CROSS WORDS An interview by Val Wilmer
In his evocative notes to Noah Howard's album "The Black Ark", Mal Dean suggested the Walls of Jericho wouldn't give Earl Cross, trumpet player much trouble. "A big bold brassy tone and fierce attack, a sound that is a good deal older than jazz itself." was how he described the trumpeter's music, and in doing so, ably summed up the strength of one of New York's underground talents.
In the New York Musicians' section of the Newport Jazz Festival this year , some of the music was pretty disappointing. Milford Graves amazed those who had never experienced him before, but with the exception of the spiritually refined Byard Lancaster and the intelligent interaction of the Melodic Art-tet, the best music came from Earl Cross's Nine-tet.
He'd assembled a rugged crew of mature men who'd obviously paid their dues. People like Monty Waters, Benny Wilson, Norman Spiller, and Art "Shaki" Lewis had all been part of the San Francisco-based Waters-Lewis big band with whom Cross played for some time, and he'd written the music with the individuals in mind. He even produced that fantastic comping pianist Gilly Coggins from out of nowhere, and if that ain't hip, I don't know what is. "It can take a while to find those people who can play and fit the concept." Earl Cross was once told by an elder musician "before you can find three musicians that you can lay out and play with, and hang out with, you can go through a thousand."
Just as important, if you are lucky enough to have it, is a wife's support. "It's one of the most enlightening things you could have, somebody who loves you and cares for you and all that stuff. And maybe, somebody that can go out and work so that you can play your music, because if you have to work a job and then come back and practise, it's different. If you can wake up, no matter what time it is, and pick up your instrument and go to practise without any hassles, it's altogether different. So that's why musicians try to get a lot of things established before they get a lady."
"But there are wonderful ladies in music, in life, period, who'll help them get their instrument fixed, or buy them an instrument or whatever, just for the pleasure of the music. But these kind of women are rare, they're not everyday things. When you don't have to worry about money, it makes it much easier for you to get up in the morning and actually think music. I could pick up my instrument right now and blow a whole bunch of notes without thinking about it. But if I was free to think about it, I could produce something every trip."
The ideal is to work on one's own music. "I recently refused to read too many people's music," explained Cross, whose book includes music for six, nine, sixteen and seventeen-piece bands. "You could be into a hundred bands and not make a quarter - just go down and rehearse everybody's music. When I write music, I write for a certain type of people, but you take that cat who's a professional arranger and composer, he writes it generally for anybody that can read. I mean, that way is proper, but..."
Earl Cross is a mature musician whose main concern is with the music itself rather than its effects. He is one of the true artists, both as instrumentalist and writer. To some ears his music might not be as polished as what is being laid down by the more fashionable bands that all the hip young musicians from Tokyo to Toronto are trying to copy, but it has in it the spirit and urgency of the early bebop days. Above all you feel it is being truthful to itself.
"If you've got a band that's going to be around, you want to write for their capabilities," he said. "Ellington does it. You don't just write stuff so that Joe Blow can play it. I mean Quincy Jones can write music and anybody can play it, but to be truthful, I couldn't do it. Certain people might sit down and say 'Hey this is a wrong note,' but it's not a wrong note, it's a note that I hear - you dig ? Sometimes I put wrong notes in there just to create excitement, put all kind of things in there as obstacles, just to see if they can be recognised. That's wrong, I know, you're not supposed to challenge people like that, but sometimes it works."
And Earl's tactics do work very well. He has decided to devote most of his energy to exploring his own musical concept. It was not an easy decision for a man with no real fame and with the rent to pay, especially a man approaching forty. At that age the musician who has not achieved notoriety generally graduates to safe commercial jobs or gives up playing altogether.
Although Cross is not involved in the lucrative New York studio world he did at one time earn a living playing background on blues records and could, presumably, always find that kind of work again. "But you don't get a chance to explore, you just play the same thing over and over and that's just like having a job, that's not music. I'm not any perfect person, I just know how I like to do things, and I've played enough blues and rock and roll to know that a blues band can't hire me right now. Maybe next week, but right now they can't do that to me."
Thirty-nine years old, Cross has been playing music for a long time. In California he made money in the clubs and studios to support his family without leaving town. For a while he worked with Larry Williams, singer and author of such epics as 'Dizzy Miss Lizzie'. Rock and roll bands, jazz groups, and unknown blues singers have all had the benefit of his big, fat sound which makes good use of the slurring and half-valve effects that feature prominently in the work of trumpeters from his home town of St. Louis, Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Lester Bowie and Floyd LeFlore among them.
