This interview took place the morning of September 28th, 2013 at Oliver Lake’s home in
Montclair, New Jersey.
Alex Lewis: Well, the first thing we ask is that you introduce yourself.
Oliver Lake: My name is Oliver Lake, musician, composer, and I happen to paint, and I happen to
AL: Happen to…?
OL: Yeah, well I would never define myself as a painter. But I think of myself as a musician who also
paints and writes poetry. And I guess when I say write poetry, I perform my poetry too. And a lot of
the paintings in my house are paintings that I’ve done.
AL: I want to ask you about coming up in St. Louis and when you first started playing music. I
understand you didn’t even start playing saxophone until a little bit later on?
OL: Yeah I got started when I was in high school. I think I must have been around 17. It would’ve
been in the middle of my high school years. And I didn’t really get serious about playing the
saxophone until after I flunked out of college.
I graduated from high school and went to Harris Teachers College in St. Louis, Missouri. I was
majoring in education and minoring in biology. And I’m looking through these microscopes and not
recognizing anything. And I flunked out, and the rule was if you flunk out of college then you can’t
go back, you have to stay out a semester. And when I stayed out that semester I had to decide what I
wanted to do.
Then I said – I played a little bit of saxophone in high school when I was 17, now I’m going to really
dedicate my time to doing this. And I had friends like Lester Bowie who played trumpet in St. Louis
and had started playing when he was, you know, 11 or 12 years old. And
I asked Lester, I said, “Man this is really late to start playing the saxophone.”
He said, “Well, in ten
years no one will know when you started to play if you’re playing your ass off.”
I said “You’re
So it was about how you apply yourself and your time. And because I felt that 19, 20 years old was a
little bit late to pursue the saxophone, he inspired me to know that it wasn’t too late. And I feel like
I’m still learning saxophone. That’s the thing – that’s one of the things that makes music exciting for
me. It’s to know that every day when you wake up, you can learn some new music – there’s
something that you can learn.
AL: Were you seeing a lot of music when you were growing up?
OL: Yeah, well, I was in a drum and bugle corps when I was about 12 or 13. The group that I was in
was called the American Woodman. And I was playing the bass drum and cymbals. And in that
group there were older musicians who were playing jazz. Some of them were 16, 17, 18 years old.
And I used to hang out with them and they kind of introduced me to young musicians trying to
pursue jazz. So I went to a lot of jam sessions with those guys. And in that group I was introduced to
Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond and Sonny Rollins, through one of the saxophonists who was
playing all of these Trane tunes, and all these other well known jazz heroes.
AL: So why did you choose the saxophone?
OL: When I was in the drum and bugle corps, the guy who introduced me to jazz was
Fred Walker, and he played the tenor saxophone. He gave me his LP collection of the
saxophonists that he didn’t necessarily care for or that he had listened to enough. And so that was one
of the first instruments I was presented with.
And then I heard the alto sax and then the soprano sax. And I just have an affinity for the higher
sound of the saxophones. The alto and the soprano. So those are the two that I play. I just don’t have
an affinity for the lower saxophones. I’ve tried to play tenor a little bit. I recorded a couple of
Jump Up CDs where I played tenor and then eventually I just said I’m hearing the alto and I’m
hearing the soprano. I’m gonna stick with those two.
AL: What do you think it is about the higher sounds?
OL: I don’t know. I have an affinity for the higher sounds. But I couldn’t put my finger
on why or how I ended up choosing them. I know that I love Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean and a
bunch of other great alto saxophone players.
AL: So when you started to dedicate yourself to saxophone, did you have a specific teacher or mentor?
Or were you kind of learning it on your own?
OL: There were a couple of guys who were helping me. There was a saxophonist there named John
Norment. He passed away about five or six years ago. He was one of my early mentors. And another
saxophonist named Freddie Washington, tenor saxophonist; he still lives in St. Louis. And he was one
of my early mentors.
And one of the interesting things for me was when I started my record label, Passing Thru Records,
which has been going for over thirty years, I was able to record Freddie Washington on his first CD
that he ever made and put him with the John Hicks rhythm section. And that was a very important
milestone for me to be able to record one of my mentors. I brought him up to New York, he went into
the studio, he recorded and then went back to St. Louis.
