Ask Andrew White what he's going to play when he teams up with pianist McCoy Tyner at Blues Alley tomorrow night (through Sunday), and the prolific and irrepressible saxophonist-scholar thunders back, "I have no idea!"
The answer seems a bit surprising at first, coming from the man widely regarded as the leading authority on the music of John Coltrane, a man who, among other things, has transcribed and published 421 of Coltrane's recorded saxophone solos.
What's this? White is teaming up with McCoy Tyner, without whom Coltrane's legacy would have been significantly diminished, and the possibility exists that not a note of Coltrane's music will be heard?
"I have no idea," says White, again pleading ignorance. "Coltrane's been dead for 19 years, and I know McCoy hasn't been standing still all this time. I guess I'll just be playing with McCoy's current trio [drummer Louis Hayes and bassist Avery Sharpe], doing whatever is called for. He still plays [Coltrane's] 'Naima,' doesn't he? . . . I'm just happy to be playing with McCoy. He's the epitome of a jazz musician and his own solos always used to set up Coltrane for some brilliant performances."
White first met Tyner in the early '60s, and recorded with him in 1970. Though he almost joined Tyner's band then, he's worked with him rarely since, notably at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1976, for which White composed a big band piece commemorating Coltrane.
"I don't sound anything like Coltrane anyway," White continues, describing his tone as more metallic and vibrant, an outgrowth of his classical training on the oboe and the need to be heard in an orchestral setting. "When I made those transcriptions I was just showing people what Coltrane did. The idea was to digest this material and use it as a reference, not to copy it or just modify it slightly . . . unfortunately, there are very few musicians who've taken it further than that. As a result there are a lot of Coltrane clones out there."
Individuality -- that's the hallmark of a great artist, according to White. Which is perhaps why he occasionally refers to himself as a genius. He's comfortable with the description. The word pops up casually in conversation, the way a person might describe himself as, say, a Republican or a Democrat. He seems secure in the knowledge that anyone familiar with his accomplishments, to say nothing of his unchecked personality, couldn't possibly mistake him for anyone else -- in jazz or out. And he's right about that.
White grew up in Nashville, where he began his formal training in the sixth grade as a member of his elementary school band. In less than two years, he was transcribing his first jazz solo from a Coltrane recording. Much later, while attending Howard University in the early '60s, he joined the JFK Quintet, a band with an impressive lineup that included drummer Billy Hart and, for a brief time, Eric Dolphy, who took White's place while he was studying at Tanglewood one summer. After graduation in 1966, White furthered his studies both here and abroad with the help of a series of grants before returning to Washington and joining the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra as its principal oboist in 1968.
At about the same time, White also landed a job with Stevie Wonder's band, and somehow managed to tour with both groups for two years. In 1970 Tyner invited him to join his band, but White became ill and was replaced by saxophonist Sam Rivers. Shortly afterward White joined the Fifth Dimension, playing the electric bass. That assignment, which proved quite lucrative, lasted six years and helped pave the way for his own publishing firm, Andrew's Music, which White founded in 1971 and continues to run out of his home in Northeast.
The reasons for launching Andrew's Music were simple enough, according to White. "Early on I was told that I didn't have a marketable alto saxophone sound. So I decided to make a place for myself in the industry. I understood what they were saying, but I didn't agree."
In addition to publishing the Coltrane transcriptions, Andrew's Music has released 42 recordings by White. (All but one are jazz albums, mostly recorded at the defunct Top O' the Foolery club.) He has also published seven treatises (on jazz composition and arranging, among other topics) and five books, the latest being a typically outlandish and unexpurgated collection of musical anecdotes called "Sideman! X-rated Band Stories. Vol. II."
"I had to do it," White says of his recent literary pursuits. "It's part of the creative process . . . I also wanted to expand my market because a certain part of my character is just plain crazy."
After reading "Sideman!," or even the sanitized "Just for the Pleasure of Your Eyes," which White says he cleaned up for the classical music market, few would argue the point. But craziness notwithstanding, honors for musical excellence keep coming. Just last fall White was awarded a Wammie from the Washington Area Music Association for "Outstanding Achievement," and he says the two saxophone symphonies he was commissioned to write for the First National Saxophone Seminar in New Zealand were widely acclaimed when premiered there last December.
Still, White says he's never viewed himself as a split personality -- part scholar, part jokester. After all, he says, with a laugh as resonant as the sound of his horn, "I'm crazy in everything I do."