Julius Hemphill: The 1978 Coda Interviews

by Bill Smith and David Lee



Throughout the 1970s and beyond, Coda introduced and extensively discussed era-shaping composer-improvisers like Julius Hemphill, who graced the cover of the Canadian bi-monthly’s 20th anniversary issue, published 1 June 1978. In addition to two interviews of Hemphill – one by Bill Smith and the other by his co-editor David Lee – the issue also included three substantial reviews of Hemphill’s recordings, making Hemphill the subject of a quarter of its 36 pages.

Now based on Hornby Island, British Columbia, Smith continues to write and produce radio programs, which can be accessed at rantanddawdle.ca. The Hamilton, Ontario based Lee is the author of several books, including the novel, Commander Zero, and the award-winning, Chainsaws: A History. 2/3s of the Bill Smith Ensemble of the 1980s, Smith and Lee also continue to make music in their respective communities.

We thank them for allowing these interviews to be reprinted.

Part One: Bill Smith Interviews Julius Hemphill

My personal association with Julius Hemphill began in the spring of 1977, when we brought Julius to Toronto to perform Roi Boye And The Gotham Minstrels at A Space. In that short stay here we recorded his audio-drama (Sackville 3014/15). His music, for me, has a special relevance because it is based in a part of the jazz tradition that has always appealed to my senses. The blues tradition. The saxophone, an instrument that has to be considered a prime mover in the course of this music’s history, can be singled out, quite selectively, in a very logical order, from the blues of Bechet and Hodges, through Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman and seems in retrospect to arrive quite logically at a number of players in this present period. Most specifically, at Julius Hemphill.

Julius was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, a midwestern area of the United States, that has a certain tradition based in the blues, and although Julius did not come to his music by a historical learning process, the attitudes and sounds of his performance, due to the situation of locale, still continues this very powerful form.

The following interview, which deals with his formative years prior to his coming to New York City, has been edited to create a certain continuity.

In the first part of our conversation we talked about how the individual players of earlier times, the ‘30s and ‘40s, had served a sort of apprenticeship, learned their system of music from the big bands, and later, as the opportunity arose, created the small group system with soloists.

Julius Hemphill: Of course generally with the rise in popularity of the small groups the big band situation was somewhat circumvented. One of the things that musicians did, was almost never deal with big bands again once they had gotten established in a small group format. Part of the demise of the big bands had to do with the economics. Economics hasn’t gotten simpler, it’s gotten progressively more complicated. So the impact these people made in the small group context in which they played, plus a progressively more dense economic picture, I think accounted for people not paying too much attention to these people. The pace-setters were not about big bands so much as they were about the style – and if it was about Charlie Parker, no matter the contribution of the people that were playing with him, It was about Charlie Parker. He could have been playing with any number of people and it didn’t really change the shape of anything he was playing.

Now, more generally speaking, players come from whatever vicarious means are operating to influence them. Information is passed along. In big bands you are able to absorb style, and tone, level of musicianship, the whole thing. You are able to absorb that, because you are there with all those people bringing their experiences to bear in a given situation. Get that done, and you are left with a certain form of communication right there, an eyeball to eyeball type communication. When that is not operative, you have to learn from what there is available to learn from, so if you live in certain parts of the country you are able to get to know and study and play with different people, but if you don’t happen to live in a prime location, one of the big cities or something then you are very much left to what your environment has to offer. And increasingly that is probably media-oriented, and that is probably records, because information is passed out in recordings. The other thing to some extent is probably school.

Bill Smith: The popular jazz academic media will make you believe that if you are from Texas, the only thing you could have possibly done is play with the Texas State Lab Band.

JH: I don’t really accept that by way of conversation, but I never really thought of that, because it wasn’t open to me when I was there.

What was open to Julius was really the experience and learning from playing. Although he spent some time in the situation of the High School band etc., it was mostly contact with performance that allowed him to develop his music. His first professional activities began in the early sixties with rhythm and blues bands such as the Independent Boogie Agency, which included Joe Simon and Cornell Dupree. Later he was to play with Ike Turner and even make a commercial recording with Kool & The Gang. One of his earliest teachers was John Carter.

JH: In my particular school In Fort Worth, when I came along in the early ‘50s there was nothing happening in an organized way except John Carter. He taught junior high school. It was his first assignment out of college. I gave him trouble, I wasn’t a serious music student. I just happened to have had a few clarinet lessons, so I was able to get in the band.

