The first time I ever heard Sabir Mateen was on the lower east side at a music store playing with the renowned TEST in the late 90’s. It was the first time I ever met or heard Sabir, Daniel Carter, Matthew Heyner, and Tom Bruno. Still fairly new to Free Jazz at the time, I was both enthralled and intrigued. The outright abandon, brotherhood, and unique brand of TEST type swing had me riveted. Who were these guys?! They were very open when I engaged them in conversation. Soon after I ended up playing a session with Sabir and Ryan Sawyer and rode the subway with Sabir. As I recall, I was still in a self-imposed exile from NYC and trying to make it in Kingston NY. The next time I saw Sabir we were on the same bill and I was now playing free with Ryan and Francois Grillot. It was a short time after this that I joined a collective known as the east third st ensemble. We met every Wednesday and went for it. Drummer David Gould and Sabir were core members. I met with them on and off when we could for some ten years, playing hard and playing free. Sabir was always a mentor to all of us that passed through. I remember this period very clearly because I didn’t feel like I could play with and keep up with him for the first several years. It took a long time to relax and be myself in this environment. No matter what direction I went in playing wise, Sabir was always encouraging and supportive. I relished these weekly sessions. Branching out from it I became a sideman in two of Sabir’s long term bands. The Shapes Textures and Sounds ensemble was a great band that also had Trombone master Steve Swell. Shapes recorded for 577 records was a very powerful and formative experience for me. I was pushing hard to add Bass-Clarinet at the time, and I’ll never forget Sabir writing a bass line for me since I didn’t play the horn in the lower register enough. The Omni-sound quartet followed with Warren Smith and Hilliard Greene. Omni was intense with just us on the horns. Sabir wrote a huge book of compositions for both bands, and I spent many hours rehearsing with him trying to learn the lines and get them tight. Sabir took me to Europe twice with Omni, for some of the greatest musical experiences of my life. Playing and hanging with master Warren Smith was very special. Hill also became a great friend. I was a sideman for over ten years at least between these projects. The level of learning that took place was incalculable. I could write much more about this, but enough about me. We worked on this interview for a long time. The most in-depth interview I have ever done. I’m honored to have it as the first interview here at No Sound Left Behind.
Sabir, what was your first experience in music? Your earliest memory?
Well when I was small I used to listen to my next door neighbor practice saxophone. My mother told me this was what I did when I was about 3 or 4 years old. He was a Philly legend. His name was Morton Frisby. We called him Jitterbug as this was how he addressed us. He played all over the city including playing in the orchestra that brought all of the R&B bands to Philly… He and my cousin John Davis. They both played Baritone, even though Frisby played all of the Saxophones. John played Flute and was influential for me playing Flute. My mother, aunt and grandmother used to really love the singers, Ro Hamilton, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Mathis, Gloria Lynn, Billie, Sarah. My grandmother really loved Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who they used to see as much as possible on The Ed Sullivan Show. Louis was on there quite often as well as Ella. My father told me he was interested in Bird, Monk, Trane, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young all the swing and bebop players. In fact when I was young I found Trane’s Black LP in the house. My cousin Tony Kazoo Davis now plays Drums and Percussion around Philly. We grew up together in West Philly. My first instrument was my voice singing in the choir at a young age. Then Bongos at a young age after hearing Stevie Wonder play but I really and always wanted to play Saxophone and Flute. My love for Clarinet didn’t come in until I was an adult living in L.A. I first heard Trane in the mid 60’s but didn’t know it was him. I first heard him on Tadd Dameron’s on a Misty Night. It really knocked me out. I had never heard a Saxophone played like that. When I really got into Trane it floored me that he was the Tenor player on that. I was a late bloomer to the wind instruments. Started playing fifes and Wooden Flutes as a teen plus recorder and later Flute. When I got into the Saxophone in the early 70’s, it was Alto first then Tenor. Played baritone in College with Bass Clarinet. Around that same time I got into Clarinet and things took off.
When and how did you start learning music? When did Clarinet and Saxophone enter your spheres? Going deeper, was there anybody that you connected with as a mentor?
