Monday, May 26, 2008

The Sugar Man

Stanley Turrentine from All About Jazz

Pittsburgh's Stanley William Turrentine, better known as "Mr. T" or "The Sugar Man", was a sax man supreme.

A legend of the tenor saxophone, Turrentine's calling card was his thick, rippling tone, earthy blues, and his ability to work a soul groove. He recorded in a wide variety of jazz genres, but was best-known for his Blue Note soul jazz jams of the '60s and some popular crossover material in the early '70s.

“Mr. T” found his Muse in the blues and turned it into a huge career with a #1 hit and four Grammy nominations, first in R&B and later in jazz.

Critic Steve Futterman of the Washington Post wrote he was "A throwback to the brawny tenor stylists of the swing era - Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas - as well as the funky R & B players of the late '40s and '50s. Turrentine took no prisoners, no matter the tempo."

He was born on April 5, 1934 in the Hill District into a musical family.

His father, Thomas Turrentine Sr., was a saxophonist with Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans, his mother played stride piano, his renowned older brother Tommy played trumpet, and Marvin, another brother, played drums. Ahmad Jamal lived nearby, and often visited to practice on the Turrentines' upright piano.

His dad drilled him in the sax - oddly, he started out playing the cello, but was drawn to his dad's horn - and sometimes made him sit in a corner and play one note all day. First bored, Turrentine came to realize that he could make that note jump out of his sax in a hundred different ways, a lesson he never forgot.

He was influenced early on in his career by Illinois Jacquet who once encouraged the 12-year old Turrentine to sit in with him.

He and Tommy played at the Perry Bar, their first professional gig, while they were still in high school, along with performing at proms and other neighborhood events. He began his prolific professional career with blues and R&B bands

At 17, Turrentine went on the road with bluesman Lowell Fulson. "I guess my sound started back then," he told Hard Bop, "I couldn't avoid the blues. That band had a blind piano player in it, name of Ray Charles."

Charles was already writing songs, which Turrentine would put on paper after they finished work in the gin joints where the band played.

Turrentine said of his time with Charles that “Ray was a great influence on me. He took me under his wing, taught me lots and lots of things that I’m still using today. That man truly amazed me because even though he was blind, he was absolutely and totally independent.”

After leaving Fulson, Turrentine returned home to Pittsburgh, where he played with local musicians. He then moved to Cleveland, where he gigged with Tadd Dameron. In 1953, he was hired by R&B saxman and bandleader Earl Bostic to replace John Coltrane.

Following two years in the army, where he received his only formal musical training, he joined Max Roach's band along with brother Tommy. Turrentine cut his first solo album, "Stan the Man Turrentine," for Bainbridge Records in 1959, with Roach behind the kit.

That's also where he met organist Shirley Scott, whom he married in 1960. For several years in the 1960s, he co-led a combo with his wife, and they toured the chitlin' circuit, payin' their dues. And he didn't mind.

“I don’t like that concept of paying dues, because it implies great suffering. To me, paying your dues is that period of time when you’re learning your craft and becoming a professional." he explained. "Sure, I’ve had a lot of bad times, but then who hasn’t? A musician probably doesn’t suffer any more than a guy on the line in Detroit!”

"We played in little towns you'd never think of," he said. "We played in barns, yes, barns." Being on the road in the 1950's wasn't a bed of roses.

Those were the years of segregation and long night drives to bypass the hotels that wouldn't take in the bandsmen. At places Turrentine's groups played, "they used to rope off the dance floor, blacks on one side, whites on the other side, but they were all dancing to the same music."

But Turrentine came off the road an accomplished and polished sax man.

Alfred Lion signed him in 1960 to a contract with Blue Note Records that lasted until 1969. During this period, Turrentine recorded regularly as a sideman for the label on albums by Horace Parlan, Art Taylor, Jimmy Smith, Duke Jordan, Horace Silver, Duke Pearson, and Kenny Burrell.

The organ-centered soul jazz that Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott played provided Turrentine with the perfect bridge to cross over into pop/R&B. His first foray into mainstream music began in 1969 when he signed with Creed Taylor's CTI label.

Turrentine's first album for CTI, "Sugar," was released in 1970 and yielded the hit tune of the same name. He continued with a string of crossover albums for CTI including the 1971 hit "Don't Mess with Mr.T." Hard core jazz fans thought him a sell-out, but Turrentine always played what he liked and wasn't one to be cornered into a genre.

In the mid-to-later 1970s, after his professional and marital split from Scott, Turrentine returned to jazz fusion on the Fantasy and Elektra labels, where he worked with Milt Jackson, Bob James, Richard Tee, Idris Muhammad, Ron Carter, and Eric Gale, among others.

He retired briefly before returning to the relaunched Blue Note label with "Straight Ahead" in 1984, featuring guests like George Benson, Jimmy Smith and Les McCann. Turrentine made two more albums for the label, "Wonderland" in 1986, a collection of tunes by Stevie Wonder, and 1989's "La Place", a homage to his Hill District birthplace on La Place Street.

He recorded several albums of acoustic, straight-ahead jazz for the Music Masters label in the 1990s, and continued to tour and perform around the world.

Turrentine lived in Ft. Washington, Maryland from the early 1990's on, and was a well known figure on the Washington musical scene. He played gigs at Blues Alley, worked with students at the Duke Ellington High School of the Arts and performed at annual benefit gospel concerts for his Shiloh Baptist Church.

He died of a stroke in New York City on September 12, 2000, while he was about to close out an engagement at the Blue Note club with singer Marlena Shaw. Turrentine left behind a discography of over three dozen albums.

His final services were held at Macedonia Baptist Church on Bedford Avenue, and he was laid to rest in Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery.

Stanley Turrentine - "Sugar" (1970)

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