The Jazz Legend Next Door

When my husband, Michael, and I moved to Montecito over two years ago, it was for the physical beauty, the ease of living and, above all, the peaceful atmosphere. I write books, and I was looking forward to being inspired by my surroundings. Little did I know that the man who lived next door would inspire me too.

“My neighbor is some kind of musician,” I told a college pal.

“Really? Who?” She was waiting for me to drop a name like Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan.

“Charles Lloyd,” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” She was more excited than if I had said McCartney or Dylan. “He’s a god! He plays the saxophone! His record ‘Forest Flower’ was the first million-copy seller by a jazz artist ever! He’s your neighbor?”

Clearly, I was not in the know. I had never been a jazz fan – the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were my gods – but now my curiosity about Charles Lloyd and his music was piqued.

A month after settling into our house, Dorothy Darr, Charles’s wife and a talented artist and filmmaker, invited us to a small gathering to celebrate his birthday. By this time I had met him and been enriched by his friendship, but I was still clueless about his music – until he treated his guests to some post-birthday party entertainment. He ushered us into his living room, dimmed the lights and gave us a sneak preview of “Sangam,” his first live album in over 20 years that just happened to be recorded at the Lobero Theatre. It was due out in another month.

I was spellbound as I sat there taking in the music. Hypnotized. Transported by the effortless flow of instruments and tempos and rhythms. I didn’t want the night to end.

“This is jazz?” I whispered to my husband.

He nodded, equally entranced. “It’s the best musical experience I’ve ever had without the aid of chemicals.”

Over the next two years, when the weather was warm and the windows were open, I would often hear Charles’s music emanating from his house.

How lucky am I? I thought. I have a true master living in my midst.

When tickets for Charles’s June 1st concert at the Lobero went on sale in connection with his latest CD, “Rabo de Nube,” I ponied right up. As the concert – and his upcoming worldwide tour – approached, I asked him if I might wander over one afternoon and talk to him about his creative process, his thoughts about performing and his life here in Montecito. Here’s our conversation.

Q: You’ve played the Lobero at least ten times now. In sports there’s something called a “home field advantage.” Is the Lobero your home field?

A: I can never walk in and say, “I own this room,” but I love the venue, and the concerts there have been very sacred to me. My first Lobero concert was with Michel Petrucciani, and I also performed there with Master Higgins. And I remember the year of the Painted Cave Fire. We decided to cancel the concert because people were losing their lives and their homes. But some guy called the Lobero a few days before the concert and said, “My house burned in the fire and I lost my tickets. Can you help me?” That was a deciding factor in our decision to play. I guess folks needed the music.

Do you talk to the audience at the Lobero concerts?

I get so deep into the music that sometimes I don’t have the ability to come up and say, “Good evening, Santa Barbara. How are you?” So forgive me for that. But other times I ramble on as if I were in my living room. After one particularly non-verbal concert, someone came up to me and said, “Gee, I miss your talking.” I never know what might come over me or what I might say.

Montecito must be a sanctuary for you when you come back from weeks and months on the road.

Our town still has the patina of a small town. At the same time there are a lot of cosmopolites here. Folks seem to give me a wide realm of acceptance. I don’t feel anything other than neighborliness, and I’m blessed to be here.

You lived in Big Sur before settling here. What made you move to Montecito?

I was studying Vedanta and going to the Vedanta Temple. I liked that Vedanta teaches the harmony of all religions. They’ve got a picture of Christ and one of Buddha. They cover the waterfront. They believe we’re all God’s children – all spirits going forward on a human journey. I also had a health crisis in 1986, and a wonderful doctor at Cottage Hospital, Marvin Corman, saved my life. After that we stayed here full time.

Your music takes people on a journey, doesn’t it?

It has the spirit of transcendence. All the guys I always loved take you on this magic carpet ride.

That’s how my husband, Michael, describes your music – a magic carpet ride. We were both surprised that it sounded so different from what we’d always thought jazz was about, especially after listening to the jazz our parents liked.

Every generation is saying the same thing, but they say it in their own lifetime. We’ve had the benefit of standing on the shoulders of all those masters who went before us and gave us the keys to the kingdom. I’ve been blessed to have known many of the creators of this music – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus. I grew up in Memphis and I heard these musicians play in my hometown. They would come through and my mother had a big house and she rented out rooms to them. So Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton and all these greats stayed with us. I couldn’t wait for them to wake up every morning. I was ready to pounce and ask them questions. I was nine when I got my first saxophone and I wanted to learn everything all at once. Knowing all these people and having been brought up at their feet is like imbibing these elixirs. You stand on their shoulders and they allow you to see over the wall. This music gives you so much freedom that we’re like shooting arrows into infinity each time we play.

Speaking of freedom – and I’m a jazz neophyte, remember – how is it that jazz is both improvisational and rehearsed? I’ve never understood that.

As I ask the question, Dorothy enters the room and volunteers an answer.

Dorothy: The whole thing about jazz is that the composition is the armature of a larger sculpture. It’s merely a wire that’s directional and structural, while everything else that makes the curves and edges and colors and textures is what each musician brings to it.

And what each musician brings to it can be different on any given day?

Dorothy: At any given moment, which is why a concert of the same music will sound different from one night to another.

So it’s like a high-wire act.

Dorothy: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that makes it so exciting. Unlike classical music where you’re following every note and interpreting what has been written, with jazz you take something that’s written but each individual brings his own experience to it.

Charles, I find writing books a very arduous business. Is it the same with composing a piece of music?

Yes, because you have to try to know when you’ve gotten to the essence of it. It will come through if you can get out of the way.

How do you come up with your ideas for your compositions?

I walk. I swim. I hike in the mountains. Sometimes things percolate while I’m sleeping and I wake up and write the ideas down. But it’s sound that comes to me, not words.

Your new record is called “Rabo de Nube.” Can you translate?

Rabo de Nube means tail of a cloud. The title song says, “I wish I could be the tail of a cloud and come down and wash away your tears and sorrows.” It was written by a Cuban guy named Silvio Rodriguez. I heard the song and it haunted me. I played it at the New York concert right after 9/11 and everybody was crying afterwards. It’s a very special piece. I recorded it earlier on “Lift Every Voice,” but this version is deep and quiet.

Will you be playing it at the Lobero on the 1st?

Sure, but I don’t know exactly what else I’ll be playing that night. Dorothy always tries to corral me into committing to some pieces, but I don’t. I used to play with Cannonball Adderly and this lady came up and said, “Mr. Adderly, I need your set list.” He said, “Lady, if we don’t know what we’re going to play, we sure can’t tell you.” I don’t even talk about it with my musicians. There’s a level of trust.

You mean they just show up and find out before the concert?

Almost. Eric Harland, the drummer, says I’m a free spirit and I trust in the music to bring out whatever it brings out. These guys who play with me are all explorers. Jason Moran, our guy on piano, is so amazing. I can’t give him enough rope. He has so much juice.

I read an article where Jason said, “If you’re an artist you’ll attract people from all walks of life who are thinking, hopefully, on a high level. That’s the kind of audience Charles cultivates.” Who do you think your audience is?

The music embraces all. It welcomes all. It’s for sensitive seekers but you don’t have to know anything about it to be moved by it. If you like to jump up and down, there’s a whole lot of jumping up and down. On the other hand, there’s a lot of elevation and stepping outside the body and experiencing a high. It’s organic music. If you like your lettuce unsprayed, come to the Lobero.