An Interview with Greg Osby

This interview was conducted on the 28th of May 2003 at the Jazzclub Unterfahrt in Munich, Germany. Greg was currently on tour with the 'New Sound Collective' along with Terri Lynne Carrington, Steve Khan, and Jimmy Haslip. I spoke with Greg after the gig in the musician's room.
ET: You were born in St. Louis. How did you come to play saxophone? GO: Well, you know (in) the junior high school band, 7th grade, 12 years old; there was a choice of playing trombone or clarinet. And of course I jumped to the clarinet because it looked more interesting. And one year later, this is 1972 actually, I got my hands on a saxophone and immediately fell in love with that because it was applicable to more contemporary situations. But I stuck with the clarinet as well because
of the challenges. So I was doubling. And a year later I got a flute. So, by the time I was 13 I was playing saxophone, flute and clarinet. So, I took to it very rapidly because I enjoyed it so much. And after two years from the beginning, I was good enough to play with some the local bands. I was playing in Blues band, pop bands and soul bands, and R&B. Because you know in the 70's, they didn't have synthesizers so they had to have a horn section. So, I learned to play in the soul bands, and to play in a section. It was really good. It was important. ET: Do you come out of a musical family?GO: No, no musicians at all. It was just a stroke of fate, and I'm

really happy that it happened that way. Because I would stand out and it was unique and music posed a whole set of challenges, and it gave me something to work on and to work towards. ET: You mentioned that you played with local R&B bands and such. What brought you to jazz? GO: Well, I guess while I was playing in those bands, it was frustrating for me. Although we did take solos it was usually over one chord like a groove or some vamp. And even though I didn't know much about the higher properties of music, I knew that there was a lot more that could be done. There was a lot more potential. So, a friend of mine, he gave me a Charlie Parker record and I had never heard anybody play like that. I never heard saxophone played so intricately and with so much complexity. So, I got my hands on every Charlie Parker record I could. And then Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt followed. You know, technicians. Players of my instrument. So that started it. Because I said; “Wow! I didn’t know that this was possible.” And then I studied on my own and I questioned a lot of the older players around St. Louis. I asked a lot of questions. Not formal study, but badgering them. Actually, following them and being a pest. And when you you’re young you have to be shameless and full of will. You can’t be shy. And you can’t be afraid of rejection and you can’t be afraid to expose the fact that you don’t know something. Wherever the information lies, you have to go for it. From players in your peer group, or players who have been playing a little longer, or older players. So, I just jumped in headfirst. ET: Who were some of the older players in the St. Louis area? GO: People like Willie Aikins, and Freddy Washington, and E. O'Harra Spearman, these were local players in St. Louis, though. People really don’t know them, but they were very inspirational to me, because I was able to see at a young age, players on that level, of that caliber, on a professional level. They were actually very generous with the information (they gave me). They told me exactly what I needed to study, and what I need to approach and do. So, it was good. I was informed properly at an impressionable age. ET: You studied at the famous Howard University and Berklee College of Music. Could you tell us what were the greatest “highlights” of what you got out of these institutions? GO: Well, interestingly enough, while I was there (Howard Univ.) I was very resistant to what was being taught. The fundamentals that were being presented were primarily Western European choral writing, counterpoint and things like that. I was resistant because I didn’t see the value in that. I couldn’t see how that could be applicable to any kind of contemporary situation. I called it “powdered wig” music.

[Outburst of laughter]

