Honk if You're Hungry
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.
"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.
"Lester Young used to say you've got to know the lyrics, because if you can't sing it, then you can't play it," he says. "Charles Brown - the way he phrased. And Frank Sinatra was a big influence on me as well. Man, I'd listen to him, and the songs that he sung were just like the way I'd play 'em with my horn. I was 20 years old, right, so I didn't realize I was phrasin' like him; we'd play the records and I'd play along with my sax.
"Now, Charles they classified as a blues singer, which he really isn't, you know. He's got that bluesy 'mmmoo ooooo' sound, but he's not sitting on a cotton bale out on the bayou singing that kind of thing - he's an excellent piano player, classically trained. His singing has got that bluesy tinge, but as a singer, it's the way he phrases. It's the same with Sinatra: two great singers who would be thinking jazz, and phrase that way."
By the time Solomon struck out on his own, it was the height of the R&B honking craze, kicked off by Paul Williams' "The Hucklebuck" in '49 and taken to frantic extremes by shrewd Los Angeles sax men Big Jay McNeely and Joe Houston. "At the time, they couldn't decide if they wanted you to play jazz or honk," he says. "A guy told me once, 'There are two types of ways to play saxophone: You can play intelligent or you can play ign'ant.' By intelligent he meant guys like Dexter Gordon, Don Byas. And then there's the ign'ant players, like Joe Houston and Jay McNeely. At the time I started out, there was no in-between; you had to be one or the other."
Solomon's unique ability to wed the entertaining fury of the "ign'ants" with the poise and articulation of the "intelligents" was captured perfectly on the 1953 Okeh single "But Officer," a wry musical look at police harassment; Quincy Jones hustled up the session, jazzman Gigi Gryce supplied spoken interjections ("But officer, that is my real name!" and "But Lucifer I mean officer . . ."), with Solomon's sax "speaking" the cop's part, an amazing demonstration of his horn style's almost conversational flexibility. While it was the only record ever released under his own name ("They pressed about three copies," he says, "and my mother bought 'em all!"), he remained an in-demand player for decades, one whose gift for spanning the far reaches of the sax spectrum served him very well.
In 1964, "Ike Turner called me up, so I went over to his house, and the Ali-Liston fight came on on the radio; we stopped the rehearsal to listen to the fight. Later on, Ike just said, 'You're hired, as far as I'm concerned.' Which was weird, because this wasn't even an audition, and I was always considered a jazz musician." He stayed with Ike and Tina until 1967, then rejoined in '72 and found himself smack-dab in the middle of one a of the most bizarre scenarios in R&B history, the night in Oakland when the Black Panthers, who had booked the show, stormed the stage and beat the hell out of Ike and his band.
"Ike didn't know it was a Panther thing, and the place was packed with all these desperate-looking guys, couldn't see their pupils through the shades, necks all bulging with veins, T-shirts all rolled up even though it was about 30 degrees below zero. Well, I can't reason like the Black Panthers, but they'd figured, get all the people to show up, pay Ike and then take the money back. Ike was clairvoyant enough to know somethin' wasn't right, and he always got his money before he started, just like Ray Charles, so he'd given the money to his secretary, who left for Los Angeles.
"The money, it was gone, and the Panthers decided to start kickin' butt. During the second show, they came up there onstage, and a scuffle broke out with one of the karate students - Ike had spent all this money teaching two or three guys in the band karate. Now, the piano player, Duane, was blind, and he heard all this commotion, and this cat is bumpin' off the walls, so I ran over and took him down offstage. The Panthers are up there kickin' butt, and we're observing from the side, and Duane'd say, 'Oh! What's that? Who got hit then?' And I'm doin' the Howard Cosell, like it was on the radio! But Ike's band got their asses kicked - and the ones that tried to use that 25-cent karate got it the worst!"
Solomon laughs at the memory, then adds, "I didn't find out until several years later that one of the Panther higher-ups knew me from somewhere and had told 'em, 'Don't bother that guy.'"
Clifford Solomon has led a thoroughly charmed life; in 1974 Ray Charles hired him and by '77 made him bandleader, a high-prestige position that he held for the next 10 years. In 1990, Charles Brown once again called on Solomon, who joined him just before Bonnie Raitt took Brown out for a national tour, considerably heating up the pianist's career and, happily, raising both his profile and his price. Brown and Solomon have remained together since, recording and performing some of the finest work of their respective careers. Brown's latest album, So Goes Love, in fact, features both Solomon and Teddy Edwards, a rare example of artistic continuity in a field more prone to tragedy and failure.
Hearing Solomon meander through one of his languid improvisatory stretches is among the greatest musical pleasures this town has ever offered. Typically, though, he feels much the same as he did when he first quit Lionel Hampton's orchestra way back when; even after decades of session work, he says, he can't name a record he's really proud of.
"I don't have a favorite, because I never have been satisfied - after listening to something, I always say, 'Well, I could've done it better than that!' So you're never satisfied. At least I'm not."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.