Born on April 2, 1938, in Memphis, TN; died on October 5, 1961, in New York, NY. Education: Studied trumpet, music theory, orchestration and composition at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, 1954-58; graduated with a bachelor of music degree, 1958.
Booker Little's death from uremia in 1961 at the age of 23 robbed the jazz world of a great musician. Critics almost universally agree that by the time of his death Little was already an exceptional trumpet player, improviser, and composer who had the potential to become even greater. An emotional musician, he often was grouped with his contemporaries Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard as one of the more ambitious young hard-bop trumpeters. Little's talent was such that, in a career that spanned just over three years, he recorded four albums of his own and participated in numerous other recordings with such jazz luminaries as Max Roach, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy.
Little was born on April 2, 1938, in Memphis, Tennessee, into a musical family. His father played trombone in a Baptist church band, his mother was a church pianist, and his sister became a singer with the London Opera Company. As a child, Little tried to learn the trombone without success. He switched to clarinet by age 12, then turned to the trumpet at the suggestion of his high school band director. Little was also fortunate enough to jam with others in the Memphis area who later became noted jazz musicians: pianist Phineas Newborn, guitarist Calvin Newborn, and saxophonist George Coleman.
Little was serious enough about music to leave Memphis in 1954 to study trumpet at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. During his four years there, Little gained experience by jamming around the city with performers such as saxophonist Johnny Griffin and the MJT+3. Little also roomed for nine months at the YMCA with the noted saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who encouraged Little to develop his own musical identity. "Sonny was a big help," Little recollected to Nat Hentoff in liner notes included with the Booker Little album. "For one thing he cautioned me about allowing myself to become overly influenced by other players. He told me not to listen to too many records, because he felt I was listening to them mainly to emulate what the soloists were playing. 'You've got to be you,' he told me. 'Whether that's bad or good.'"
In 1955, Rollins introduced Little to drummer Max Roach, whose band included Coleman and noted trumpeter Clifford Brown. After Brown's tragic death in a car accident in 1956, Roach asked Little to join his band. Little agreed, and upon graduating from the conservatory, made his first recordings with Roach in June of 1958. Little worked with Roach through late 1959 and contributed to various recording sessions, including the 1958 release Deeds Not Words, which featured "Larry-Larue," Little's first recorded composition. He also led a session with Roach under the title Booker Little 4 & Max Roach, which revealed a touch of Brown's influence on trumpet.
Even at the age of 20, Little made significant contributions to the band in terms of composition and arrangement. As Roach's then-bassist Art Davis told Paul F. Berliner in Thinking in Jazz: "Booker Little did a lot of writing in Max Roach's band. Sometimes, he would write things on the spot for us to play. Other times, he'd have things already written. Also, Booker would modify the arrangements at times.... Sometimes, he would change whole sections just to get it in there."
In early 1960 Little left Roach briefly to freelance in New York with performers such as vocalist Bill Henderson, trombonist Slide Hampton, and vibraphonist Teddy Charles. Little also led his second recording session, titled Booker Little, which featured pianists Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan and bassist Scott LaFaro. Having composed nearly all the material himself, this release demonstrated Little's growing maturity as a player and leader as he began to move beyond Brown's influence.
Little rejoined Roach in late August to record We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which also featured the vocals of Abbey Lincoln, Roach's then-wife. Little also teamed for the first time with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, his most sympathetic collaborator, on the 1960 release Far Cry. In early 1961, Little led another session that featured Dolphy, Roach, and trombonist Julian Priester. Titled Out Front, this recording remains Little's finest as a leader. In each of the album's seven compositions, Little probed accepted jazz conventions by moving beyond traditional chord structures. As Dan Polletta noted in MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, "Little, who made judicious use of dissonance, emitted a sound that reflected a melancholy quality, particularly felt on Out Front in the work by the soloists and in Little's well-structured compositions. There is a sense of symmetry to this date, a sense of controlled experimentation." The session also captured Little in complete control of his playing both technically and emotionally. As Berliner noted, "Mastery over particular technical features of performances increases both the nuances of musical sound and the artist's ability to express emotion. Over a four-year recording history, Booker Little mastered infinitesimal valve depressions for ornamenting pitches with refined microtonal scoops that added pathos and distinction to his language use."
