Missing Stanley Turrentine
Another musical chameleon has exchanged his human skin for the transparency of the Big Nowhere.
Stanley Turrentine had been dead for nearly four days by the time I heard about his passing, and the news came as a surprise. He was only 66. And it didn't seem like 30 years since he'd broken through the boundaries of mainstream jazz in 1970 to gain a wider audience with "Sugar."

As I lolled abed in the wee hours of Saturday morning with a novel I'd been meaning to read, I tuned into an all-night FM jazz show I listen to every weekend. The show's format is eclectic and the famous share the airwaves with the undiscovered. There is little chatter and the first half-hour was uninterrupted music.

I noticed a lot of Turrentine.

Thinking the host was presenting a thematic block, I returned to my book until the voice on the radio finally informed me of the tenor sax man's death in New York on September 12, two days after he had suffered a stroke.

It was a sad moment, and I immediately began missing Turrentine, even though I haven't listened to a lot of his music in recent weeks. In fact, I'd been angry with him off and on for about three decades, dating roughly from the emergence of "Sugar" into the pop arena. There is no logic to this, but I always feel that pop chart acceptance of a jazz artist heralds some kind of downfall, and, woefully too often, I have been right about that. It isn't fair, but there you have it.

The stern economics of the music business often require compromise of the sort that panders to popular taste. And that means musicians must choose between lucre and art, two streams that rarely converge. The musician who chooses lucre most often finds himself dressed in follower's cloaks, having traded in his leader's garments for popular acceptance. Were the dilemma transferred to the restaurant business, we'd all end up referring to the Big Mac as "cuisine." For a musician, it's a Faustian bargain that rarely advances the musician's art.

But Stanley Turrentine had managed to avoid that pitfall by dint of his remarkable ability to fit in wherever he played and in whatever subgenre of jazz he assayed. He kept me coming back, even though I'd get sore with him from time to time for pandering. But the key point is he brought me back. And he brought me back for two reasons. First, his approach was blues-based. Second, his technique produced a sound that always has reminded me of a metal cable wrapped in a velvet sleeve -- the surface could beguile, but in the center lay the strength. And it's always the center that matters.

He came by his chops honestly. A Pittsburgh neighbor during his teen years was Ahmad Jamal, who often came by, according to the obituaries I've seen, to practice at the Turrentine family's piano, an instrument played by Stanley's mother. Turrentine pere was a tenor sax man while older brother Tommy played trumpet.

Stanley's talent took him through the usual apprenticeship, but after paying his dues he started to click with the likes of Max Roach, with whom he made his first recordings, Earl Bostic, Ray Charles and Jimmy Smith. Indeed, some of Smith's most legendary recordings in his signature small-group settings featured Turrentine: "Back At The Chicken Shack" [Blue Note, 1960], "Midnight Special" [Blue Note, 1960] and "Prayer Meetin'" [Blue Note, 1963]. These three albums are the cream of early Turrentine and must-have recordings for any complete jazz library.

Turrentine, despite weathering some criticism for his commercial success by jazz purists, was graceful in his rebuttals and, unlike so many musicians who stagnate after gaining pop-chart credentials, he continued to sharpen his musicianly blade. Even on some of his later lackluster recordings, his tone cut through the dross clearly and cleanly. Here was one musician who did not wither on the popular vine.

The Associated Press dispatch announcing his death recounted an anecdote from a past interview with Turrentine, and it sums up his career: "One day, my stepson and I were alphabetizing my albums over the years, and I noticed that they categorized me as a rock and roll player on certain albums, a bee-bop [sic] player on other albums, a pop player, a fusion player ... And I'm just saying ... 'Gee, I'm just playing with different settings, but I'm still playing the same way.'''