Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ervin, Booker (Tellefero Ervin II)

Saxophonist Booker Ervin’s hard-edged tone, drawn from his roots in rhythm and blues, were matched with a peerless ability to improvise. This combination earned him the tenor seat on Charles Mingus’s landmark sessions in the late fifties and early sixties. The handful of sessions Ervin led for Prestige in the mid-1960s, with the rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson, are also some of jazz’s most undervalued gems.

Stylistically, Ervin was comfortable leaning towards the emergent sounds of "free" jazz, yet he never abandoned his aesthetic allegiance to hard bop. Influenced by Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, he managed the near-impossible task to remain atop the tenor saxophone world throughout the 1960s without cloning either Rollins or Coltrane. For these reasons, even though his career was cut drastically short by his death at age 39, this “Texas Tenor” offers an understudied window into the transition from hard bop to free jazz.

Booker Tellefero Ervin II was born on October 31, 1930 in Denison, Texas. His musical career began on trombone, performing in the school bands while at Terell High School. Shortly after graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served from 1950 to 1953, and where he began teaching himself the tenor saxophone.

Upon his discharge, Ervin moved back to Texas for a short time before relocating to Boston for a year’s worth of musical study at Schillinger House, which later became the Berklee College of Music. Ervin then returned to Texas and began his professional career by touring in trombonist Ernie Fields’s rhythm and blues band in 1956. Soon thereafter, Ervin joined forces with fellow saxophonist James Clay for gigs in the Dallas area in the mid 1950s.

Ervin left Texas and bounced from city to city in the middle to late 1950s, temporarily landing in Portland and Pittsburgh before eventually relocating to New York. He first performed with rhythm and blues trained pianist Horace Parlan, who soon recommended the strong-toned Ervin to bassist and composer Charles Mingus. After a brief audition, Mingus invited Ervin to join the group when trombonist Jimmy Knepper departed. Shortly before entering the studio for the first time with Mingus, Ervin performed with the group at the Nonagon Art Gallery in January, 1959. “I Can’t Get Started” is a track from this concert, which has since been released as Mingus in Wonderland.

Ervin then entered the studio with Mingus on February, 4, 1959 and began his extended run of performances on many of the bandleader’s classic recordings until 1963. The first, Blues and Roots, features the exceptional saxophone section of Ervin, Jackie McLean, John Handy and Pepper Adams on “Moanin’” and “Tensions.” Additional recordings which showcase Ervin's work with Mingus in 1959 include Mingus Ah Um, which features his solo on <'a href="/music/2007/11/3/charles-mingus-better-get-it-in-your-soul"> “Better Git it in Your Soul" and Mingus's homage to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”

Ervin can also be heard on the albums Mingus at Antibes (1960), Pre-Bird (1960); Mingus (1960), and Oh Yeah from 1961, which features “Ecclusiastics” and “Eat That Chicken.” Rounding out this astonishing output are Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus from 1963, which includes “Hora Decubitus” "II B.S.”

During his time with Mingus, Ervin occasionally recorded as a sideman on additional recordings. In 1960, a meeting of "the Bookers" occurred when Ervin and hard-bop trumpeter Booker Little collaborated on Sounds of the Inner City. Ervin then participated in Jaki Byard’s Out Front! and Mal Waldron’s Quest in 1961, the latter of which features both Ervin and Eric Dolphy on “Fire Waltz." In 1963, Ervin was the featured soloist on Roy Haynes’s Cracklin’ session.

Ervin’s first three albums as a leader, also recorded during his tenure with Charles Mingus, were all recorded for different labels. The Book Cooks (1960), a Bethlehem date, features the outstanding lineup of fellow tenorman Zoot Sims, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, and the rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, George Tucker and longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond. Cookin’ (1960), a Savoy date, featured trumpeter Richard Williams and the rhythm section Horace Parlan, Tucker, and Richmond. That’s It (1961), a Candid session, primarily features Ervin supported by the rhythm section of pianist Parlan, bassist Tucker and drummer Al Harewood.

Following Ervin’s departure from Mingus’s group in 1963, he began a four-year recording relationship with the Prestige label, releasing some of his most critically acclaimed records as a leader. Many of these recordings, The Freedom Book (1963), The Space Book (1964), and Heavy! (1966) all feature the remarkable rhythm section of pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson. “A Lunar Tune” and “Number Two” are two examples of this experimental hard-bop group at work in 1963 and1964. On The Song Book (1964), pianist Tommy Flanagan replaces Byard while both Davis and Dawson remain onboard.

Aside from these revered meetings of the “Book” club, the most significant additional Prestige date was Setting the Pace (1965), which included the dueling tenors of Ervin and Dexter Gordon, who had been Ervin’s early hero on tenor, backed by pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Alan Dawson. The legendary 20+ minute tracks, “Setting the Pace,” “Dexter’s Deck,” “The Trance,” and “Speak Low,” all feature some of Ervin’s most unrestrained playing.

Following his success on the Prestige label, Ervin recorded two lesser known yet artistically admired albums on the Pacific Label - Structurally Sound (1967) and Booker and Brass (1968). Booker and Brass, Ervin’s only venture into leading a big band, featured high energy playing from a first-rate band that included Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Coles, Charles Tolliver, Benny Green, Benny Powell, and Kenny Barron, among many others.

Ervin then moved on the Blue Note label for The In Between (1968) and The Booker Ervin Quintet (1968), the latter of which features the outstanding lineup of trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Jan Arnett and drummer Billy Higgins.

Although the majority of Ervin’s post-Mingus career was spent as a bandleader, he did perform as a sideman throughout the mid to late 1960s. His long-standing gig was with pianist Randy Weston, with whom he can be heard on Randy! (1964), Monterey ’66 (1966), and African Cookbook, a 1964 session released in 1972. Additional Ervin recordings from the late 1960s include Andrew Hill’s Grass Roots (1968), Eric Kloss’s In the Land of Giants (1969), and Don Patterson’s Tune Up (1969).

Booker Ervin left the world far too soon, as he passed away from kidney disease on July 31, 1970, at age 39. He performed and recorded until the very end of his life, leaving behind a consistently high-level discography throughout his 15 years as a professional musician. His powerhouse tone, impassioned playing, unique improvisatory style, and stylistic middle ground earn him the reputation as one of the most influential saxophonists of the 1960s.

Select Discography:

As a Leader:

The Book Cooks (1960), Cookin’ (1960), That’s It (1961), Exultation! (1963), Groovin’ High (1963), Freedom Book (1963), The Song Book (1963), The Blues Book (1964), Space Book (1964), Setting the Pace (1965), The Trance (1965), Lament for Booker Ervin (1965), Heavy! (1966), Structurally Sound (1966), Booker ‘n’ Brass (1967), The In Between (1968), Booker Ervin Quintet (1968)

With Charles Mingus:

Blues and Roots (1959), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Mingus at Antibes (1960), Mingus! (1960), Mysterious Blues (1960), Pre-Bird (1960), Oh Yeah (1961), Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (1962), Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino CD, 1997)

Additional Recordings:

Sounds of the Inner City (Booker Ervin and Booker Little, 1960), Out Front! (Jaki Byard, 1961), Quest (Mal Waldron with Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin, 1961), Hot Line (Bill Barron with Booker Ervin, 1962), The Exciting New Organ of Don Patterson (Don Patterson, 1964), Randy! (Randy Weston, 1964), Soul People (Sonny Stitt, 1964), Monterey ’66 (Randy Weston, 1966), Grass Roots (Andrew Hill, 1968)

Contributor: Eric Novod