As a child, Cross had wanted to be in the airforce, and that was where he headed on leaving high school. During his teens, he listened avidly to records, and whenever he and his friends wanted a little amusement they would carry a handful of Gillespie, Parker, Kenton and Tristano sides to a weekend party and slip them on the turntable. "That was one of the things. If you wanted to break up a party, you'd stick a jazz tune on the record player, then sit down and listen to records and smoke reefer." Where his family was concerned, though, jazz was alright in its place, on record or in the nightclubs. But when he went home to announce his plans to make it his career, "they said 'you can't play no music in here, you'd better get a job' and so I had to cut out."
The family reaction was not unusual. Entering the music world would provide a precarious existence at best, and there was the unsavoury picture of the lifestyle. But there was still the suggestion that Blacks could only succeed in white society as entertainers or athletes. "It's demoralising to think about it, and then you say hey, what's wrong with that ?" said Cross. "And so you take up something and you defend it with everything you've got. And the only way you can defend it is to produce something good out of the music. You can't fight nobody and tell them you're a good musician, you have to play and show them. And so far, I've done pretty good."
Earl Cross received his early training in the airforce, where he associated with pianists Freddie Redd, Boo Pleasants, saxophonist Frank Haynes and trumpeter Richard Williams. When Haight-Ashbury was the place to be in San Francisco, Earl had his own band, the Bay Area Quintet, on Haight Street. Personnel included Monty Waters, Dewey Redman, trumpeters Norman Spiller, Alden Griggs, pianist Sonny Donaldson, bassist Benny Wilson and drummer Art Lewis. This lasted for a year and a half, and in 1967 he came to New York where he joined Sun Ra, whom he refers to as an "institution".
At the time he was the only trumpeter aboard, and every Monday night they would play at Slug's on the lower East Side. "One night they didn't have nobody but musicians in the audience," he recalled. "Jimmy Heath was there, and Cannonball, Herbie Lewis and everybody, and when we walked around the room playing, they just started following us around, listening to each individual player."
With Sun Ra, he played at Carnegie Hall and toured around, then worked for spells with Archie Shepp, Robin Kenyatta and with Sonny Simmons, where he played mellophone because Simmons' wife, Barbara Donald, was the trumpeter. "She's great, she's fantastic" says Earl. A spell with a rhythm and blues band in Woodstock followed, and during this time he would commute the 100 miles to New York to play with Noah Howard.
In 1970, the National Endowment for the Arts decided to support the country's only indiginous art form and established their Jazz/Folk/Ethnic music program. The grants were quite small, in the neighbourhood of $1000 for composers, with the onus on the artist to produce a work for community consumption. "Things have opened up," said Earl. "If I get the right things together on paper, I can apply for a grant, supposedly to present something to the community. Whatever the community is, I have to present something to the people."
So in the past couple of years, Cross has limited his appearances outside his own group to the Rashied Ali Quintet and the units led spasmodically by his alto saxophonist colleague from San Francisco days, Monty Waters.
Cross, in company with many other New York-based musicians, is concerned with the lack of ability demonstrated by musicians around the fringe of the new music. "In New York, there are a lot of good instruments for sale for cheap in pawnshops. Somebody can just go in and pick up a horn or drums or whatever, and if he doesn't have anything, anyway, he'll still go ahead. I've seen it happen quite a few times. I didn't do it when I first got to New York, and I'd been playing before I got here. But now, with that different kind of style, they just bite down on their reeds and blow, they blow through the trumpet just flagging the valves, and don't try to make any music at all ! I mean I know about a trumpet, you can't just pick it up and blow it. It's impossible to do that, but I've seen cats pick 'em up, have 'em for a week and then jump up on the bandstand with a bunch of other cats. And a lot of spectators are deceived, too. They relate them to jazz or the new music and they don't belong there yet."
"There's nothing like learning to play, believe me, because I stayed in the house week after week, and week after year, as a matter of fact, learning to play. What I was learning to play might have been old, but I learned how to play it and it made learning how to play something else in the future much easier because I knew how to manipulate my instrument, just some I mean."
"I'm not a Master yet, but that's what I'm after - to be able to play whatever I hear at any time. Then I won't have anything to say at all, all I'll be able to do is play. I would like to get everything down that small where that is all I do. When I become my instrument, and my instrument becomes me. I'm not a person any more. I would like to walk around the street looking like a trumpet if possible, because that's what I am."
EARL CROSS talking to Keith Knox at Fasching Club, Stockholm, October 21, 1981
KK: Tell me Earl, where were you born ?
