Slinking in through the heavy doors of a big rehearsal space just off New York’s Columbus Circle, I’m filled with awed glee. Nothing compares to watching a great jazz band at work—especially when Wynton Marsalis, Music Director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), is in the room.
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The 15 band members sit on cushioned chairs, arranged in rows on a broad maple floor: saxes in front, trombones in the middle, trumpets (including Marsalis) in back. Drums, an acoustic bass and grand piano stand to the side. Three days before their fall tour begins, the JLCO is practicing a multilayered piece called Inferno. It was written by musician Sherman Irby, who’s also conducting. Inferno is a difficult piece, and Irby is trying to get the tempo just right.
There’s no doubt that Marsalis, one of the world’s most gifted jazz trumpeters, is the creative engine of this band. But its heart is located two rows forward. Joe Temperley, 82, lifts his heavy baritone sax with the weightless ease of an elephant raising its trunk. He blows a few bars, his rich, resonant tone unmistakable even in this crowded room. Irby points at him with the fingers of both hands.
“There! That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Born in the mining community of Lochgelly, Scotland in 1929, Temperley is not quite the oldest professional saxophone player in America. Alto sax player Lou Donaldson was born in 1926; Frank Wess in ’22. But Joe, who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, is the nation’s senior baritone sax artist, and one of the true anchors of the global jazz scene.
“Joe is one of the greatest baritone saxophone players that ever lived, the biggest sound that you ever want to hear,” says Sherman Irby. “And he's still inquisitive, he's still learning, he's still finding new stuff to work on.”
In person, Joe gives an impression of stability, solidity. He’s one of those musicians who have come to look like their sound. His horn of choice is a vintage Conn that he’s had about 50 years. But his first sax was a 14th-birthday gift from his older brother, who played the trumpet. From that point on, Joe was on his own. “I didn't have many lessons,” he says. “All the stuff that I learned, I learned by doing.”
Temperley left home at 17 and found work in a Glasgow nightclub. Two years later, he went to London. His arc across the UK—then the Atlantic—was an odyssey not only between lands, but between musical aspirations. After eight years in England, playing with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, he was primed for a change.
“In 1959 we toured the United States,” Joe recalls. “We spent a lot of time in New York, and I saw a lot of jazz. That motivated me to give up my life in the UK and move to the United States.”
On December 16, 1965, Temperley (with his first wife and their son) arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary. They stayed at the Bryant Hotel, and—after a short stint selling transistor radios at a department store—Joe went to work with Woody Herman’s band. From that point on, he played alongside the greatest musicians of his day: Joe Henderson, Buddy Rich and Clark Terry. Half a century later, it’s hard to name someone he hasn’t played with. “Billie Holiday… Frank Sinatra… Ella Fitzgerald….Barbara Streisand….” Joe squints into the past; the list seems endless.