Ron Holloway is the night crawler with sax on his mind. One night, he's playing raunchy rock in a Beltway honky-tonk with Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band; the next, he's sitting in with be-bop legend Dizzy Gillespie at Blues Alley. On Thursday, he'll be playing urban funk at the Wax Museum with Gil Scott-Heron.
Not long ago, the 28-year-old Holloway sat in with three different rock and R&B bands--in one night. It would be easier to count the Washington bands he hasn't sat in with. Sonny Rollins has called him one of the three great young tenor saxophonists in America. Yet Holloway remains virtually unknown to those outside the music world, even in Washington. A lot of people are betting that won't be the case much longer. His encounters with greatness would seem to bear that out. Witness:
1974: Freddie Hubbard is playing a local club when a young man walks in with a tape of old Hubbard recordings with new sax lines layered on. "His albums acted as a metronome for my practice," says Holloway. "I used the other tenor on the date as an antagonist and tried to blow him off the record." The shy 20-year-old wants to sit in, but Hubbard doesn't take him seriously until the last set of closing night. After a few disparaging remarks from Hubbard, Holloway blows him off the stage. "I was determined to make him eat his words." The stunned Hubbard looked around the club and sighed, "You all got any more of these around here?" Now whenever Hubbard comes to town, Holloway always sits in . . . as a special guest.
Same year: Sonny Rollins, back from self-imposed retirement, plays a Washington club. "I dragged up the steps during the break, scared to death, shaking with the tape recorder in the bathroom while Rollins was shaving," Holloway remembers with a subdued laugh. Rollins is open, but Holloway has left his horn home. A year later, they share the stage at Howard University; both get a standing ovation. Over the years, they stay in touch. When Root Boy Slim plays an Albany date, Holloway hitchhikes 100 miles in dead-winter to practice with Rollins for four hours.
1976: Dizzy Gillespie is playing the Showboat Lounge and decides to have a little fun with the kid who's brought him a tape of his jam with Sonny Rollins. "I was scared to death again. Right before the set, without talking about the music or what song he wanted me to come up on, he says 'let's go.' He opened up with a funky version of 'St. Louis Blues' and I got a chance to warm up. But the very next tune was one of the most challenging he'd ever written, 'Be-bop'--always taken at breakneck speed with lots of changes. He didn't even ask me if I knew it."
But Holloway did, and Gillespie joined the ranks of believers; Holloway now joins the ranks of Dizzy's band whenever Gillespie's in town. The reason Holloway knew "Be-bop" and probably would have known any tune called is that he's the classic example of an individual driven by his art. The seeds came early from a father who collected jazz records, especially those featuring horns. "As a kid, I used to get out toys and blocks and sit down right in front of the record player. When I picked up the instrument, I remembered some of Sonny's solos note for note, even if I couldn't play them."
In seventh grade, Holloway fell for a teacher's pleading to join the orchestra, choosing saxophone because he'd seen it so many times on the covers of his father's albums. After learning scales and how to finger notes, Holloway mostly taught himself. Within two weeks, he was practicing three hours a day; by summer, he was up to eight hours. "The next summer, I was an even bigger fanatic. I'd be down in the basement practicing 16 hours a day. My mother used to fear for my life. I'd skip meals, sneak down in the middle of the night and turn the records on real low and listen."
Some influences are apparent in Holloway's broad and masculine sound: Illinois Jacquet, Willis Jackson, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Stanley Turrentine. He thinks "it's good for a beginner to come up through the R&B ranks," which may be why Holloway's so valued as a guest on local stages and in the recording studio. Of course, not everyone likes his aggressive tone: When he worked at Joe Lee's Record Paradise in Takoma Park, Holloway would often practice against the army of jazz records in the store. And he played loud because "it becomes very necessary to develop a sound that's going to project, you need a certain amount of volume to play in an electric band." The upstairs business put in a request that Holloway practice only after 5 p.m.; the apartment house 100 yards across the street called the police on more than one occasion.
So Holloway goes on, blowing up a storm on the tenor saxophone, solidifying his reputation with appearances at the Kennedy Center's Lionel Hampton Tribute, the Wolf Trap Jazz Festival with Three Saxes for Lester. He graces the music of those he plays with, even though he's paid by only a few. The money gigs are with Scott-Heron (who's setting off for a European tour after Thursday's Wax Museum concert) and Root Boy Slim, whom Holloway has played with off and on since 1977. Why Root Boy, when he could be playing with some of the legends of jazz? Holloway smiles. "I've never had a mammary stuffed into the bell of my saxophone sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie or Freddie Hubbard."