EC: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. That was December 8th., 1933.
KK: And you went to school there ?
EC: Yes, until I was sixteen, and then I left and went to California. Then I had to go into the service and when I came out I went back to California. I left from California and went to New York in 1967, and I left New York for Holland in 1977. I stayed in California for my military service, actually I was in California in 1952 but I didn't come back there until 1955 and I was in the military in California until 1967. And that was a nice growing up too, I managed to catch me some great musicians.
KK: Tell me, when did you start playing ?
EC: Oh I started playing when I was about fourteen years old maybe, I guess. And then I stopped playing during my military career for a minute, and then I picked it up at the last part of my military obligation to the serving of the United States government. This was early 50's that I enlisted, I had to enlist, 1951 or something. And then I got out in 1958 and was called back again in 1959 or 1960, but anyway that was over with. But by that time i had gotten back into my music again, and the guys I kind of liked at that time were Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, they were the hot trumpet players. So I don't really know how I got involved in the New Music situation, because I always wanted to be a bopper, a bebopper. I love Bebop today and I still play some of it every now and again when I get a chance. But I think it was my association with guys like Sonny Simmons, Prince Lasha, Ornette Coleman, Bobby Hutcherson and some more people that are unknown, that music changed around for me in the 60's. And one that I didn't mention was Frank Haynes, he was a very close friend of mine, and he died in New York.
KK: A tenor player ?
EC: Yes, tenor saxophone. He was on Kenny Dorham records, and he made records with Dave Gelly. And I think he made some with Les McCann. There's not many records with him on. But to me, I can't say he was the best musician, but he was the best musician playing at the time I was around.
KK: That was on the West coast you were playing ?
EC: Yes, I lived out there for quite a spell and the music changed, it totally changed for me. It just wasn't so easy to play Bebop any more because a lot of people didn't want to hear it at that particular time. Bebop was stale and there just weren't any new people with the voice to make it powerful. Like after old cats like Miles and Kenny Dorham and these guys who were still there. It was very popular all over the world and I would break my neck to go see Miles for instance, if it was possible to listen to him. But then Ornette came round and Cherry and these cats, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Simmons and then Trane. I got a chance to meet Trane and play with him once or a couple of times. Very enlightening. And then the introduction to new musical studies, like in the early 60's there was a book going around that everybody had to study. 'The Thesaurous of Scales and Melodic Patterns' by Nicolas Slonimsky. Then just about everybody had this book, and to me it was very very interesting. You could tell by listening to a player if he'd ever played on that book. The passages in it were uncommon, but to a person who'd seen the book they were very memorable. You'ld know that someone, ok Pharoah Sanders, he was there and we always used to play with phrases out of this book. man, he's constantly playing these figures and patterns out of this book, this is before he went into his flutter-tonguing thing. he was also one of my idols, I'm older than he is but he could play immediately.
KK: You were talking about this book.
EC: Well yes, it was during that time. But it was quite a different approach to music. It was the one that I think maybe introduced a lot of scales into improvised playing, more so than it used to be. Before that it was a lot of chords and melodic, different kinds of patterns, but now a lot of different kinds of scales and things are introduced, you you could really kind of figure out then whether this person had been studying this book a little bit. Well, like I said, darn it, in the seventies you really had this thing going. I remember I made a record with Noah Howard called 'The Black Ark', that was in 1969 after I moved to new York. At the time we were making it for Alan Douglas records but it didn't happen so he sold it to,
I think it was, the freedom division of Polydor records, or something like that. It came out then. Well I had a nice tape from the session that sounded good, but I lost it in some form of fashion and I never had a record, so I've always wondered how it sounded. I was in Amsterdam and a guy played it for me and I didn't even recognize myself. I didn't know that I reallly played like that, but the point is that I was actually playing a fluegelhorn on the date so it sounde like i had a big fat tone and different things, so I was excited too. And after that I started working with Rashied Ali. I worked with him for three or four years and I recorded with him for his Survival records. Then I started working with Charles [Tyler] and at the same time I was dealing with my own nine-piece band, which I happen to have a great desire to have. I mean, I always write pieces with that in mind. The first time I usually start out to compose music for nine pieces, then I can make it for six pieces or five pieces or twenty pieces.
But then, I don't know. I mean, things just started to happen then. I was involved in the middle of a loft scene in New York at one time. And the musicians were very ambitious, I mean, you saw some of the other skills these guys had. You know that some guys were public relations men, some were carpenters and some were office personnel, typists, coordinators and different things. Anyway, we all got together and made a festival of experimental music one time.