I was able to pick up a lot from him, also from Red Connors. Red Connors was a whole different thing. He was teaching people stuff. He wasn’t all that old, but he had a lot of experience, he was just gifted, he could just play. I played in a band with him once, for a couple of nights just before he died. That was quite something, I wish I had been able to do that for longer. But even for that brief time it was quite inspiring.

The first instrument I was ever around was the saxophone – I think it belonged to Ornette – that was the first time I had ever seen one. It was in a case. That was the closest I’d ever been to it.

After this, I was into athletics and stuff – I think I had a clarinet, and it was in the case for a long time, and I don’t know quite how I got interested in it but I learned to play the saxophone, that was kind of interesting. But it was mostly about sports.

Where I lived I was surrounded by taverns, pool rooms, in a two block stretch it was called “the hot end”. Everybody came down there to get off. So It was pretty lively, but there was no music there, except recorded music. So in high school I started fooling around with this baritone, and about this time Pacific Jazz released these Gerry Mulligan quartet sides, without a piano.

I read the music magazines – Metronome, Downbeat, and Esquire too had a lot about music. I saw in this book that you could order the charts from this quartet, so I ordered them and formed this band, a high school quartet. They let me take this baritone sax home, it was a drag getting It home, but It was really Incredible to play. We appeared on a few programs in school, and once I played “My Funny Valentine” at some kind of Masonic meeting. Even then people would say “Yes, you just need to get those changes together.” I didn’t even know what they were talking about, and nobody could explain to me what “changes” were. They would just give me this cryptic advice, “You gotta get those changes together”. There was this guy just recently telling me that. He just got out of prison – he’d been in prison ten years, he used to be a good piano player. When I was playing in Dallas, I was playing “All The Things You Are” – I haven’t played “All The Things You Are” in about fifteen years – and this cat said to me, “You’d be pretty good if you could just get those changes”. He was giving me all this advice. I felt sorry for him.

So with this quartet, I had a lot of fun playing baritone. After football season I’d play in the band, because they took trips and that was kind of a groove. I hated marching, but they did all that during the football season. I got in the concert band. It was a pretty decent band, except for the usual preoccupation the band leader had with the clarinet. Otherwise, it was all right.

After that, I went to California to go to school. I was going to be a doctor, but I found out that I wasn’t really prepared academically, because I had just sort of hung out in school. I was cool, I just didn’t have enough math or chemistry I went to Berkeley. I took a couple of music classes, some in Greek civilization, but it was a trip, as I had never been to an integrated school and it was kind of weird. So I was there for a minute. I got this new saxophone, and I started playing more in California.

If you listen to some of Charlie Parker’s work, he doesn’t sound much different from some kinds of swing alto players in some respects. What I’m getting to is that it wasn’t about playing blues and stuff at that point in California. People were tired of the blues – “...another blues band...” – it was about being cool, being hip. I liked Lee Konitz. I liked the sound. So for me it wasn’t about blues. People there were telling me that I just hadn’t been listening discriminately. I really hadn’t, you know. I had just latched onto this cool sound thing because it was different. I wasn’t into the blues, I thought it was tired. “You’ve got to listen to that again and see where this impetus is coming from.” I started listening and some of what they were saying was quite true. I gradually got into studying music.

I didn’t really think you could learn to play music. I thought it would just happen. My mother played the piano, and she didn’t even have a piano. The only time I ever saw her play was when she went to church. She’d sit down and open the thing up and play the piano. I learned about scales and stuff, but I didn’t see how that made music. It didn’t make any sense. Because the people who were playing music, I never heard them playing any scales. I never was around anybody who practiced. I thought it was just like singing – that it just happened. It was quite hard for me, emotionally, to believe that those scales were what music was based on, they are a part of it, but I didn’t see the connection.

I changed schools. I went to the school John Carter had come from in Missouri, Lincoln, and there were a lot of interesting people there at the time. Dave Baker was there, in his pink pants and charcoal jacket. He’d just come out of Stan Kenton’s band, and Lincoln wasn’t ready for him at all. Very staid kind of situation there. He was a brilliant cat, and he was doing all kinds of compositions and stuff so they couldn’t browbeat him into anything. Also he could play the shit out of the trombone! So he was a good influence. He organized a band, and I took some theory from him. Still I hadn’t done all that much playing. Intermittently I’d get suspended from school and then I’d go out and play in some band.

