Lest We Forget:

Booker Ervin (1931-1970)
By Ken Waxman

Most advanced of the fabled Texas tenors, Denison-born Booker Telleferro Ervin II was able to adapt the state’s distinctive bluesy and gutsy tenor saxophone style to the advanced compositions of bandleaders such as bassist Charles Mingus. Yet as the classic mid-generation jazzman, his playing was deemed too traditional by the avant-gardists and too far-out for the mainstreamers.

A late bloomer, Ervin who played trombone in high school, only took up the tenor saxophone during an Air Force stint in the late1940s. He took to it so well that by the end of that decade he was a professional, working with various R&B aggregations throughout the country. Gigging in Pittsburg, he discovered a like-minded player in pianist Horace Parlan, and the two set off for New York, where by the end of the 1950s both joined Mingus’ Jazz Workshop. Ervin would stay until 1963 working alongside players such as alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist Jaki Byard. Ervin’s heavy-toned, impassioned playing is featured on such classic Mingus LPs as Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, soloing on tunes like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”.

After leaving Mingus, the saxophonist was on-call as a valued sideman for leaders such as pianist Andrew Hill, organist Don Patterson, and most notably pianist Randy Weston, who utilized his primitive-modernism on two seminal sessions, Monterey ’66, recorded at the California jazz festival and African Cookbook, which successfully linked modern jazz with its musical antecedents in the Third World.

Ervin recorded as leader for a variety of labels, including Savoy, Blue Note, Candid, Bethlehem – the self-explanatory The Book Cooks – and most notably Prestige. Using some combination of Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson, these Prestige sessions – entitled The Freedom Book, The Song Book, The Space Book and The Blues Book – showcased a mature stylist able to work his way through a tender ballad and a hard-toned blues with the same facility. Plus as someone able to hold his own with the likes of Dolphy, Byard and Mingus, Ervin’s harmonic, textural and rhythmic conceptions were more attuned to experiments than more traditional tenor saxophone giants such as Dexter Gordon, with whom he also recorded.

During the last five years of his life Ervin was among the many jazzmen who found work in Europe as well as North America, although he was never tempted to move overseas permanently. He died of kidney disease at 39 in New York City. His legacy as an accomplished and forthright player was such that Parlan, who put down roots in Europe, recorded Lament For Booker on Enja 1975, which coupled Parlan’s musical meditation saluting his old friend with a blues Ervin recorded himself a decade earlier.

— For All About Jazz-New York August 2010