Bunky Green: The Salzau Quartet live at JazzBaltica: Presscuts
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Release Date: 20.06.2008
TT Catalogue No: 4516
- "Bunky Green - June issue of JazzTimes
Alto saxophonist Vernice "Bunky" Green already had degrees from Northwestern
University and Chicago State University in 1989, yet that's when he chose to
go back to school while in his mid-50s.
To teach, that is. That school was the University of North Florida in Jacksonville,
which hired Green as a professor on the strength of his instructional prowess
at Chicago State. He'd started his teaching career there in 1972, in the midst
of what's now a 48-year, 14-album solo recording catalog.
Professor Green, now 73, quickly ascended to his current position as Director
of Jazz Studies within UNF's nationally-heralded program. That, combined with
his most recent stellar release, the Label Bleu recording #Another Place# (Green's
first in 17 years), disproves the notion that "those who can do; those who
I actually play more now than before I started teaching," he says. "In
a school environment like this, I'm constantly playing, and these kids move fast.
I've made sure that I had enough piano chops to play tunes with my students,
too. That's important. I always have my students learning some basic piano. So
they keep me on my toes, and I keep them on theirs."
His learn-by-doing studiousness fits right into the music program at UNF. The
school's faculty includes touring artists like pianist Lynne Arriale and drummer
As Director of Jazz Studies, I only teach students one at a time," Green
says. "I have my office here, sure, but don't do a lot of administrative
work, except for emails, which never let me rest. I do one-on-one teaching sessions
with each student, so we get a chance to really get into it. In a class, you
have to move at the speed of the entire class. If I have a student who's bright
and can surge ahead, there's no speed limit."
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Green's early self-teaching was advanced enough
to allow him to replicate Charlie Parker's difficult solos while still in his
teens. The underaged saxophonist then bravely got his first onstage experience
by sneaking into Milwaukee clubs to sit in.
I tell the kids that I'm a product of the street," Green says. "And
that I'm proud of that. I learned by trial and error. At 15, I could play everything
that Bird ever recorded, verbatim. At 16, I had to paint on a fake mustache to
get into clubs and play."
The stage, he says, is where his real higher learning occured.
My students know that playing here at school is not the real world," Green
says. "This is make-believe. They still have to learn to work and play together
with other people in the moment, and that requires constant adjustment."
Green moved to New York City in his late teens, and received a lesson both valuable
and volatile when he replaced Jackie McLean for a stint in bassist Charles Mingus'
band in 1960.
[Saxophonist] Lou Donaldson told Mingus about me," Green says, "Mingus
was a disciplinarian, and very concerned about how you played his music. If you
didn't play it the way he wanted, he'd let you have it no matter where, even
on the bandstand. At my audition, he told me, 'This is your part, man,' and played
it on the piano. It was difficult, because the intervals were abstract; almost
atonal. I said, 'Do you have the music for this?' He said, 'Look, man, if I wrote
it down, you'd never play it right!' I understood what he meant; played it back
to him, and he smiled."
I learned part of what my style is based on from Mingus," Green continues. "Part
of what I'm known for stylistically is based on his approach. He told me that
there was no such thing as a wrong note. I realized that he was talking about
tension and release, where there has to be some sort of clash before a release.
My style is based around that. You can play almost any note along with chords,
as long as there's resolution."
The Mingus lessons helped to prepare Green for an active playing/teaching career
in Chicago, where he moved in 1960 and lived for nearly 30 years.
One of the first people who gave me an opportunity to play in Chicago was Joe
Segal, who owned the Jazz Showcase," he says. "I got to play there
with people like Johnny Griffin and Eric Dolphy. The city was on fire, so I decided
to move there. When it comes to music, it certainly isn't the second city to
Green's reputation led to a session career that includes recordings with Elvin
Jones, Clark Terry, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt and James Moody.
The teaching saxophonist and his wife of 40 years, Edith Green, still live in
the same house they first moved into in Jacksonville. He says there was a culture
shock upon arriving there.
You have the ocean, which is a nice diversion," Green says. "But it
certainly isn't Chicago. Everything was at my fingertips there. My intention
was to come down here for a year and check out the UNF jazz program. I figured
I could never leave Chicago. But in-between, something happened. I got some great
#Another Place#, released in 2006, was Green's first recording since his poignant
1989 album #Healing the Pain#, which commemorated the death of his parents. Saxophonist
and disciple Steve Coleman lured Green back into the studio and produced the
disc. Pianist Jason Moran, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Nasheet Waits aid
Green's close-to-the-edge urgency and soulful downshifts throughout.
Steve has taken stylistic saxophone things that I've helped create to his own
logical conclusion," Green says. "I wasn't really hot on recording
another album, 'cause I've been ripped off by so many record companies. But Steve
said it wouldn't be like that, and talked me into it. I'm glad, because it gave
my career a jump-start."
A new Green recording led to new international tour dates. Playing the JazzBaltica
festival in Germany last summer inadvertently led to his next CD.
When I came over, I figured I'd be playing with people I knew," he says. "But
they paired me with some younger German players who are well-known in that area,
and they play with a free approach! They learned the music really well, but played
free. I had to be flexible to function in that environment. But that performance
was judged one of the best in Germany in 2007 by #Jazzthetic# magazine, and the
organizers called me about releasing the concert on CD. I'll be playing JazzBaltica
again this July, then the North Sea Jazz festival, and by then the CD will be
available on the German label Traumton Records."
Still, Green is arguably better-known as an educator than musician. He was president
of the International Association of Jazz Educators from 1990-1992, and was inducted
into the IAJE Hall of Fame in 1999. During his 18 years at UNF, the school has
risen in stature among national jazz institutions.
We have parents calling from Wisconsin and Michigan, and bringing their kids
down here to audition," Green says. "It's a wonderful faculty; great
people. We're like a family. If we have a conflict, we talk about it, work it
out, and make things better."
Green is even considering working on a follow-up instructional book to his #Inside
Outside#, published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz in 1988.
That's still selling after all these years," he says. "About five years
ago, Jamey said, 'Why don't you do another book?' I have another one in me. Like
Mozart, it's already written -- in my head! I won't give the exact angle yet.
I'll just say that saxophone players play a certain way, generally. There's another
way to approach voicings on the instrument. I'll come from that angle."
The underrated, understated and rejuvenated Green laughs when the subject turns
to a fan site dedicated to him, the Society for the Promulgation of the Music
of Bunky Green (SPMBG) on MySpace. Founded in Jersey City, New Jersey in 2006,
the site has more than 150 members and the subtitle "Bunky Green Kicks Ass!"
Someone told me about that, but I haven't seen it yet," he says. "I
bet that's David Carey, a former student of mine who's very dear to me and lives
in that area. He may have recruited some of my other students who've graduated
through the years
Bunky Green - June issue of JazzTimes