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Honk if You're Hungry 

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
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Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Clifford Solomon is one of the cool ones, a jazz and R&B man whose 53 years of bandstand experience follow him, like an exotic perfume, into a room. Solomon and his sax loom large, a presence characterized by warmth, spontaneity, offbeat humor and an artful dedication to melodic purity.

Recounting his midnight exploits, he shifts from minor-key introspection to full-throated elation - even Solomon's speaking voice seems redolent of an after-hours jazz jam's lush hues. He has worked with them all: Teddy Edwards, Eric Dolphy, Fats Navarro, T-Bone Walker, PeeWee Crayton, Lionel Hampton, Charles Brown, Johnny Otis, Jimmy Scott, Big Joe Turner, Little Esther, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Quincy Jones. He was handpicked as bandleader for Ray Charles and, at the height of their popularity, Ike and Tina Turner. He's entertained no fewer than four U.S. presidents, been around the world innumerable times, done movie soundtracks, TV commercials and appearances, countless record dates and one-nighters - a vortex of musical activity all revolving around his luxuriously smoky sax tone and distinctive gift for gently lyrical improvisation.

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"I was born right here in Los Angeles on January 17, 1931, the same date as three other guys: Julius Caesar, Benjamin Franklin and Muhammad Ali," Solomon says. "The saxophone took me up in 1944, when I was in junior high school. The music teacher would bring in name acts to perform for the students. The first one was the Nat Cole Trio, and we had Oscar Moore with the trio. The following week Howard McGhee came with a sextet that had Teddy Edwards on tenor. When Teddy played, I'd never heard anybody like that! We all came up with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, but Teddy was the bebop king, and me and five or six other guys got so hung up on him that all of us became sax players."

The nightclub hurly-burly that Solomon came up in was all hustle and competition, and clearly divided along postwar stylistic lines, where bebop's elliptical cascades of notes and coloration battled R&B's frantic honking and sustained 32-bar wail for both artistic and commercial appeal. The singular fashion in which Solomon straddled both, reconciling them with a natural invention previously undreamed of, built up a considerable demand for his skills and made for one of the most spectacular careers any Los Angeles musician has enjoyed. He's still expanding on that unique mix of deep jazz and R&B sass; for the last eight years and over the course of several stunning albums, he's also been an integral part of one of black American music's greatest artistic resurgences, the return to prominence of pianist-singer Charles Brown, with whom Solomon has worked on and off since 1951.

By age 16, working with local dance bands on the USO circuit and making a fine $25 a week, Solomon began picking up jobs with T-Bone Walker and PeeWee Crayton. "Twenty-five dollars was a lot of money then, so I decided to make this my life's work," he says. "My mother was encouraging, but my father, he and Fletcher Henderson grew up together, and Jimmie Lunceford was a personal friend, so Daddy was the kind who said, 'Musicians? Always broke, no money, they're dope fiends, alcoholics . . .' Later on, after I became pretty proficient, he lightened up on it, and when I went with Lionel Hampton, he was really proud then."

After sitting in with Hampton at a local club, Solomon, still a teenager, was hired as a regular in Hampton's powerful orchestra. Riding high indeed, but, amazingly, he quit the band almost immediately, not because Hampton was such a notorious tightwad but, Solomon explains, "I knew that I wasn't ready - so I came back to study more on the instrument." By 1950, when he was up to speed and ready to stretch, a chance meeting with another sax player wound up placing him next to one of R&B's smoothest heartthrobs, Charles Brown.

"Charles and I used to go to the same barbershop, so I knew him from there," he says. "Well, everybody knew who Charles Brown was - every school kid used to romance on his stuff! I think when 'Drifting Blues' came out, the birthrate shot up 90 percent! I hit on Charles, said, 'Freddy Simon told me you need a saxophone player.' So we rehearsed at his house on West 21st Street from I think it was November till about March of '51. That was my first really big tour, the first gig where I went out of town and made some real money. Stayed with Charles a couple of years, left in '52."

With Brown, Solomon made major artistic strides, commencing a musical dialogue that has lasted right up to the present. Intriguingly, while the best jazz singers are prized for an ability to phrase like horn players, for Solomon it was vocal stylists who had the strongest impact on his playing.

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