AL: I wanted to ask you about the record label. Is that one of the reasons why you started it – the
freedom to bring in people like that from your life?
OL: Well, that was one of the reasons. But I think the primary reason was the influence of the Black
Artist Group that started in St. Louis in 1968. And one of the primary reasons that group started was
to put forward the idea that musicians should be in control of their own destiny. And one way of
being in control of your destiny is owning your music. And if I own my music, I own my own label, I
don’t give up my publishing, I own my rights to it all. And that was really a seed that was planted by
the Black Artist Group.
At that particular time around 1968 a lot of the community organizations were forming and it was all
about self-determination and about self-empowerment. There was a time period when we called that
the black power movement, and a lot of the arts organizations around the country were black arts
organizations. And for the artists in St. Louis, that was the lesson that we were trying to implement in
our daily lives by having our own theatre, our own place of presentation for our concerts on a weekly
The record label came from that idea. I wanted to have control of the music.
And right now I think
we just released the twentieth CD for Passing Thru Records. It’s a cd that features Frank Lacy and
Kevin Ray and Kevin Drury. It’s a group called 1032K. So it’s not only a vanity label, it’s not all of
my CDs. I have put out other artists. My son Gene Lake has 2 CDs on the label. I put out a solo CD
of John Hicks who was from St. Louis also. We went to the same high school together. Unfortunately
John passed several years ago, but we were very close, dating all the way back to high school. John
had a tremendous career as a jazz pianist and in the history of the music.
Jake Nussbaum: Can you maybe describe the atmosphere of the Black Artists Group a little bit
more? What was the scene like? What was the lifestyle like?
OL: Well, we were into self-production. That was one of the big things about the group, the fact that
we were making things happen for us. And it wasn’t just musicians. It was a group of dancers, actors,
visual artists. It was approximately 50 artists.
We were very fortunate in our beginning. In the first year we formed we received a substantial grant
that enabled us to have our own space and have classes and present concerts. So in that atmosphere,
where we were salaried to teach and then present ourselves, there was a lot of creativity. And the fact
that we were all in that building.
So there were a lot of exchanges going on. One week I would be accompanying a poet, the next week
I would be writing music for a theatrical performance that the actors were putting on. Maybe in the
month after that I’m writing music for dancers and having that performed. And then we had a big
band and I was writing music for the big band. And it was just a high level of creativity going on and
an exchange of all the arts that were happening simultaneously.
And when I moved to New York in 1974 (or when I left St. Louis in 1972 and moved to Paris for 2
years), I tried to continue the lesson that I learned in St. Louis which was one of self-production,
making things happen, not waiting for stuff to happen. And also dealing in these various multi-media
areas. And Julius Hemphill was doing a similar thing. He always incorporated theater into this
performances and spoken word and dance. All of that for me was a direct result of being in the Black
JN: What was the BAG building like in St. Louis? Was it a big apartment building?
OL: No, it was a big factory space in downtown St. Louis. Matter of fact, when I was in St. Louis
about a year and a half ago, I went by that building and stood in front of it and had a photo taken.
And it’s vacant. It’s been vacant for years. But it was like a huge loft space, two stories. One floor
was where we did our performances and had classes. And the second floor there was a visual artist in
residence, Emilio Cruz. I have several of his paintings here. I’ll show them to you.
But the history of the Black Artists Group was very short. I mean, we were active around three and a
half to four years. And things just kind of fell apart. But we kept the name going when I moved to
Paris. I called the group of musicians that I had there the Oliver Lake Bag (B.A.G.). And that was –
Charles “Bobo” Shaw the drummer, Joseph Bowie on trombone, brother of Lester Bowie. Baikida
Carroll was trumpet and Floyd LeFlore also on trumpet. And that was a group that left St. Louis
when the Black Artists Group kind of disbanded in 1972. That group moved to Europe and continued
to do concerts and so forth.
JN: And some of those were AACM guys?
OL: No, but the AACM was an inspiration for starting the Black Artists Group. Every summer in St.
