By Leah Chiappino
Setauket resident and jazz musician, Ray Anderson, is celebrating a career that has been nothing but noteworthy. And at a performance at The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook Oct. 25, music lovers will get a taste of his talent and be able to witness the launch of his archives there.
The trombonist, 67, first picked up his instrument at the age of 8, after having been inspired partly by his theologian father’s jazz records that predominantly featured the famous trumpet player, Louis Armstrong. The sound of Anderson’s chosen instrument was something that he found appealing, especially since, he said, the musicians playing trombone sounded like they were having fun.
He studied music at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools with future trombone legends such as George Lewis and was taught by Frank Tirro, the future dean of the Yale School of Music.
Anderson attended three different universities, three different times, before eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College in Saratoga Springs in 2010.
“I’m self-educated in a lot of ways,” he said. “Performing became my education.”
He moved to Los Angeles in 1971 to attend the California Institute of the Arts, only to find the campus was not yet open. He wound up living with Stanley Crouch, a black writer and jazz critic, frequently known for his controversial views amongst the African American community on his disillusionment with the Black Power movement.
While attending college in Minnesota and Los Angeles, he played in R&B bands and joined funk and Latin bands while living in San Francisco. While Anderson looks back with great fondness on his days where he became “moderately successful” working odd jobs and playing music in San Francisco, he said he felt the urge to discover the New York music scene, so he moved to Manhattan in 1973.
“I was 20 years old and had no real roots anywhere,” he said. “I figured I would move to New York and see what happened.”
He performed with clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and drummer Barry Altschul while playing with composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s quartet for three years. He has since performed in a variety of his own bands, such as the Pocket Brass Band and Lapis Lazuli band.
Anderson recently returned from a European tour with BassDrumBone, a band named after its bass, drums, trombone players. He started the group in 1977 with his friends bassist Mark Helias and drummer Gerry Hemingway. It has been running ever since.
“I’ve learned so much from both of them,” he said. “They’re my age so it’s not a traditional teacher-student type of thing, but they’re both really, really wise.”
His first feature album was blues guitarist Luther Allison’s “Night Life,” before recording for Gramavision, as well as European record label Enja and others.
“I didn’t have a career where I worked as a member of a more established senior band, so I learned a lot from my contemporaries,” he said.
Anderson said he recently recorded a solo trombone piece based off of a solo performance he did in France and is currently in the process of sending it to record companies.
“That’s been a longtime dream,” he said.
Anderson describes his style as “witty” and “challenging,” and he acknowledges and respects the players who have come before him
Yet, having composed more than 100 pieces, Anderson has learned to take a lighthearted approach to music with songs titled “If I Ever Had a Home It Was a Slide Trombone,” and “Raven-a-Ning,” the latter piece being composed for his son, Raven, and a play on the classic “Rhythm-a-Ning” by Thelonious Monk.
While his calm and joyous approach to life is evident in conversation, he had to overcome tragedy when his wife, lyricist and poet, Jackie Raven, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 and passed away in 2002.
“I had two young motherless kids and my life as a touring musician had to stop,” he said.
Anderson was the artist in residence at Stony Brook University for six months in 2001, and in 2003 was appointed director of jazz studies, a title he has held ever since.
“It enabled me to stay home, pay the bills and care for my kids who were 11 and 15 when she died,” he said. “I’m sure you can appreciate why I’m boundlessly grateful to this community for all it has given me over these many years.”
Anderson reports that both his kids are doing well and he got remarried last year, to Suzy Goodspeed.
The musician said his many years as a full-time performer make him the perfect candidate to mentor emerging musicians.
“I’m a performer first and teacher second,” he said. “I know what music feels like when you’re actually doing it.”
Anderson said his life as a performer doesn’t dismay his love for teaching.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to pass something on that’s useful,” he said. “It’s really tied in with the whole idea of trying to pay it forward because so many people gave me so much [mentorship].”
All of the courses he teaches revolve around performing. In the graduate program, he plays with students in a band and requires them to write their own music.
“We go through the process of editing and revising, and trying to find out what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
Tom Manuel, The Jazz Loft’s president and founder, praised Anderson’s impact in the jazz field.
“I think what makes Ray so important to jazz is not just that he’s amazingly talented in the world of jazz, but he has been recognized as one of those incredibly and creative inventive voices that is creating something that is new, which is hard to do,” he said.
Anderson will be performing at The Jazz Loft, where he serves as vice president, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. with his Pocket Brass Band, consisting of just trumpet, trombone, sousaphone and drums.
“I’ve played a lot of big gigs, and it’s really exciting to be in an audience of thousands of people, but playing in a small place like The Jazz Loft is often better because of the intimacy between the audience and the band,” he said.
Friday’s performance will be preceded by the launch of the Ray Anderson Archives exhibit with a reception at the venue at 6 p.m.