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tim berne on julius hemphill

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An interview with Tim Berne by Duncan Heining, from AVANT/England


Julius Hemphill formed the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett and Oliver Lake in 1977 and was its most significant force as a player and writer. It's for this group that he is perhaps best known. He was one of the coterie of players on the seventies' New York loft scene. But where musicians like Murray and Chico Freeman went on to build careers, Julius Hemphill was more often spoken of then heard.

Hemphill died in 1995. For saxophonist Tim Berne, he was a mentor and friend. A couple of years ago, Berne reissued Hemphill's lovely Blue Boye on CD. When he was in England on tour with his trio Big Satan, we talked about Hemphill's influence on him and the scene in general.

Berne paints a picture of a genuine one-off, a man with an original but restless mind with little time for the business side of the music. Though he never really fulfilled his promise, Hemphill did leave behind a remarkable, if in some ways incomplete, body of work.

It was Hemphill's ability to reconcile different aspects of various musical styles that made him special for Berne right from his first contact with his music. :His album Dogon AD bridged all these things I'd been listening to. I was able to reconcile the R&B side of me with the side that listened to Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. Somehow he managed to do everything in the same package without anything being idiomatic. And he had a really soulful sound that I could relate to from listening to guys like King Curtis and Junior Walker."

When Berne moved to New York in 1974, he'd only been playing saxophone for about a year. He took a few lessons with Anthony Braxton, but as Braxton's success grew, he had less time for teaching. He suggested Berne give Hemphill a call. At the time, he hadn't even realized that his idol lived in the city.

"I'd seen him before but I didn't know it. I saw a Lester Bowie concert at Studio RivBe and I saw this big guy playing and I thought, 'Wow! Who the hell is that?' I had no idea because I had never seen a picture of him. I saw him again at a Lester Bowie recording. Julius was conducting because it was his tune and there was this big guy in a suit. I thought it was Oliver Nelson (laughs)."

The relationship was more like an apprenticeship than a teacher-pupil thing. "We'd have these three hour lessons. Sometimes I'd just play long tones for three hours while he massaged my back and taught me how to relax. Sometimes we'd just sit around and bullshit."

Berne would help him promote gigs and work the door. At the time no one was interested in Hemphill, although he as something of a legend amongst fellow musicians. According to Berne, he only did maybe two or three concerts a year. "If you weren't a self-promoter, you weren't going to be anywhere and Julius was the furthest thing from that you could be. He didn't pick up the phone. He had no time to bullshit with people." The experience of working with Hemphill served him well when he came to start his own career as a musician. "I sort of apprenticed the whole business with Julius. I helped him put out Blue Boye. I used to make flyers for his gigs. That's how I learned to do all that. He turned me on to the distribution thing. That's what I do to this day, if I do a gig in New York. I'm sure I wouldn't have started a label, if it hadn't been for him."

People like Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddens would write about David Murray or Chico Freeman or Sam Rivers but to Berne's disgust never about Hemphill. "I don't really know why. It just didn't happen for him until the Saxophone Quartet and even then he wasn't really recognized. In the 20 years I knew him, I bet he didn't do five tours with his own band. He just had no time for the business side of music."

For someone as far ahead of the game as Hemphill, you wonder what he might have achieved with a manager who knew what he had. His attention to detail was astonishing. He couldn't just play a gig. He had to build a whole new set of music stands or get the band to wear different outfits or use weird lighting. And no two concerts would contain the same material. "He was always thinking how it looked and he'd make the guys wear certain things. He was just way ahead of everybody else in that regard. It really inspired me to find my own way. Not copy him but to get my own ideas."

Talking to Berne, you get a sense of Hemphill as a man who got bored when there was no challenge to confront. Maybe he just had too much talent. "He told me that he used to go to jam sessions and purposely not learn the tunes just because it challenged him. He was always contrary. He was just a really independent thinker. Being around someone like that gives you the confidence to have your own ideas."

