Cover Story

Big Daddy

Saxophonist Wess Anderson on playing with legends and hangin' with Darla Montgomery

Wess Anderson's saxophone playing is a reflection of his personality ' expressive, engaging, aggressive and pointed at the right moments. The man who earned the nickname "Warmdaddy" for his generous spirit also brings Louisiana's diverse cultural influences into his playing; Anderson went to college in Baton Rouge, worked the New Orleans nightclub circuit, went on to play alongside Wynton Marsalis for 18 years, and has spent extensive time in Acadiana. From his 1994 major-label debut Warmdaddy in the Garden of Swing to his new CD Space, Anderson's always tackled bop, ballads, blues and burners with equal dexterity.

Anderson recently stepped down from his longtime gig with Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra so he could spend more time at home with his teenage son, but that hasn't slowed down his creative output. He's currently an associate professor of jazz studies at Michigan State University School of Music and is selectively touring with his own ensemble. Next week, Anderson makes a special appearance for two Lafayette shows alongside acclaimed New Orleans vocalist Stephanie Jordan. It's a homecoming of sorts for Anderson, who knows the local terrain well, from Johnston Street to Opelousas.

The Independent Weekly caught up with Anderson by phone, just before he was headed to the airport for a weekend's worth of gigs in Italy.

You're a Brooklyn native ' how'd you wind up in Baton Rouge?

When I was in high school, this was 1981, I met Branford Marsalis, who was playing with [drummer] Art Blakey at the time. I asked him what would be a good place to go to school, even though I already had a scholarship to go to Berklee School of Music [in Boston}.

Berklee seems like it would have been the obvious choice for you.

Yeah, they had such a big jazz department and such a pull on young musicians. That was the only place that everybody knew of, but there were many all over. Branford said he'd just finished at Berklee, and he thought it'd be better to go study with Alvin Batiste. The classes would be smaller, and it'd be a much more eye-opening experience and closer to the music. He felt like he got rushed through the system at Berklee. They have kind of a joke there now: if you graduate, that means you can't play, because most stay for a semester or two, then they join somebody's band and become a celebrity.

Looking back, as far as your development as a player, what difference do you think it made, if any, that you left the North and came South?

That was the greatest thing I could have done, leaving New York City. Some other musicians thought, "Oh, it's slow down there; they don't know what's going on." But I realized I could get away from the city and get down to some serious studying, because in any school environment, you don't want to get distracted. Being in New York, there's the distractions of performances and going to see people and hanging out, and you can't get any work done, because it becomes a social activity.

I could really get into the theory and history of music at Southern [University]. And it was good that I was 60 miles away from New Orleans in Baton Rouge, which was great, so I could go and test things out over the weekend, and it was good to get back into academia during the week.

Baton Rouge isn't exactly known as a jazz hotbed, but Southern University's always had a great jazz program and faculty.

When I first got there, it was August, and I don't think Mr. Batiste had made it back for the summer yet. I came for orientation about a week or two earlier. I was away from home for the first time, and everybody knew I was coming down there, sayin', "We got this musician coming down from New York," so everybody assumed I knew everything (laughs). I was in the same boat they were. When Mr. Batiste came back, I asked him if he got my audition tape. I did a Thelonious Monk tune called "Played Twice;" I made sure I had a really difficult obscure tune. He heard it and said, "Man, you can play. You ain't gotta try and prove nothin'. I'm gonna teach you stuff you don't know." I realized I was with a very real person then, and somebody who was real about the music. He wasn't just going to be giving me a class and a grade. He was somebody experienced in playing music for years and knew the history about it and how it fit.

What would you say are the biggest things you learned professionally and personally from Alvin that have stayed with you?

Even now, when I'm teaching, one thing I learned from him, is to always be as true to the music as possible. When you're playing jazz music, you have to learn the whole history of it. So first I had to go back and figure out what made the early New Orleans jazz music sound good. The first thing he thrust me into, he said, "Instead of me trying to teach it to you, I want you to go down to New Orleans." And I went and marched in a parade in Mardi Gras for six hours. Right then I figured it out: this music is social. It was about musicians interacting with people. A lot of musicians don't understand that; we sit in a practice room for hours and hours and isolate ourselves. But then we can't come out of that isolation room and perform on a bandstand.

So now when I'm teaching the students, I'm up the whole time. I have the music on and tell them that they have to play music and listen to music; you can't just write it down. That's just a guide. But jazz music is improvisational, so it has to be spontaneous. So I give them spontaneous situations. In my improvisation class, I'll give them four tunes a week they've never heard, from four different periods. And they may have to learn about it. And I tell them, if you don't know it, you have to get other recordings of someone else playing it, so you can understand how to approach it.

It's the academic version of the Down Beat blindfold test.

