Walking into Paul Jeffrey's office is a bit like stepping into a jazz museum. Although it's messier than typical portrait galleries, the collection of faces peering from the walls resembles a Who's Who book of jazz greats. Transcriptions of some of jazz's greatest tunes ever played lie on top of a grand piano, under various instruments and music stand pieces and overflow from stuffed folders and books. And if Jeffrey happens to pick up his saxophone from the midst of this clutter, you just may hear some of the coolest jazz you've ever heard in your life.
It's hard not be a little intimidated the first time you meet Jeffrey. In fact, if you're not intimidated, either you're a damn good jazz player yourself, or you don't know anything about the history of jazz music because Jeffrey has played with some of the most influential figures in American music: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie. Though Jeffrey isn't a widely recognized jazz legend himself, he could easily be classified as one simply by association.
"I feel I've been blessed and fortunate to have been around not only some great players, but some innovators," says Jeffrey of his notable bandstand peers. "All the guys I played with are famous to me." To others, of course, it is Jeffrey who is famous. As if to prove this, a couple of jazz enthusiasts are hanging around in his office during our Friday afternoon interview, anticipating some heavy storytelling by Jeffrey. Thinking quickly, they find comfortable seats, because if you start asking Jeffrey about jazz, you're in for an earful.
I find that, as always, the way to overcome his apparent gruffness and truly connect with him is through music. When he speaks about life, he always approaches it from the perspective of music. It's not surprising; after all, this man has lived jazz for over fifty years.
Born in New York's Harlem Hospital in 1933, Jeffrey was transplanted at a young age upstate to Kingston, where he grew up. He began playing his first musical instrument, the violin, at age eight. By age 13, in junior high, he had given up the violin and begun playing the clarinet. Although Jeffrey says, "I always liked jazz. I guess I used to listen to it on the radio," his personal entrance into the world of jazz music was certainly not a scripted one.
"In high school, they needed a second alto to play in the dance band," he says of his first real jazz experience. "My cousin had one he wasn't using, so I initially taught myself to play it. A guy named Jimmy Motsy led the band. Everybody out there thought he was kind of out, crazy. He was there listening to Charlie Parker; I hadn't even heard of him." After taking over the alto position in the band, Jeffrey started forming his own jazz combos, playing gigs in clubs on Saturday nights.
As for the possibility of formally studying jazz, however, the college music schools of the early 50's had no place for a saxophone player. "They did not even recognize the saxophone as an instrument in the university system," says Jeffrey, telling the story of a wind symphony director who asked a saxophone player, "Can you play it so low that I can't hear it?" So instead Jeffrey went to Ithaca College in 1951 to major in the clarinet. Outside of his studies, jazz became a side job, and Jeffrey found himself jumping in and out of jazz combos, playing fraternity parties on weekends and occasionally hitting the Elks Club or the Sons of Italy in between. "As I think about it there was a fair amount of work around campus," he says of his years in Ithaca. "Cornell had a lot of [fraternities], and we played almost every weekend."
Upon graduation from Ithaca in 1955, however, Jeffrey found that neither his education nor his side work in jazz propelled him easily into a waiting career. "It was a very unfamiliar musical climate as far as jazz," he says of his post-graduate experience. "In retrospect, students in music are never told what, in the future, they're going to do...I wasn't really concerned about [playing jazz for a living]. Nobody ever really mentioned it to me."
Rather than give up on a jazz career, though, Jeffrey hit the streets and clubs. "I went to Atlantic City and got a job playing," Jeffrey says. "Talked a club owner into hiring me, and started a band. Little was I to know that I hired McCoy Tyner in my bandÉWe were just kids. We played all night, from 11 until 4 in the morning, because, you know, the places were open all night there. Then we'd go jam in the morning, and sleep out on the beach. Then we'd get up and go practice."
