Charles Lloyd’s tradition of jazz, truth and love

Lloyd’s grandfather, born the son of slaves, refused to be cowed in a time of deep racial tensions in the US, and something of that steely confidence was passed down to the Memphis great

Charles Lloyd’s grandfather never entered a house by the back door, and that seems to explain something elusive about the way his grandson plays the saxophone.

Ben Ingram, born the son of slaves, was a rare and unusual character: he owned a profitable 1,600 acre farm outside Memphis, sent most of his 21 children to college, was a friend of the writer William Faulkner, and, at a time when the Ku Klux Klan were very active in the American south, was famously acquitted of the killing of a white man by an all-white jury.

"He was a man who was larger than the situation, and people respected him," says Charles Lloyd softly, speaking on the phone from a hotel room in Switzerland. "He always had a brand-new car – a beautiful black Ford – and he would take me with him into Memphis on his rounds. He carried himself in a kind of patrician manner. He would go to a white man's house and the servants would say, 'You'll have to go round to the back door', and he would say no, and the servants would have to go in and tell the people of the house, 'There's a black man here and he won't go to the back door', and they would say, 'Oh, that's Ben Ingram, he won't do that, let him in.' "

The patrician manner, and the polite but steely confidence, has clearly been passed down the generations: Lloyd’s journey has been marked by the same quiet resolve to be his own man. From his early education under influential Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn, through apprenticeships with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderly, to his chart-topping 1960s quartet and his critically acclaimed recordings for the ECM label in recent years, Lloyd’s is a musical voice that stands a little apart from the jazz mainstream.


Nevertheless, the seeds of the distinctive Lloyd sound are to be found in the Memphis of his youth, and his earliest memories reach back to the deepest roots of the blues. “If a tree doesn’t get water in its roots, it won’t do so well, and I got the best watering. There was a man who worked on my grandfather’s farm, Poon Jones, and he would sing and play the guitar and harmonica, sort of like Robert Johnson. I heard that stuff very early on.”

Jazz greats close-up The young Lloyd also had the good fortune to encounter the greatest jazz musicians of the era at his own breakfast table.

"My mother had a large house, and there weren't suitable hotels for black men in Memphis at that time, so when Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, all those bands would come through town, she would have them room with us. It was beautiful for me, because I was already in love with music. I had found my calling and I couldn't wait for these guys to wake up in the morning."

He was given his first saxophone at the age of nine, and by his teens he was getting calls from local blues men such as BB King and Howlin' Wolf. Then, in 1956, Lloyd left Memphis and headed for the west coast, where he still lives. He connected with some of the visionary players on the fertile west coast scene, including saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the founding father of free jazz, and drummer Billy Higgins, with whom he formed a lasting friendship.

Lloyd began leading his own group in the mid-1960s. The first Charles Lloyd quartet included the then relatively unknown Keith Jarrett on piano, as well as drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee. At a time when jazz was beginning to disappear from the airways into its own ghetto, this hugely talented band had a wider audience. They were the first jazz group to play at the Fillmore Auditorium, the hippy mecca in San Francisco, and for a time Lloyd was the darling of the flower-power generation, sharing stages with Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Doors. But a black man in 1960s America had more pressing concerns.

“Obviously there was a difference between the black and white experience, then and now. White America might have been trying to drop out of a mundane, middle-class existence and trying to find greater meaning in life, but as African-Americans, we didn’t have anything to drop out of. We weren’t part of that life. You can’t jump out of a basement window. What we were trying to find was equality and freedom.”

Million-selling album

That band's first recording, Dream Weaver (Atlantic, 1966), marked the emergence of a new sound in jazz, one that was complex, adventurous and accessible. The follow-up, Forest Flower – Live at Monterey (Atlantic, 1966) became one of the first jazz albums to sell a million copies.

“We were trying to realise and inspire higher ideals. The FM radio format had changed so that one could hear pop, rock, blues, classical and jazz on the same station. We didn’t even know our set in Monterey was being recorded; we were just totally into the music we were making in that moment.”

Lloyd could have traded on his name for the rest of his career, but instead, in the early 1970s, he disbanded the group and withdrew to his sanctuary at Big Sur in the hills south of San Francisco. His conversation is peppered with unusual phrases: he calls making music his "service" and he has clearly been deeply influenced by Indian spirituality.

“You know, a general can conquer a thousand men a thousand times,” he says. “But one man can conquer himself once. I’ll take that guy. I’m going to stand with Arjuna, and the Bhagavad Gita and the tradition of truth and love.”

He emerged occasionally from his self-imposed seclusion – including for tours and recordings with the Beach Boys in the 1970s – but it wasn't until the end of the 1980s, when he began recording for Manfred Eicher's ECM label, that the mature Lloyd emerged. Once more he surrounded himself with the most creative musicians of the age, including Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran. It was also at this time that he renewed his friendship with Billy Higgins, which yielded a string of extraordinary albums, including the touching, deeply personal album of duets Which Way Is East.

“We had not played together since the late 1950s and yet it was as if we had not missed a day together. We shared the deepest friendship on and off the stage. I miss him dearly, but also feel his presence every time I play.”

Lloyd, who is now in his mid-70s, describes himself as a home bird: part of him would much rather sit and gaze out to sea at Big Sur. But the call of music is strong, and although he has suffered from bouts of ill-health over the years, he continues to tour and record regularly.

“I guess I still have a bee in my bonnet,” he says. “I’ve got to sing a song of freedom and wonder, and this is a music of freedom and wonder. I wouldn’t be out here on the road if I didn’t feel younger than springtime in the music. As for this body, I’m just passing through. It’s a vehicle, and I’m going to get the best out of it that I can.”

The Charles Lloyd Quartet play the National Concert Hall on Nov 18,