Joe Temperley’s Ageless Sax

The Scottish baritone saxophone musician recalls his 60-year career and the famous singers he’s accompanied

Born in Lochgelly, Scotland in 1929, Temperley is America's oldest baritone sax artist, and one of the true anchors of the global jazz scene. (Courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)

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“He a beautiful man. He does a lot of things that a lot of people don't know about. After each concert, there's probably a hundred kids waiting for him. And he talks to them. Not just a couple of them, everybody. Autographs. Pictures. Moms and dads. Then he comes back to the hotel, changes his clothes, jumps in a taxi, and goes out to find somewhere he can play.

“We have a special thing—but everybody has a special thing with Wynton. Everybody he comes in contact with. From the doorman to the president, he's the same with everybody.”

After more than 20 years, the admiration is mutual.

“It's difficult to express in words,” admits the highly expressive Marsalis, “the depth of respect and admiration we have for Joe. And it's not just about music. It's also a personal, a spiritual thing. His approach is timeless. And he's the center of our band.”

Aside from his prowess behind the instrument, Temperley’s physical endurance has become the stuff of legend. Every member of JLCO, including Marsalis himself, expresses awe at his stamina. Marcus Printup, who’s played trumpet with the band for 18 years, sums it up best.

“We're on the road six, seven, maybe eight months per year. So all the guys are complaining, ‘Man, we gotta get up early, we gotta carry our bags, we gotta do this and that.’ And Joe Temperley is walking in front of everyone. We’re in our 20s and 30s, and Joe’s 20 steps ahead of us. He’s the first one on the bus. He’s the first one to the gig. He's always warming up. He's just a real road warrior.”

David Wolf, Joe’s physician for the past ten years explains, “As we grow older, our lung function decreases—but that can happen slowly. What’s remarkable about Joe is that playing the saxophone also requires excellent eye and hand coordination, which often becomes impaired with age. If Joe had a tremor, or arthritis, that would make it very difficult to play the keys.” There’s also vision: reading a complex score, in low stage lighting, can be an effort—not to mention holding a 20-pound instrument hours at a time.

“He's made of stronger stuff than we are,” affirms Sherman Irby. “We all hope we can be like that when we get to his age. If we make it to his age!”

To hear it from Joe, though, performing into his 80s isn’t much of a trick. His career has been an ascending scale, from note to note, with none of the fuzziness or frailty that we mortals associate with the octogenarian years.

I ask Temperley if his ability to play, and improvise, has changed with age.


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