Glenwood Springs Summer of Jazz Performer Plays Trombone, Shells

by Stina Sieg, Post Independent
July 18, 2008

Steve Turre described the beauty of jazz like this.

During a stint in the early 1990s, he played trombone alongside Dizzy Gillespie and his horn. Every evening, they did Gillespie’s big hit, “A Night in Tunisia” for the crowd, and each time, Gillespie (then 75) would improvise a section differently. The rest of the band members would scratch their heads in amazement. Even after performing it for 50 years, he’d make it fresh.

“As long as you’re playing, hopefully it’s about growing,” said Turre. “You’ve got to keep growing all the time.”

And this guy’s talking from experience. He first picked up a trombone in the fourth grade (“Don’t ask me why,” he admitted). Now 59, he’s never put it down. He’s toured with Ray Charles, worked with Herbie Hancock and played with the Saturday Night Live Band for the last 25 years. Somewhere between all this, he started playing sea shells. As he laid out this past with his earthy, baritone voice, it didn’t sound that far away. After all, he still lives in the world of music every day.

Besides teaching at Juilliard, he does gigs around the world. While he’s known best as a trombonist and heads up three separate groups with the instrument, he sees conches as “something special.” Tonight, Steve Turre and the Sanctified Shells will bring that something to the Summer of Jazz.

“The sound of the shells is very peaceful and tranquil,” he said. “It kind of makes everybody calm down.”

He first came across them in the 1970s, while playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind jazz musician. When Kirk was in some rowdy club, he’d blow into a shell to get everyone to pay attention. They always did — and so did Turre. Not satisfied to play just the single note, Turre developed this technique of moving his hand in and out of the shell to create different tones. A trip to YouTube will show you the effect, which is surprisingly serene and delicate. He’s since added a little variation to the sound. Today, the Sanctified Shells consists of 13 pieces, including piano, bass, drums, congas, African percussion, saxophone and six “shellists.” Audiences can look forward to every kind of music, Turre said, from “jazzy jazz” to African to Latin.

“We got something for them. Good rhythm, unique sound,” he added.

What really matters in his music is being real, having substance, he went on.

In his words, “I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Over the years at SNL, he’s seen scores of musicians, some who feel the same — some who don’t. He joked about watching Ashlee Simpson “get busted” for lip synching and didn’t care to mention all those dozens of one-hit wonders he’s had to back up. But there were acts that stuck out, too. To him, Bonnie Raitt was real. So was Paul McCartney. Al Green “tore it up,” he said, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers “got down.”

Like so many musicians, he bemoaned our culture of hype versus substance. He doesn’t care if Kenny G has sold more records than Charlie Parker. When it comes to artistry, there is zero debate.

“I’m talking about music,” he said. “I’m talking, in a thousand years, people are still going to be listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and Kenny G is going to be a footnote.”

When asked to describe the work of those jazz greats, he paused for a long while. Finally, he started shooting questions back.

“How do you put that level of virtuosity, that level of creative genius, that level of intuitive expression? How do you put that in words?” he asked. “I mean, it’s hard to describe in words, even for me. And I play it.”

One thing he does know, however, is that jazz brings people together. He’s played to small town audiences, big city dwellers, Japanese tourists, even. All kinds of listeners get it. Maybe, like him, they understand that each song is special, a one-time offering that will never be duplicated. Or perhaps they just like dancing to something. Whatever their reason, Turre is into the fact that jazz is a constant exploration. Like Gillespie, he’s never going to stop working it.

“I like that,” he said. “It keeps you … keeps you young.”