In conversation with clifton anderson

By Tomas PeŮa

                                 Clifton Anderson

Talent, dedication, formal training, and the opportunity to perform withóand learn fromóone of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived: all are factors in helping make Clifton Anderson one of today's top trombonists. Of course, Clifton is best-known for his work with Sonny Rollins, but he's also shared the stage with Slide Hampton, Abdullah Ibrahim, Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, Dionne Warwick, James 'Jabbo' Ware, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wyclef Jean, Stevie Wonder Ö the list goes on.

Clifton produced his debut CD as a leaderóLandmarks, on the Milestone labelóin 1997. His performance and compositions received critical acclaim, and contributed to his growing following among jazz fans and trombone aficionados, worldwide. Since the release of Landmarks, Clifton has led his own groups, here in the U.S. and abroad.

Now, with the release of his new CDóDecade, on the Doxy/EmArcy imprintóAnderson has created an outstanding showcase for his skills as a player, composer, bandleader, and producer. The album is aimed, states Anderson, at 'encapsulating ten years of development, my perceptions and insights as a trombonist, producer, and writer.' The album is dedicated to the memory of his mother, the late Gloria Anderson.

No doubt you have been asked this question numerous times, but for the sake of our readers, whatís it like being the nephew of Sonny Rollins?

Well, for a musician it's the best place to be. Of course, there's a mixed bag to it. But first and foremost, it is probably the best experience a musician could have, because of the vast experience and wealth of information that Sonny carries with him, and who he is. Itís not just about playing with Sonny every night Ö itís also being around him and absorbing the vast amount of information that he has to offer. People often ask, 'Does Sonny show you this or that?' But we've never had that kind of relationship. He shows me things on stage when he plays, but never anything specifically. Itís a matter of observation and being open to what he has to offer. And he has a whole lot to offer! There is never a dull moment with him; every night is different. Sonny has always been referred to as a spontaneous improviser, and itís really true. Itís just his personality. His approach to music is really about where his head is at a particular time.

I find it interesting that he refers to himself as a 'work in progress.'

In that regard he's an unusual artist to be around, because there aren't many artists who really, genuinely operate in that way. Mind you, I am not trying to put anyone down. I'm just saying Sonny is a unique item in that regard. He comes from a period when there were many giants who operated that way, so this is a situation that is not easily duplicated. He is one of the last artists of his generation that is playing the way he plays.

How is he doing health-wise?

Heís good.

How old is he now?

Heís 78 years old. We just got back from a tour in Zurich, Switzerland, and he still carries the show. I mean, we all get to play and do our thing, but Sonny carries the show. To get back to your original question, itís a one-of-a-kind experience to be working with him, and to be his nephew. On a more personal level, if you ever get the opportunity to meet or know him, he is really one of the most humane, loving people that you will probably ever meet in your life. He is very quiet and to himself, but he is very caring and very generous. I canít say enough about him. As an uncle, he has always been very supportive of me, and he has not given me an easy road. When I first started working with him, I would hear through the grapevine that the only reason I was playing Sonny was because I am his nephew. But a lot of people donít know that he fired me [from his band], and it wasnít all roses working with him.

He didnít favor you.

He didnít make my road any different from anybody elseís. I was subject to the same scrutiny as any other musician. So it's been a great experience, and I wouldnít trade if for anything.

In addition to being a member of Sonnyís band you are his producer. In fact, you produced Sonny, Please and more recently, Road Shows, Vol. 1.

I think that my being a producer made it a more comfortable experience for Sonny than usual, even though itís never comfortable! [Laughs] I think we were able to make it a better situation, and it helped with the results. When we recorded Sonny, Please, we had a group that had been playing together for about a year straight. We had just come off a Japanese tour, so everyone was pretty hot, and there was a lot of good chemistry between us. I was fortunate to be able to produce Sonny, Please, and have [engineer] Rich Corcello with me, who's been recording Sonny for about thirty years. It was like a family reunion. We also worked on Road Shows, Volume 1, and were able to find some really good material. I'm sure that there are other performances that we havenít listened to that are outstanding, as well. Also, we are recording every night, so there will be a lot of great things to come.