KK: That Alan Douglas thing ?
EC: No, that was later. This was like 1972, we made a New York musicians' festival and we had a loft that we operated out of, Studio We. And since then, it's become a yearly thing in the way these guys give a five day festival every summer.
KK: That 'Voyage from Jericho' I seem to recall was done at Studio We.
EC: Yes, Studio We it was. It was actually supposed to have been a demo recording for Prestige records, but they didn't like it. So Charles decided to put it out on his own and he did.
KK: That's a damn nice record I think. Frankly I can't understand Prestige.
EC: Well they didn't care for us too much. We were a little bit too avant garde. But not really because, I mean, Ronnis [Boykins] was a bopper and Arthur Blythe was in the band at that time and he can bop, and so could everybody else. Charles [Tyler] can bop and Steve [Reid] can bop. We had a nice group but it just wasn't the type of music that was what they wanted. At that time music didn't, well you know how jazz music is,it never stands in one place. Ever since it's been born it's progressed. It keeps going and going but you can't take away from it anything that is there, I mean, you have to have those cats because... I remember seeing Dizzy [Gillespie] and he is still like one of the greatest people to me. But I mean, he had a abnd and everybody in that band was a soloist. It was always amazing to see how all these cats would support each other and, I mean, he had Billy Mitchell, Billy Root, Lee Morgan, Joe Gordon, Charli Persip, Wynton Kelly and all these different people in his band, man, and all of them were very very good. I mean it was just boogaloo with soloists and it was about an eighteen piece band. He had a trumpet section with Lee Morgan and Joe Gordon and then Dizzy too. I mean, you'd think he'd have this big band to support him but he didn't do that. It's like with Miles [Davis] and Art Blakey and a lot of the other guys, Mingus and everybody, they were schools, institutions, for great musicians. Darn it, you can't count the number of musicians who've played with Miles and Dizzy and Art Blakey and guys like that, who are now very popular on their own. that had also been one of my ambitions, to maybe get a chance to play with this guy or that guy. Well maybe I didn't get a chance to play with all those people, but I did get to play with a bunch of nice folks in my lifetime.
KK: Tell me something about your horn, like technically about the mouthpiece and the trumpet. You have a very special sound Earl, and people are likely to be curious about this. I know I am.
EC: Well, I don't know about that. The reason why I sounded so different right now is that the minute I got to Stockholm it was so cold my lip split. That's all, I mean, I'm really scuffling right now. I really am. I can play much better than I've played so far on this session, but I don't intend to really damage this thing, because the brass when you've got an open split like this thing here is kind of dangerous. So I'm sort of like being cautious and stuff and trying to keep from damaging it too much. But it happens every time I go to a cold country, even to come across the North Sea. When I go to Denmark it's the same thing, it splits right here as soon as I arrive. I came from Holland and it's wet down there, and then immediately we were dealing with all this fresh air and no smog in Stockholm.
KK: This is your first time here and I have nothing to compare, but it sounds fine Earl. Tell me about your horn.
EC: I always use a large-bore horn and a pretty deep mouthpiece, normal size. I use a 7 and a half or 7, 7C or 7B, like that. Just recently, the last three or four years, I went back to that. For maybe ten years I used a Shoki mouthpiece. But then again I only started playing trumpet again in the last five or six years. I've always had one, but I'm normally a cornet player. But I mean, the sound is actually different from the cornet, it's a little sharper on cornet. I need to have that trumpet sound too though. Then the mellophone, I picked that up in school. I mean, we had a large school band and the guys had a lot of trumpet players and the bandmaster wanted me in the band, so he just said - you play the baritone horn, or ... you play the Eflat horn, or ... you play the mellophone. I could play it so that's why it wasn't so difficult. But I didn't like the mellophone so much until later on in life. I always really thought it was a bastard and I didn't want to play this bastard instrument. But then I had to add it to my repertoire and then it came out pretty good. As a matter of fact, when i was in San Francisco I worked more with the mellophone, the Eflat one actuallly, because they had a lack of trombone players. So I did a lot of work with the mellophone, the Eflat horn in the trombone section. That was also nice. We had a band once, got it together in San Francisco and had it out there for about six or seven years, the Monty Waters /Dewey Redman big band. And then we all moved to New York and organised the band again in new York. In 1977 it was still going and then we all split up and most of the members went different ways, because we had to live. This was a voluntary thing and we nebver made hardly any money with the band. We just kept it together for ourselves and then we found out that this band was also like an institution too, in that we would always have new members and new people coming in the band to play. I have so many flyers with different names in the band at various times. it was actually supposed to have been about a nine-piece band in new York and at one time we had something like eighteen pieces in the band. That meant that Monty and I, we did most of the writing until we had a Japanese guitar player called Sheryl Moy [?] who came in and started doing some writing too. That took a lot of pressure off us because we were getting new music. If you play with the band every day, every week, and you play the same old music over and over again it gets a little boring and you have to have something new. I mean, it was difficult to compose music and then play the music and at the same time be responsible for having new music so these guys wouldn't get bugged about having the same things over and over again. That band got to a nice point though.
