Jazz Forum    JF 3/1990 (vol. 124)
The Magazine of the International Jazz Federation
25th year of publication


by Keith Knox

A recent WHYY/NPR radio feature by Kevin Whitehead was devoted to saxophonist and composer Rich Halley and kicked off with these words. "Some critics think that the jazz world ends at Manhattan's shores, and that any musicians unfortunate enough to live someplace else had better get themselves to the Apple if they want to get noticed. Never mind that some people like country living, or that jazz has always depended on infusions of fresh ideas from frontier outposts like Kansas City and Chicago." Halfway through the program, Whitehead pointed out that, "Rich Halley's writing reminds us that our information culture - which includes records and radio-has eroded notions of regional style. Halley has an affinity for Caribbean rhythms unlikely in an Oregonian who spends his free time in the woods; his compact charts may also reflect the inspiration of Charles Mingus. But while Halley's influences may be easy to spot, his music has a distinctive personality; well-informed as it is, it shows the advantages of working in relative isolation. His tunes keep defeating expectations; just when a chord progression is ready to resolve itself it goes off on a tangent, forestalling completion for a few more bars."

Rich Halley lives with his family in Portland, Oregon. He is the leader of The Lizard Brothers, a sextet with a three- horn front line and an adventurous repertoire of original compositions. He has three albums out under his own name, all of which have been widely acclaimed. He is also featured on a number of other recordings led by Obo Addy, Dave Storrs and Tom McFarland, among others. Halley's own recordings are "Multnomah Rhythms" from 1983 (Avocet P-101), "Song Of The Backlands" from 1984-85 (Avocet P-103), and "Cracked Sidewalks" from 1986 (Avocet P- 105).

Here's a brief sample of press comment on his recordings.

"Halley has the big sound and biting attack of Sonny Rollins. Listening to his entrance on Eb July, one has to be impressed by the jocularity of his tone (something I've always admired about Rollins, too)."
Robert Iannopolio/Cadence Magazine

"The Excuse sounds like something Anthony Braxton could have written, but neither here nor in the other places Halley uses avant-garde textures does one feel lost-there is always a rootedness, and throughout all the modality and sidestepping one senses that Halley at least thinks tonally."
Bart Grooms/Option Magazine

"The tunes, all by Halley, reflect Mingus's melange of blues, bop, gospel and African-tinged music, with a dose of Monk's ironic wit thrown in. The band is a sextet (tenor and alto saxophone, trombone, piano, bass and drums) with an ear for interesting unison playing and responsible collective improvisation. The leader is a tenor saxophonist given to leaping intervals, rhapsodic angularity and gut-bucket raucousness a la Bennie Wallace and David Murray."
Owen Cordle/The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Here, in his own words, is Rich Halley's story

I grew up in the state of Oregon. My parents were teachers who came from rural Eastern Oregon to Portland, where I was born in 1947. Since my home country has been an important influence in my life, I should mention that Western Oregon is forested and rainy while East of the Cascade Range it's mostly mountains and sagebrush desert. Not many people live in Eastern Oregon and it's still pretty wild in places. Like most American kids, I grew up listening to the rhythm in' blues, country & western, and rock & roll on the radio. I began playing the clarinet in the school band at the age of 11 and started playing tenor saxophone when I was 14. Soon afterwards I began to listen to jazz, and immediately became intensely interested in the music.

Early on I listened a great deal to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among others. By 1964, 1 was playing in jazz groups with other young musicians and trying to learn the basics of bebop. There were coffee houses and other places where we could play and also hear older, more experienced musicians. Sometimes we would play in a "free" context; to me that was always a very natural thing to do.

In 1965, my father took a teaching job in Cairo, Egypt, and I went there with my family. In Cairo I was in a dance band that played many styles of music, a sort of international mix. I liked living in Egypt and the multi-national scene there.

In 1966, 1 moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. At that time the AACM was very active and many of the musicians lived in the neighborhood around the university. What I liked most about the AACM was that they were committed to working together and they were not afraid to do something different and find their own way. There were sessions every Friday night where as many as ten or fifteen groups would play, including many people who are well known nowadays: Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, etc. Plus other great players who didn't ever get to New York, like bassist Charles Clark. Of all the saxophonists I heard there, I especially liked Fred Anderson. I played at some of those sessions. At one point Joseph Jarman organized a big band of students and other young players. We played charts from the original AACM experimental band.

