big Band conducting. I played first for Ray Charles Big Band and then I played with The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Then I played with Dizzy Gillespie. Also I played with McCoy Tyner Big Band. But for conducting, I think Dizzy, Thad Jones and Ray Charles. Not so much in terms of the music arrangement, but how to get the band feel energy and to be unified, so it’s like many bodies one mind.

E: You were very connected. You managed to get a great communication. I have to ask… I think you improvised instructions during your conducting on that last concert. Did you?

S: Oh, yeah, because I listen to what else is happening and if somebody does something it means they want a response. Then I listen and I say “ok, respond, boom!”.

Steve Turre

E: You are a big innovator in music. You brought the shells. What was the response of the people when you started to do this?

S: It depend on where I play. Well… I first heard the shell played when I was 18 years old and I played with the great saxophone player Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he had a shell but he would just play one note, you know? “Ohhh”, but the sound was so beautiful. I loved the sound so I got a shell and at first I just played one note because I thought that was all you could do “ohhh”. And then one day I put my hand in it by accident and I played “ohhh” “uhhh”, oh! You could get different notes so “di di di di”, I get the interval of a fourth out of the most of my shells. The great big one is only a third and some other… little ones I can get a sixth in the wider interval. But I cannot get an octet out of a shell, except the overtone.

I discovered this among the way, I did not set out what became. It just happened, it wasn’t like I went into the practice room and said “I’m gonna do something different”, but a lot of people do that today though, you know? “I want to make a song that’s 57 beats cycle and no one can figure it out and maybe I’ll get some attention”, it’s not like that.

But then, when I started playing a little bit the shell I played it a few times with Art Blakey, but just a couple of notes in the end of the song and then I worked in the 80’s extensively with a salsa orchestra Manny Oquendo y su Conjunto Libre, fine musicians. I played trombone, but I started to play the shells for them. We played for dances. So when the people dances I play the shells to the dancers and it started to develop and then I learned to play some blues on the shell.

E: You sometimes use the shell as if you were using an harmonica.

S: Yeah. But I did not start there. It was an evolution, I am still discovering things. But when I first came to Mexico with Woody Shaw and I played with the shells in a concert, the people really respond different than they do in New York.

Steve Turre and Estefanía Romero

E: How?

S: They liked it! Much more response, you know? More applause.

Then after I talked to my cousin, Angel is his name. He told me “man, the caracol, did you know that the ancestors played the shell?”. I said “really? I didn’t know”. And my grandmother was born in Veracruz. So then I went to the museum I saw all the caracol instruments like I played. And I said “oh, this is why I am attracted to this sound, there is something in me”. So I made the determination to always include this in my music. And there is some people in New York that don’t like it.

E: Really?

S: Well, it’s not an European instrument. The Latin community likes it! Mexicano, cubano, dominicano, they all like it. A los blancos… some like it, some don’t. And that’s okay, everybody doesn’t have to like it but it’s in me so I think it’s important for me to put the spirit of the ancestors, keep it alive today.

E: Was it also another accident this sound that you make on the great piano strings with the shells?

S: I discovered that at home by accident. I have a very old piano. And the dampers, the things that mute the pedal… if you step on the pedal it opened, so it ringed “biiiing”. If you take the pedal off it just go “bomp”. So the dampers that hold the string were very old and they don’t work real good, so I picked up the shell one day next to the piano and I played a note very loud “oooooh” and then I hear the piano, just a little bit but I hear it. It catched the vibration. So I stepped on the pedal and I played, and “oh, wow!”. So I said “I’m going to find the way to make music with this. So that’s what happened.

E: It was a great accident!

S: Sometimes the best things are accidents, you know? I just recognized that it was a beautiful sound and I like it too because it’s not electronic effects and all this… it’s a natural thing and it feels different because of this.

To me music is about the feeling, it is more about the feeling than it is the technique. Now, technique is important but I don’t base my music on technique. I practice technique everyday except when I’m actually traveling. When I go to perform I don’t think about it. I listen to the sound and try to make something beautiful happen.

E: And you do!

S: But even with the trombone… I make the shell myself. I make the mouthpiece “boquilla”, I make that about the same as the trombone so I use the same lip, but the shell is different. The shell takes more air, you have a lot to get a big sound and it gets more energy, but it has a limited range so I have to tell my story with rhythm and simple harmony and simple melody. But with the trombone takes more focus, more accuracy and more finesse and with that I can play more advanced harmonic things, it’s made from metal. The shell was alive once, it was a living thing once… and I think there is a connection too with the hand drum and the shell because the hand drum, the original hand drum, not Lp with the plastic, but the real congas with the animal skin and that was alive once too, the skin of animal was alive, the wood was a tree, was alive. There was a connection.

You know these records that I did for Verve in the 90’s, Sanctified Shells, Rhythm Within, then Steve Turre, that sound with the hand drums… that is a very special sound.

E: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Ray Charles, you talk a lot about him and J.J. Johnson. Are they your favorites?

S: One of them, different periods in my life. Different mentors. My first mentor was Rahsaan Roland Kirk and then I went with Ray Charles and that was my first big time gig, the first travel the world, the first time I came to Mexico, the first time I went to Europe. Ray Charles was way ahead of his time, he had his own airplane way back in the 60’s. He had his own tour bus, he had his own recording studio, his own production company, his own booking agency, everything, he was the first one!

