James Spaulding, alto saxophonist/flutist was a favored sideman for Blue Note Records between 1962 and '68, and holds the unique distinction of performing on Blue Note LPs now considered classics. He can be heard as soloist on recordings with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Duke Pearson, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine and Hank Mobley. James has seven recordings as leader on the Muse and HighNote Records. In 2000, he recorded and produced under his own label, Speetones Music, a 2-volume set: Vol. 1, Blues Up & Over and Vol. 11, Round To It, recorded live at the Brooklyn Jazz Club, Up Over Jazz Café, owned by Robert Myers. Recently, James recorded live in Paris with the Pierre Christophe Trio, a CD entitled: Down With It, on the Futura & Marge label. Approaching his 70th birthday, James is performing in peak form, with no signs of slowing down - he's still blowing stronger than ever.
Spaulding's musical training started early, as he came from a musical family in his place of birth Indiana (his father was a professional musician who played the guitar and led his own big band, traveling throughout the country). James began playing a bugle when he was in grade school. He later took up the trumpet and saxophone on his own, and while in high school studied clarinet. He made his professional debut playing around Indianapolis with a rhythm "n" blues group.
From 1954 to 1957, Spaulding was in the army playing in service bands. When he was discharged, he settled in Chicago where he performed in clubs leading his own group, and had a stay with the Sun Ra Orchestra. He also furthered his flute studies there at the Chicago Cosmopolitan School of Music. In 1962, he arrived in New York City, and subsequently was associated with notables such as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Max Roach and the Ellington Orchestra. In 1975, he received a bachelor's degree in music from Livingston College in New Jersey where he taught flute as an adjunct professor. James' daughters, Gina and Yvonne Spaulding were on the cover of his very first recording: "The Legacy of Duke Ellington," recorded in 1975. Mr. Spaulding's range of performance experiences extends nationally and internationally, from the concert stage to jazz clubs to colleges and street fairs. His original music, a suite entitled "A Song of Courage," was performed by him with full orchestra and choir at the Voorhees Chapel at the Rutgers University campus from funds awarded him by the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds a historically significant place in jazz reference books including, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler; The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz by Brian Case and Stan Britt; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz edited by Barry Keinfeld, just to name a few. He has performed as a sideman and been recorded on over 100 recordings.
MC: 1954-1957 saw you in the army playing in service bands. During this time did you play only on base or had you a chance to play clubs, too?
JS: Yes, I was 17 when I joined the army and 20 when I was discharged. During this period I also played professionally with a group of young Indianapolis musicians which included Freddie Hubbard and Larry Ridley - we called ourselves the "Jazz Contemporaries.”
MC: After leaving the army you moved to Chicago and became part of Sun Ra's Arkestra. What had made you choose Chicago over New York with its then vibrant 52nd Street scene?
JS: I moved to Chicago to go to school on my G.I. Bill (more than likely thinking of my father's advice), where I attended the Cosmopolitan School of Music, and also to test the waters of really being on my own. I lived with my cousin and her husband, went to school and gigged. I studied flute for about six months under the tutelage of Professor Emil Eck. I also led my own group playing in local clubs and freelanced.
MC: How had you made the initial connection with Sun Ra?
JS: I would play at the jam sessions – and I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, who were both members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. I met Sun Ra when I was taken there by John and Pat.
MC: In later years Sun Ra would have his own personal mythos and imagery, some cosmic and Egyptian motifs. In these early years was he already projecting a specific persona to the public?
JS: Sun Ra was a mystic and I think clairvoyant. He would say to me: “Play.” And I would respond, “Play what?” He would say: “Just play.” At first, I was rather resistant; it was totally strange from my previous music training. He encouraged me to play notes without structured time. This was my first excursion into the style known as “Free Form.” As a personality, Sun Ra was rather peculiar, I thought, especially when he spoke of space travel. He also predicted travel to the moon before the Russian Sputnik. I played with his band (musicians really had to be in tune and have simpatico) on and off during the period 1957 – 1958/59.
MC: Did Sun Ra have you playing both your instruments? Were there any recordings made while you were in his band?
JS: Yes, if anyone is interested they can check my discography on my website at speetones.com.
MC: Some of his band seemed to stay with him forever (John Gilmore et al). Were any of his long-term players in his band during your stint?
JS: I played in the band with both John and Pat.
MC: You briefly moved back home before finally taking the plunge and heading to the then Holy Land of jazz, New York. What was the impetus behind this?
JS: I was only in my early 20s and I started to miss my family, so I went back home for some of my mother’s home cooking and spirituality, which I needed to recharge my battery. From 1957-1959 I played rhythm & blues with The Sonny Thompson Band (dance rhythms and blues singer).
MC: Whenever one reads the biography of an artist, it is easy to read “so and so was with this band for these years…” but often overlooked by the reader is that those dates represent part of a person, the artist’s life. Is it hard moving onto another band? I sometimes think it may be akin to breaking up with a girlfriend.
JS: Mostly, it’s just great to be working. I guess you could miss certain bandleaders more than others. The one good thing is that you’re not married to the group.
MC: Although your later body of work is equally as compelling and rewarding, you are perhaps best known for the large body of work you did under the Blue Note label. How had you initially come to the Blue Note roster?
JS: Duke Pearson was the A & R man for Alfred Lion at Blue Note records. He liked my playing and called me for the sideman dates.
MC: Whose was the first session on which you appeared? Did Blue Note try to promote or emphasize one of your instruments over the other?
JS: My first recording session was as sideman with Freddie Hubbard on an album called Hubtones. I was what you’d call a musician that “doubles.” This way sometimes the producer got two instruments while paying for only one. If a song called for flute or called for alto saxophone, I was your man. From 1962 until 1964 I was playing Hard Bop/Cool with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, and recorded with the band on several Blue Note dates. One recording in particular, The Night of the Cookers, has now become one of the classics. I was the only saxophone on that date.
MC: You were on so many Blue Note albums in the sixties, to ask everyone their favorite would produce a diverse list of titles. Which is your personal favorite?
JS: I think Wayne Shorter’s albums were my favorites. There was great energy and creativity: The Soothsayer, The All Seeing Eye, Schizophrenia; I contributed one of the songs, “Kryptonite,” to Schizophrenia.