Featured Musician - January 2015  

Robert Crowell on sax
Robert Crowell

Name:  Robert Crowell

Instrument: baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and alto sax.

Early Years/Education: I’ve always been a baritone sax player since I was small. I had an uncle who had passed away, and my grandmother sent me his alto sax the summer before band was to start. There was also a baritone sax from marching band in there too. My uncle went to the University of Texas, he was in the Longhorns marching band. Even though I really wanted to play the trombone, I showed up to junior high beginning band with this fancy baritone sax. The sax was as tall as I was; I just fell in love with it’s shear size.

I grew up in McMinnville and was in band at the high school. They had one of the best in the state. Back then, there was a culture of school big bands that traveled a lot and competed and were good. My junior high jazz band won every competition in the state. I think the program was so good because there was this jazz fanatic who would bring us tapes in school every couple of weeks. When I was 14, I had a stack of tapes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, and the bari-sax guys like Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan, etc.

Warren Rand (alto sax player) lived in McMinnville too. I met him as a freshman at the Mel Brown jazz camp and started hanging out with him when I was 15. I’d go over to Warren’s house and watch him cook and we’d practice together. One time he yelled at me because I kept putting the bridge in the wrong place on “What Is This Thing Called Love.” I still go fishing with him.

I studied with Thara Memory all through high school and took classical clarinet lessons. I didn’t really have a bari sax teacher until I went to school in New York many years later. I had a clarinet teacher who really believed you had to play the clarinet well before you could play the saxophone. I don’t know if that’s true, but it doesn’t hurt. If you can make the clarinet work, you can jump to saxophone in a short amount of time. It doesn’t work the other way around. After high school I went to Mt. Hood Community College for two years. I practiced really hard and got into the Manhattan School of Music.

New York: Ironically, there were other schools in New York that didn’t accept me, but I got almost a full ride to the Manhattan School of Music (MSM). For the audition I picked the last slot and played a slow blues with just a bass player on “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” I was at MSM for four years, getting my undergrad and masters in music. My baritone sax teacher was Joe Temperly. He replaced Pepper Adams in the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra, he replaced Harry Carney in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, he still plays with the Mingus Orchestra, is still on the road and continues to play with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and has been with Wynton Marsalis for years.

As a student at MSM, I got to tour a lot. I did “West Side Story” in Taiwan, I worked in the Glen Miller Big Band and played probably 20 jazz cruises with that band over the course of five years. We’d do one night in Brazil, three nights in Chile, etc. With Glen Miller I got to travel the world as a college student and get paid. I also worked in New York with Bobby Short at The Carlyle. I guess I was a little more respectful and was an eager student. My teachers would get me gigs. I’d sub for Joe Temperly too.

Robert Crowell

Chuck Israels Orchestra: Everyone in the band has spent time in New York. When Chuck moved out here, David Berger — a New York big band leader who works with Lincoln Center Jazz — still had my number and gave it to Chuck. In Chuck’s band there are 150 to 200 arrangements he might call; you have to be able to sight read. He’s constantly writing and arranging. I don’t know anyone who’s in a band that has to sight read as much as we do and sound that good. Among the musicians I know, I don’t know of anyone who gets to play that much music and gets to be in a band where people can read that well.

I have no idea how Chuck has managed to take so many of those Bill Evans tunes and write arrangements that capture the essence of Bill Evans. He does that with his Monk and Horace Silver charts too. He manages to add all this stuff to it and find ways to do it with five horns. When most other people do that, it sounds cheesy. For example, the Thelonious Monk Big Band album is not a great album. Monk didn’t want to make it. When you take quartet or quintet music and put it to five horns, it usually loses part of it’s essence.

Teaching: There were times in my life when I was teaching more, but now I’m playing more. I love to teach, it’s a passion of mine. I’ve taught at Mel Brown’s jazz camp for 23 years. It’s at Western Oregon State University now, and I’m still there. I teach the sax master class with John Nastos and Renato Caranto. I’m kind of the fundamental/general embouchure guy. I direct one of the big bands and one of the combos. So many good Portland musicians have gone through that camp ... Dan Gaynor, John Nastos, Esperanza, there’s a long list. Through the year, I teach privately — all of the saxes.

Musical Influences: Locally: Warren Rand, Thara Memory, Mel Brown and Tim Gilson. In a bigger sense: Duke Ellington. I love Harry Carney.

Most Satisfying Experience: I got to do a couple of show with Medeski, Martin and Wood. I just randomly got called, I didn’t know who they were. I played three days here in Portland. That was some of the most fun I’d ever had. My part would say “make whale noises,” and strange things like that. Apparently, they’d hire horn sections in whatever city they were in. They had a bari sax on their album.

Another [satisfying experience] was the first time I played with the Glen Miller Orchestra. It was in front of a crowd of 75,000 people in San Paolo, Brazil, my first gig outside of the country. On the first tune we were 20 seconds into it, and the director pointed at the microphone for me to go up and solo. There weren’t any changes on my part, I’d never heard the tune before, I didn’t know what key we were in, and I had to go up before all those people and give it my best swing.

Favorite Recordings: Dexter Gordon – “Go”; “Clifford Brown with Strings”; Art Blakey – “A Jazz Message”; Johnny Hartman – “The Voice That Is”; Charles Mingus – “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”; Medeski, Martin and Wood – “It’s a Jungle in Here”; Sonny Stitt and Paul Gonsalves – “Salt and Pepper”; Duke Ellington – “Three Suites”; “Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson – Cleanhead Blues 1945-1947.”

Discography: Robert Crowell Trio – “In a Mellow Tone,” 1994; Gordon Lee and the Gleeful Big Band – “Flying Dream,” 2004; Ezra Weiss and the Rob Schepps Big Band – “Our Path to this Moment,” 2012; Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra – “Second Wind,” 2014; Robert Moore – “Outta My Soul,” 2014; Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra – “Joyful Noise,” 2015.

Gigs: Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra, Vie de Boheme, January 18 and Feb 15, 6:30 pm.

Future Plans: I’d still like to find the right teaching job. My student groups won at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I’ve sent a tons of kids to MSM, Juilliard, and other conservatories. I had fun teaching at Mt. Hood Community College, helped Thara Memory at the Beaverton Arts Jazz and taught there for a few years after he left. Now, I teach privately and at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp.

Other: NYC has not been a good town for musicians the last decade: the gigs don’t pay anything, the musicians aren’t making anymore than they did in the ‘70s. I played a lot around here before I moved to New York, but when I first moved there I couldn’t play anything. Their sense of time was so much more on top. Instead of playing all the notes that fit, everyone was playing all the notes that didn’t fit and making it work. The rhythm sections weren’t helping the horn players, they were confusing them on purpose. It was a whole different world.

-- by Rita Rega