I didn’t have any kind of study habits or anything. I wasn’t prepared for school in the serious way that they took it. You can’t cut class, you have to go. They weren’t really covering that much ground and it was mostly common sense, unless there was some body of facts you had to digest. So I just took them to task on the idea of going to class, and I did learn a great deal. One of the times I went back Oliver Nelson was there, as a student, I think he attended for a semester. That was about ‘57, ‘56.

Lincoln is where I got the opportunity to play. That is where I did the most practicing. I lost all my money the day I got there by shooting craps, so I didn’t have anything to do but practice! But it kind of paid off.

I really sincerely did not believe that you could learn to play music. Now I know that you can learn to play music, you can learn things. But music is really like magic, to me. I got that from my mother. She didn’t have a piano. She didn’t have a friend who had a piano. She just walked up and played it, every Sunday, and never mentioned it. She tried to get me to take lessons at one point, but I had my hands full as it was, just in that environment. In “the hot end”, piano lessons, are you kidding me? I had my hands full. I didn’t give that any more serious thought, I just accepted it. Because playing “Home Sweet Home” in this clarinet book seemed far removed from music. That was a genuine position I had to take. I know better now...

Earlier in the conversation Julius and I had talked about the other high school phenomenon of becoming a professional athlete.

JH: The most famous, I suppose, was Jackie Robinson, and he hadn’t been in the big leagues all that long. At that point it was no widespread thing. Basketball, for example, was largely white. I just discarded that in favour of music. Although I didn’t know how I was going to fit into it. There were other places I could have gone, but it didn’t really occur to me. I wasn’t all that much of a school person, as you might have gathered. At this point I was only 19 years old.

In 1964 Julius Hemphill became a member of the United States Army.

JH: This is where Lincoln starts getting its revenge. It was one of those land grant schools. A land grant college is subsidized by the government in return for housing a reserve officer’s training program. They had to send all the eligible males – if the women’s movement is lucky they’ll be able to participate in that silly shit – all the males have to be in it unless they were 4-F or something.

They called me for inductions in Texas, so I went back to Dallas. So they asked me in the course of the questions whether I’d ever been arrested and I told them yes, because once I got stoned and had a wreck, I hit a parked car and just fell out, after one of those Boogie Children Blues Boys Bands, a battle of the bands situation where all the proceeds went into buying whiskey, reds and ale – I was trying to navigate home and didn’t make it.

They couldn’t find any written records of my arrest, because I didn’t realize that once you’d paid the fine, it wasn’t like you’d been arrested. So they put me on this standby basis. They couldn’t understand this discrepancy, my saying yes and there being no record of it. They kept messing with me for nine months. I couldn’t leave town, there was nothing to do. One day a friend of mine and I went to the park and we were stoned and I saw this recruiter driving around, I flagged him down and joined the army, he managed to get me in.

I figured I ‘d become an officer, because they made a lot of money. I didn’t know anything about the army, and they weren’t doing anything in particular at this point, there was no great war on. All the cats I had talked to had been in the special services and had toured Europe in bands, so I figured I could probably get into that. I didn’t even try to get into the band, but they put me in there anyway, I guess because of my schooling and information on my file, and it was a trip.

For a while I had them going on this idea that I was going to be an officer and so I got all kinds of passes – I was a squad leader – I even went home during basic training, which is considered dirty pool. I lived about two hundred miles away. But I was the one who gave out the passes – “Okay, you six guys and me, we all have passes.” It was kind of fun. But I couldn’t sustain it. After I got out of that I got into the serious band routine, which was really a drag.

BS: You had to do marches and all that kind of stuff?

JH: Well, I was lucky in that regard, because this particular band was at Fort Hood, Texas, and it was the home of this armored division so the band rode around on these jeeps. They’d line up in band formation and we’d just sit up on the back of them. That was kind of cool, we didn’t do very much marching, but the monotony was amazing.

BS: Did you get to leave America?

JH: Only when we went to the Mojave Desert (in California). We went out there for about forty days. We had this huge war game out there, about a hundred thousand people. It was a trip, the band didn’t really do anything but gamble. Some friends and I took a little valise full of wine, scotch, reefers – we took that to the desert, so for about two weeks we were cool, we didn’t do anything.

The most interesting thing I did in the army was participate in a music festival in Corpus Christi. They had these bands up from Mexico and they had some incredible big bands, the brass playing was out! Also the instrumentation was interesting, they had maybe seven or eight trumpet players playing high, just whistling. They were playing all kinds of things. Big brass. One of the most interesting things.