Exactly. There are a lot of students now who are very talented, probably more talented than when I came up. But my father was a musician, so I had been around and playing it before actually studying it. So that's the advantage I had. I tell them, they have to go out and perform it more. This is music where you need to test it out on people. If you're a great saxophonist but you've never played in a club on Johnston Street in Lafayette and you try to get people to like the music, you've got to figure out how to pace yourself for four hours. It's the difference between getting paid and not getting paid and building an audience.

Musicians, we're kind of like scientists in a laboratory. You keep mixing those tubes and hope it doesn't explode in your face, and you will come up with a cure for something ' you come up with a cure for the blues, you know?

How'd you wind up teaching in Michigan?

I worked 18 years with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and my bassist friend Rodney Whitaker, we worked together for 20 years. I met him when I was playing with Betty Carter before I joined Wynton's band. Rodney had been trying to get me over here, and my son's now a teenager, so I'd been leaning toward being able to come home more. My wife had been hinting, "He's getting older and needs you to be home," because I'd been on the road 18 years, and all his life. So it was a perfect time for me to help at home more and help get him ready for college, because he's a junior in high school now.

Is your wife from Michigan?

No, she's from Baton Rouge. I met her when I was at Southern doing a gig at this club, Rick's. We used to play in there, and we were playing and she came in with her friends, and we were playin' and they were talkin'. So I was this adamant musician: "Why are you talking? We're playing for you." She said, "Well, we like that, but we like to talk." I said, "You have to focus in on it." She said, "We're the only six in here, you should be glad we're listening. And if you want to get somebody's phone number, you best know how to socialize."

So that same thing came up where you can't be so withdrawn in doing what you're doing that you can't interact with the audience. You have to let them know what you're playing. I learned a lot. My wife's taught me a lot. As someone who likes music but doesn't play and has been to a lot of performances, she's very critical. She'll say, "That'll sound better if you play it faster, or if you tell people more about the song." Don't assume the audience will be able to understand what you're doing. My wife's a teacher, and she's helping me be a better teacher, too. Same thing with life. I still have to relate as if it's a live performance.

What was it like working with Betty Carter? Her 1961 duets album with Ray Charles is still one of my all-time favorites.

My first gig with her, I had just finished at Southern in 1988.

Lemme go back here. In 1985, Wynton came down for Jazz Fest, and I was a sophomore or junior. He said, "I want you to join the band." I played with him for a week on the road in Cleveland, Ohio, and he said, "You're not ready yet. You need to go back and finish school." We always talk about that now as we get older: musicians who come out and we send them back home. They're cocky and they think they're ready, but they're not. And I was one of those who got sent home along with other dudes. It's very humbling, because for a great musician to say to you, "Look, I like what you're doing and I hear your development, but you need some more work and then you can come back," that tears you up and builds you up at the same time. It makes you put things in perspective. When Wynton sent me home, I accepted it and said, "Next time he hears me, I am not going to be sent home."

So next time I saw him, he said he wanted me to join the band, but they had already bought tickets for a tour in Australia. So it was too late for that, and my friend Troy Davis from Baton Rouge, a great drummer, was working with Betty Carter. He was working with Terence Blanchard, too. He said Betty's looking for somebody who can play saxophone, and she's doing some of the music that she did with Ray Charles, and some of the stuff she did on the record with Phil Woods. So it was the perfect gig for me. I worked with her for a short moment, and just by chance, the gig we had was at the Bottom Line, and opening the bill was Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, and Rodney Whitaker was working in that band. That's how we met.

I played with Betty for a month or two, but I just learned so much about how to run a band. During that time, they had schools of learning. So if you played a horn, everybody wanted to be in Art Blakey's band ' that was one school of learning. When you left him, you were ready to work with anyone else. In Betty Carter's band, it was more for the rhythm section people: bass, drums, piano. I was lucky enough that she started using one or two horns every now and then, so I was one of the first horn players she used.

Just that experience of working with her for two months ' she was a professional and she didn't take no crap. So the musicians in that band, you had to be spontaneous. She didn't speak much, and when she did, it was very much to the point, and you knew exactly what she wanted. She let you know that she was in charge and she'd been doing this for 20, 30 years. So if you do what she says, you'd be fine.

How would you contrast her leadership style with Art Blakey's?

Since she was a woman and she always had men in the band, she was probably riding people's tail more. She didn't mind cussing you, you know.

I'll give you an example. First rehearsal, I got to her house early, because my father said, "Don't get to rehearsal late. Get there early so you can get relaxed and prepared and look over the music." So I got there early and put some headphones on and was listening to what we were about to rehearse.

She lifted up one headphone and whispered in my ear, "What the f--k are you doin'?" and let the headphone pop back on my ear.

I was so shocked. This woman I respected was cussing at me, but at the same time I couldn't figure out why. I said, "What did I do wrong? I'm just trying to make sure I have the music right." She said, "We're a band. We rehearse together. If you want to practice, practice at home."

