Bobby Jaspar is all but forgotten today. Back in the late 1950s, the Belgian tenor saxophonist recorded with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Eddie Costa, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Mann and many other notable New York jazz artists of the period. Married to singer Blossom Dearie, Jaspar's best-known recordings are probably Interplay for Two Trumpets and Two Tenors (1957), for which he was teamed with John Coltrane, and Chet Is Back (1962), recorded with Chet Baker after the trumpeter's release from an Italian prison.
And then Jaspar died. In 1963, at age 37, the saxophonist and flutist suffered a fatal heart attack just as he was gaining recognition.
Back in the early 1950s, before Jaspar came to the U.S., David-Amram French hornist and composer-arranger David Amram knew Jaspar well in Paris and recorded with him there in 1955. David's sessions with Jaspar remain crafty, exuberant and difficult to find.
Yesterday I spoke with David about Jaspar for a finer sense of who the saxophonist was as a thinker, a person and a musician:
JazzWax: If I played a Bobby Jaspar record for you today and didn't tell you who was playing, would you be able to identify him?
David Amram: If I heard Bobby playing, I would know it was him. Like Django Reinhardt, Bobby was one of the first jazz musicians who came from a totally European background and created his own jazz language and taste.
JW: How would you describe Jaspar’s sound?
DA: He had a European classical approach to the saxophone. Ever since the Belgian Adolphe Sax invented the instrument [in 1841], French and Belgian musicians have taken the saxophone very seriously. In Belgium, where Bobby was from, and in France, the saxophone was always considered a solo instrument. Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera  is a serious work for the alto saxophone, not a novelty number. Georges Bizet's L'Arlesienne was written in 1872 and features a saxophone solo. Many other French classical composers wrote for the instrument as well.
JW: So Jaspar came out of that tradition?
DA: Yes. But France and Belgium also had a special sensibility about jazz, too. Their cultural passion comes from the same place as their love for dance, singing and rhythmic music. Europeans have always been able to get in touch with their souls and put art out there in a personal and sometimes unorthodox way. Bobby came to jazz emotionally.
JW: There certainly has always been a deep respect for American jazz in French culture.
DA: When I was in Paris in 1954 and 1955, Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas were fixtures. They were older people who were keeping the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s alive. The French were used to hearing and appreciating complex music. When Kenny Dorham went over to France with Charlie Parker in 1949 for the Paris Jazz Festival, Bird was still viewed as a far-out player in the U.S. Yet he was universally embraced there because the French people could hear and appreciate what he was doing. [Pictured: Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet en route to the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949]
JW: When did you first meet Jaspar?
DA: I met him toward the end of 1954, when I was in Paris.
JW: Who introduced you?
DA: Saxophonist Jay Cameron. I met Bobby at a jam session in someone’s apartment. Alexander Calder’s daughter was with me, as I recall. Bobby and I hit it off right away. He said, “Come on man, I want to show you something.” We went out and he took me to streets named after Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I couldn't believe that the city's civic institutions were digging these guys, not just jazz fans. I also was amazed that streets were named after Americans who weren’t movie stars.
JW: Jaspar clearly comes out of the Lester Young tradition—a lighter, more horizontal blowing style.
DA: Absolutely. Nearly every tenor saxophonist was influenced by Prez then. But Bobby took it in a different direction, melodically. It's distinctly European, with France and Belgium as his points of reference.
JW: Did Jaspar dig you playing jazz on the French horn?
DA: Amazingly enough, most of the French musicians liked hearing the horn. They thought it was fun and were excited that some young optimistic kid from the U.S. was playing with them all night on a classical instrument and trying to learn to speak French. I think they related to my joie de vivre [laughs]. [Pictured: David Amram playing the French horn]
JW: And the fact that you were without pretension and down to earth?
DA: I think so. I was never trying to be a cool, hip type of person. That appealed to a lot of European musicians who had assumed that’s how all jazz artists were. I was eager and excited, and they were, too. Jazz in general for Europeans was a liberating force from the horrible, negative period they had just lived through during the war. They saw jazz as a triumph for freedom and a throwback to the 19th century, especially in Paris, which has a strong social, communal tradition that's evident in their cafe culture.
JW: Jaspar was already a big deal over there when you met him, yes?
