"He was the baddest tenor man in town," recalls composer and lyricist Chips Bayen of saxophonist Charlie Rouse in the early 1950s. "He had the house gig at the Seventh & T Cocktail Lounge, and when the important players got off at the Howard Theatre, they'd always come by and jam with him." Among those players were Lionel Hampton's featured saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, who no doubt had already run into Rouse out on the road -- the D.C. native had already served in the bands of Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Rouse, who now lives in New York, will lead a quartet Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Woodie's Hilltop Pub. Reuben Brown will be at the piano, Fred Williams on bass and Philly Joe Jones at the drums.
"My home was at 401 M Street Northeast," Rouse reminisces, and "up the street at 419 was a big band, Bill Hester's, that rehearsed there. His son, Warren Hester, and I used to sit on the lawn and listen. I was around 9 or 10 years old, and we would go up there during the daytime when the musicians were at work most of them had government jobs and mess with their horns. And then they caught us, and we had to stop."
Rouse and several friends soon set to work constructing a stage in the family garage. "We had all the little girls in the neighborhood dancing there like chorus girls," Rouse says with amusement. Accompaniment was provided by clarinet, guitar and drums, the last played by Rouse. In junior high he took up clarinet ("I liked Benny Goodman at the time") and became a member of the school band.
"When I got to senior high school I had two interests," Rouse says. "I wanted to play football and play music, too. Armstrong High had a good football team during that time. My last year" -- Rouse had switched to saxophone by then -- "I was playing football and playing in pianist John Malachi's group at a club called Crystal Caverns at night. But I decided I had to make a choice, and I chose music."
Rouse was not alone as a budding jazz musician at Armstrong High School. His classmates included baritone saxophonist Leo Parker, tenor saxophone player Frank Wess and drummer Osie Johnson, all of whom went on to fame. "They used to have a lot of jam sessions at after-hours clubs during that time," Rouse says, "and different musicians were coming down to Washington from New York." The teen-aged saxophonist regularly checked out the big bands at the Howard Theatre, and one night, hanging around the stage door, he met tenor giant Ben Webster, whom he would replace a half dozen years later when Webster left the Ellington band. "We became very good friends," Rouse says of Webster. "He was the first one who told me about Charlie Parker."
When Rouse, right out of high school, joined the Eckstine band, he found himself in the same reed section as Parker. His bandmates also included Gillespie, pianist-composer Tadd Dameron, Leo Parker, Malachi and Sarah Vaughan. During the late 1940s Rouse found himself frequently on the bandstand in New York's 52nd Street clubs jamming with saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. He would go on to record with trumpeters Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown and play in the combos of drummer Buddy Rich and French horn player Julius Watkins. His longest association, and one that alone would establish his place in musical history, was the 10 years (the 1960s) he spent touring with the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Rouse currently performs and records with Sphere (Monk's middle name), a quartet that features the late pianist's compositions.
"I learned a lot in that decade with him," says Rouse. "It was like a school. We used to play for hours, just me and him, sometimes overnight."