"I'VE NEVER developed a commitment to music -- I'm just made that way," insists Andrew White, seated in the workroom/office of his Northeast Washington home. Virtually everything in the room, with the exception of the Playboy centerfolds that cover the walls, bespeaks music. He chortles and continues. "But that's the way it's supposed to be, you see, because music is supposed to be for the love of music. When you start making a job out of it, it gets hard."
Coming from a saxophonist who can fill a club or concert hall with sounds as intensely individualistic, as passionately sincere as any practitioner of contemporary jazz, that statement is bizarre, to say the least. Yet it turns out that White's entire approach to the jazz idiom marks him as an anomaly in an art form already notorious for the idiosyncrasy of its expressionists.
To begin with, no one would question White's mastery of improvisation or his originality. Yet he has immersed himself, to a degree without precedent, in the analysis of the prerecorded work of others, having transcribed and published more than 800 solos of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy. Now, he seldom performs on any instrument but the tenor saxophone and for the most part limits his playing to jazz; yet White devoted most of the '60s to playing electric bass for Stevie Wonder and the 5th Dimension, and later was principal oboist with the American Ballet Theatre for two years. He has worked with artists as disparate as pianist McCoy Tyner, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, the fusion group Weather Report and the Supremes. He recently spent 14 months on tour with drummer Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine and he frequently lectures and conducts clinics. Area jazz fans will recall his several years in residence at bohemian taverns in the early '60s with his own group, the JFK Quintet, which included bassist Walter Booker and drummer Joe Chambers.
White's education also sets him apart from typical jazz musicians because it includes a bachelor's in music (Howard University) and grant-supported post graduate studies at Tanglewood, Dartmouth College, the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris and other institutions. In Nashville, Tenn., where he grew up, White was taking private instruction on the piano, composing music and playing reed instruments in a marching band--while still in the sixth grade. Before long he was listening to and transcribing the records of Parker, Miles Davis and others.
"I'm a 'natural,' you know, so a lot of things that I did in the study of theory were just to name things that I was already doing. I have perfect pitch, I have relative pitch and I have the higher forms of rhythmic and melodic coordination which people spend years to learn to do. I was born like that. I played all of the brass family, all of the clarinet family, all of the flutes, the string instruments, too. I did all of that somewhere down the line before I got to college, but I didn't spend any time with them other than to know those instruments, know what they can do and be able to write for them. The science of fingering combinations within the valves and the slides and the fingering boards were all natural to me."
Perhaps White's most startling departure from the stereotyped jazz musician has been his display of business acumen. Andrew White's music publications, founded a decade ago, currently offers in its catalogue more than 900 items including transcriptions, arrangements, original compositions, five books by White and 40 self-produced albums of his playing. White markets his products to individuals and institutions all over the world, by his own account acting as the company's "president, producer, editor, recording supervisor, accountant, booking agent, package handler, mail boy and janitor."
The Andrew White Quartet will be at the One Step Down tonight and tomorrow night. Kevin Toney will be at the piano, Andy McCloud on bass and Bernard Sweetney at the drums. In honor of Coltrane's birthday (yesterday) White plans to do some of the late saxophonist's music. The eclectic program will also feature songs by the French chanteuse Barbara, tunes by Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley and Wayne Shorter, White's version of "Afro Blue," "Bee Bop Boogie," "Limehouse Blues" and some of his own compositions, including "Super Fly" and "B Flat Rhythm."