Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Very Saxy: The Artistry of Earl Bostic

The development of the saxophone is directly related to the development of jazz, and when we think of great sax players we immediately think of some of the tenor giants of the genre: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, just to name a few. Among alto players, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges are generally enshrined in the pantheon of legends. One really gifted alto player who has been overshadowed by the other greats is Oklahoma born Earl Bostic, whose fluency in standard jazz, bebop, ballads and the 1950's R&B style is a testament to his power and versatility. Anecdotally, Bostic reaches almost legendary status: he is said to have "cut" Charlie Parker in a competitive jam session and also to have been a major influence on John Coltrane.

Bostic, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, received formal musical training and grew up playing in the now famous Deep Deuce neighborhood of the jazz rich Oklahoma City in the 1930's and 40's. He undoubtedly came into contact with other jazz contemporaries Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Don Byas and Jimmy Rushing who frequented the city's famous clubs like the Aldridge Theater and The Ritz Ballroom, preferred venue of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. The blues oriented style of Oklahoma jazz left a distinctive mark on Bostic's style that can be heard in his later R&B combo work.

Earl eventually graduated to the New York scene where he excelled and became a leader of jazz ensembles in Harlem's premiere clubs like Small's Paradise and Minton's Playhose. By the early 1950's jazz was beginning to divide into those following the new be-bop trend pioneered by Charlie Parker and those that steered toward a more blues rooted R&B sound. Bostic, possibly due economic reasons, seemed to prefer the latter, but was such a versatile player that he excelled in both styles.

Bostic's most commercially successful recordings are in the R&B vein, particularly his 1948 hit Temptation and then to an even greater degree in 1951 with his more popular Flamenco. Both these tunes are absolute gems of Bostic's late 40's early 50's raunchy and somewhat raucous style that was catching on at this time, and which go on to influence other contemporary players like Tab Smith and much later in players like David Sanborn. On both Bostic displays a mastery of alto tone and range within a bluesish framework. Bostic also covered majestically the famous Ernesto Lecuona's Jungle Drums, part of the score to John Waters' film Cry Baby.

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