After playing a summer in Atlantic City, Jeffrey says he made up his mind to be a musician. So he returned to New York, where the jazz scene was hot in the fall of 1955, to try and make it as a jazz professional. Success was not immediate, however. "The necessity of supporting oneself meant you had to work a lot of other jobs," he says. "Every job you could possibly imagine, I've done it. That lasted about ten years, a period of limited success except [for] limited engagements. It takes time, making no money, if you want to play jazz. Some people don't like jazz musicians. I remember there was a hotel I worked at, and when they found out I was a jazz player they put me on the midnight shift. So I couldn't play."
Not just struggling financially, Jeffrey found himself scrambling to establish the base he needed to succeed on the jazz scene. "I realized that in college we didn't have a jazz band, and I realized I was totally unpreparedÉI had to go and really learn what [jazz] was about from the ground up. That meant waiting to play in jam sessions, finding musicians and engaging them in conversation about the music, and writing compositions and bringing them to people to get fleeting responses."
As a result, Jeffrey met and occasionally played with some of the most influential jazz artists in history. J.C. Thomas, in his book "Chasin' the Trane"-a book dedicated in part to Paul Jeffrey-relates Jeffrey's story of meeting the great saxophone player John Coltrane for the first time: "I saw Coltrane at The Bohemia in late 1956, and this was one of the times Sonny Rollins and Trane both played with Miles [Davis]. I knew Sonny's style, but Trane really surprised me. I'd always thought of Rollins as a great tenor virtuoso, but Coltrane more than held his own. He followed Sonny's melodic solos with some of the strangest, most convoluted harmonies and chord progressions I'd ever heard. During intermission I went up to talk to him and he said, 'You're Paul Jeffrey? I've heard about you. Come out in the alley.' We did, and Trane handed me his horn and said, 'I'd like to hear you play.' I was so scared I could barely finger the keys, but I managed to play a few passable runs. Then he gave me his address and said to stop by whenever I was in the neighborhood."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
It was during this time of "limited success" that Jeffrey picked up with B.B. King's band on its tour of the South and had his first encounter with the region's unique brand of racial prejudices. "We toured all over," Jeffrey recalls. "We were in Birmingham, and they shot at the Gadston Motel, where we were staying. We went to the bus station to get something to eat, and I didn't know you had to go around the back. These guys grabbed me." Finally fed up with the racial divisions of the South, Jeffrey left the band in Jackson, Miss. and vowed he would never return to the South.
After leaving King's band, Jeffrey finally got a break in 1967 with band leader Howard McGhee. With McGhee's name to drop, he eventually landed a job in the Basie Band, an opportunity which soon led him to Dizzy Gillespie's big band. "We were rehearsing, and Dizzy was rehearsing next door and coming over to talk to Buck Clayton. And they were talking, you know, like these cats do, and he saw me playing with Buck Clayton. Next thing I know, Dizzy calls me up to go to Europe." After touring and recording in Europe for a month, Jeffrey returned to New York and eventually began working with Thelonious Monk's band. He traveled to Japan and then stayed in California while Monk was sick in the hospital, working a job writing lead sheets to support his family back in New York.
All this Jeffrey relays to me while sitting back in his chair, weaving together story after story. As he talks and gestures, I imagine hanging with other musicians at Trane's house, playing a joint in Little Italy, visiting Monk in the hospital, or experiencing the jazz culture of New York City in its prime. He tells stories of guys who never made it, of great players no one has ever heard of because of their own self-destructive behavior or because the breaks never came. Jeffrey's stories often take the form of advice so that whenever he's talking, it seems, he's teaching.
Like his odyssey into a jazz career, Jeffrey's entrance into academia was unplanned and unorthodox. His first teaching job came in 1974 at the Teacher's College of Columbia, where he started off with a single student. From there he taught saxophone and led the jazz band at the Hart School of Music before landing a job at Rutgers University, a job which was supposed to last only one year. All the while he was still playing, working to support his family. "I wasn't really making any money," Jeffrey says about his early teaching jobs, "but I was making credits. I busted my ass at Rutgers the first year." When the temporary position at Rutgers became full-time, Jeffrey settled his family there and stayed until coming to Duke in 1983.