Louis in the late 60s, I would plan a trip either to New York or to Chicago. I had graduated from
Lincoln University in Jefferson City in music education, and I was teaching music in the elementary
schools in St. Louis. I did that for about 3 years and that was when the Black Artists Group was
going. One summer I went to Chicago. Lester had already moved there from St. Louis and was in the
AACM and in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And I went there and saw what they were doing,
presenting themselves, and doing concerts and having classes and being a very vibrant part of the
And I came back to St. Louis and met with the musicians that I was associated with, Julius Hemphill,
Floyd LeFlore, and Baikida Carroll, and a lot of other players who were there. We were getting
together informally, having jam sessions. And what I noticed in Chicago, those guys were together
and they were organized and it was a group and they were presenting themselves.
So when I came
back, I was like, “We got to be a branch of the AACM because we’re getting together but we don’t
have anything formally organized.”
And Julius said, “Why don’t we form our own group?”
Because we were at that particular time a part of a theater ensemble at Forest Park College that was
doing a musical play by Genet and the play was called The Blacks. And we were presenting,
performing the music, and there were actors and dancers and all this. And so that gave Julius the
inspiration to say why don’t we involve the actors, the dancers, the drummers in the formation of this
group instead of being a branch of the AACM? And all of us said okay and then that’s when we
started the Black Artists Group.
But we did exchange concerts with the AACM. A busload of Chicago guys came down to our
building and did concerts. A busload of us would go up to Chicago and present. We did that for a
couple years. So there was a direct connection between both groups, physically and inspirationally
and any way we could think of at that particular time. And actually, that inspiration has continued
throughout the years. I mean I just recently in August did a duo concert with Roscoe Mitchell. And
over the years I’ve been collaborating with them back and forth, kind of thinking of it as a Midwest
collaboration between Chicago and St. Louis. Even though a lot of us moved to New York, we still
have an association with that.
AL: So did the BAG disband when you decided to move to Paris?
OL: Yeah, that was it. There was a slight rift between the musician’s section of the Black Artists and
the actors section and we never really resolved that rift and the group kind of disbanded over that.
AL: Why did you decide to move to Paris?
OL: Well, again, it was the connection with the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They had
just, I think, done two or three years living in Paris and doing concerts. And they had moved back to
the States. And our group was disbanding around that same time and we felt like we had played all of
the areas in the tri-state area and the Midwest between St. Louis and Kansas City and Chicago. And
we wanted to stretch out. And so fortunately for us that year we had final monies from one of the
grants that we received and instead of splitting up the money we said we’re going to go to Europe
and see what can happen on an international level.
So we were just coming out of the Midwest and going directly to Paris. It just felt like, if we wanted
to expand what we were doing and learn more and be a part of the international scene why not? I
always thought of New York as being the center of the music, which it is and was, and I knew
eventually I was going to move there, but I just took a different route. St. Louis, Paris, New York.
AL: You talk about this physical and spiritual exchange you had with the AACM in Chicago and St.
Louis. And then going to Paris. Has the spirit behind that what has carried you
through the present.
OL: Oh, definitely! Because I thought that in order for me to make some kind of mark in the music, the
route that the AACM had started was obvious. I was very excited about it and it was very creative.
And we were all around the same age and all of these guys were pursuing their own music, and that
was such an inspiration for all of the guys in St. Louis. The biggest inspiration was that it was an
organization of musicians and they had started it themselves.
Because traditionally in St. Louis and I guess around the United States, traditional jazz was being
played in the local jazz clubs, so there was really no outlet for us to play my original music, other
than one place where I lived called the Laclede Town, which was a housing complex where a lot of
the musicians in the Black Artists Group lived. Several of the musicians lived in that housing
complex at that time. And it was very near the building that we had for our classes and performances. And there was a coffee house in that complex that was very open to whatever we did. Some of my
first performances of me doing my original music was in the Circle Coffeehouse in the Laclede
Town housing complex where Julius lived, I lived, Floyd LaFlore lived, and several other musicians.
And so in order to have other places, we were pushed into presenting ourselves. And we were very
successful at it at that particular time. We filled up that performance space every weekend…
AL: When you moved to New York was it difficult to start presenting your own work there?
OL: It was difficult up to a point. It took me about six months to realize I had to do the same
thing that I did in St. Louis. Because when I got to New York I was thinking that I was just gonna sit
in with different people and get hired and work and that didn’t really happen. And then I went back
home after about six months, back to St. Louis, and I was contemplating, thinking why wasn’t I
having any success in New York? And then it was like a light bulb went off. You have to do the
same thing you did here. You have to do that in New York.
