When jazz great Paul Jeffrey died in March at the age of 81, a flood of obituaries enumerated his accomplishments: Saxophonist, bandleader, arranger.
Played with Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Count Basie. Directed Duke University's jazz studies program and the Duke Jazz Ensemble for two decades. Taught contemporary heavyweights like Terence Blanchard, Jeb Patton, Todd Bashore.
Onstage at Baldwin Auditorium Saturday night, those bona fides will finally get the tribute they deserve. Bassist John Brown, who succeeded Jeffrey as jazz studies director at Duke, will lead a star-studded ensemble of friends and former students in a tribute concert to a musician who left a stunning legacy of recordings, arrangements and working musicians.
"He was so attuned to the different abilities that he was working with," says composer Stephen Jaffe, a colleague of Jeffrey's in Duke's music department. He saw Jeffrey spread generosity through decades of teaching and mentoring.
"If you are working with some professional group that can play anything, you write for that," he says. "But if you're writing for students just out of high school, students who can't play all the high and low notes of the sax, you have to change. Paul was professional in all the different ways, whether he was playing with a Duke student or Sonny Rollins."
If those students want to honor Jeffrey properly on Saturday, they will need to linger in Baldwin until early Sunday morning, telling jazz stories until the dawn arrives.
"Paul had a Thursday night gig at the Anotherthyme restaurant. I had an 8 a.m. calculus class on Fridays," remembers Bashore, who graduated from Duke in 1995. "I would go to Paul's session, and it would end at one or two in the morning. Paul would stay up talking and telling stories after. My attendance was not too stellar. For years, whenever I would see him on the Caller ID, I would think, 'Do I have an hour to spare right now?'"
Jeffrey was best known for being Monk's last horn man. The eccentric pianist and composer was notorious for leaving his saxophonists alone to solo forever. Sometimes, he'd play the head arrangement and then go have a drink before returning to the stage for his solo. The sax player was left to keep the tune going, figuring out new things to do for an unknown quantity of time.
Good thing Jeffrey had a lot to say: During one performance of "Blue Monk," for instance, Jeffrey took the first solo. The minutes ticked by, but Monk kept his head down, punctuating Jeffrey's playing with angular jabs at the keys before he stopped playing entirely. But Jeffrey kept going, chopping up the musical lines with blurts and bleats and tearing into melodic runs and scampers. Monk returned six minutes later.
"He was an aggressive horn player. He allowed his passion to be in the things he played," says Brown. "Other people bring an anger that they feel people expect to hear, which is an emotion that materializes when people expect to hear technical proficiency. They expect to hear a lot of angst rather than being in the moment of clear, lucid thought."
Through his horn, too, Jeffrey could deliver an enormous musical vocabulary, accumulated from a lifetime of listening to records and transcribing music during the day and jamming with both legends and novices at night. A prolific arranger, he spent his last years at Duke organizing his archive, which Brown will use to build Saturday's program. Brown marvels at Jeffrey's ability, for instance, to arrange an entire Coltrane saxophone solo for a big band, and to do so quickly.
"The jazz ensemble would rehearse on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. When something would come up on Tuesday, like 'We need to get a new arrangement of this piece,' he would show up with it the next day," he says. "He spent all night long transcribing those solos and doing the arrangement. He had them ready to distribute to be played the next day."
He demanded similar devotion from his students, especially those who showed promise. Bashore started out studying pre-med at Duke, and Patton was a classical pianist. After encountering Jeffrey, Patton has been touring the world with the Heath Brothers for almost 20 years. Bashore has appeared on Grammy-winning albums while teaching jazz at Queens College in New York.
"I actually started studying with him in ninth grade," Bashore remembers. "My mom just signed me up for lessons. First lesson, he basically told me that I couldn't play and that my horn was terrible."
After Jeffrey told Bashore that his horn was terrible, he brought the teenager a gift, a rare "McLean and Payne" saxophone, designed by horn legend Jackie McLean.
"Paul gave me this horn until I could save up enough to get a good one," he says. "It was really meaningful to me that his wife let me keep it after Paul passed, because it has this connection to Jackie McLean, who was a hero of mine, and it was the first decent horn that I got to play on."
Jeffrey would make his students write arrangements for the stream of professional musicians he'd bring from New York to jam in Baldwin. In listening to old records and transcribing solos for Jeffrey, Patton says he learned about differences and similarities between musicians, like how they'd handle the same harmonic structures in disparate ways. You'd learn their style, assimilate it and eventually update it for yourself.
"He'd bring them down as singles, without their bands, so you would be forced to be their rhythm section, which sometimes was kind of a disaster," Patton laughs. "The artists would send down a melody sheet of their original tunes, and then we would write a big band chart that we could play with them and the other student artists. Usually there wasn't a lot of time to do that, so it taught us about the real-life time constraints."
Jeffrey could play the academy as well as he did his horn, ensuring that the jazz studies program had sustaining institutional support at Duke. It's not something that shows up in the liner notes of his life, but Jeffrey brought the same devotion to jazz advocacy.
"We have a music series where four guest artists are brought in every year for three days at a time, so they really get to spend some real time with our students," Brown says. "It's all because of the efforts he made to get commitments from the administration that would last beyond his days here."
In the end, though, it all comes back to the music. Brown knows that the best tribute to Paul Jeffrey is a large ensemble.
"He was a warrior for making performances happen and giving people the opportunity to perform," he says. "The tradition is to make the music accessible so that it will live a life beyond us. The music was a source of life for him."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Duke serenaders"