Doctor of bluesology

"If there's no emotion behind what you do, then people aren't going to want to deal with you. I've had some people say, 'I didn't like jazz until I heard what you were doing.' They liked it simply because they felt it. My concept is to get rid of the labels and just say it's good music," says alto saxophonist Phil Lasley.

In this era of pop gimmicks and smooth jazz, Lasley has built a career on style and diversity. He blows new life into ballads, and plays the blues with such emotion and history that it could depress a motivational speaker. He likes to get people involved in his music.

At Baker's Keyboard Lounge recently, he dedicated "Jasi," his signature tune, to a newly married couple who had just returned from their honeymoon. While Lasley explained to the audience how jazz brings hearts together, pianist Gary Schunk laid down the melody and bassist Don Mayberry kept time better than a Swiss watch. As the audience switched their stares from the couple who sat under a framed picture of Ella Fitzgerald, Lasley picked up his horn. His body stiffened and his eyes closed. Then he played "Jasi" with such feeling that it should have been packaged and sold to those who believe that love is dead.

"I love playing ballads, especially the meaningful ones. A lot of youngsters play the melody like they hate it. They want to hurry up and finish so they can start soloing. It's the opposite with me."

Lasley likes to reach his audience.

"You got certain preachers that will preach a good sermon, but won't reach you. Others, after 15 minutes they got you jumping around. That's the way that I try to approach music. Not with a lot of notes or a lot of tricks, but with whatever I'm feeling at that time -- I try to convey it to my audience."

Lasley has blown from one end of the music spectrum to the other. Yet his philosophy of jazz remains the same: Jazz is about individuality, and it should inspire and heal.

"A lot of guys play for other musicians. Well, I like to play for musicians too. But what keeps me working are the individuals that will come and support me and the ones who don't play the music. Those are the individuals that will buy your records, and if you get to them emotionally, they will want to experience that again and they will come back."

Lasley grew up in Detroit in the '50s, when jazz and blues were medicine, and musicians used their music to heal. The horn players of his generation were revered. They blew into polished horns, wore tailored suits and polished shoes, and carried younger jazz musicians in their hip pockets. Lasley took to jazz at age 6, after his brother took him to see Billy Eckstine. His mother, who sang in speakeasies, taught him about the blues.

At Chadsey High School, he hung with Lonnie Hillyer, Donald Walden and Charles McPherson. They all were influenced by Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, but they developed their own styles. Lasley learned to play jazz by attending jam sessions and "back door" sessions -- what he and his underage buddies called hanging around the back doors of clubs and plying big-name musicians with questions. As a teenager, he performed at "shake dances" -- a local name for strip clubs -- and assembled a group of musicians that performed at Motor City venues such as the Ferry Center, Prince Hall and the Mark Twain Hotel.

At the Stimson Hotel, the drummer Ed Thigpen sat in with Lasley's group. Afterward, Thigpen encouraged Lasley to move to New York. "Then I had more heart than sense," he admits. He arrived in New York during the free jazz movement and it didn't take long for him to find work. He played with Tina Brooks, Sunny Murray and Cecil Taylor. A year later, he got his first job at Birdland with Clifford Jarvis and Andrew Hill.

But though he loved jazz, he couldn't make a living at it. "When I first worked at Birdland, I couldn't believe how much I got paid: $28. Louis Smith told me I was lucky, because he was only getting $18 and he was playing with Horace Silver. That's how I got into the R&B thing, because I got more money and I worked more often."

At Birdland, he recalls, "You might see a big name working, but they had to go out to California to make any money, whereas we (in R&B) had constant gigs. We would return to New York and have to buy guys breakfast and dinner."

Lasley left jazz in New York and joined Bobby Scott's R&B band on the "chitlin circuit" that took them from city to city playing one-nighters. They started in Washington, blew their way to Florida and ended in Texas. Traveling with R&B bands, playing opposite blues bands and accompanying singers helped him to develop his sound. Touring had its ups and downs, but he used them to strengthen his playing.

"Sometimes you showed up for gigs and couldn't take a shower. This was before you could stay at the Holiday Inn. So you would end up staying with a retired show person who had a house for show people, which was great. In Chicago and Washington, there were two houses where you could wake up in the morning and have breakfast with Coltrane or James Moody. All the show people would go to those houses. You got a lot of history. We got a lot of knowledge musically."

For five years, Lasley performed with R&B giants like Otis Redding. and Jerry Butler. But he returned to jazz when the big record companies started eating up the small companies that produced the "chitlin circuit" concerts. He returned to New York during the loft movement and picked up work with some noted organ trios. Then New York started to wear on him, so he returned to Detroit. At home, his schedule didn't let up. He continued to perform with big-name jazz musicians including Joe Henderson, Jerry Gonzalez and Elvin Jones.

By the time he finally settled down, he had crafted a reputation as a stylist. People flocked to his music because it was honest and packed with emotion. Like the stylists that he learned from, Phil Lasley shows that jazz in the right hands inspires and heals.

"Now I just try to make the people feel good. I don't care if they understand jazz or have ever heard jazz. If they leave my concert feeling better than when they came in, I did my job." Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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