Artist Feature

Greg Ward
By Ken Waxman

Back in the heyday of vaudeville, answering affirmatively the question “Will It Play in Peoria?” meant that if an act could impress the audience in that small Illinois town, it was good enough to work nationwide. Ironically enough alto saxophonist Greg Ward embodies that maxim. Before moving to NYC, after maturing his career in Chicago, Ward, 31, spent his teenage years playing every gig he could in his home town of Peoria.

“At that time between Peoria and Chicago there was lots of work for a young player, which was very important,” the saxophonist, explains. Today he’s still kept busy gigging in larger centres, but he doesn’t deny his roots or early associations. On May 16 and 17 at the Jazz Gallery, a septet will premiere his series of composition honoring the 70th birthday of one of his long-time mentors, Preston Jackson. Jackson who is professor emeritus of sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago’s school, as well as a semi-professional guitarist, first played with Ward when the latter was 14. That was three years after Ward had made up his mind to become a musician, despite family pressure to become a doctor. That too was ironic, since both his father and uncle were professional gospel musicians and Ward had been singing gospel music as a three-year-old and studying violin from the age of nine. By the fifth grade he began playing alto saxophone using his father's old Conn.

The deciding factor was when he saw the film Bird and first heard Charlie Parker play. “That was it,” he recalls. “I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and by the time I was 16 I could play every night in blues, rock or jazz groups.” Despite their earlier opposition his parents were supportive, even to the extent of letting him regularly take the bus to nearby Chicago (“$15 each way”, he remembers), to take part in jam sessions in clubs such as The New Apartment Lounge overseen by legend Von Freeman and Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge. By the time he was 20, Anderson, with whom he had developed a friendship over a shared love of Charlie Parker, asked him to lead the Velvet’s weekly jam sessions, which he did until he left the city.

Earlier Ward had broadened his influences. On the advice of his music teacher he picked up Cannonball Adderley’s Verve Jazz Masters 31, adding a second CD to his collection which at that point only consisted of Charlie Parker’s Verve Jazz Masters 15. “I listened to those two constantly back and forth for months”, he admits. In 2000 his burgeoning talent won him a downbeat high school jazz soloist award. At 20, he was not only studying music full time at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb – he graduated in 2004 – but travelling the 60 miles to Chicago many times a week. “That’s something I miss about Chicago,” he sates, “the opportunity to play 10 gigs at week and all kinds: jazz, African, Latin, R&B, rock.”

At NIU students wanted original music to play and Ward was encouraged by music professor and trombonist Joey Sellers to start writing for various sized ensembles. This training comes in handy for his Jazz Gallery program; although he declares that the most challenging project he ever was involved in was composing a 40-minute score for the Peoria Ballet, which premiered in 2008. Jackson was involved there as well as set designer.

When Jackson sat in with Ward’s band many years ago, almost the first thing he said admiringly was: "Damn, boy! You been studying with Jesus!" the altoist recalls. “He encouraged me to make up music with him on the spot simply by demanding that I play with him as he played. Before that I was only accustomed to playing tunes and improvising over forms.” That freedom expanded later during many Chicago jobs Ward did with drummer Vincent Davis, a long-time associate of Roscoe Mitchell. “I had never heard of Roscoe Mitchell but Vincent gave me videos of their sets and taught me how this approach to improvisation could be learned and applied to the music that we were making,” recalls Ward “At first I had no idea what Mitchell was doing. I said ‘what was that’? But after a while I learned that there’s no right way to play. That’s often the hardest lesson a young person has to face because initially you’re most concerned with mastering your craft.”

In Chicago Ward regularly worked in groups such as Hamid Drake’s Bindu, local reedman Ernest Dawkins’ larger bands; and after meeting young drummer Mike Reed at the Velvet Lounge has been a member of Reed’s many projects for more than a decade. He even recorded alongside Mitchell on CDs by Nicolle Mitchell and Rob Mazurek. Ward’s move east came in 2009, after what seemed to be a sign that he wouldn’t put roots down in the Windy City. He was all ready to buy a Chicago apartment when the financing fell through. “I took that as a sign,” he says. Not that NYC was that welcoming, he reveals. “When I first got here I was so nervous. But it was the best decision I ever made. The only way to be involved in New York music is to be here.”

He hasn’t cut his ties with Chicago however. He’s still a member of three of Reed’s projects with different personnel: Living by Lanterns, Loose Assembly and People Places & Things. “Mike’s bands aren’t local Chicago bands”, he explains. “So we’ll get together in Chicago to rehearse, maybe play one gig and then go on tour.” Besides that, Ward plays in the Illinois city with other bands, including the funky Deep Blue Organ Trio. “I love to play in groups like that,” he confesses. “It’s good to be connected with blues and swing.”

Being a New York musician is “a balancing act”, he admits. Although he has recorded two CDs as leader, Ward only plays local clubs a couple of times a year. Besides playing, he also produces pop, classical, R&B and electronica sessions and composes sound tracks. Another affiliation with movies is his marriage to film maker Diana Quiñones Rivera. In fact a documentary on Jackson she made will be shown as part of the May Jazz Gallery program. “This is the first time we’ll be working together”, notes Ward.

At the Gallery, the soundtrack plus other pieces honoring Jackson will be played by a band consisting of himself, tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, pianist John Escreet, guitarist Dave Miller, bassist Zack Lober, drummer Kenneth Salters and vocalist Brianna Thomas, who Ward proudly points out is also from Peoria. “Words for some of the pieces come from a combination of Preston's own writings, the film’s interview material, and lyrics that Brianna and I came up with.” Meanwhile Ward leads two working groups, a trio with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Damion Reid; and a quartet with Miller, Lober and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The epitome of a busy modern musician, one assertion Ward has certainly proven is that what played in Peoria is certainly of high enough quality to play in Chicago and NYC.

Recommended Listening:

• Roscoe Mitchell/Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble - Three Compositions (Rogue Art 2009)

• Greg Ward’s Fitted Shards - South Side Story (19-8 Records, 2010)

• Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut - Eponymous (Thirsty Ear 2011)

• Living By Lanterns - New Myth/Old Science (Cuneiformn 2012)

• Mike Reed's People Places & Things - Clean on the Corner (482 Music 2012)

• Mike Reed's People, Places & Things - Second Cities: Volume 1(482 Music 2014)

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2014