Well moving on, my father had all the Jazz. He was into Bop, Bird, Monk, Trane, Rollins, Bud, Brownie, he told me this later when I was an adult and he found out I was playing music. My first ax was my voice. I was singing in the choirs (singing alto believe it or not today I couldn’t do it if I tied) my cousin and I tried to join the school band and study Flute and drums but they cancelled the music program. Yes they did it in the ’60’s too. Anyway after hearing Stevie Wonder play bongos I wanted a pair. It took two years before my mom got me a pair. I played them most of my teen life. I tried to play Cornet but gave it up after a short while. I was interested in the Saxophone and Flute respectively, through my next door neighbor and my cousin.
I was interested in the Saxophone when I was about 5. I was still listening to the Philadelphian saxophonist Frisby. He was very close to McCoy Tyner, and my cousin John Davis played baritone and Flute. He was the reason why I played the Flute and there were people who came from that neighborhood all before me but we knew of. Charles Cunningham, Lex Humphries, Flyright Henderson, and John Glenn, the first person who taught Coltrane how to play 2 notes at once on his horn and others. I didn’t meet them until I returned home from L.A. where my musical training began. I was a late bloomer to learning music-
I was playing percussion only jamming and also in the Air Force with a funk band and added flute to my instruments . I was also playing fife to prepare me for the flute. Later I was only playing flute in Jazz bands playing music with chord changes. Also at that time I was also learning Alto Saxophone on my own.. About a couple of years later I switched to Tenor which I brought as soon as I went to L.A. and guess what, it was as a Big “B”. I was playing in funk bands at that time (first moving to L.A.) and exclusively playing Tenor. Studied with a great unknown Tenor player named Clifford Woods. I also learned from my music instructor in College named James Mack and learned a lot through Jesse Sharps just by sitting next to him, Michael Session and James E. Andrews just by listening to their sound and many Tenor players in the L.A. area. I picked up the clarinet a few years after I picked the Saxophone but didn’t play it in public until 6 or 7 years later. That was a very important and difficult instrument to learn and play even today. I studied classical clarinet with Julius Simeka (never could spell his last name). I also studied the piano when I was in college, I mean really studied the piano. In fact people wanted to hire me s a pianist so much that I stopped playing for a few years. I played Clarinet in public in 1979 when I was with Horace Tapscott.. I played with Horace from 1977 until 1981.
Could you speak about the Horace experience? Whenever we rehearsed, I felt I was in a possibly Horace influenced Ribas session.
At the time I joined Horace’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (The Ark as we called it). At the time I was in college at El Camino College going on the GI bill and playing mostly Piano but playing my horn (mostly Tenor in the Symphonic Bands (tried for Clarinet parts but they were all taken so I played symphonic and Classical music on Tenor), the woodwind ensemble (Flute) and he Jazz Band (started on Tenor but moved to Baritone and Bass Clarinet) and leading my own college Quintet (The James Sabir Quintet) playing mostly Modal Jazz. I had a good friend Kafi Roberts who played Flute, Soprano Saxophone and Drums who had a drumming style of Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins and Rashied Ali.
I first saw the Ark when they performed at the school. Horace did not appear but he sent Jesse Sharps (the bandleader) on Soprano, Aubrey Hart (more on him later) on Flute, Charles Chandles on Tenor (who I replaced) Wendell Williams on French Horn, can’t remember the bassist either David Bryant or Kamonta Polk and Ishmael Balaka (Hunter). Brother, they blew me away. They played music I’ve never heard in my life. It was modal, music with changes and free all at once. I loved it. Months later I attended a rehearsal and I told a trombone friend of mine who I used to play duets with who introduced me to “free” “Avant Garde” playing named James (J.E.) Brown who was equally great on drums. The rehearsal was with the Ark and the great Sonny Criss whom we met that night.
A month later I got a call. It was from my college friend Kafi Roberts. He’s the one who invited me to the Ark rehearsal and Horace was there too.. He asked me if I wanted to join the band and I said “Yeah man but my reading is fucked up” and he said “Don’t worry man we’ll show you” and from that moment in June I was in the Ark.