It made me realize right then, OK, it's about being a unit. If you're a unit from the beginning to the end of the performance, it's going to sound like a unit. That helped carry me in my playing and teaching. There are a lot of great musicians, but I tell them also, they have to make sure that they get together away from school, because the music develops every time you play it.

Did you ever get a chance to play with Blakey?

I went and tried out. I was in college, and everybody wanted to be in that band, so they had unofficial auditions in New York. Each set of musicians would leave, and they'd kind of tell you where the last gig on the tour was, like Sweet Basil's in Manhattan. All of us would go sit in, guys like Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring, all the alto players. So I sat in once or twice when Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard were in the band. I got up there with Blakey, and I was scared to death because he was playing so strong and playing so hard it was almost like a lion on your neck. I realized, "I'm not ready for this."

But by the time the next year, I sat in with Wynton for a week, and started getting used to being around another level of professional musicians.

For your shows here in town, you're playing with vocalist Stephanie Jordan. How did you two become collaborators?

My quartet is drummer Jaz Sawyer; bassist Kengo Nakamura, who worked for many years with Cyrus Chestnut and also worked with Wynton; and we have our hometown favorite on piano, Mike Esnault. He's also Stephanie's musical director. Mike and I have worked together for years.

Stephanie and I have known each other for years. We've played and sat in with each other at Gino's in Baton Rouge and Snug Harbor in New Orleans, and I know the family very well. They're related to Alvin, too. Some friends of ours at Lincoln Center had a regular series called "Singers over Manhattan," and they paired us together.

Do you enjoy working in that smaller quartet format after spending so much time with the huge Lincoln Center band?

It's actually a little harder, because now I have to make more decisions. Before I'd just play, take a solo, sit down, bow. You always want to be the bandleader, but once you become the bandleader, it's like, Oh God, now you have all this pressure: what song should be next, what do I say, will people like this, don't mispronounce somebody's name â?¦ It seems simple, but when you're in front of people, it can be hard trying to be funny and communicate all the time.

Stephanie's version of "Here's to Life" at the Higher Ground Hurricane Katrina benefit concert at Lincoln Center was pretty amazing. What was your Katrina experience like?

I'll put it in a nutshell: I had 30 people in my three-bedroom house, and one of my toilets broke. I told everybody, please make sure you clean up after yourselves, be courteous and be neighborly. Now everybody doesn't have much, so now you realize what it is to be an American ' and a human being. You look out for somebody. You say you're Christian or whatever your nationality is or religious background is, it's time to put up or shut up. These are people who've been your neighbors for years, you may have talked to them or maybe not, but now they don't have anything. Will you share?

That's what happens when I get on the bandstand. I have to play and I have to share myself with the other musicians whether I've known them for years or it's the first time I'm playing with them. That's the type of humility you have to have as a musician and a human being when a catastrophe like this happens. I was in New York playing at Lincoln Center, so I was away from my family. So my wife was by herself with our son and all my in-laws from New Orleans. By the time I got back to Baton Rouge, I had to adjust to 30 people in my house. So I had to let go and be humble and realize, these people have nothing. It's a very humbling experience.

And I come from a small family, so I'm not used to being around a lot of people for long periods of time. I travel with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but we're staying at five-star hotels. Somebody gets on your nerves, you can retreat to your hotel room. But there was no place to retreat to in my house, except maybe the backyard and the barbecue grill. There was a line to get to the refrigerator to get a beer.

And there's the unspoken rule: you don't drink the last beer.

And if you do, you better go get some more or there's gonna be some s--t (laughs).

Have you adjusted to going back and forth to Michigan?

I'm still getting used to this cold. It was 68 yesterday, and it's 25 today. I can't wait to get back [to Louisiana].

A good friend of mine is a TV newscaster there in Lafayette ' Darla Montgomery. I told Darla I need to get some publicity, or there's gonna be three people out there on Jefferson Street (laughs).

Darla's brother is a great trumpet player, and I met him at the jazz department [at Southern]. So on weekends, her brother would take me back there. They're from Opelousas. I was like, "Where? Ope-who? What's that?" And he'd say, "Come on with me and you'll see what the country's like." He took me there and then took me to the zydeco festival, and boy, I fell in love with that.

I became part of [Darla's] family. They made figs in a jar and canned figs. They had a fig tree. Coming from Brooklyn, I'd never seen no tree that had any type of fruit on it. One thing about people from New York, they think everything revolves around New York. When they leave, then you realize how much you learn being outside of a major city.

Wess Anderson Quartet with Stephanie Jordan
7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 30, Keith's Ballroom, 417 Jefferson St. Tickets $15-$27 plus a $10 minimum food and drink charge. For more info, call 237-2787 or visit