An Interview with Joe Rigby

Master Joe Rigby is a friend of mine. The first time I heard him he was walking up and down the stage in a duo with Milford Graves at the Vision Festival. Big personal sound. He had his own posture and body language, his own everything. We would both end up in The William Hooker quartet for several years. I’ll never forget how the spirit took over on a concert we did at a college upstate when we left the stage and walked right into the audience playing at full bore. I would also see Joe in the Sabir Mateen big band. As soon as I got the idea to do interviews I thought of Joe. Joe Rigby is somebody that everybody should hear these days interested in musical truth, straight up.

Hi Joe! Thanks for doing this interview. I recall you told me about hearing John Coltrane in person. Where were you at musically when it took place? What impact did it have on you and what did you take from it? Going deeper what was it that led you to music as a life long pursuit?

I heard John Coltrane perform close to 200 times, so it spanned quite a few years in my development as a musician. His playing the soprano spurred a number of us (musicians) to get sopranos. I was fortunate enough to get a Selmer (like Coltrane’s), but I was a neophyte in my development. He had a tremendous impact on not just me, but all the musicians I knew. My take on his influence was that he was our guiding light into the world of improvisation. I pursued music because it was simply the best thing that I could do, and I’d tried a host of other things (occupations). Over the years of listening to Trane, I developed as an artist. He was my mentor without a doubt.

One thing that really separates you is such a unique tone and sound. I’ve never heard you without hearing a sense of spiritual urgency in a musical sense. There’s a fearless vibe,and I’ve never heard you hold back the truth as they say. Any thoughts in regards to that or is it one of those things where the music should speak for itself? The realness and authenticity you posses seems to be what is sorely missing in today’s music world.

I’m not a religious person although I do believe in a higher being. I did grow up as a Catholic. My Mom became a Catholic so I could go to a better school than the public school ( 155th Street between Amsterdam &  St. Nicholas), so I went to St Catherine of Genoa (153rd & Amsterdam). I  am a full believer in my talent, even if they’re people who don’t share my opinion. I feel that you’ve got to be fearless as an artist because there have been times when I think I’m the only one who believes in me. We are under constant scrutiny, not only when we perform, but in our personal lives. Jackson Pollack was a great example of that. The music CAN speak for itself, but sometimes the artist isn’t as eloquent as his or her music. So, the critics who are interviewing the artist often use unfair ways to discredit that particular person and the creation they produce. I think a lot of musicians are real and authentic, but the life style that being a jazz musician places on you is tough. I think we need to come together like the AACM did years ago, and we need to stop playing gigs that insult us financially, and as the creative beings that we are.

Two of your largest musical associations are with Steve Reid and Milford Graves. The first time I heard you was prowling the stage in a powerful duet with Milford at the Vision Festival one year. How did these partnerships come about? What defines those musical relationships?

I knew both Milford Graves and Steve Reid, when I was young. I knew Milford since we both were in high school. He went to Boy’s High in Brooklyn. I went to Charles Evans Hughes in Manhattan. We met because we were both in a social club of about 12 brothers called the Zeusinians (named after the Greek God of thunder). Milford was also my best man in my 1st marriage in 1964. Milford was primarily playing in Latin bands (Timbali’s & Conga). John Coltrane was playing at a club on Merrick Blvd. in Queens, and Milford and I went, and if I remember correctly, we caught 2 sets with with McCoy, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin on drums. After, Milford told me that he could play what Elvin was doing, and he started playing trap drums, and mastered it well. I remember one of his 1st groups had Eddie Gomez on bass, and Chick Corea on piano. Milford and Andrew Cyrille recorded a duo album, and he was on his way, playing with a lot of artists including Albert Ayler. We’ve kept a good relationship through the years, both sharing our love of boxing, although Milford was into the Martial arts, and I didn’t embrace that. I met Steve Reid when I was in my early 20’s, when my family moved from Harlem to the Springfield Garden’s section of Queens. I had begun to play the tenor sax, and word got to me that there was a drummer who lived a short distance away. Steve had gone to junior high school with my 1st wife Carol, and she knew he was a percussionist, so that’s basically how we hooked up. Steve would have sessions in his basement with such innovators as George Cables, Charles Tyler, Alex Blake, Pharoah Sanders, Arthur Williams, Ahmed Abdullah, Les Walker, Joe Falcone, Noah Howard, Frank Lowe, and the list goes on. When Steve was put in federal jail for refusing to go in the draft, I was the only one other than his parents, who could visit him. We lost contact for a while, but reconnected when a sax player he had in his group had a stroke. He had become very popular in Europe, and was living in Lugano Switzerland. He called me for a few gigs in London in about 2006. Later I went on tour with him on 4 different occasions, playing in concerts for crowds that were sometimes more than 1,500 fans, and they dug his music. When he passed, I played at his funeral. Steve was a good friend, and he is missed.