Being in the Ark answered every musical question I needed to know. We even studied theory with Horace and were a part of UGMAA (Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension) organization similar to the AACM and BAG but we were on the scene before both organizations and George acknowledges that in his AACM book.
Anyway playing with Horace you had to know the book, which was something close to 400 tunes by memory. In those days we were playing all day and night. We had a building to play in. We rehearsed every week gig or not. We played the whole spectrum of the music, bop, post bop, modal swing and Avant- Garde to Free. Horace always encouraged us to write. I started writing in college but it was through Horace, Jesse and the crew where my composing really flourished and I learned conduction, arranging and as I said before writing. It was one big musical family there. It was through the Ark that I made my first recordings. He was starting to record again after the Bob Thiele madness.
Most of my music influence comes from him. Some of the way I rehearse comes from him but mainly in my own creations with mainly the inspirations of Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Raphe Malik. I left L.A. in 1981 after the passing of my mother.
What was the next stop after LA in 1981? Is that when Philly begins? When did the great R.A.K. enter the picture?
Wow!!! Another chapter of my life I could write a book on. I left L.A. on a very tragic note. My mother passed on November 4th of that year. It was a difficult time for me. I had already stopped playing with the Ark then. On the last gig with them I played exclusively Clarinet as I was pawning my Tenor to survive and other crazy things were happening to me that I was ready to leave L.A. way before that time. I had been wanting to leave L.A. for a while but not like the way I left, of course.
Anyway I was back for a month when on the radio I kept hearing about this organization called “Trane Stop,” an Organization run by the late Arnold Boyd. There were organizers and musicians in the organization, Lovett Hines, the late Calvin Forrest, Philly Joe Jones wife (I can’t remember her name right now, “Cousin” Mary Alexander (yes the one and only Cousin Mary Tranes’ cousin) and a pianist named Raymond A. King. He was organizer of the weekly concerts.. We met and I went every week and was cooking and selling Falafel Sandwiches. The Falafels were the size of hamburgers (a Ribas original, ha ha ha). Eventually I played my first gig there (and in Philly since my return) with my first real band in Philly TRUE GUIDANCE with locals Tariq Abdullah and Harry Wilson on Vibes and Marimba, the late Wali Reddick on Bass and the late great Lex Humphries on Drums. We played around the city. Eventually we replaced Lex with Philly great Alexander R. El on Percussion (Including Trap Drums). Raymond actually had a band with Wali and Alexander called the R.A.W: Trio. Eventually we joined forces with the trio, myself and Sheryl Wilson Bell (at that time it was Farrar instead of Bell) She had replaced Natalie the original vocalist. Sheryl and Mem Nahdar have a similar vibe with their voices but that was the band until I left Philly in 1989.
This return to Philly was really great for my musical spirit. I got to study and play with Byard Lancaster. Got to meet and play with greats like Sonny Johnson the great bassist and the last bassist to play with Coltrane, he lived with me for four years. He was also the Brother of the great Trumpeter Dewey Johnson.. I met many musicians through Sonny. It was through him that I met the great Sunny Murray. The three of us used to play every day and mostly on Wednesdays holding workshops. Sometimes Sunny’s younger Brother Conny would join us on Alto Saxophone. The old neighbors used to sit and wait for us every week. I got to meet and play with many great musicians like Sun Ra, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and the Arkestra. I would Always see them when they played. Marshall and Sun Ra invited me to play many times but for some reason I was never able to make it over. I played with Hank Mobley, Monnette Sudler, Sunny Murray’ Untouchable factor, Johnny William, Ron Everett, Bill Lewis, R.A.K., and many great musicians who I knew and heard Trudy Pitts and Bill Carney with TC the III,John Glenn, The New Afrikan Griots, Ras 1, Middy Middleton and many Others. It was also where I played on the streets on a regular basis even though I started in Venice Beach, California outside of L.A.