Letís talk about your formative years. Your father led the church choir and played the organ. Your mother, Gloria Anderson, who recently passed away, sang and played the piano. Please accept my condolences on the recent passing of your mother.

Thank you very much.

Did she get to hear your new recording before she passed?

I showed her the [cover] artwork. At the time she was in the hospital, but she did get to hear it, and she gave it her seal of approval.

Getting back to your family, you have another uncle who is an accomplished violinist. I think it is safe to say that music is in your genes.

Oh yeah, like it or not! [Laughs]

You've been quoted as saying 'Everything I do musically is a representation of my life, and my life is really closely associated with my family. I have very strong relationships obviously with my uncle, and with my mother; they've been the two essential relationships. In every note I play, there's something of my mother in there and something of Sonny.' And then there's the story that I read in just about every interview you have ever done, where your mother took you to see the film The Music Man, and how much you loved the parade scene with the seventy-six trombones. Shortly thereafter, Sonny bought you a trombone, but at the time you didnít really take it seriously.

I knew I was musically inclined, but my mother had a lot of reservations about me becoming a professional musician, or having a career in music. She saw the struggles that Sonny went through, and she knows how hard the music business is, so she wasnít too thrilled about me becoming a musician. She would have preferred that I follow in my other uncleís footsteps, who is a doctor. I like biology and those kinds of things, but the music was just pulling me.

I read an interview in the African-American Review, where you talk about the negative stereotypes that plague jazz musicians. Itís no secret that Sonny, Charlie Parker, Miles and Coltrane had issues back then. But times have changed.

Well, I think itís this whole mystique with jazz music, which was kind of successful in promoting the music during the '50s and '60s. Unfortunately, itís a perception that still lingers.

At first, you didnít take the trombone seriously, but there were a number of factors that turned you around: your peers in the Bronx Borough Wide concert band, and the music of trombonist J.J. Jackson.

I was one of those kids who was always the best musician of the bunch, so in junior high school they recommended that I audition for Bronx Borough Wide. When I got there, there were other kids who could play like me, and in a way it was a little more inspiring. There was a guy name Thomas Brown who was running the Bronx Borough Wide program at that time, who happened to be a trombone player. He whipped us into shape. And then there were a lot of young guys and ladies who were in the orchestra, a few of whom went on to become highly respected musicians.

Do you remember their names?

Drummer Steve Jordan went on to make a lot of great records with jazz and rock musicians. He's also a producer. In fact, he just produced the music for the film Cadillac Records. He's done a lot of great things, and is highly respected in the business. There was a bass trombonist named Mallion Walker who is no longer with us. Itís hard for me to remember all of their names.

Did you get turned-on to the music of J.J. Johnson at that time?

Yeah, it was in that period, before I got into high school. It kind of turned me around, because his sound was so unique. After I heard J.J., my curiosity was piqued, and I tried to figure out how to get that sound out of the instrument.

Witnessing first-hand the effect that Sonnyís music had on the public must have been a factor, also.

That was a major thing. Whenever Sonny played in town, my mother would gather the whole family and we would come out and support Sonny. He did a concert where Freddie Hubbard was supposed to be the special guest artist. Well, Freddy got sick, so Sonny called two of his 'friends' at the last minute to cover for Freddy. Are you ready for this? His friends were Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus! [Laughs] Even though I knew my uncle was a big celebrity, I was just beginning to listen to jazz music in a serious way. But I was also listening to Motown, Sly Stone, and a lot of pop music Ö a lot of other influences.

I wasn't aware of Sonnyís impact on people until I went to that concert and went backstage. The energy was something I had never experienced before. It just blew me away when I saw how people were so happy, involved, and engaged with Sonny, and how they would wait just to meet him. It was like the Pope came [laughs] Ö so I said, 'Wow, this is incredible, I'd like to be able to do something that will make people feel this good.' I think that was probably the turning point for me in terms of wanting to be a musician, because I saw how the people were so involved with Charlie [Mingus] and Dizzy [Gillespie], tooóthe way people were just hovering around them. So I though it would be great if I could make people that happy.

