Friday, November 6, 2009
Lenny Pickett: Pushing The Boundaries Of Music
For Lenny Pickett, the path to success and notoriety as director of the Saturday Nigh Live band was not at all clear, but the experiences he gathered along the way helped to shape a very unique musician who consequently redefined the role of the saxophone in popular music. Over the course of his career, he has played with such diverse acts as David Bowie, Frankie Valley, Meatloaf, The Talking Heads, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Cindy Lauper, and Paul McCartney, often as a member of the Tower Of Power Horns. It has been a career that has often lacked definition, but in Pickett’s opinion, that’s exactly the way it should be.
His first musical inspiration came from an Art Linkletter television program. Picket remembers “the theme song had a clarinet in it.” He was drawn to the sound of that instrument, and so he told his parents he wanted to play it, only at the time, he didn’t know what it was called. He recalls it having that “sort of oodly oodly sound,” so he called it the “oodlehorn.” Of course, nobody around him knew what he was talking about, so several years went by before, in elementary school, he was demonstrated all of the instruments. When it came to clarinet, he knew it was “that one. That’s the sound I want to play, so I got my folks to rent me a clarinet for a while and proceeded from there.”
Pickett’s parents, who split when he was young, exposed him to a broad range of music. His father “was never a musician, he was a mathematician, but he felt like classical music was something he should like.” On the other hand, his mother, a beatnik, “lived a sort of bohemian existence.” At her house, Pickett would always find “jazz on the radio,” and she would take him to barbecues where they listened to R&B. She would take him to poetry readings and jazz festivals, and at the age of eight, he saw John Handy play at Stern Grove in San Francisco.
At the time, Pickett did not see himself as a musician. “I just was aware that they existed.” This would begin to change when his mother remarried to a jazz musician. His new stepfather would encourage Pickett to practice. Before long, Pickett would accompany him to jam sessions, playing with people who may not have been “well known, but they understood the music as well as anybody did.” On one particular occasion, when Pickett was thirteen, he remembers improvising together with the other musicians and thinking, “you know what? I can’t ever do anything else. This is my universe from now on.”
In junior high school, Pickett had a teacher who could sense he was looking for something in music, and she let him take home a tenor saxophone the summer after 8th grade. When he first started playing the instrument though, he tried to use his clarinet technique, forcing the instrument to “do things that it really wasn’t intended to do.” This led to Pickett’s comfort playing in the altissimo register of the instrument, a unique quality that set him apart throughout his career.
A few years later, his mother moved to a new neighborhood where Pickett would meet his mentor, avante-garde jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson. Wilson had polio when he was young, and the two formed a bond, as Pickett would run errands for Wilson and help him get outside more, while Wilson would show Pickett more “esoteric aspects of jazz harmony” and got him transcribing Charlie Parker solos. Pickett found that for anything he asked, Wilson “had something to offer.”
Pickett would not follow Bert Wilson’s path though, and his playing hardly resembles Charlie Parker. He had always been an honors student, but by the middle of the ninth grade, Pickett dropped out of school and began to support himself by playing saxophone in rock bands. As he explains, “it was kind of tough for a fourteen-year-old white kid to break into the jazz business... I just didn’t look the part.”
Pickett’s mother also picked up and left when he was sixteen, furthering the need for a job. Having grown up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin along with the rest of his peer group, he got into bands playing that music. Pickett told the audience, “it was an automatic way to make a living. We were playing fraternity parties, and dances, and bowling allies, and what have you. Whatever you could find, we got jobs.”
In addition to providing Pickett with an income, he found that these bands were “fun. I really enjoyed it because you were playing for people dancing, you were playing for your peer group sometimes. It was pretty exciting.”
Practicing upwards of six hours a day, Pickett soon became “notorious for being this kid that played the saxophone.” His reputation from various groups and his association with Bert Wilson got the attention of Tower Of Power, who eventually asked him to join them on tour. It was not simply his playing that got Pickett the gig though. As he told the audience, “I think they hired me mostly ‘cause I was just so odd... and I could play these crazy high notes, and I could do this dance, and they liked it, and they thought, ‘well, we’ll hire him.’”
Pickett may have been an enigma to some, but he sees himself as simply the product of a very particular upbringing. He would tell the audience, “when I’m playing, I’m just playing the sum total of all of my influences at the moment.”
Those influences were more diverse than just the artists introduced to him by his parents and mentors though. Growing up in Berkley, California, Pickett was also exposed to a lot of gospel, blues, and early rock, which he would find on 78's at the Salvation Army. As he explained, nearby Oakland “was a ship-building area, so during the wars, when they started building a lot of ships, a lot of people came up from the south to work in those shipyards,” and their records, like anybody else’s, eventually ended up in the second-hand shops which Pickett frequented.
His exposure and love of a diverse array of music informed the choices Pickett made over his career. This, coupled with his willingness to say “yes” to any gig led him down a very particular path. Pickett noted, this approach “may have gotten me into a few places I shouldn’t, but I like the adventure.”
The adventure, through a notably odd series events, eventually took him to Saturday Night Live. Pickett recounted the “series of happy accidents” as starting because he wrote some music, which he played “at a little place called Dance Theater Workshop.” A woman there, named Marta Renzi, asked if he would record the piece, and the engineer he eventually found to help him record recommended he play a benefit show at the Apollo Theater. The benefit turned into a triple-platinum selling album and an HBO special featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick of the Temptations. They liked the way he played, so he went on the road with the band, which included guitar player G.E. Smith, who happened to be married to Saturday Night Live cast member, Gilda Radner. Not long after, Howard Shore, then musical director for the television show, was looking for someone “who could make that saxophone sound [they] used to have on the show.” G.E. recommended him, Pickett auditioned, and the rest is history.
Twenty-five years later, Pickett is now himself musical director for the program, a job he admits often has little to do with making music, as he spends much of the week sitting through meetings. He likened the band’s work on the show to “rodeo clowns,” as they try to keep the live audience involved while nothing else is going on, diverting attention away from the cameras and behind the scenes work of the show. The job has allowed him to settle in New York though, giving him a chance to raise a family.
Looking back, Pickett realizes that if he hadn’t said “yes to Marta Renzi to make her music, for this dance piece that she wanted to do, [he] would be doing something completely different.” This alternate path may have led to more recording–to this day, Pickett only has one album, Borneo Horns, to his credit. That album featured an odd instrumentation of three saxophones and drums, and as Pickett explained, “it was really hard to get people to take it seriously, but its what was I was hearing in my head at the time.”
There is no doubt that Pickett will continue to push the boundaries of music though. As he told the crowd, “I get bored really easily, and I like to do things that are different.” Surely Pickett will continue to shape the course of music, just as he has over the past forty years, venturing into unclassifiable territory.
Here are some video clips from the interview:
This first one is a performance on tenor saxophone with a recorded track which Pickett put together of different sampled pieces of music.
Pickett later played solo clarinet, which can be heard in this clip.
Here Pickett speaks about his childhood and the music that informed his career.
Pickett discusses his time with Tower of Power and on Saturday Night Live.