He was everything, he was a great genius of a musician but also a businessman. His music always had so much feeling and that would touch me more than anything. He worked… oh, he worked so hard, he’d stay on the road. There is a video out called “Ray Charles and the Holy Land” in Israel. And I have a solo on the video with the band.

During the time he was off I went back to the San Francisco Bay area and I met Woody Shaw, great trumpet player who later on I worked with extensively. Woody introduced me to Art Blakey. I played a song with Art Blakey and he said: “come join the band” and he brought me to New York in ’73, I’ve been in New York ever since. Woody Shaw was a big mentor to me, then Dizzy, McCoy Tyner, I learned a lot from McCoy Tyner, profound! profound!

Just so many many people I’ve been blessed to have the experience to make music with, and you learn things not in a formal way but just from being there and if you listen and feel and go with the feeling, you learn where the music is coming from, not like in the school with written notes and calculated precision.

E: I know it’s related to knowledge and feeling, but what you do feels like magic.

S: Lot of it is energy. You have to give energy. it’s different to me if people call me for a job to play electric music, I play it, I have to work, sometimes I enjoy it. But it’s different than acoustic music because with acoustic music the instruments and the sound comes from the person that is performing.

When I play my trombone, my life force, my energy, body and spirit goes through the instrument, it doesn’t go through any amplifier and then to many effects to smooth out the touch and then get it all even and pretty… it comes from me and so, if you’re really honest it’s not always perfect but the feeling is perfect because it’s honest.

I remember when I first joined Art Blakey, I was very young and these were older masters. I was excited and thrilled but I was scared too. It was a very high level and I wanted to play like that too and Art Blakey told me… he said he likes me because I made a mistake sometimes and that let him know that I was being honest ’cause if you never make a mistake that means you’re not being honest because you predetermined what you are going to play.

Part of the magic of jazz is: if you make a mistake sometimes something comes out that you didn’t intend, it happens, you have to use your intuition to quickly turn it in a resolution, you know? And you resolve it in a way, rhythmically or harmonically, to a beautiful place. You learn this way, we all learn from our mistakes.

E: When did you decided to start composing?

S: The first thing I wrote for Big Band was right after highschool, my first year of College…

E: You were very young.

S: Yes, yes. And I’m still learning about it because there’s people like Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Frank Foster… oh, man, their writing is so amazing.

E: It is very important to be political when you are making jazz because this is music to bring people together, to talk about equality, human rights… and you keep bringing all that message.

S: It is important. Look what’s happening in the world today. Look at this fool we’ve got as President in the United States, England, Israel…

E: My country!

S: It’s like Trump though… it’s not about God or the spirit of love, it’s about territory and money.

E: I am glad that you talk about it.

S: And I think all people deserve respect, and we have to respect each other’s cultures too because I think what capitalism is trying to do with the world today is erase all cultures and make one culture that worships money and money will not make you happy. I don’t care how much you got, you can buy things but you can’t take it with you, you know? When you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s okay to have money, everybody needs money, it’s not a bad thing in it of itself, but if you have a lot of money is okay to share it with people too.

I don’t really think it’s necessary to conquer anybody at this time of age. So, why do we still have this mentality of “I want your oil”… “I want your land and if you don’t give it to me I’ll kill you or force you economically”, like the National Monetary Fund (IMF), that’s a joke! What they are doing to third world countries and ruin them… and it’s for capitalism.

There is no reason for people to be hungry, everybody should have education and health care and a roof over their head.

E: Now, for something completely different and happier… You’ve been playing for Saturday Night Live, which is one of my favorite shows forever. I want you to tell me a little about that experience.

S: I play in the house band but they also have every week a different visiting artist and what that is, is whoever has a hot record.

E: Yeah, I won’t lie to you, I don’t love those decisions sometimes.

S: Me neither! I say “boy, where do they get this people?”. Well, they have two million hits on YouTube… So what?

It’s always good comedy, they make fun of the president, I enjoy that.

E: That Alec Baldwin’s imitation!

S: Yeah! That’s funny!

E: I adore the show!

S: It’s a fun job because when we are not playing we are laughing.

E: Is there anything you would like to add or tell people from Mexico?

S: I need to work on my Spanish. I know a few words, I can get by… but… you know? I am learning more about my roots everytime I come here, every time it opens new doors for me so I feel like home here.

E: You are home!

S: I remember my grandma used to make tortillas, tamales, we used to have all the real stuff.

Besides jazz, you know? My mom and dad met at a Count Basie dance when Big Band music was the dance music of their time, but we also had mariachi, but there is no trombone in mariachi… but in jazz there was trombone and it wasn’t until later I discovered Afro Cuban music and I really like it too.

E: I have to let you know, when I stop thinking I always have these lapses of the concert I mentioned at the beginning of the interview… there’s this moment of you playing the shells with Dizzy Gillespie and I have those current phrases on my mind. I tell you all this because it makes me really happy being here with you. Thank you very much, dear Steve!

*Special thanks to Jazzatlán Jazz Capital, one of the hottest jazz clubs in Mexico City, for letting us use their beautiful space during the interview!