And so I came back and I lived in the village and there were a lot of loft concerts that took place.
And a lot of musicians rented those spaces and presented themselves. Which is what I had been
doing all the time. So when I started doing that, I started having success.
One of the first groups I
hooked up with was a Chicago group of Wadada Leo Smith. He lived in Connecticut, but he was
doing various concerts in Connecticut and New York and he was one of the first groups that hired
me. And between me presenting myself and playing with him, then I started having success.
But I mean, it was nothing for us to rent the space, make the posters, sell the tickets, rehearse the
band, you know? I had to do everything and a lot of musicians were doing that. And still, it still
happens now. On different levels, but it’s still happening.
JN: So you picked up saxophone later on in your high school years, you started a collective in St.
Louis, you started a collective in New York, you ripped the tickets and made the posters. Do you
consider yourself a self-starter? A self-made kind of guy?
OL: When I was in high school trying to decide what kind of career I wanted to have,
even before I chose music, I said I want to be in business. Somehow I want to be in business. So I
guess it was kind of a way of combining the two things. The non-profit that I have, Passing Thru – we
have concerts and educational components and the record company. So all of that has to do with me
being a self-starter and a way for me to combine business and music. And that combination is a very
important part of longevity, in the music business that’s called jazz anyway.
You have to know something of the business of music in order to survive. And this was a way for me
to learn that. Between how to do a production, how to have a non-profit and make it sensible to
present your music. And how to use the non-profit to secure grants for composition.
The big band recording that I just did, that just came out last year, Wheels, on my label. It’s the
second big band recording that I’ve done. I received a recording grant from an association in New
York to do that particular project.
JN: Is there a political dimension to that sort of autonomy too? Doing everything yourself – is there a
larger context for that?
OL: I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it as political but I think of it as a way of just being in control
of your destiny. So you can’t really cry in your beer. If there’s a musician who’s saying I don’t have
any work, well you can create some work. You keep reinventing yourself and you keep moving
forward and you keep making things happen. And you’re using all elements and educating yourself
from a business point to be able to present yourself musically.
AL: Do you think that’s a very important trait that you see in a lot of the successful musicians that you
know? That they are good at the business side of things?
OL: Oh definitely. I think of somebody right now like Dave Douglas who has the business side of it
really together with his own record label, his website, his productions, and various ensembles that he
has. And Vijay Iyer, he has several groups going on and several different projects. And an important
part of self-production is having these various projects going on. Things that you like to do. And you
end up doing them and you find a way to make it happen.
I mean, for me, I have a seventeen-piece big band. We don’t work a lot, but it’s been going now for
more than twenty years. And I have the Organ Quartet that I’ve been working with for like the last
seven or eight years, and I continue to do solo concerts. And the World Saxophone Quartet
continues. We happen to be on a little break right now, but we’ve been going for more than 35 years.
Trio 3 has been going for more than 25 years: Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille and myself. So I
mean the co-ops are an important part, but all these various projects, and being involved in the
business of the music, and knowing that you can be in charge of what you do… there’s no excuse.
AL: You do a lot of teaching in Montclair, NJ. How does that fit in?
OL: I’m not actually associated with any university and I’m not on any
faculty and haven’t been for years. What I have been doing over the years is artist residencies and
private lessons. So I continue to do that. Last December I did a two week residency in a jazz music
school in Austria. And also in Switzerland, I’ve gone there for several workshops and residencies. So
that’s an important part of what I consider Passing Thru to be about.
So I will continue to have individual students and do these residencies in various colleges and
anywhere that’ll have me to spread the word.
And you know it was exciting for me because a lot of
the things that I give to the students are non-traditional. I mean they kind of deal with the make up of
the style that I play. And a lot of times the saxophone jazz styles are more traditional and people like
myself or Roscoe Mitchell or players like that will have another angle to approach the instrument
with and this is important for the students as well.