After recording as part of an orchestra assembled by legendary saxophonist John Coltrane in mid-1961 for the Africa/Brass sessions, Little and Dolphy secured a now-famous two-week engagement that July at the Five Spot Café in New York City. Along with a fine rhythm section that included pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Evans and drummer Ed Blackwell, the group made a series of live recordings released as Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volumes 1, 2 and 3. The resulting material is an excellent example of the probing, inventive and sympathetic relationship Little and Dolphy shared. The performances find both players stretching out with aggressive, lengthy solos that explore the tones that lie between the whole and half steps in traditional Western music. As Little told Metronome magazine (in comments included in liner notes for Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volume 1): "I can't think in terms of wrong notes--in fact I don't hear any notes as being wrong. It's a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, resolve them."
Among the most inspiring of Little's compositions included in the live sessions is "Bee Vamp," which showcases his aggressive yet controlled handling of his instrument. As for the Little-Dolphy pairing, some critics such as Polletta have gone so far as to draw comparisons to the seminal recordings alto saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker made with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s: "Those groundbreaking Bird and Dizzy sessions featured two young musicians with a telepathic sense of interplay searching for new ways to extend the language of jazz. So, too, do the Dolphy-Little recordings, especially the Five Spot sessions, which generate an air of excitement and the unexpected."
Little teamed with Roach, Dolphy, and Lincoln one last time on the Roach release Percussion Bitter Sweet, before Little led his fourth, and final, session. Recorded in August or September of 1961, Victory and Sorrow (subsequently released under the misleading title Booker Little and Friend) also featured Coleman and Priester, with material contributed entirely by Little. Among his impressive compositions are "Booker's Blues" and the melancholy ballad "If I Should Lose You," though the album has a more bop-like tone than the earlier Out Front.
Unfortunately, Victory and Sorrow was Little's final recording. Though his output was limited, Little's influence on the jazz community was not. As Berliner remarked, "By [the time of his death], Little had achieved what some spend a lifetime pursuing. An improviser, composer, and arranger, his was a unique voice whose recognition within the jazz community attests to his meaningful contribution to the tradition."
by Jeff Samoray
Booker Little's Career
Recorded with Max Roach's group, c. 1958-60; led first recording session, Booker Little 4 & Max Roach, 1958; freelanced in New York City, c. 1960; led second recording session, Booker Little, 1960; rejoined Max Roach's group, c. August 1960; recorded Far Cry with Eric Dolphy, 1960; led third recording session, Out Front, 1960; recorded Africa/Brass with John Coltrane, 1961; codirected a group with Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot Café in New York City, July 1961; led fourth recording session, Victory and Sorrow, August or September 1961.
- Selected discography
- Booker Little 4 & Max Roach , Blue Note, 1958; reissued, 1991.
- Booker Little , Stereo Time, 1960; reissued, Bainbridge, 1980.
- Out Front , Candid, 1961; reissued, 1989.
- Victory and Sorrow , Bethlehem, 1961; reissued as Booker Little and Friend , Avenue Jazz, 2000.
- With Max Roach
- Deeds Not Words , Riverside, 1958.
- We Insist! Freedom Now Suite , Candid, 1960.
- Percussion Bitter Sweet , Impulse, 1961.
- With Eric Dolphy
- Far Cry , Prestige, 1960.
- Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volumes 1, 2, 3 , Prestige, 1961; reissued, Fantasy, 1991.
- Candid Dolphy , Candid, 1961; reissued, 1989.
- With others
- (With Abbey Lincoln) Straight Ahead , Candid, 1961.
- (With John Coltrane) Africa/Brass; Africa Brass Sessions Vol. 2 , Impulse, 1961; reissued Africa/Brass Volumes 1 & 2 , 1974.
- Berliner, Paul F., Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, University of Chicago Press, 1994.
- Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette, Penguin, 1992.
- Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, editors, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
- Down Beat, May 1996, p. 6; December 1994, pp. 74-75.
- "Booker Little," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (January 14, 2002).
- Additional information was obtained from Booker Little and Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volume 1liner notes.