Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lloyd, Charles

Multi-reedman Charles Lloyd combined John Coltrane’s sweeping approach to improvisation with his own light and supple tone to create an accessible sound which made him a crossover superstar in the 1960s. His gentle, modal and blues-based music won over many fans, drawn by his ability to combine expressive lyricism with a sense of musical adventure.

Whereas many of the tenor players who emulated Coltrane were aggressive and even abrasive, Lloyd’s sound is mellow. Lloyd borrows Coltrane’s irregular rhythmic groupings, and spiritual intensity expressed in long, seeking improvisatory explorations. His compositions and improvisations reflect a lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality and the harmony and rhythms of Indian classical music.

Forest Flower

Lloyd was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 15 March 1938 to a young mother and pharmacist father. The family lived behind the drugstore his father owned. Home life was difficult, and his parent’s relationship was rocky; Lloyd spent much of his lonely childhood being shipped from one relative’s home to the next.

From an early age, Lloyd found solace and comfort in music. In Lloyd’s genes there is African, American Indian, Mongolian, and Irish ancestry. This mixed ancestry has certainly inspired spiritual and communal implications in Lloyd’s music. Growing up as a mixed-race child in segregated Memphis, Lloyd could never understand the hatred on either side of the racial dividing lines. Always believing in the transformative power of music, his musical message has consistently been one of peace, love, unity, and acceptance.

The young Lloyd was surrounded by music, hearing country blues, the music of the Baptist church and also Native American songs he heard sung by his grandmother. These encounters with a variety of music early in life created an eclectic foundation for his career, as they contributed his distinct and unconventional musical personality.

After hearing Charlie Parker on a late-night radio program, Lloyd gave up his dream to be a singer and begged his parents for an alto saxophone, finally receiving one from an uncle at age nine. At ten, he entered a talent contest and won first prize. Memphis-born pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. took Lloyd under his wing, playing him more Charlie Parker records, and bringing him to hear the blues band led by tenor saxophonist Bill Harvey. Newborn introduced Lloyd to alto saxophonist Irvin Reason, who played in Harvey’s band, and became Lloyd’s first teacher.

Related Links

•   Charles Lloyd at Seventy by Matt Leskovic                                                            
•   Sonny Rollins & Charles Lloyd in Italy by Ted Panken                                                            

Lloyd got his first gig at the age of twelve in Rosco Gordon’s blues band, which featured singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. More gigs followed with bluesmen Willie Mitchell, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Roosevelt Sykes, and Johnny Ace. His early experience with blues bands stayed with him throughout his entire career; no matter how experimental and avant-garde Lloyd’s playing would become, there remains an earthy blues sensibility and soulfulness in his sound. While enrolled at Manassas High School, Lloyd practiced his bebop with classmates including trumpeters Louis Smith and Booker Little, pianist Harold Mabern, and saxophonist Frank Strozier.

In 1956, at age eighteen, Lloyd left Memphis to attend the University of Southern California, where he studied composition, flute and clarinet, and Western classical music with Halsey Stevens. Lloyd gigged around L. A. with Gerald Wilson’s big band, and in small groups with musicians such as vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Billy Higgins. Lloyd also shared an apartment with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman for a period of time.

After graduating with a master’s degree in music in 1960, Lloyd’s first major gig came on alto in 1961, replacing Eric Dolphy in drummer Chico Hamilton’s chamber group. After recording two albums with the chamber ensemble, Selections from Irma La Douce and Bye Bye Birdie and The Chico Hamilton Special, Hamilton asked Lloyd to be the group’s musical director. Having difficulty with the constraints of the chamber style, Lloyd disbanded the group in 1962 and reassembled with a lineup eager to follow the new, progressive paths being blazed at the time by Coleman and Coltrane.

The reformed Hamilton group, which featured Lloyd on tenor and flute alongside guitarist Gabor Szabo, recorded Drumfusion, Transfusion, Passin’ Thru, A Different Journey, and Man From Two Worlds. All featured Lloyd as the group’s main composer, and displayed not only his interest in avant-garde jazz, but also the strong influence of Indian classical music.

The sympathetic interplay and snaking, improvised counterpoint between Lloyd and Szabo on these albums is striking. Interplay and musical communication between musicians has always been a staple of Lloyd’s groups. His tenor sound became infinitely larger and more biting in this new setting; Coltrane became his major inspiration, and this influence can be heard in the searing energy of Lloyd’s cascading scalar runs and full usage of his tenor’s range.

In 1963, Columbia Records producer George Avakian assisted Lloyd in recording his first album as a leader. Discovery! was recorded in two sessions in May of 1963, with pianist Don Friedman, bassists Richard Davis and Eddie Kahn, and drummers J. C. Moses and Roy Haynes.