There’s a group here in Montclair too called Jazz House Kids, which is run by Christian McBride
and his wife Melissa Walker. And they had me in last year to do a workshop for the kids. And they
had kids from 12 years old to like 18 and they’re just learning the traditional style. Which is a great
basis for what you learn about jazz, but when I played for them they were all like, “Wait a minute! What’s he doing?” [Laughs]
And so I was there talking about what I did and it’s just to give a different
take or different look at where the music can go. Different possibilities.
JN: What is your approach as a teacher to talking about those other things? Is it playing for your
students? Is it communicating it with language? I mean how do you go about presenting that
OL: I mean, it’s about playing, but it’s also about telling them to remain open and look at all the
different ways you can go. All the different possibilities that you have for putting things together…
One time I had a group called Jump Up, that I called Oliver Lake Jump Up. And I had synthesized
reggae rhythms with jazz. And I was doing lots of vocals with that group. And for me that’s an
example of being open to various ways of approaching the music.
One of my sons, Jahee, is a DJ and I did a duo recording with him DJing and me playing saxophone
and reading my poetry. Another example of being open, and I notice that a lot of the younger
musicians are open to everything.
And so when I’m talking to students, not only am I playing to say that there are other possibilities,
that you don’t have to resolve this chord to that chord. You can, but you don’t have to. The main
thing is communication in this music. My goal is to make a direct communication, an honest, direct
communication with my audience. And in return the audience gives me energy and there’s an
exchange that happens between the audience and the musician.
And if I’m very honest, then it doesn’t matter what resolution I use from this note to that note. It’s
just a matter of whether I’ve made a direct, clear and honest communication. And I try to impart that
to the students when I’m talking.
JN: Does improvising fuel that relationship between the audience and performer?
OL: Oh definitely. I mean improvisation is in the moment and the audience is there with you and you
go on your journey.
AL: You mentioned the tradition. What was your relationship with jazz tradition when you were
learning how to play? I mean, do you feel like what you’re doing is a logical step? Or do you feel
embattled with it at all?
OL: [Laughs] I guess embattled. No, you know when I started out Charlie Parker was someone I was
trying to emulate. And as I got further and further into it, I realized that I couldn’t do it. I realized I
was not going to be successful at emulating Charlie Parker. And then when I heard players like Eric
Dolphy, that opened me up to some other possibilities and other ways to travel with the saxophone.
And I felt I should put my emphasis on that particular way of approaching the music and that’s what
I’ve done over the years.
And I also loved the traditional sound, the traditional styles. Jackie McLean is one of my favorites
and I always kind of felt like if I could be a synthesis of Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy – that’s
kind of where I’ve been trying to go. And when I did this concert in August with Roscoe Mitchell,
one of the reviewers – I don’t know if he read that’s what I wanted to do — but he put that in the
review! He sounds like Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean. [Laughs] I said, did I say that and he knew it?
Or he actually heard that? I said, okay! I’m a success because that’s what I was going for.
JN: In one of Amiri Baraka’s essays about jazz he describes the music as a constant interpretation of
new surroundings. And at the same time a changing interpretation of the same thing over and over.
He gets at that idea of that weird space between always looking forward and looking back at the
OL: Well you know I totally agree with that because I always feel that whether I’m playing with the
string quartet, which I’m going to be doing in a couple days, or whether I’m playing with my big
band, or whether I’m playing solo, that the blues is a constant thread through my saxophone. So
there’s a link to what happened before, but it’s open to the possibilities of whatever might happen–
in the audience at that particular time or in the music that I’ve written or in things that happen
JN: The blues – can you talk a little more about what you mean by the blues?
OL: Well there’s a sound that you know. And I don’t know how to put words on that. But there’s a
blues sound. I don’t necessarily mean playing twelve bar form and doing the blues scale all of the
time. But I think if someone listens to when I play, that the thread of the blues, the soul of the blues
sound is going through my saxophone all the time, all the way through. And you can tell that I’m
kind of linked and locked to that particular sound. Regardless of my musical surroundings, whether
it’s a string quartet, saxophone quartet, I think I’m linking straight to the blues. I don’t know how to
put it in direct words, but I think it’s something you have to listen to.
JN: You have an album called Expandable Language. And to me when I think of your music I think that
phrase is just so appropriate. Expandable language.