Isnít that exactly what you are doing?

Well, I am trying [laughs]. I hope one day, while I am still on this plane, to approach that level of having people feel that good about what I am doing.

After attending the New York High School of Music and Art you briefly attended the University of New York.

I went there for one year and I studied with a teacher who came highly recommended, but we didnít work well together.

You then attended and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. After graduation, you participated in a lot of recording sessions, worked on Broadway (Dreamgirls and Nine), and were a member of the Harlem Festival Orchestra. You also played with Slide Hamptonís World of Trombones with Steve Turre, Conrad Herwig, Robin Eubanks and Frank Lacey, among others.

Actually, while I was still at the Manhattan School of Music, Kenny Kirkland and I (as well as some other musicians our age), were getting heavily involved in the New York jazz scene. We would travel around and go to jam sessions and try to find similar opportunities to get involved in. My first record date was with Kenny Kirkland and saxophonist, Carlos Garnett. It was called Cosmos Nucleus. At the time Carlos had a big band Ö

I wasnít aware of Carlosís music until recently. I was completely blown away when I heard it.

Back then, Carlos was the guy that everyone was talking about. In fact, he was being compared to John Coltrane.

As I understand he is no longer living in the states.

I think he had some issues and had to get away. But he was a very powerful musician and Kenny and I were very fortunate to have had the chance to play with and be around him. It was a great first record date for me.

How did you get involved with Slide Hamptonís World of Trombones?

I had a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music named John Clark who had a student named Janice Robinson, who was a great trombonist. Apparently, she met Slide and he talked with her about putting together a trombone choir. Anyway, they were short a few trombone players, so she called me and asked if I would be interested. Of course I said yes. At the time, I thought it was going to be about four or five trombones, but as it turns out it was actually nine or ten trombones. I canít remember all of the guys, but the original group was Earl McIntyre Ö Janice Robinson, Steve Turre, myself, and Ö I'm leaving out a couple of guys that I canít remember. A year after that, Slide refined the concept and brought in some heavy hitters. We had a core of trombonists that were constant, but we also had lot of people that came and went, like Curtis Fuller, Frank Lacey, Robin Eubanks, Clarence Banks, and Conrad Herwig. It was an incredible group, but we just couldnít keep it together.

A lot of the band members have gone on to make names for themselves.

That group whipped us into shape! When you're young and up-and-coming, you have egos. Everybody thinks they're the 'baddest' thing on the block. But of course Slide shut us up by writing some really difficult stuff [laughs]. It really refined all of us. I donít think there are any of us who would not say that it was a pivotal moment in their career, especially for section playing. Steve and I, Slide, and Doug Purviance: we were the section on-call for all of the major jazz stuff that took place in the city. It was that way because our section playing was so tight. It really was an incredible experience.

Before joining up with your uncleís band, you worked with Frank Foster, Lester Bowie, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner Ö

I was freelancing, and I got an opportunity to work with Mc Coy Tynerís Big Band, which was another great experience.

Also, the Mighty Sparrow, and the Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino Ö

I go to Japan under my own name. Hino was kind enough to ask me to be a special guest at some of his concerts. I was trying to get him to play on Decade, but we were unable to reconcile our schedules.

You hooked-up with Sonnyís band in 1983. Between tours you've performed and recorded under your own name. In 1997 you recorded Legend. More recently you recorded Decade. What is the significance of the title?

It represents a lot of things. On the surface, the 10 year span between my first recording and the new release. Below the surface, I wanted to represent what my experiences and perspectives have been, whatís gone on in the worldógood and badóover that time frame. At the same time, I wanted to keep the feeling upbeat and hopeful.

After the last eight years, we could certainly use it Ö

Yeah, itís been like a hammer over everybodyís head. Itís about the last ten years, and what life is about. Obviously, my mother is not here anymore, John Stubblefield is not here anymore. Itís all wrapped up in what transpires in life over a ten year period. Some of the songs are about personal relationships that worked out or didnít work out. Itís really about relationships and life.

