Wayne Escoffery On Yale, Repertoire And Humble Warriors


Wayne Escoffery revisits part of his childhood on The Humble Warrior (Smoke Sessions).

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

On his latest album, The Humble Warrior, Wayne Escoffery did something rather unusual for a jazz artist: He devoted one-third of the recording to an arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis. It’s a near-literal rendering of the original melodies, orchestrated for an expanded version of Escoffery’s current working band, and reveals much about the tenor saxophonist’s unique biography.

Escoffery is known for his long-standing tenure in The Mingus Big Band and for his sideman work with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tom Harrell and Monty Alexander. Less known is that Escoffery spent the first seven years of his life in London, before moving with his mother across the Atlantic. They eventually landed in New Haven, Connecticut, where he received his first formal music training, singing in the accomplished Trinity Boys Choir, and then took his first saxophone lessons from a Yale University grad student. Today, he also works at the school, returning in 2016 to teach jazz classes in the same room where he once studied.

DownBeat caught up with Escoffery, who spoke by phone from New York about his new album and some of the personal history behind it.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you move to the U.S.? Do you remember what that was like for you as a young kid?

I basically moved here when I was about 7 years old. I had a pretty traumatic childhood: I dealt with a lot of abuse in my family, from my father. That’s part of the reason why we left. In a weird kind of way, when you have that trauma early on, you actually do remember it.

One of things [my mother] remembers is walking in on me in the bedroom, where I was standing in front of the mirror, practicing an American accent. It wasn’t the coolest thing to have this weird British accent in elementary school. I’m a hard worker, so I got rid of it pretty fast.

Do you now think of yourself as African American? Do you feel any different from other black musicians you know and play with?

Yes and no, to be honest with you. I thought of myself as African American, because if you look like me and you grow up in this country, that’s what you are, and that’s what you’re treated as. [But] within the African-American community, and even within the white community, there were differences there that were obvious.

Certain things weren’t the norm for me, even hip-hop, even basketball. [For] my mother, those weren’t the things that were important to her. She’d be listening to reggae music, to classical music, watching cricket on television. I did always know that I was different, when it came down to it.

How did you end up singing in the Trinity Boys Choir? Did you have to audition?

My mother has always been a big fan of classical music, and I went to a pretty unique elementary school. They had this guy, Walden Moore, who was the director of the Trinity Boys Choir, come in and audition young kids. We didn’t really know what we were auditioning for. He chose me and maybe one other boy from that school.

Being in that world-renowned boys choir was an amazing, formative experience for me, and to this day is really the foundation of my musical identity.

How did you end up back in New Haven, teaching at Yale?

Thomas Duffy is the director of bands at the Yale School of Music. [As a boy], I would be at Hendrie Hall, practicing. His band room was actually down the hall. Even when I was 14, 15 ... he told me that he would hear me practicing Sonny Rollins licks, Coltrane stuff. And so, there was always that kind of peripheral relationship where they knew who I was. I would reach out to Thomas Duffy every now and then and also Willie Ruff, just to let them know I was always there, if they needed me.

Four years ago, there was a lot of talk through the student body, through the Yale [Undergraduate] Jazz Collective, that they really wanted more jazz represented at Yale. I really think a big part of the reason that the jazz initiative got started at Yale was [because of] the students’ desire and activism. That’s something they really need to be acknowledged for.

Your new album is called The Humble Warrior. Name a few who you think have earned that title.

Roy Hargrove, first and foremost. Another one would be Harold Mabern. I would say Jimmy Heath, and in a way, Mulgrew Miller, even though we lost him much longer ago.

They all have that sprit of allowing the music to keep them humble, in spite of how well they’ve done and how important they are to this music.

Of the repertoire you sang in that choir, why pick selections from Missa Brevis to arrange for the album?

In the choir, it was a big honor to be chosen to be one of the lead soloists in that piece. I was never chosen to do that, but there were a few choirboys that were chosen, and it was a big honor for them. In some ways, it was a coming of age, I guess. It was more than performing a great piece of music. And just the harmonies of that mass always drew me in, in ways that some of the other pieces didn’t. All those fourth intervals, even before I knew what a fourth interval was—I was like, “Man, what is this? It sounds amazing!” And so, I’m glad I [later] got to look at it through adult eyes and got a chance to play with it.

Putting an English classical composer on your album suggests you still identify with that part of your personal history. Can you talk about that in the context of being a jazz musician with a singular background?

My family’s Jamaican, and there’s a very large Jamaican community in England—and London in particular. So, that culture in my family is very strong, no matter where we reside. The name Escoffery was very well known in Jamaica. I honestly didn’t get connected with England until I became a professional and was touring more. My reception from the British audience has been really warm, and that’s been a great feeling.

Can you talk about working with another Jamaican performer, pianist Monty Alexander?

It’s been really wonderful to be exposed to and have further education in Jamaican music and Jamaican culture through Monty. It’s a beautiful mix of the jazz I grew up with and came to love—Thelonious Monk and, say, Oscar Peterson and the Ray Brown Trio; that music with the reggae tradition. It’s been a beautiful juxtaposition of it through Monty’s group. In a strange way, everything’s been coming full circle. DB

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