DA: He was definitely appreciated. But remember, in 1955 even the so-called big deals could barely get by. That was as true in Paris as it was in America.
JW: You made quite a few recordings together for French labels. Bobby sign as the leader so they didn’t have to pay him for another date they wanted him to do. They bundled the two together. I didn't care. I was just overjoyed to be there playing and recording with him.
JW: What was Jaspar like, emotionally?
DA: He was always passionate about the music. I remember we played a concert for school children in Paris that Bobby had organized. The French kids were great. They came out of the French anarchy tradition, with everyone demanding to be an individualist. That was so joyous to see, especially for a cantankerous person like me.
JW: What were the kids doing?
DA: They were shouting and screaming and enjoying themselves. Bobby started by trying to talk about the history of jazz. But the kids wouldn’t quit. So Bobby started cursing in front of the students. Then he took the mouthpiece off his saxophone and started squeaking it into the mike, followed by more curses.
JW: What happened?
DA: All the students jumped up and cheered. That’s what they were waiting for, for Bobby to cross over and be like them. Then they quieted down, and we played our music.
JW: What made Bobby special as a musician?
DA: He had a beautiful sound that was his own. When he played the flute, he was terrific. Not so much as a virtuoso but his phrasing and sound were distinct. The way he played, the music went right to your heart. It’s like a voice that makes you feel something when the person talks. That person's voice is different from the one at the railroad station that yells the schedule over a speaker. Bobby delivered more information in his sound than most players and you knew instantly that the sound was personal and spiritual.
JW: Why does that happen?
DA: That’s one of the mysteries of music. Someone can play that way and you’re captivated by the feeling and sound. I believe that everyone has that ability in them, but one of the hardest things is finding that quality and maintaining it. But this requires complete devotion to the music and submitting yourself to the art without hesitation.
JW: What was Bobby like to talk to?
DA: Bobby was an introspective, quiet person. He was always searching. I remember one time at his apartment in Paris he showed me a picture of him in Tahiti. He had spent a year there in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
JW: What was he doing there?
DA: He said he had wanted to go to Tahiti on a quest for something that could help him find himself. Today, everyone seems to be doing this. Back then, it was a radical concept. He didn’t have a gig in Tahiti, and the place wasn’t a big tourist spot when he went. Gauguin had painted there, but that was about it. If Tahiti had been expensive, he wouldn't have been able to afford it. He just needed to detach with his horn, like Sonny Rollins did later on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York.
JW: What did you think of the photograph?
DA: I was amazed that a musician would suddenly abandon everything to do that. In the picture, he was on the beach, just sitting all by himself.
JW: What was Jaspar like to talk to?
DA: Bobby had wonderful eyes that talked. You looked in his eyes and you knew you were in the presence of someone that you wanted to know. And the more you talked to him, the more you realized you already knew him and that he knew you. He was like a ship—10% of Bobby was showing above the water, and below the surface was the other 90% that you couldn't see.
JW: Was the sound of his voice engaging?
DA: Yes, he had a wonderful voice. He had a certain way of speaking that made you feel comfortable. When he spoke to you, it was always in a personal, understated way. Bobby was this brilliant, sophisticated European who also had a love for the down-home spiritual beauty of jazz and put that on the same level as his European background. That's how he made the connection. His voice conveyed this.
Read the original article in JazzWax.
In celebration of David's birthday, I was listening to one of my favorite David Amram quartet albums — Jazz Studio 6, a 1957 recording for Decca featuring David on French horn, George Barrow on tenor sax, Arthur Phipps on bass and Al Harewood on drums. After the album was finished, I gave David a call to wish him happy birthday.
When David answered the phone at 4:30 p.m., he was pumping gas on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, N.Y.:
JazzWax: How did you spend your birthday today?
David Amram: Last night I was playing with my daughter's band, Alana Amram and the Rough Gems, at the Union Pool, a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her first CD just came out [it's at iTunes].
JW: What did the kids at the Union Pool think of you joining them?
DA: They loved it. They said, “It's really cool that you're doing this at this point in your career.” I said, “Hey, I don't know what a career is. I just do what I do. We shouldn't have careers. We should have a life. And if we're lucky, someday our music will have a career.”
JW: How late were you out last night?