'I'm Glad There Is You' and 'We'll Be Together Again' were recorded with your mother in mind. And you mention the late tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield; he was supposed to play on this album, but passed away before it was recorded. You dedicated the tune 'Stubbs' to him. Kenny Garrett, who took over as saxophonist, did a great job of capturing Johnís vibe.

Yeah, Kenny is something else [laughs].

Then there is 'Iím Old Fashioned,' and 'If' [originally recorded by the '70s pop group, Bread], which is a very interesting choice.

Itís funny, because I havenít heard that tune in years. But the melody just stuck in my mind and wouldnít go away, so I had to deal with it. Plus, the tune lends itself to the trombone. We just hit it in the studio; it was just one of those natural things.

You spice things up with 'Ah Soon Come,' a calypso.

Yeah, thatís in my blood.

What exactly is your background?

Sonnyís side of the family, which is my motherís side, is from St. Croix, and my father is Jamaican. I was born here in Harlem, so itís a nice little trinity. 'Iím Old Fashioned' was on [the Rollins album] Sunny Days, Starry Nights, so thatís one of the first standards I played with Sonny.

How about introducing the band? Letís start with bassist Bob Cranshaw.

Bob has always been very supportive of me. He's guided and helped me with direction and ideas, and different ways to think about things. Bob is such a great bass player that you get spoiled by him, because what he does sounds very simple but is extremely complex. His ability to lay down a groove the way that he does Ö I donít hear that in a lot of bass players. Itís history, and there is no substitute for it. So I am very grateful to Bob. He is always there for me and I am so appreciative of him.

Christian Mc Bride is another tremendous bass player.

Christian is such a musical musician. His approach to music is really lyrical ... he has the chops, he has everything, but he doesnít use it in a way that is not musical. He's right in it every time, and his choice of notes is excellent. Christian and I would always come up on each other in different ways, so I recommended that Sonny use him for the Carnegie Hall show. After that, I invited him to participate in my recording, and he said yes. It was great having him.

Then there are Al Foster and Steve Jordan on drums.

Al Foster and I go back. When I first started coming to rehearsals with Sonny Ö I didnít always play but Sonny would let me sit in now and then, and Al would say to Sonny, 'Your nephew sounds good, you should put him in the band.' [Laughs] Steve I know from Bronx Borough Wide. He has a pocket and can play well in any style.

You have one of my favoriteóand one of the most underratedópianists on the scene today, my man Larry Willis.

Larry Willis is just incredible. I've worked with Larry in other situations. He played with the World of Trombones. I also worked with him in a number of other situations. I thought of him because I thought that his style would work out very well. And it did.

Also, pianist Steven Scott Ö

I met Steve through working with Sonny, and we just hit it off. His style is very different from Larry. I wanted to provide a nice variety of things for the record. I wanted to have a nice structure with a lot of beautiful colors, and represent the good things that have happened over the last ten years.

Saxophonist Eric Wyatt and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu Ö

Eric is Sonnyís godson and an up-and-coming player who, I feel, has not received the recognition he deserves. He runs the sessions at Sweet Rhythm [the NYC night club] and participates in a lot of jam sessions around the city. A lot of musicians know him but he is not well known by the general public.

Kimati is a master of African percussion who works regularly with Sonny. I met him on a job I did with Steve Turre when he had the Shell Choir. At the time, Steve had [percussionist] Milton Cardona and Kimati in his band, and the two of them played great. At one point Sonny was looking for a percussionist and I recommended Kimati.

I'd worked with a lot of the musicians who are on this record. That was a factor in choosing the musiciansópeople that I knew who would have a good chemistry with one another.

That definitely comes across in the recording. It sounds like the sessions were relaxed and easy. Another subject I would like to broach is that playing trombone helped you overcome asthma. I read that you were thinking about starting an organization in which music is used to help kids with asthma.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids, particularly here in New York City, who suffer from asthma. I'd like to start a not-for-profit organization that utilizes the techniques of playing a wind instrument: how to breathe, how to work with an instrument to create a sound and tone, and how to focus on the vibration. It is mental work that translates into the physical, and will help them relieveóor at least manageóthe disease. If I could put an organization like that together, it would be of great benefit to children. I just have to find a way to implement my idea. Also, it has to be broad-based, so that it reaches a lot of children.