I listened a lot to people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler as well as to more traditional types of jazz. I always felt that Ornette's music was very straightforward. It swung, it had a lot of feeling, and the soloists always told a story. To me, those are the basics of jazz. Also, the music had a folklike, very human quality. Ayler's music had that folklike quality even more so. It wasn't a bunch of complicated stuff with a lot of hip licks. It came straight from the heart.

I worked in a rhythm & blues band in Chicago. Jordan Sandke was the trumpet player and his brother, Randy, was in a band with Mike Brecker, who I got to know. Chicago had all kinds of great blues players and I came to really love that music. At the time, people like Otis Rush (who I used to sit in with), Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Albert King, B.B. King and many others, were always playing around the city. Eddie Shaw was Otis Rush's tenor player at that time and when I had to solo after him it was always an education. I studied for about six months with saxophonist Joe Daly. He helped me get started playing changes and showed me some things about improvisation. I used to hear Anthony Braxton practicing when I would go by his place, he was very dedicated and always practicing. When I saw him on the street we would sometimes talk about music. I remember that I once told him I was getting. in a couple of hours' practice every day. He said, "Two hours? You know it takes more than that." And he was right. Later on I practiced four or five hours a day.

I'd been studying biology and anthropology at the University of Chicago. In Chicago I really missed the West, the space and the feeling of the land there, and in the fall of 1968 1 decided to return to Oregon. Since childhood I have been drawn to animals and plants and wilderness. This has been a major motivating force in my life. One of the things that initially attracted me to jazz was that I could feel something in John Coltrane's music that was somehow similar to what I felt when I was out in the mountains. Over the next five years I lived in different parts of the West, working day jobs when I needed to and spending a lot of time in the wilderness: in the mountains and deserts. At various times I worked as a construction worker, house painter, tree planter, fruit picker, and on road crews and trail crews. Sometimes I played in rock 'n' roll or country & western bands.

In 1969, 1 lived in Berkeley for a few months. Bert Wilson lived next door and Lenny Pickett lived three doors down. There were sessions at Bert Wilson's house and we would play. Many of the musicians in the area would come by Bert's house and hang out. Sonny Simmons would come by, and Smiley Winters used to be there a lot. Lenny Pickett was in high school at the time. He had studied some with Bert and was technically very proficient. Sometimes we would play or practice together. He used to practice his scales in seven octaves, which I thought was wild. Bert was always playing or listening, or talking about music. He was (and is) an important force for modern music on the West Coast. Back in the '60s he played very much the way he does now. He was doing things on the saxophone back then that are now being done by people who have since become famous.

In 1973, 1 went back to college to study biology at Portland State University. After I graduated, my wife, Betty, and I were married and we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the University of New Mexico and did field research on rattlesnakes. While I was in New Mexico I played in a funk band. After completing my Master's degree in biology, we moved to San Francisco where I played mostly in Latin bands. It was at this time that I began writing music seriously, although I wasn't performing it in public. After a year in San Francisco we returned to Portland, in the fall of 1976. From that time until 1981, 1 supported myself as a musician in Portland. During the late '70s Portland had a good jazz scene and I was able to work a lot.


In 1977, drummer Dave Storrs and I formed Multnomah Rhythm Ensemble. Dave played drums and tuba, I played saxophones and flutes, and Steve Willis was on bass, cello, clarinet, and a lap steel guitar that he played with a butter knife while it was turned up to distortion level. Steve could get incredible electronic sounds out of that lap steel. We played a gig with Julius Hemphill and continued to play in that format for a couple of years. After Steve left, we changed the band to a seven piece with three horns and four rhythm including Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy. We would do things with slides masks and costumes, talking and movement, which were on the order of what is now called performance art. Sometimes we made our own instruments. It was a very interesting band. Finally, in 1981, people decided to pursue their separate interests. My first record, "Multnomah Rhythms" (Avocet P-101), was made then and shortly afterwards I formed my current group, The Lizard Brothers. I used that name because I've always felt close to animals, particularly snakes and lizards, and because I figured that people would remember the name.