[Terri Lynne Carrington: “Powdered wig” music?]
Yeah, I said; “I can’t make any money playing this. I’m not going to play in any orchestras playing saxophone.” So, then I became very impatient after my second year and visited the Berklee College of Music. I had some friends studying there. And after sitting in on a couple of ensembles there, those teachers wrote letters of recommendation about me to the Directors of Admissions. So, I got a scholarship to go there. So, I transferred from Washington, D.C. to Boston. There was a higher caliber of players, there were more players and it was much more intense because it wasn’t a university, but a music conservatory. So, it was great. Now, in retrospect to look back at the things I learned initially, the choral writing, figured bass, and all that· now, that encompasses a great deal of how I approach music. Dealing with form and structures. ET: Now that you found a medium where you actually can apply it, it makes sense. GO: Yeah. So, it’s all relative. There’s really no such thing as disposable information for me. Some things you may not see the purpose for or value in, but there are various ways you can incorporate that information into your craft. ET: You display a phenomenal technical ability on your instrument. Do you have a certain type of philosophy about how you approach the saxophone on the technical aspects? GO: Well, during my formative years, the years I was in college, I endeavored to try to develop a technique that was unique, that was exclusive to me, that was readily identifiable. When people heard it, they would know that it was me. This was as a young player. I really had no business thinking that, but that is what I wanted to do. I knew I would be up against legions of saxophone players, all going for the same gigs, and I said; “What can I do?” So, as opposed to be exclusively studying Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and other established players of my instrument, I also studied a great deal of piano players. It almost superceded my study of saxophone. I transcribed a lot of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, Herbie Nichols, um… Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Teddy Edwards, Phineas Newborn, Errol Garner, like really technical… Jaki Byard, those kind of players. ET: It’s funny that you mention that, because that’s my impression when I hear you play. To me it sounds like you’re trying to play piano. I mean, I can hear the influence. GO: That’s right on the head. I’m trying to play polyphonic technique on a monophonic instrument, like a two-handed duality kind of thing. A pianist can play in different directions, they can “comp” with themselves, and they can do different kind of things because they have two hands and ten fingers. So, I’m playing a simulation of that. You know, jumping registers and doing real technical kind of things and larger groups, and smaller intervals and smaller clusters· so, that’s exactly what it is. I would take a 4bar, or 8-bar or 16-bar phrase from Bud Powell, so to speak· transcribe that. Sometimes the whole solo but more likely, exactly what I wanted which would be a great run, or a great passage. And I would put that on the top line of some manuscript paper and consequently, I would transpose it into all twelve keys. So, as opposed to working on that line in one key, I would work it in all keys. So, I would work on that until I have it under my fingers, for a week or two. Then I would that take same line and start altering accidentals, changing rhythms, changing the stress points and accents, and stuff. So, that by the time I had modified it after a month or two or so, it no longer sounded like the original line. It sounded more like a Greg Osby line. So, therefore I could retain it a lot more readily on the bandstand or in a jam session because it sounds like something that I made up, but its origins came from somebody who really knew what they were doing. ET: So, you were really going through the process of getting the most out of the material that you were picking up. GO: Sure. It’s an evolution, it’s like theme and variations and it taught me how to modify things and think quickly on the spot. Say, for instance, you’re on a tour and you’re playing the same songs in the same sequence every night. You have to figure out different approaches.

ET: Right. GO: So, by doing that, if you have four variants of the same line, I have four different ways of doing it. I can change rhythms and delete things, add things, and stagger things, you know, it’s endless. So, it really baffles me when I hear younger players say; “I don’t know to practice.”, “I don’t know what to study.” You know, there is a great deal to be done with smaller fragments of information. You can just change rhythms, you can add accidentals, and you can delete things but you have to have an imagination and just say to yourself “What if?” ET: Along the way, did you have any saxophone instructors that were most memorable to you, or had the biggest influence on you? GO: When I was playing in these funk bands in high school; we were playing exclusively by ear. We would learn Earth, Wind and Fire songs, Tower of Power, you know, we played them from records, we were playing by ear. So there was no written music. So I developed a great ear, so that I can hear things and play it back. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, we had this turntable that was really temperamental. The turntable was a belt-driven turntable. It was affected by humidity, and heat. If it was too hot, it would run fast, if it was to cold it would run slow, so the key was always different. So, if the tune was in “C”, we would invariably play that tune in “B” or “C#”. If it was “F”, it was “F#” or “E”. So we’d always played tunes in the most difficult keys, with the most sharps and flats. We didn’t now. We didn’t know any better, we just thought that all tunes were in “C#”, and “F#”. So, that gave me a great deal of facility in these really difficult keys. I developed a great deal of fearlessness, when I saw key signatures, because I didn’t know any better. And I also learned to play saxophone in a very unorthodox way, because I didn’t have formal instruction until I got to college. I was fingering things really uniquely and unorthodox, it was quite interesting. So when I did get to Howard University, there was classical instruction, you know, all the saxophone majors had to study classical. And I was really resistant because I really didn’t like the sound of that French school of classical saxophone. I didn’t like the discipline, you know, they tried to make me play a small mouthpiece with a really soft reed and all that. I just didn’t like it. So, I was reluctant but I did it anyway just for the grade. But in retrospect, he helped me out a lot. There were keys on the saxophone I didn’t even know what they were for. I played all my “Bb’s” with two fingers and a side key. I didn’t even use the “bis” key at all, or even “one-to-one”. So, I had the most difficult fingering for real easy things. When I learned other options, I had a lot of alternate fingerings and that’s what I do now. I have alternate fingerings for different keys, different passages, different tempos and stuff, which allowed me a greater flexibility than some players who had only one way of doing things. ET: What advice would you give a young saxophonist today, according to the instrument and to playing music in general? GO: Well, first of all, I’d encourage any player, young or old, to try to maximize what they are working with. “Play the hand you are dealt.” A lot of players have this illusion that if they buy an Otto Link mouthpiece, they are going to sound like Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon or whomever. Not only has that been done to death, there is no guarantee that you will succeed. These players were dealing with a very personalized physiology; their oral cavity, chest cavity, lung capacity, bone structure, those issues factors into how they sounded. ET: It all pays a role. GO: Right. So, the thing is to really examine how you play, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and capitalize on the strengths and to develop and hone the weaknesses. So, you have to be honest. If your technique is faulty or if your tone is weak, or you don’t have any endurance, you can work on these things. It’s pointless to drill yourself in areas where you excel. If you can play your scales flawlessly, and play your arpeggios great, there’s no point on doing that everyday. What you need to do is work on the stuff that is weak. If your high register is thin, you need to work on your long tones. If in your low register you have to honk out notes, you need a softer reed. A lot of people won’t do that. They’re playing the setup that their idol played, not realizing that Cannonball was a really big guy, and Charlie Parker had a lot of power, you know that kind of thing. You have to deal with your sound, and polish it. The sound that I’m playing with is basically the sound that I’ve always had. It might be stronger now, and more centered and focused, but it’s basically the same sound. I never endeavored

