Photo by Barbara DuMetz

Bennie Maupin’s angels kept dying on him. At Blue Note Records, co-founder Francis Wolff dug the swaying of Maupin’s reeds on the label’s Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner records, and was about to let Maupin cut his own wax. 1971: Wolff, RIP. Charlie Faske, an exec for Mercury Records, had some plans for Maupin in the pop-jazz arena. 1977: Faske, RIP.

Maupin had already laid cornerstones on some enormous edifices: Miles Davis’ 1970 Afro-dance Bitches Brew and its commercial skyscraper of an offshoot, Herbie Hancock’s 1973 funk template Head Hunters. Musicians knew his name, yes. The public, though? Not really.

“So I thought,” says Maupin in that calm but determined Buddhist way that he has, “This is just not my time to be doing this.” He augmented his art with classes at Pasadena City College, took some temporary extramusical jobs, played here and there. He’s now 58, and this is his time.

In 2001, Maupin got a substantial composer grant from Chamber Music America. He
started showing up everywhere with his tenor sax and bass clarinet: Just in the
last year, among other gigs here and abroad, he’s played in the band of reactivated
bass master Henry Grimes, done spotlight work in a tribute to post-bop genius
Eric Dolphy at Cal State L.A., and played around locally with his quartet, which
has just released the moody texture work Penumbra. His recent music, though
quiet, melodious and structurally involving, maintains an irresistible African
drive. When people hear it — jazz fans or no — they fall in love.

L.A. WEEKLY: It’s a tough time to be bringing out new jazz.
BENNIE MAUPIN: Yeah, it is, especially since we’re not trying to
fit into some kind of format.

Maybe you should get yourself a singer
and play standards.

I don’t think so!

How’d you get started on bass clarinet?
Well, my first wind instrument was clarinet. I moved to New York in 1962, and
before that I’d already heard Eric Dolphy. His playing on the bass clarinet was
something that really opened my ears. It happened that one of my friends played
bass clarinet — Marzette Watts. He had his old clarinet, and I got the word that
he wanted to sell it.

What was going on when Headhunters broke up?
When it ended, I was really quite glad that it did. It wasn’t musically that enjoyable
for me after a certain point, and businesswise, I realized that the return on
that kind of success was not geared toward the band as much as it was geared toward
management and the record company.

Your music is sounding great. Very original.
I like the spaces in the music now. I like the colors of the percussion in the
various things that we’re starting to develop. We’re getting this connection that
you get after having worked together for a while.

At your Egyptian Theater show, you joked that you’re now marketing yourself as a chamber musician.
Chamber Music America has defined chamber music as music that’s performed in an
intimate setting, with a limited number of musicians, generally without a conductor.
There we are.

And audiences like what they hear from you.
The real proof in the pudding was what happened at the Egyptian Theater. Most
of those people I’m sure had no idea what was gonna happen there. It was an incredibly
encouraging event for me — it was very well received.

Why are more people listening to chamber music?
Presenters are becoming more aware of the need for variety, not just string quartets
and European music. People want to hear more than what they hear on the Wave,
that’s for sure, and even more than what they hear on the jazz station. I don’t
think it truly represents what a lot of young musicians are doing. I think about
the younger guys now, and I say to myself, “Wow, how are they gonna get the exposure?”
Y’know, when I was comin’ up, you had the bands — Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Miles
Davis. At least you could get a gig. It’s not like that anymore. I tell guys,
“Even if you have to go and play for free, go and do it.”

You enjoy playing at the World Stage
[South L.A.’s independent community arts and
performance space].

It’s something that I feel very serious about supporting. It’s important to have a place for young musicians to go to and experiment and learn from older guys. I go there maybe once or twice a year, to make people aware: You can come here. It’s not gonna cost you an arm and a leg. Nobody’s gonna mug you. People here are cool, and the music is exciting. It’s a great place.

The Bennie Maupin Ensemble, featuring the phenomenal musicians
Munyungo Jackson (percussion), Darek Oles (bass) and Michael Stephans (drums),
plays the World Stage, 4344 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park, Friday and Saturday, March
25 and 26, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. (213) 293-2451,

LA Weekly