Please breakdown the album For Harriet. The story behind it,the music,and any other vibes in relation to this great record..album of the year 2011 in the Village Voice! That Spiritual urgency is deep in this record.

The “For  Harriet” story is a for me, almost comical. I played a gig with Steve Reid at the Jazz Café in London. My friend and manager Roy Morris, who lives in Scotland, arranged a few solo gigs for me in Glasgow, Dundee, and Arbroath. They were supposed to be solo gigs, but on 2 gigs I was to play with a Scottish guitarist with a good following in Scotland (who’s name I don’t remember). When I got to Scotland, I found out that he was sick and couldn’t make the gigs, so the powers that be cancelled the gigs. To make up for the loss of the gigs, Roy put me in a studio (Showcase the street) that I’d recorded before doing a solo CD called “More Music”. I was joined by 3 Scottish musicians that I’d never met before. The bagpipe player Calum MacCrimmon is well known internationally. Drummer Scott Donald and percussionist Billy Fisher joined us for a completely spontaneous recording. Nothing was planned, we just played. The recording received critical acclaim as the best example of saxophone and bagpipes since Sonny Rollins and Rufus Harley…. but thinking about it, who else has done a sax/bagpipe recording? Anyway, that’s how “For Harriet” happened. I’m glad there are people like Roy Morris who are dedicated to advancing the music we play.

Being a long time new yorker how’s the scene in Philly? What do you think of NYC today? Lastly what are current musical projects and future plans? Thanks Joe for doing the second interview at Fat Eb. This was fantastic.

I’m not going to say that the jazz scene in Philly is dead, but it seems that it’s in a dormant stage. After living in what I think is the cultural center of the world in New York, Philly is a big disappointment. I’ve been to some smooth jazz concerts ( David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright, Chris Botti,Richard Elliot, Rick Braun, and others), and their concerts have been well attended. Case in point… last year at the Clifford Brown jazz festival in nearby Wilmington, Roy Haynes and his fountain of youth band played in perfect weather to a 1/2 full crowd (the festival is free, and is in a park, so people bring chairs etc.). 2 nights later,Rick Braun & Richard Elliot played in a driving rainstorm to a packed audience. Philly is very similar, with only 1 jazz club. My plans are to keep my wonderful group of musicians (Andrew Bemkey, Christopher Dean Sullivan and Michael Wimberly) working. They’re committed to me, so it’s up to me to get gigs. That ain’t the easiest thing to do, and I won’t take any “door” gigs. I’m open to play with other artists, but I live in Philly, so most folks ain’t gonna call. But I have car, will travel, but it’s got to be ok financially.

There you have it folks. Make sure you hear Joe if you get the chance. He does hit big bad NYC from time to time. Interviews with William Hooker,Catherine Sikora,and Ras Moshe are underway. Check out Giuseppi Logan ON TENOR at Jacks in Brooklyn Sunday 11/17.

Oh yeah. Go see 12 Years a Slave. Go see it today.

Joe can be reached at

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