If I’m correct NYC was your next stop. How would you sum up Philly? What was it that pushed you to move? What was your arrival like?
After living again in Philly for eight years . It was really time to go. I allowed someone to destroy everything I had built and was getting into fights being around people who had nothing to do with music or the arts. Brother it was time to go. I felt like a prisoner less than a man. I made a clean break from Philly. Playing on the Street, and the assistance of 2 beautiful women helped me leave. One day after I got away a night I woke, ate a McDonald’s breakfast, played on the Street, and then took a local train to NY. I think about my whole time in Philly and I would say that it was a good experience have my family close, meeting new lifelong friends and having some of the best musical experiences in my life.
Arriving in NY was totally out. I had been there several times before playing on the streets, going to concerts since NY is 2 hours more or less from Philly. I arrived in New York with only one dollar in my pocket and brought a beer with that. Roamed the streets all day watching guys play rhythms on buckets. I got food by walking into a African festival and ran into some Philly friends who were selling food there so I ate and took some food with me. Later that night I played on the streets and it was very slow but I managed to make $5.00 to get food that night. When they kicked me out of Burger King I went to the Port Authority and slept on the ground. This was during the old days of 42nd St. That week I slept all over that area from Grand Central to the Unite Nations library lawn. You’d be surprised how many homeless people were sleeping there at that time..
What were your early NYC days like? Do you recall your first encounters with Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, William Parker, and the legendary Khusenaton?
The early days were difficult and a learning experience. I left Philly because I needed to for my own musical life. I knew a few people in the city Rashied Ali, Rasul Siddik, Kaeef Rezadun and a few others but they had families and I didn’t want to interfere on that. Two days later I went to see David Murray at the Village Vanguard. He gave me first class treatment got me in for free and a front row seat but as I said I didn’t want to interfere on their families. Three days later I met or I should say we met Khusenaton. We met briefly in Los Angeles at the home of the late great legendary Tenor and Soprano Saxophonist Billie Harris. We started to hang out a lot and tightly and sometimes joined by Woodwind Master Ralph Thomas. He now lives in Thailand. It was Khusenation who introduced me to most of the downtown music community. First it was Jameel Moondoc and then Charles Gayle, who Sunny Murray recommended me to check out, and along with On Davis, Thom Corn who recently passed away, Steve Cannon and a host of others. I can’t remember where I met William but Khusenaton introduced me to him too and Billy Bang. I was playing on the streets also sometimes with Jumma Santos on Trap Drums. Met and played with Luther Thomas at the time. He showed me a lot of things about Saxophone playing.
I met Roy playing in the subway with Zane Massey. They would play all of the time at this time I was playing solo on the street. Later I met Tom Bruno who asked me to play with his subway band of Bob Arkin and another Tenor player whose name I can’t recall. Eventually it was Tom Bob and me playing standards and I remember him saying how bad he wanted to disband the band and wanted to play free. We did eventually. Meanwhile Khusenaton and I formed a band the Esoteric Arts Ensemble with On Davis, Radu Ben Judah, Luther Thomas (sometimes) and Kenyatta Abdul Rahim on Percussion and Traps.
I met Daniel Carter one night when Khusenaton and I were walking around Grand Central Station. He was always saying “You got to meet Daniel Carter. He is the Avant Garde” Khusenaton really loved the “free” musicians. He was a master on Alto Saxophone, Flute and a great magician. My jaw was wired up from being broken in an unfortunate incident in Philly. We heard this Alto playing at GSS and he said “It’s him It’s him” and I said “who” and he said “Daniel Carter Daniel Carter” and that February night in 1990 I met Daniel looking exactly the same as he did today with the military coat, knit hat and blue jeans and blacker beard and more hair but I was truly amazed and knocked out by his playing as I am today. When I first heard Roy in the subway I never heard a trumpet player play the way he played playing standards. He was playing free while playing changes. There was really something different in his playing. Actually the first time I heard him playing was in Philly with Jemeel Moondoc’s Jus Grew Orchestra under Sonny Johnson’s recommendation, Will Connell was there too (another one I met when I first came to NY) It was really special when I met him because we had a special connection. We were from the same family The Horace Tapscott family consisting at that time in NY Will,Wilber and Butch Morris, Kaeef Ruza , Marcus McLaurine, Arthur Blythe and Trombonist Michael Robinson. I played my first gig in NY with him and Rasul in a World Music Band. I also played my first gig in NY with Rasul, Khusenaton, Radu and Jumma Santos in a club on the lower east side. We did no advertising and had a full house. At that time when the people heard the music they came from the streets and their houses.