KK: Roughly how many compositions have you written ?
EC: About 70 compositions. But I've written about 35 arangements for groups from 9 pieces on up to 18 or 25 pieces. I have about 35 tunes or pieces of music like that. We did one of them for the seminar here.
KK: Yes, I think I walked in when they were playing it.
EC: They have a nice tape recording of that piece so they could memorise it, and they did another one today that I had used before in a workshop that I did in Holland one time. I had a workshop in all the different towns in Holland and stuff like that, and i used some of that material then. That's what makes it a little easier once you've used the material and you know how people can get to it and stuff like that. So you choose between all your music as to what pieces you use to introduce to people who are not familiar with your music. you shold never take the most difficult pieces, but had i known that these swedish musicians were the calibre of musicians that they were, I would have brought a little more music. I mean, I didn't know that we were going to have such talented guys. man, they can read and they can interpret exactly what you say, very well.
KK: There's a lot of education in this part of the world, that's the thing.
EC: I can believe it, i mean, when music as education is up to par with doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs, you know.
KK: I'd like to ask you if there are any special things you would like to express through the medium of this text ?
EC: Yes, well I didn't know that it existed in Stockholm and i'm pretty happy to be part of it because I think, I mean, it shows me that the music I like to do is popular all over the world. I did know that it existed in some of the other countries and cities in Europe, but I didn't know that it was up here. I didn't know that. And it's nice to just be here because I get a chance to meet you and all the people and to know that there's a little bit going on. I don't know yet how many tunes of yours are going to be on the record, but at least one i guess.
At least two of them are going to be played anyway, so that's good. We play another one tonight. One of them is called "Just for Two", that was on another record of Charles, 'Voyage from Jericho', and the other one is called "Train 178 to Stockholm". It's about a train, the train that we tok coming up here was coach 178 and ugh all the turmoil. We tried to express all the turmoil and everything that happened to us musically. So this is a new piece that we are having on this trip, ".. 178 to Stockholm". I have " 177 to Copenhagen" that I did some years back, but it so happens that the wagon that we got on was 178.
KK: "Just for Two" is a thing that you worked out with Charles some years ago, I take it ?
EC: Oh yes, about five or six years ago. We used to play in the lofts in New York, in Sam Rivers' place, 1974 or 5, something like that. And Charles had this group and stuff, and this was when Ronnie Boykins was in the band. So we used to play some of my things and some of his, Ronnie's things, and this is one that kind of stuck. We played a few more but we never really elaborated on them, they were kind of difficult, so this one stuck. "Just for Two" is a nice rambling tune, we could play on it good and get some nice grooving going, but this ".. 178 to Stockholm" will be even better. It is nice too and it has that kind of, it has more of a rhythmic feeling and more melodic tones in it the way the instruments develop the music, so we get a lot more expressions in it.
KK: Now tell me about some of the things that you would personally would like to happen as far as you are concerned, the sort of things that you would like to be the case.
EC: Oh yes, I hope to get involved, later, to get involved in having my compositions played just about any place that I can go. I've been doing a lot of writing for large groups, smaller groups, and that's the one thing I'd really want to happen and that's to have other people play my music and to have my music as popular as anybody else's music that does really consistently and have it out in a big run of show hits.
Sadly, this never happened. Earl was in Stockholm to play and record 'Definite' with the Charles Tyler Quartet, one of the finest ensembles to emerge in the 1970's. He remained in Europe based in Amsterdam until lack of work drove him back to America. He was last heard in New York in 1984 playing only standards with C. Sharpe, who he had known for many years. There was a final recording from the Shuttle Theater with Jackson Krall, released on a Stork cassette. Then nothing. Word was that Earl had health problems and returned to St. Louis, where he passed away in 1987. He was a fresh and strong voice on trumpet, joyous and human. Picture the wide open space between Don Cherry and Donald Ayler. Maybe Marvin Hannibal Peterson inhabited similar territory.