According to Jeffrey, the quality of students attracted him to Duke and prompted him to return to a region he had vowed never to visit again. "There hadn't been a jazz ensemble [at Duke] in a while," Jeffrey says. "I came because there had been some students interested in it. They got the band together. I came down and conducted it, and we decided it would work. The students were really receptive."
In terms of racism, Jeffrey has seen first hand the progress of the South. Wary from his previous trip below the Mason-Dixon line, he was a bit surprised at the positive reception he received at Duke. "President Sanford was very supportive," he relates of his early days at Duke. "In fact, when Lionel Hampton came down, he bought 45 tickets to the concert. He was always very aware of the music."
At Duke today, Jeffrey's name is most often linked with the jazz ensemble, which he teaches and directs. In the 13 years since he arrived on campus, he has transformed a fledgling jazz band into a fully swinging big band which puts on seven concerts each semester featuring some of the greatest guest jazz artists alive today. Originally artists came only because of Jeffrey. Now he finds more and more musicians contacting him about playing with the ensemble. "I've been very encouraged. I got a call from Billy Hart, and he wanted to come down. When things like that happen, there's definitely some validity to the program. It's very rewarding to have someone come up to you and say 'I want to come down and play.'"
Jeffrey brings a practical attitude to the classroom. "I just use the things that were shown to me when I was playing with different bands," he says of his teaching style. "Teaching means to me the things that are getting success. I've got up to eight players who are making it in this business." For his jazz-playing students, Jeffrey tries to establish contacts within the industry by bringing in celebrated artists. "I think a teacher owes it to a student to see how he is going to make a living. You can't guarantee success, but you have an obligation to prepare them for what it's like in this business." Jeffrey's former students include Terrence Blanchard, a jazz saxophone player who has written movie scores for Spike Lee, and recent Duke graduates Todd Bashore and Jeb Patton, both of whom are working with jazz artists in New York.
A visit to Jeffrey's "Introduction to Jazz" class finds it strikingly similar to an interview with him, as he crisscrosses the stage telling stories about the jazz world, moving through its eras and playing bits of recordings to get his points across. Among the nearly 200 students in the class, there are mixed, but mostly positive reactions. A forceful personality like Jeffrey's is bound to attract some students while turning others off.
What many of his students don't seem to realize is that having Jeffrey teach jazz history is the equivalent of having Twyla Tharp teach the history of dance. There is something uniquely fascinating, and markedly unacademic, about learning history from the people who shaped it. Students can pick up a jazz dictionary and find Paul Jeffrey's name. Though he has no doctorate, Jeffrey earned a graduate degree in jazz in the only place it was offered, the jazz clubs and concert halls in America and around the world.
Aware that the class may be regarded as one of the easier classes because of its subject matter and his teaching style, Jeffrey explains the differences in teaching music history. "Students have been programmed in a lot of cases to think education is the regurgitation of data. The pursuit of something creative is just as valid. I don't think complexity is the end of achievement." When I suggest that there are those who say jazz is not academic material, Jeffrey reminds me that jazz music was the first music born in America and exported abroad. He talks of the link between jazz and city culture, a culture long ignored by academia.
"There's a lot to look at here," he says in reference to his jazz history class. "There's more than meets the eye. I'm happy with my students. I feel like they take it because they want to. I don't want it to be an elitist class." His style appears to be working, as interest in both the class and the ensemble continues to expand. In fact, several students joined Jeffrey in Europe last summer for a new "Jazz in Italy" program.
As for the future, Jeffrey doesn't anticipate returning to the club-playing scene. Married now for 36 years with two children and two grandchildren, he considers himself a settled man. Having already made plenty of history in this field of music, his thoughts now focus on sharing his experiences with his students. "Teaching has been very rewarding, and I say spiritually rewarding, for me. I've often felt that if you don't like what you're doing, then you shouldn't be in it."
It is clear after listening to him speak and reminisce, that Jeffrey indeed loves what he is doing now. The posters, photos, and album covers of the past hang on his office wall adjacent to recent Duke Jazz Ensemble announcements; a reminder that this office is not a museum, and that Paul Jeffrey is still creating cool jazz.