I spoke with Charles Lloyd on June 19. The great saxophonist and flutist’s quartet (Gerald Clayton, piano; Joe Sanders, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums) will be in concert at the Solid Sound Festival at MassMoCA on Sunday, June 28.
Lloyd was born in Memphis on March 15, 1938 and came under the guidance of piano legend Phineas Newborn after receiving his first saxophone at age nine. Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker were early and enduring influences as Lloyd grew up in the generation of soon-to-be Memphis jazz greats Booker Little, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Louis Smith, and Harold Mabern. Downhome blues was the most prominent music in the Memphis of his youth, and early on he played with several of the city’s emerging r&b greats including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace. Reflecting on these years as an aspiring modernist on a recent appearance on the Tavis Smiley Show, Lloyd said, “I wanted to be Bird behind Wolf.”
Lloyd left Memphis for “Cali” in 1956 to study music at USC, and as an undergrad he played with Gerald Wilson’s big band and crossed musical paths with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Billy Higgins. Upon graduation in 1960, he succeeded Dolphy in Chico Hamilton’s Los Angeles-based quintet, served as its music director, and came to prominence on Hamilton’s recordings Passin’ Thru and Man of Two Worlds. Both of these Impulse releases showcased Lloyd’s compositions, the latter including the premiere of his famous original, “Forest Flower.”
In 1964, he succeeded Yusef Lateef in Cannonball Adderley’s Sextet, one of the most in-demand groups in jazz. Lloyd acknowledges Cannonball as a major influence on his musical development and decision to become a bandleader, and in 1965 he formed his own quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette. With this group, he recorded two of the most popular jazz albums of the sixties: Dream Weaver and Forest Flower: Live at Monterey. The latter was a phenomenal success with sales of over a million copies, and Lloyd soon became the first jazz artist to appear at the Fillmore West and other rock venues. Over the next few years, he made guest appearances on records by the Doors, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and shared the bill with Cream, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead.
In the early seventies, Lloyd left the jazz scene and moved to Big Sur to begin an ongoing “inner journey” of meditation and spiritual exploration. He played with the Beach Boys during the seventies. In 1981, he was visited by the 18-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani and was so impressed with his playing and the physical handicaps he faced that he mounted international tours in 1982 and ’83. Following another period of inactivity and medical challenges of his own in the mid-eighties, Lloyd has maintained a fairly steady career of touring and recording. Between 1989 and 2013, he produced over a dozen critically acclaimed recordings for ECM, and this year saw the release on Blue Note of Wild Man Dance.
I had the pleasure of seeing Lloyd’s quartet with drummer Billy Higgins on several occasions, including their performance at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France in 1998. I began our conversation with a question about how Higgins, near the end of his life in 2001, commanded Lloyd to stay in the game notwithstanding their concern that “no one cares” about this music. From there, as you’ll hear, Lloyd drove our conversation down a long and winding road, and several times expressed dismay that I wasn’t familiar with Arrows Into Infinity, a new documentary exploring his life and career. The film was directed by his wife, Dorothy Darr; a DVD edition is now being distributed by ECM.
Lloyd was honored as an NEA Jazz Master this year; his old Memphis colleague George Coleman was a fellow recipient of the award.