The final, cathartic notes that will be played at the ACJF tonight will be music that has never been recorded or heard before, written by a mercurial L.A multi-instrumentalist and gentle enigma who died 45 years ago last June and performed by a living bandleader who is on the kind of career resurgence/reassessment that comes along every. . .well, almost never. Not a bad way to end a two-day odyssey of the ears.
The story of how Bennie Maupin [above] and his newest band Dolphyana came to be is a story to make any jazz archivist want to strike a deal with the Devil. Mere days before he left for a 1964 European tour with the Charles Mingus Sextet, Eric Dolphy [below] entrusted his friend and teacher Hale Smith with several handwritten musical scores that he hadn’t yet gotten around to record. Within months, the 26-year-old composer was dead of insulin shock. Year later, before his own death, Smith passed the scores to one of Dolphy’s acolytes, flautist James Newton, with specific instructions: “You gotta take care of this.” Newton called fellow Dolphyaniac Maupin and the rest, as they say, is legend.
The fact that Maupin got the phone call at all was almost unimaginable 10-15 years ago. Maupin – the anointed favorite son of early 1970s fusion who appeared on the first-ever CD by ECM and whose bass clarinet oozed and coiled though Miles Davis’s epoch-making fusion trifecta (Bitches Brew, Big Fun, Jack Johnson, On the Corner), Chick Corea’s Is Sessions and Herbie Hancock’s first heated forays with the Headhunters and the Mwandishi Sextet like spooky omens – had practically fallen off the musical map, a victim of the classic “Always a Sideman, Never the Man” snare. His worthy solo excursions – particularly his Zen tone masterpiece The Jewel and the Lotus (1974) – met with untimely bad luck, falling quickly out of print after various snafus with failed record companies.
Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters with Bennie Maupin perform “Chameleon” on Soundstage (San Francisco, 1975)
He began confounding his musical compadres by turning down all gigs offered him. Instead took English and Poly-Sci classes at Pasadena City College and played his clarinet to an audience of video monitors at a graveyard-shift job at an electronic surveillance company. In 1982, when Freddie Hubbard offered him $6,000 for a two-week European tour, Maupin turned him down: He wanted to complete an English class he needed to get his degree.
Then, luck began to pay Bennie Maupin some dividends: in 2004, he was approached by violinist (and ACJF co-organizer) Jeff Gauthier. As Gauthier recently related on Greenleaf Music: "My 50th birthday was coming up, and I wanted to play a concert with friends, and perform music that had been especially influential. So, I organized a band to cover Mwandishi and Crossings. As we were getting ready to play, I looked out into the audience and who did I see? None other than the great Bennie Maupin sitting there with a big smile on his face. Talk about a trial by fire! After the gig, Bennie and I spoke briefly, he gave me some music to listen to, and we agreed to have lunch the following week. After listening to Bennie’s music, I asked him to give me a chance to release it into the world with the personal care and attention it deserved. I knew he would have no trouble getting a record deal with any number of labels, but I felt I could do something very special for him by paying attention to the sound of the recordings, the quality of the packaging, and providing the right kind of promotion. Bennie took almost a year to check me out get back to me. I will always be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to work with him."
Maupin wound up recording two eclectic and critically hosannahed ventures – 2006’s Penumbra and 2008’s Early Reflections – for Gauthier’s Cryptogramophone record label. Around the same time, The Jewel in the Lotus was reissued on CD and rediscovered for what it was: “a jazz-and-Buddhism-inspired floating chamber music that was way ahead of its time,” in the words of one reviewer. Then came an entire slate of massive box set retrospectives of Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and On the Corner that helped expand critic and audience perspectives on Maupin’s contributions to Davis early-70s sound.
But a telling sign of Maupin’s plans for the future were on one of Penumbra’s signature tracks: the solo bass clarinet elegy “One for Eric Dolphy,” improvised, in Maupin’s words, “One take, one time.” It was Dolphy who first inspired Maupin to pick up the unwieldy and (at the time) very unhip bass clarinet, which happened to be the instrument that got Maupin his big Bitches Brew break. “I loved Eric from the first time I ever heard him,” he told writer Don Heckman. “What I really liked was that I could hear and recognize the influence of Charlie Parker in his playing, but at the same time there was a different thing that he was doing. He was totally himself on the flute and the bass clarinet, and it was only on the alto that you could hear some Parker. But he was completely unlike so many guys from that time who were so totally immersed in Bird that they couldn’t escape that influence.”
Eric Dolphy performs with the Charles Mingus Sextet in Oslo, Norway I (1964)
Eric Dolphy performs with the Charles Mingus Sextet in Oslo, Norway II (1964)
Eric Dolphy with the Charles Mingus Sextet performs Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train” in Oslo, Norway III (1964)
VERY RECENT! "Lost Compositions of L.A. Jazz Great Found, Performed After Half-Century" [audio] (KPPC 89.3-FM, 9/08/09)
Bennie Maupin’s Driving While Black at Amazon
AAJ reviews The Jewel and the Lotus reissue
AAJ reviews Early Reflections & The Jewel and the Lotus
Dusted’s Darek Taylor reviews Penumbra
Pop Matters reviews Penumbra
Bennie Maupin profile
“Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond” (Rex Butters, All About Jazz, 9/12/06)
"The Rebirth of Bennie Maupin” (Don Heckman, Jazz Times, June 2008)
Bennie Maupin discusses how emerging technologies may help jazz (with interviewer Ben Ratliff)
Bennie Maupin Quartet Live in Poland
Bennie Maupin Quartet Live
Bennie Maupin Quartet Live in Berlin (2008)
Go: Organic Orchestra with Bennie Maupin & Yusef Lateef Live in Venice, CA (2003)
The John Beasley Circle with Bennie Maupin, Buster Williams, Jeff "Tain" Watts Live in London at Ronnie Scott’s