OL: I looked at that as being music – music as a language. And it’s expandable and it’s a play on
words. And it’s up to the audience to take it wherever they want to go. I didn’t have a specific thing.
But for me it implied music.
JN: It’s a brilliant title and it’s a lot of good music.
Community is obviously a really important idea
to you and an important thread through this conversation. Is jazz specifically good for keeping alive
that sense of community? Is it specifically jazz that allows you to do that? Or is it something else?
OL: I think it’s just music in general. I mean there’s so much turmoil going on in the world,
I can’t even imagine what it would be like without music and whether it’s jazz music or funk music
or classical music or just music in general, it’s a way of keeping the sanity and keeping the peace and
keeping world peace, and us striving to be a better people.
JN: I remember one quick question I wanted to ask on that note. You are really active on Twitter. Kind
of more than many, many jazz musicians are. And you talk a lot about this idea of community. I’m
just wondering if there’s a connection between that and –
OL: Well, you know what happened was my youngest kids – Maya Lake, she is going to be thirty in a
couple months, and her brother, my youngest son, Jahee, is 34. They came to me and said, Dad you
gotta be on Facebook. I said what is Facebook? And they joined me up to it. And a couple months
later, Dad, you’re not on Twitter. You gotta be on Twitter. And I said what is Twitter? So then I
realized how important it is as a musician to have a social identity in this social network that’s going
JN: Do you find yourself connected more to certain people because of social media?
OL: It’s been amazing. The thing with Ethan Iverson – these tweets were going up and I knew Ethan.
But we had never really met and he kept re-tweeting things that I said. And then I ran into him at a
gig, at one of my gigs, and he’s like, “Okay, what about us doing a concert together?”
I think that’s a direct result of all this interaction that we were having on Twitter. And a couple of
other incidences like that where people saw things that I had tweeted or put on Facebook, and we
started a conversation and it ended up with me doing a performance somewhere that didn’t exist prior
to that. So I think it has a positive effect not only for relationships, but also for my performances too.
JN: Aside from twitter, how did you start to fall in with these younger guys?
OL: Well, you know music is about music. I don’t think there’s an age discrepancy in terms of that. If
we’re of like minds I think we gravitate towards each other. And some of those guys, because of my
age, have said well I heard you 30 years ago and I wanted to get the opportunity to play with you. So
it’s a big inspiration to me. It ends up being a two-way street where they say that I’ve inspired them
and then when I hear them I get inspiration. And then we start playing together and there’s an
exchange that happens.
There’s a group that I’ve been collaborating with called Tarbaby, which is Eric Revis on bass, Orrin
Evans on piano, and Nasheet Waits on drums. And that group is guys in their early 40s, and I’m 71
as of about a week ago. laughs They called me about 3 years ago and asked me would I do a guest
appearance on their upcoming CD, and I said of course, and as a result of doing that one record date
with them they asked me to do some concerts, so we’ve been collaborating the last three and a half
That question comes up time and again, how did I get with the younger guys? But I have recorded
with Nasheet Waits’ father, Freddie Waits, who was a fabulous drummer who passed away many
years ago. And when Nasheet came to me and wanted me to be on the recording – he wanted to
record the same piece that I had written and recorded with his father. And I thought that was funny.
So it’s a circle – the musical circle goes on.
AL: Do you go out and see a lot of these people play?
OL: Well, it varies. I guess generally I don’t get out a lot, but I run into people or musicians when
we’re on the same performances. Or I’m on tour and we’re in the same festivals. And I end up
getting a lot of CDs when I’m out and I check them out on their latest CDs and so forth. Vijay and I
had actually gotten together a couple of years ago for the first time and did a duo concert in uptown
New York. So our history goes a couple years back.
With Trio 3 we play every year at Birdland and every year we’ve had a guest pianist – Geri Allen
and then Jason Moran last year and this year Vijay Iyer. And next year we may just start the circle
again. You know it might be Geri Allen, we’re not sure who will be our guest next year. But we’re
always trying to keep some young fresh artists involved – who keep evolving the music and keep it
Alex Lewis is an independent radio producer and musician living in Philadelphia.
Jake Nussbaum is a musician and writer. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT.
This interview is part of an ongoing project focusing on the production and communication of knowledge and value in jazz and improvisational music. Look for more soon.