Daniel and I first played on a gig with Khusenaton, Luther Thomas, Radu and the late great Phillip Wilson. It was great and then Daniel and I played regularly together with a band called the Future with the poet Eve Packer, Dan O’Brien and Thom Corn. Unfortunately Khusenaton played his last gig with us on Piano. He passed away on December 30 1991 of an exploded liver. Don’t know what they called it technically.
The first year and a half I was homeless but still playing on the streets morning noon and night. My first gig was with a world music band. Rasul Siddik, Trombonist Michael Robinson and myself were the horn section. Played with some lower east side groups with On Davis Khusenaton and Luther Thomas. On, Luther Khusenaton and myself had a band called the Esoteric Art Ensemble I told you this before with Radu Ben Judah and Lynette Abdur-Rahim and a band with Daniel Carter, On the poet Eve Packed and the recently departed Thom Corn with Dan O’Brien called the Future.
You played and lived in NYC for a long time. What are some of the musical highlights before your move to Italy?
Not such an easy question to answer Matt. I consider just about everything I did in the 23 years that I lived in NY a highlight from the time I played with the Future, TEST, William Parker, Sunny Murray, William Hooker, William Parker, Alan Silva, Roy Campbell, Raphe Malik, Tom Bruno before TEST, Daniel Carter, Downtown Horns, Mark Whitecage, Kali Z., Cecil Taylor, Vision Orchestra, Marc Edwards, Dave Burrell, Jameel Moondoc, Alan Silva, Wilber Morris, Earth People and I’m sure there are many many more that I left out but they were all standouts. Even the non Jazz outlets as No Neck Blues Band, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tango. Can’t forget my duets with Matthew Shipp, Hill Green and the Japanese Musician Michiko. Did you know I had an Japanese electric Band called M.A.S.K. (Michiko, Akio Mokuno, myself and Kenta Nagai) and played in a Filipino (Pinoy rock band) names Akustik Maya (with Jessica Maya, Willie Sunga Gary Miles and Dominic Cabera) and I can’t forget my own bands where musicians like yourself, Roy Campbell, Michael Wimberly, Raymond A. King, Jane Wang, Michael “TA Thompson, Steve Swell, Ravish Momin, Matthew Heyner, Hilliard “Hill” Greene, Warren Smith, Naoko Ono, Daniel Levin, Jason Kao Hwang, Larry Roland Shiau Shu Yu, Tatsuya Nakatani and many others helped make a reality. I love NY and now I’m on a break from the city and I’ll be back and will visit at least once a year.
Thanks so much for such in depth and detailed interview. How has Italy been compared to the states? What are you musical plans? Finally, what is your hope for the future?
Well Matt first of all I want to thank you for considering me to do an interview. It’s been a blast. You know, I’ve been living here in Novara (Italy) for two years and really not comparing this to NY. It’s like a night and day difference between the two cities. But I will speak on artistic terms. The respect thing is really great as you know when we first came here seven years ago. You’re treated like the true artist that we are. What is interesting is that since I’ve been here I have not played one gig as a sideman nor played for the door. I usually play in collectives or the men and women who get me these gigs want me to lead the band and to me this thing is quite an honor. One other thing about living here is I feel less stressful and that’s important.
As far as goals are, I try to set no goals because for me they change every day so I take everything one day at a time. The only thing I say would be to become a better artist than I was yesterday. This is what I strive for to learn something every time I play. When I can’t learn music anymore then it’s time to quit and stop.