The jazz scene in Portland had become much more conservative by this time and I decided I could not support my family as a musician and still play the kind of music that I wanted to. I had developed to the point where I felt I had something to say musically and didn't want to dilute that statement. I looked for work and kept seeing ads for computer programmers. Since there were hardly any biology jobs available, I decided that computer work might provide a way to make a living and still allow me to develop my music. I ended up taking some computer courses at the local community college and then got a job as a programmer. Although this limits my time, it has enabled me to concentrate on developing my own music.

These days I perform mostly with my own band, generally in concert settings, because the club scene in this area is very conservative musically. As leader, I book the gigs, write most of the material, and provide the overall direction for the group. However, I believe that any good band needs to work cooperatively, so I ask for, and get, important contributions from the other members. I often ask for suggestions as to how arrangements can be improved. I also try to make sure that each person has the opportunity to express and extend themselves musically.


I've been working with William Thomas for nearly ten years now. He's an arranger/composer as well as a drummer, and has contributed several arrangements to the band's repertoire including the version of Lush Life that we recorded for "Song Of The Backlands." William has lived in San Francisco and Paris, and his strong bebop background gives the band a solid rhythmic foundation. He works regularly with Leroy Vinnegar and has worked with Charlie Rouse, Alan Silva and Richard "Groove" Holmes.

Geoff Lee brings a great harmonic and rhythmic sense to the band with his piano playing. He provides color in the ensemble as well as being a fine soloist. Geoff is originally from Colorado, where he became friends with bassist Phil Sparks. He spent a short period in New York, where he worked with Stan Getz. He's also played with John Lindberg, Anthony Braxton, Bud Shank and Rory Stuart. In Portland he works regularly with Leroy Vinnegar.

Phil Sparks has a gift for playing bass very spontaneously and intuitively. When he plays a solo you generally hear something you haven't heard before. He can tap into that creative source and take the music to some new place. Phil has worked with Mose Allison, Julian Priester, Bennie Wallace, Charlie Rouse and Bobby Shew, among others.

Altoist Gary Harris has an ear for interesting harmonic intervals. He and trombonist Tom Hill can read down just about anything you put in front of them. Gary travelled a lot with rhythm & blues and funk bands, and toured Japan with bluesman Little Milton. He's also written the music for several films. He works regularly with Ghanaian master drummer, Obo Addy, and has a good knowledge of West African rhythms.

Tom Hill plays the trombone with a command and fluidity that is amazing, considering he didn't get into it seriously until he was in his 20's. He provides the important brass counterpoint to the saxes in the band. Tom has toured with Obo Addy, played in a duo with guitarist John Stowell, and works regularly with the rhythm In' blues group, Salmon Dave.

Lately I've also been playing with drummer Dave Storrs, trumpeter Rob Blakeslee and bassist Dan Schulte in a quartet called Red3. The instrumentation and personalities in this group lend themselves to working with space and group improvisation, and give me a different environment to approach the music from.

All my records so far have been on the Avocet label (P.O. Box 6769, Portland, OR 97228-6769, U.S.A.), which was created by my friend Hal Lee who I've known since the mid-'70s. He was originallv a drummer and student of Dave Storrs who got interested in recording and used my basement to set up a small recording studio. He recorded my first record there and did Obo Addy's first record there, and decided to start a label for creative music. Later Hal moved the studio into his own building.

I've always listened to many different kinds of music. For me, sound and rhythm are primary elements of music. This approach is highly developed in African and Latin music, so I gravitated naturally towards them. As far as jazz in concerned, I feel a strong continuity with the whole tradition, from Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet all the way on up to today. I approach my music from the standpoint of sound and feeling first. The technical aspects are secondary. The raw materials of my music come mostly from the various American traditions. I try to approach these elements in a creative way, so that the music is not only conceptually interesting, but has a strong emotional component. Ideally, structure and freedom coexist in music and balance each other, as do tradition and innovation. But the most important thing is that the music affects people. It should make a difference in people's lives. That's what the music has done for me and I feel it's up to me to return the favor as best I can.

To me, the essence of jazz is that the tradition is to extend the tradition. To keep the music alive and vital it's necessary to do more than merely refine traditional forms, valuable though they maybe. A musician must find his or her own voice to keep the music going and give it life. This is what I am trying to do.