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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“Did you ever play with Louis Armstrong?”

“Not with him,” Joe admits. “But in London, we opened for him.”

Temperley’s West Side apartment is small but inviting, decorated with posters from past gigs and framed photos of Temperley with family and friends (including Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton). A Thad Jones score is splayed on a folding music stand, and shelves sag with books on jazz history.

“Music was changing in 1968,” says Joe. “But compared with today, there was a lot of work in New York. Some people did “The Tonight Show, some people did Dick Cavett. There was a lot of recording going on, and every hotel had a band with a cabaret.”

At this point, Joe was working with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. “It was, you know, a dream band. We played the Village Vanguard every Monday.” The stream of musicians who sat in were the lifeblood of late 1960s jazz. “Miles Davis came in two or three times. And Charlie Mingus, André Previn, Bill Evans. People from the Ellington band. Monday night was a big social scene, and some marvelous people came down there.”

There were two watersheds in Temperley’s New York career. The first came in 1974, when the Rev. John Gensel—known as “The Shepherd of the Night Flock” for his close ties to the jazz community—asked Joe to play at Harry Carney’s funeral. Carney had blown the baritone sax for Duke Ellington and was one of Joe’s heroes. “My main influence was—and still is—the Duke Ellington Orchestra,” says Joe. “That has always been my prime motivation for playing music, for playing jazz.”

Temperley’s performance gripped the mourners—including Mercer Ellington, who’d taken his late father’s place as band leader (Duke himself had died that May).

“A couple of weeks later, Mercer called me,” says Joe. “And invited me into the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”

Though Temperley left Ellington in 1984, he kept coming back—to tour Japan, and perform for two years in the Broadway run of Sophisticated Ladies. But his second real triumph came in late 1988, when he joined Wynton Marsalis and the newly created Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

At rehearsal, I ask Marsalis what makes Temperley so attractive.


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