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SWING! Excerpt: Sam Butera

Back to SWING! The New Retro Renaissance

R/S: Do you have any advice for musicians?

SAM BUTERA: To find work today is difficult. If they want to get work, they better know how to sight-read, and itÕs not easy. I would say, if a young cat is coming up, if he gets an opportunity, “Be ready!” And don’t say, “Oh, gee.” No, say, “Put it out there and I’ll read it.”

R/S: What about with contracts?

SB: All you gotta do is read it! Don’t sign nuthin’ without reading it — that’s all I can tell you. If you don’t understand it, take it to somebody who can explain it. Pay a few dollars. Then you won’t get in trouble. Be ready and be prepared! Somebody gives you a job, man, just walk in there and don’t be afraid.

R/S: When you were young, you engaged in “cutting contests” with other players—

SB: Oh yeah. I’d go look for jam sessions and musicians to challenge. “You got another saxophone player — I’m gonna cut him a new ass, man!” And I was prepared; I’d go look for them muthas. That helped me develop as a player — absolutely it gave me confidence in myself and my playing.

R/S: Maybe cutting contests will come back—

SB: [doubtfully] I don’t know.

R/S: You pioneered a genre which combined Rhythm & Blues, rock ‘n’roll, Dixieland, and also personality—on-stage—

SB: And it all comes together and that’s what people enjoy. It’s a broad scope of music. People don’t wanna be pushed with the same bullshit.

R/S: Your music appeals to all ages, from little kids to senior citizens. Whereas if you played music like Charlie Parker, only a few would understand—

SB: Yes. An isolated group of people like Charlie Parker; mostly musicians. The average layman didn’t understand what he was playing, because he never played the melody. There you go. Even today you got cats coming out with stuff that my wife or the average layman doesn’t understand, even though he’s playin’ fantastic.

R/S: You emerged at a time when a number of saxophone players were coming out with a very thick, almost distorted tone—

SB: I enjoyed the playing of cats like Illinois Jacquet; he’s one of the guys I learned a few things from. Coleman Hawkins — I loved the way he played. I listened to Charlie Parker a lot, I listened to Lester Young and Wardell Gray. I listened to so many guys, man, it’s hard to say, “I like this guy better.” Because each guy plays different; they got their own style. You can’t say, “He plays better than him,” because that’s the way he plays. I play the way I play. And that’s it.

R/S: But that wonderful, thick tone—

SB: Well, you see . . . [chuckles] Let me tell ya something about that sound. When I was a kid and went to this music store for a mouthpiece, the salesman said, “This just came in from England.” I said, “Let me try it.” I went “Toot!” and said, “That’s it!” I’ve played it ever since. That’s the sound I wanted to hear. That completely changed my tone, and that’s the truth.

R/S: What sax do you play?

SB: A Selmer Mark V or Mark VI — I can’t remember. But it ain’t the sax — the mouthpiece is the thing.

R/S: There are people who play a million notes in one minute like Charlie Parker, whereas your sax solos sound more like the human voice—

SB: My approach to jazz is to create something that people can understand. I can play far out, but I don’t because I know they want to hear something they can relate to. I play a lot of melodic things. That’s what I feel in my heart, so that’s what I play.

I can’t explain how I create these things; it just comes out. When you’re playing jazz you can’t go, “Well, I’m going to play this; I’m going to play that.” No — it’s gotta happen. You can’t plan. And that’s it.

R/S: Do you almost go into a trance state?

SB: Oh yeah. Yessir. But you gotta be playing with good musicians — that’s Number One. If you don’t have good players, then forget about it!

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