In a past interview with Herb Sinter [African-American Review, 1999] you said, 'I'd like to see jazz and the artists that have contributed so much to it get their deserved recognition financially, historically, prestigiously. I'd also like to see us have more control of the business end of things. I hope that in the near future more jazz musicians can recognize the worst, and not be so open to manipulation by others.' Does that still hold true, or have things improved somewhat since you made that statement?

There has been some progress, but itís funny; itís like a changing paradigm. The internet has opened up a whole new arena. Today, a musician can make a record and sell his or her product through the internet or at their live performances. Also, musicians have more control over what they do. Up until five or six years ago, the record companies were insisting that we use certain musicians on our records, and we had to record all this kind of crap, and we had very little control over what we did creatively.

But what I find is that there is still a choke hold in the area of live performances. Things are being controlled by a very tight-knit group of people whose business relies on booking the same musicians all the time. As a result, certain musicians get all of the work, all of the time, which makes it difficult for other musicians to get any work. I know a lot of great musicians here in New York City who you never see anywhere. On the other hand, a good number of the musicians who I see at the festivalsówhich are the prime jobsósome are very young and they donít really have anything established to contribute to the art form, they really donít have a voice. Yet they are there because the people backing them are making a lot of money. So I donít know how, or if that will ever change.

I am amazed by the sheer amount of talent who canít get a gig.

Itís very difficult. Itís even difficult for me, and I've been in this business for how many years? I know most of the festival producersóespecially throughout Europe, because I play these festivals with Sonnyóand I have difficulty finding work.

I was talking to a musician recently (who will go unnamed) who's spent a lot of his hard-earned money on publicists and radio promotion, and is still having difficulty getting good gigs.

This is what I am saying. These venues and these promoters and these booking agents have this thing, and they keep it very closed. Itís fine for them to want to be business men and conduct their business their way, but we are dealing with an art form and it does a disservice to the music. Ultimately jazzóthe musicópays a price. People are consistently pushed and placed out here who are not necessarily the best or the most diverse group of people to represent the music. Itís a disservice to the music and especially the listeners, because listeners are manipulated by what is pressed upon them. When I mention to people that I am a musician, I often have people say to me, 'I love jazz, I love Kenny G!'

I blame a lot of that on radio, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. With the exception of public and college radio, radio has not lived up to its potential or responsibility to educate the public by playing a wide variety of good music.

I remember when I was in high school, I would run home to turn on WRVR because they were playing all of this great music. Now itís not really like that.

One of my idols is the late DJ, Frankie Crocker, who played Mongo Santamaria and John Coltrane back-to-back, and made no excuses. He just played good music and thatís what's missing. Radio is so important, and the lack of good music on the radio is hurting everyone: musicians, the music business, everyone.

Speaking of the radio, what have you been listening to lately?

[Laughs] Itís such a mess, such a potpourri Ö

Thatís a good thing.

Letís see Ö Lee Morgan, The Sidewinder; George Lewis, Changing with the Times; Danilo Pťrez, Across the Crystal Sea; Kenny Garrett, Simply Said; McCoy Tyner, New York Reunion; Karol Orchestra, Scheherazade; Rihanna, Good Girl Gone Bad, and Sonnyís live performance archives, 1996 to present.

That's the kind of diversity I am talking about! With that, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to speak with Good luck with Decade.

Thank you, Tomas.

Visit Clifton Anderson's Web site:


Landmarks (Milestone, 1997)
Sonny Please (Doxy, 2006)
Sanctified Shells, w/Steve Turre (Verve, 1992)


January 24, 2009 · 1 comment

  • 1 Sheldon Kentmayer // Jan 24, 2009 at 07:19 PM
    One of the great, under-rated trombonists of our time. Anyone who's been a Sonny Rollins concert in the past 25 years knows what I'm talkin' 'bout.