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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“With Joe, there's just the sound—and the integrity in the sound, the originality of it.” Marsalis shakes his head. “When you hear his sound you love him automatically, because it's so full of warmth and soul and feeling. It's like a warm voice.”

“Joe’s sound represents the history of jazz music,” agrees Victor Goines, a tenor sax player who’s been with JLCO nearly as long as Joe. “When you hear him, you hear everyone who came before him. All in one person. He’s someone who's willing to share with everyone else—and at the same time he can always express his own opinion in his own, very unique way.”

“So in a crowded room,” I ask, “would you recognize Joe’s sound?”

“Yes,” Goines answers, unhesitating. “In two notes.”

Though Jazz at Lincoln Center has been Joe’s gig for 23 years, it never gets less challenging.

“Most bands have a repertoire; they play the stuff they're famous for,” says Temperley. “The Ellington Orchestra used to do that. But JLCO plays different concerts every night. And we never know what we're going to play, because Wynton picks out the music at the last minute! When we tour this fall we'll take maybe 100 arrangements with us.”

When I ask if there’s a composer he finds the most challenging, Joe nods rapidly. “Yeah. Wynton Marsalis! He writes wonderful music. And Wynton’s written a lot of long pieces. He wrote The Vitoria Suite, which has about 12 movements, inspired by Basque music and flamenco music. And he's written a jazz symphony, Swing Symphony he calls it, which we premiered in 2010 with the Berlin Philharmonic.”

“Are Wynton’s pieces challenging because of their length or their difficulty?”

“Their length,” Joe says philosophically. “And their difficulty.”

What’s it like, I wonder, to work alongside one of the greatest musical minds in America?


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