The army was very much like school. If you wanted to do something, they wouldn’t give you time off to do it. They would rather try to make you do some kind of really empty bullshit. No kidding, one time we didn’t have anything to do, so this cat said, “Okay, I want you to go down to the parking lot and I want you to pick up all the rocks” – this is a gravel parking lot – “I want you to pick up all the rocks that won’t pass through the teeth of a rake.” Now, this parking lot is almost a hundred yards square – like a football field, and the whole thing is rocks of every description, two-thirds of them would not pass through the teeth of a rake. But we spent the whole day throwing these rocks off the hill. Everybody just broke up, we were having such a big time throwing these rocks. Everybody wanted a copy of this order, because they said it came from headquarters. But they wouldn’t give us a copy.

Once they made me and a bass player cut this grass. The band was located right next to headquarters, which is also the main road to the post and all of the VIPs and visitors and everybody passed right by there. So we went to the paint shed and got the power mower out. The sky had been overcast, and suddenly this terrific downpour started. It was raining rain. So we said perfect, perfect, here we go, poetic justice. So we stood outside there in this driving rain with this power mower cutting the grass, and this general passed by. You see, ordinarily you’re not supposed to get wet. If you’re out in the field and you’re in some kind of formation, it’s cool. But you’re not supposed to get wet doing nothing like that. Military property. So he called down there, and this sergeant ran out yelling, “STOP! STOP!” I mean a general can create a shock wave in the army that you wouldn’t believe. There’s no comparable civilian power.

But we wouldn’t stop, you see. The sergeant practically begged us. He had been very hard-nosed about us cutting this grass – “You guys think you’re slick, right?” So we said, “Oh, we want to cut this, we don’t mind... it’s cool, it’s kind of fun, man.” And you couldn’t see twenty feet, our clothes were plastered to us. The only thing you could hear was the rain and this power mower. I’m sure you could hear that mower for blocks. He carried the mower back to the paint shed. He said, “No man, no, you don’t have to cut any more, no, that’s it, no, come on man, I don’t want you cats out in the rain.” We knew we were going to be seen, because we were right there next to headquarters, and somebody was bound to come out of there.

Then this Vietnam thing came up, the way they started introducing that, to me anyway, being in the army, was they started sending these green beret types around giving people pep talks. They were still saying that it was in an advisory capacity that troops were there. “Yes man, it’s a great life, you go over to Bangkok, you get a little time off, get all the ass you want, wow, it’s just great, you feel like you’re a man, you’re part of something. I know 31 ways to kill a man without any weapon.”

But you know, I didn’t pay the army any attention. I thought I might get into something interesting. I could get my degree, and they do make more money. But I hadn’t realized the harassment aspect of it, so it didn’t take long for my credibility as a candidate for officer’s school to wear thin, and that’s the way I went from sugar to shit. Musically not much happened.

After spending three years in the army Hemphill moved to St. Louis and participated in some of the earlier beginnings of the music that was to eventually become the Black Artists Group (BAG) with Oliver Lake. In the same period Julius and Phillip Wilson ventured to Chicago where they met and played with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman.

JH: They (Mitchell and Jarman) were getting an organization together, and were talking about what you had to do to get into it and so forth. I had just gotten out of the army, so I didn’t want to get into any of that. But I did manage to play with them, and that was different. I think it was the first time since high school that I had played with anybody who was consciously abandoning the formal structure. Most of the other players were into extended harmony, but they never dealt with the structure, the framework. So that was very interesting. I’d gotten pretty proficient by this time. When I was in the Army I used to play in Austin, I’d go down there on weekends. I had gotten pretty good at playing changes and stuff, but I was still searching, because I had all this experience and all this information, but somehow I couldn’t quite bring it to bear. Then I started rethinking some of that group thing and we got together in St. Louis and formed a group. The difference between then and when I was in high school was that in high school I couldn’t really back up what I was talking about, or any kind of particular posture I had, because I was just doing it out of intuition. I had a pretty strong feeling that – it’s like bebop, it’s about the whole thing, not about just this or that, about diminished chords and things. However by this time I knew what I was talking about. By then it didn’t make any difference what anybody thought, because I could play what they were talking about. The difference was that I had learned all of that to get back almost to where I had started out. “Oh that’s a nice instrument, I think I’ll play some music.” So you pick the damn thing up and you blow it, and there’s a lot of learning about operating the thing that you don’t think about, but that’s what really happens.

© 2021 Bill Smith

> Part Two: David Lee Interviews Julius Hemphill

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