Lloyd left Hamilton’s group in January of 1964 to join Cannonball Adderley’s sextet, replacing Yusef Lateef. Lloyd’s year and a half tenure with Adderley is documented on three albums: Live! and Fiddler on the Roof from 1964 and Radio Nights from 1965. “Fiddler on the Roof” shows Lloyd’s Coltrane-styled improvisation adding a new dimension to Adderley’s group. His roots in the blues fits snugly into the Adderley brothers’ concept of soul jazz: Lloyd balanced his tireless, sweeping runs with an occasional blues-based lick, keeping his feet firmly planted in the soulful soil of his hometown of Memphis.

Lloyd also often gigged at this time under his own name with the Adderley rhythm section of Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and drummer Louis Hayes.

Avakian continued to help Lloyd book gigs, and the saxophonist played with musicians such as Gabor Szabo, pianists Herbie Hancock and Steve Kuhn, bassists Albert Stinson, Ron Carter and Reggie Workman, and drummers Tony Williams and Joe Chambers. Lloyd recorded a TV program on 12 August 1964 entitled Jazz Discovery: Charles Lloyd, which debuted on KQED-TV in San Francisco on 18 November 1964.

In early 1965, Avakian secured Lloyd a contract with Columbia Records. Discovery! and Lloyd’s second album as a leader, Of Course/Of Course, which featured Szabo, Carter, and Williams, were released to critical acclaim. Soon after, Lloyd left Adderley’s band to test the waters as a leader. In February 1966 he formed a dynamic quartet with brilliant twenty year old pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee, and twenty-four year old drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Under Avakian’s full-time management, a European tour was booked for the spring and summer of 1966. It culminated with the group’s breakthrough performance in June at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France. Upon their return to the US, Columbia released the group's first and only studio album, Dream Weaver, using laudatory quotes from the European press as liner notes.

The group made a total of six tours of Europe in two years. At first, like most jazz acts in the late 1960s, Lloyd’s quartet had a difficult time finding work in the US. Lloyd declared he no longer wished to play the club circuit; he and Avakian sought larger venues where his music would be presented as a total experience, enveloping all of the senses. Lloyd’s live release from the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966, Forest Flower, was a hit and its title track got radio play on both jazz and rock stations.

Lloyd had developed a more distinctive, signature sound by this time: lithe, light and not as piercing as his previous work. Coltrane’s influence is still present, but packaged much differently as Lloyd developed an instantly recognizable style. A feature article in Harper’s magazine further heightened his profile, and along with that came bookings in the dance halls of the psychedelic circuit, such as the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.

Lloyd began sharing stages with popular psychedelic rock acts such as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Audiences of the late 1960s were open to new musical styles, and Lloyd’s group molded their wide array of influences into a personal and eclectic sound.

As they donned the cultural symbols of the day – Afro hairstyles, beads, bell bottoms, and flowery clothing - and aligned with nonconformist ideals, Lloyd, Jarrett, DeJohnette and new bass player Ron McClure related to the counterculture as much as the hippies did to them. The quartet’s music was unpretentious and accessible, yet at the same time adventurous and sophisticated, and was eagerly consumed by a more pop-conscious audience. The Charles Lloyd Quartet’s entry into the psychedelic realm, their colorful, youthful style, and their commercial success preceded Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album by three years.

Drug problems and the death of Lloyd's mother strained his relationship with bandmates, and ironically, as he grew into national stardom, his playing lost its brilliance of years past. DeJohnette left the group in March of 1968 and was replaced by Paul Motian. Lloyd finally disbanded the quartet in 1969. After Forest Flower, his classic quartet recorded six more live albums: Charles Lloyd in Europe, The Flowering, Love-In, Journey Within, In the Soviet Union, and Soundtrack.

In the early 1970s Lloyd continued to perform and record, contrary to exaggerated stories of his retirement. He had essentially chosen to fly underneath the jazz radar; he stopped the rigorous touring that characterized his years with his classic quartet and manager George Avakian. Despite his lower profile in the early 1970s, Lloyd remained active in the studio, both as a leader and a guest sideman.

Lloyd followed the changing trends in psychedelic music, recording two jazzy folk-rock records: Moon Man in 1970 and 1971’s Warm Waters. Moon Man featured the debut of Charles Lloyd as a poet and vocalist. He remained an in-demand guest soloist at the time and recorded with Canned Heat, the Doors, former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, and the Beach Boys.