to sound like Sonny Stitt. ET: There’s a certain “Kernel” to your sound that’s always you, because it is you. It’s your jaw, your teeth… GO: It’s like your speaking voice you can’t change it. You can’t really change it. So the best thing to do is, you try to enunciate and try to have as much focus and proper musical diction as possible. It comes from dealing with articulation, you know, tonguing exercises, and good reading, good posture, good attack, not to be sloppy and not developing lazy and bad habits. My saxophone teacher· I’m happy now, at that time I was really angry at him. He used to hit our hands with a ruler. Gary Thomas, and me we were at college at the same time, so we had the same teacher and he was into the “sticky fingers” technique, where your fingers don’t leave the keys too much. That’s the Charlie Parker technique. He used to say, “Don’t flap your fingers”, “Don’t show people what fingerings you’re playing”, “Don’t use excessive body movement”, you know, focus. My other teacher at Berklee, Andy McGhee, he would talk about; “Play to the exit sign”, “Don’t play to the people in the first row, play to the people in the back row. Throw your sound back there.” I want to give the simulation that, if you’re a smaller framed cat, like me· if somebody hears me on tape, they should think that you weigh 300 pounds. He wanted your sound to be wide, and fat, and broad and distinct… projecting. You don’t want it to come out of the bell and let it drop to the floor, you want to throw it like a ventriloquist. To the back. So, those types of things, you get a visual picture and· it was some very helpful information. He never told me what to do and what not to do. He said, just follow your instincts and just be honest. If you know that you need work on in a certain area, you have to do the work. ET: No one else is going to do it for you. GO: The results are directly reflective of the work. ET: Who was your instructor at Howard? GO: At Howard, his name was Reginald Jackson. He was a renowned classical cat on alto. He made the alto sound like…it didn’t even sound like an alto anymore. ET: More like a cello probably. GO: Yeah, it was a Buffet and he had half-moon cork in the low Bb and B keys and when he played he just had so much control. He could whisper a low Bb and come from complete silence. I just marveled at his control. However, he could never improvise, he couldn’t sight-read jazz rhythms, -syncopation. He used multiphonics and played tricky fingerings. He was from the French school. He studied in France. So, I listened to him and extracted from that experience what I could. But I never wanted to pursue that as a lifestyle. But there are still remnants of those studies still in my playing. The control. Even though, I don’t fancy myself as a practitioner or die-hard fan of classical saxophone. ET: I noticed also when I hear you play; I hear a lot of classical saxophone technique, as far as the control is concerned. I had wondered if you had seriously spent any time doing that. GO: That may be by default. I never really paid attention, even when I was studying. ET: That’s why I didn’t assume. It could happen without having to deal with… GO: Sure, because I would just cram for the lesson an hour before. [Outburst of laughter] I had a whole week to study the stuff, and I tried to shed an hour before, because I hated it. So, it’s just by default. ET: So hey, that about wraps it up. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you and you’ve shared a lot of great information. Many thanks to you Mr. Greg Osby.

Greg Osby is one of the most innovative voices of the saxophone and of jazz today. You can visit Greg at You’ll find MP3 and MIDI files to download,

photos, more interviews and more. His latest recording “St. Louis Shoes” is available at