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, and according to Berne a cousin of Ornette Coleman, Hemphill grew up to the sounds of Gospel and R&B, and the blues would never be far away in his music. "He grew up near those juke joints and he heard music coming out of these places all the time. And of course he played with Kool & the Gang in the seventies. He had a band with Cornell Dupree and Richard Tee and he played with Ike and Tina Turner. All the way to the end Julius could evoke blues or jazz without resorting to cliches because he didn't follow any rules. He could write a blues and it didn't sound like anybody else's blues. He could write a gospel tune for six saxophones and it sounded like the real deal. I can't think of anybody else who could do that so convincingly."

It's been suggested that Ornette was quite an influence of Hemphill's music but Berne dismisses this. "If they're from Texas and knew Ornette and they're not playing chord changes, then they're going to say he sounds like Ornette. His first influences were really Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz—he had a band that used to play Gerry Mulligan arrangements—and he was totally into Cannonball."

I think that's influence as an inspiration. It's actually hard to imagine Hemphill sounding like anyone else. That sense of being your own person and having your own voice was something that Hemphill didn't have to talk about. It was, by Berne's account, simply central to the man and matched by a generosity to those still trying to find their own voice.

"There's always these guys telling you you'll never have your own voice. Julius never said anything like that. It was always, 'You wrote some music, let's look at it.' It was never, 'You can't do that.' It was inspirational. It would be so easy to dismiss a 25-year-old guy trying to play the saxophone, but he never doubted that I could do it if I wanted to."

The story Berne tells is a touching one. Hemphill comes across as a slightly cranky, crotchety but playful character. Like how he invented this alter ego, Roy Boye, just for fun, and would do these solo things with tape wearing a silver lame suit. Blue Boye came out of that and was like the blues version. It's a wonderful record, quite pastoral in its feel and full of wit and invention.

Toward the end of his life, Hemphill's health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn't play. Open-heart surgery was to prove a means of merely prolonging his life a short while. He could still write, and Berne was terrified to be asked to take his place in a couple of projects. The first of these was the recording session that produced Five Card Stud. The second was a piece for a chamber orchestra.

"One of the pieces was this alto solo over these shifting chords on the track called 'Lenore' and he asked me to solo on it which just blew my mind. That was the first time I worked with him as the leader and it was pretty scary for me. It was like that and the tribute record (Diminutive Mysteries) were my final exam."

Diminutive Mysteries was a labor of love for Berne, but the only way he felt he could to the tribute was if Hemphill wasn't there. When Berne took the tapes up to Hemphill's house, he was nervous as hell. "I was shaking. I had to get stoned, which I don't usually do. I really wanted his approval and I got it in his typically understated way. It was one of the most important things in my life." When Berne tells the story you know that it is still so important to him that Hemphill liked the record.

"So, I played him the first tune and he's smiling and really digging it. Just every once in a while a little comment and I'm gaining confidence. So, I think he's heard one cut and liked it. I'll quit while I'm ahead. And he says, 'What else you got?' Then the next cut and he's getting really excited and listening intently for an hour. Then we went out and had dinner and I couldn't have been any happier."

Sometimes the trouble with having heroes is that they let you down. Tim Berne is really blessed that his never did this to him, and Hemphill clearly remains an inspiration to him.

"When I get too caught up in all the business shit, I try to remember the most important thing is the music and not worry about all that other stuff. He was just a great role model in terms of creativity. In order to grow you have to fail. You have to have a bad concert, or write something that doesn't work, so you can find out why. I realized that that's why you make records. It's not so you can sell them. It's really just so you can develop. He really embodied that. That's why he did it—to express himself."

Duncan Heining

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Another thanks. Blue Boyé is one of my all-time favorites.

For those who like that record, I'd encourage you to check out a CD entitled Statements by multi-instrumentalist Michael Cooke — on Cooke's label called Black Hat Records (out of the Bay Area). Hemphill's solo effort was the direct influence and inspiration for Cooke's record. It only sounds like Hemphill at times, however, and Cooke adds bassoon to the mix.

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  • 15 years later...

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