DA: Until midnight. I stayed at Alana's place rather than drive home to my farm in northern Westchester. Then this morning I drove to Queens College where the university's orchestra performed my Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie. As a surprise, they played part of my In Memory of Chano Pozo at the end.
JW: What are you doing right now?
DA: Driving back home to my farm to change and then returning to the city to play at the Cornelia Street Café for most of tonight. Then tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., I'm flying to El Paso, Texas, to play my Ode to Lord Buckley, a saxophone concerto, with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. I'll also be doing some workshops with a music school there. They're going to have me speak to composers and people who are studying classical and jazz.
JW: Don't you get tired?
DA: [Laughs] Everyone asks me that. Here's what I tell them: "Yeah, most of the time. I took a nap in 1957 and it gave me a headache" [laughs].
JW: I was just listening to Jazz Studio 6. How did the idea for the album come about?
DA: Back in 1956 I was hired to play piano as a sub for someone at a club in New Hope, Penn. I had never played as much as a solo up until that point but I managed. On a break, this guy came up to me and said, “You're a genius. You sound like Thelonious Monk." I said, "Are you kidding? Have you ever heard Monk?" He said, "I have a friend at Decca records. You have to record.” The guy wanted to be my agent.
JW: What did you say?
DA: I told him that I was flattered but that I was really a French horn player. He said, “No one wants to hear a French horn. Go make a piano record.” If I had made a piano album, I would have been arrested for impersonating a piano player. But the guy was determined, so I let him make his connection at Decca.
JW: Who was the guy?
DA: A gentleman named Mel Rose. The person he knew at Decca was Hal Webman, a well-known a&r guy.
JW: How did you and George Barrow come together?
DA: George and I met when I first came to New York in 1955. Charles Mingus had come down to listen to the Bud Powell Trio at Birdland. Leonard Feather had taken me there, too. Feather introduced me to Mingus as a French horn player. Mingus looked at me and asked if I would go out on the road with him for $125 a week. I told him I couldn't because I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music on the GI Bill.
JW: What did Mingus say?
DA: He said, “You'll learn more with me than at that school” [laughs].
JW: What happened?
DA: I think because I said no, Mingus pushed for a "yes." If I had said yes, he probably would have said no. Mingus asked me to play French horn with his group at the Café Bohemia. He told me to pick up this guy named George Barrow. When I picked up George, we hit it off right away. George was a fabulous tenor saxophonist.
JW: How did you convince Webman at Decca to record you on French horn and not piano?
DA: After I formed a quartet with George, I told Webman that instead of recording me on piano, he should record our group. After some back and forth, he finally agreed. I couldn't believe I was getting a chance to make a record on French horn at Decca. The label was a big deal then.
JW: How long did it take you to arrange the 10 tracks?
DA: Actually it was nine. Arthur Phipps, who had played with Three Bips and a Bop, wrote Phipps Quipps. Webman gave me certain standards to arrange, like Darn That Dream. I also brought in some originals. Arranging Shenandoah, the folk standard, was my idea.
JW: Why Shenandoah?
DA: I had always loved the song. I thought it would be great for a jazz group to take a folk classic like that and do something else with it. I was always a big fan of folk and bluegrass, ever since I was stationed at Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky in the Army. I wanted to take something simple and find ways to harmonize it so it would make sense emotionally but also would be a challenge.
JW: Where did your quartet rehearse?
DA: We had been playing at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village and many different clubs in Brooklyn. We also rehearsed at actor Garry Goodrow's loft and at Al Harewood's house.
JW: When did you see George Barrow last?
DA: Last week, at my birthday concert at New York's Symphony Space. We hadn't seen each other in some time.
JW: What did he say?
DA: He said, “Man you're still doing it.” I said, “George, we should be doing it together.” Sadly, he stopped playing some time ago. What a great saxophonist.
JW: When you think back on the Jazz Studio 6 recording for Decca, what goes through your mind?
DA: I'm really proud of it. The album was all I had hoped it would be. It's a document rather than what record people used to call a "product." I always thought a recording should be a document. My hope is it will remain a musical document of a certain date and place and have some lasting value. At the time, I was after shelf life more than flavor of the day and in the landfill tomorrow [laughs].
Read the original article in JazzWax.