Lloyd beat his addictions and became a follower of transcendental meditation. His 1972 album Waves embodied this newfound spiritual aesthetic, as did the eastern influenced Geeta from 1974. His recordings from the late 1970s have a diffuse and ambient aura which reflects the peacefulness he achieved through meditation and utilized sounds from nature, ranging from crashing ocean waves to chirping seagulls. On 1978’s Weavings, Lloyd is heard on soprano saxophone for the first time, improvising over a background of smoothly orchestrated horns and strings.

In 1981, a seventeen-year-old French pianist named Michel Petrucciani showed up uninvited at Lloyd’s door in Big Sur, California. Amazed and inspired by the young man’s prowess at the piano, Lloyd reformed a quartet with Petrucciani, Sonship (Woody) Theus on drums, and Palle Danielsson on bass. The group echoed Lloyd’s classic quartet from the 1960s, and toured America, Japan, and Europe, releasing a promotional cassette entitled Night Blooming Jasmine as well as two live albums, Montreux 82 and A Night in Copenhagen. Lloyd returned passionately inspired and in top form; his tone is stronger and deeper than ever and there is a sense of urgency and enthusiasm in every note.

His return to fulltime playing was cut short as illness derailed him in the mid 1980s; Lloyd had a node removed from his throat, resulting in an inability to perform in smoke-filled rooms. In 1985, he reunited with Petrucciani, DeJohnette, and McBee at a 1985 concert at New York’s Town Hall commemorating the rebirth of Blue Note Records. The concert was recorded and filmed, and contained a brilliant rendition of his composition "Tone Poem." In 1986, a rare intestinal disorder called Meckel’s Diverticulum put him within hours of death. Six feet of his small intestines were removed.

When cleared by doctors to play his saxophone again in 1989, he signed with the German ECM label. With a reworked tone - round, light and unassuming, much like his late 1960s sound - Lloyd sounded more in command of his horn than ever before.

On his early ECM albums, which include Fish Out of Water in 1989, 1991’s Notes From Big Sur and 1993’s The Call, his tone is focused and in control, with a notable absence of the intonation issues that had sometimes blemished his previous recordings.

His ECM albums have included pianists Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau, Geri Allen, and Jason Moran, as well as guitarist Larry Abercrombie. Bassists Palle Danielsson, Anders Jormin, Dave Holland, Larry Grenadier, Marc Johnson, and Robert Hurst have all passed through his group. Lloyd has always had an affinity for great drummers, and his ECM records have included John Christensen, Ralph Peterson, Billy Hart, Billy Higgins, and Eric Harland.

Highlights from his ECM catalog include Hyperion With Higgins (2001), his fantastic duet record with Billy Higgins Which Way is East (2004), Jumping the Creek (2005), and a live trio recording Sangam with tabla master Zaklr Hussein and drummer Eric Harland.

Lloyd's lifelong fascination with music from Asia is more astute on these recordings than ever, especially in his use of the taragato, a Hungarian reed instrument, and the Chinese oboe. In 2008, in celebration of his 70th birthday, Lloyd released Rabo de Nube, his first live recording in almost four decades and first recording with pianist Jason Moran. Among the standouts from this record is “Prometheus.”

Lloyd continues to tour regularly in both the US and Europe and can often be found headlining some of the biggest jazz festivals worldwide. He is more active than he has been since his days with Jarrett and DeJohnette, and has surrounded himself with outstanding young musicians who are sensitive and responsive to his unique musical perspective. Today, Lloyd’s playing is inspired, mature and deeply earnest as he forges onward into his sixth decade of professional playing.

Selected Discography

As a leader:

Discovery! (1963), Of Course/Of Course (1965), Dream Weaver (1966), Forest Flower (1966), Charles Lloyd in Europe (1966), The Flowering (1966), Journey Within (1967), Love-In (1967), Charles Lloyd in the Soviet Union (1967), Nirvana (1968), Soundtrack (1969), Moon Man (1970), Waves (1972), Geeta (1974), Autumn In New York (1979), Montreux 82 (1982), A Night In Copenhagen (1983), Fish Out of Water (1989), Acoustic Masters I (1993), The Call (1993), All My Relations (1994), Voice In the Night (1999), The Water Is Wide (2000), Hyperion With Higgins (2001), Lift Every Voice (2002), Which Way Is East (2004), Jumping the Creek (2005), Sangam (2006), Rabo de Nube (2008)

As a sideman:

The Chico Hamilton Special (Chico Hamilton, 1960), Drumfusion (Chico Hamilton, 1962), Passin’ Thru (Chico Hamilton, 1963), Man From Two Worlds (Chico Hamilton, 1964), Fiddler on the Roof (Cannonball Adderley, 1964), Surf’s Up (The Beach Boys, 1971)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic