When Grammy-winning blues harmonica legend James Cotton died last month, it was a heartbreaking loss for many music fans and musicians. That included jazz veteran Charles Lloyd, who had traveled some of the same musical paths as Cotton, which included blues and southern roots. “We just had a camaraderie,” Lloyd says during a recent phone interview.
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels
With: Tomeka Reid Quartet
When: 8 p.m. April 21
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $28 – $89
For his part, Lloyd has had a career spanning nearly 60 years that has featured working with a variety of artists, including B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, The Doors and The Beach Boys. Lloyd came from Memphis, Cotton from Mississippi.
“Hit hard by the news of the passing of my fellow bluesman James Cotton,” Lloyd wrote on his Facebook page. “We grew up on the same muddy, red, Delta soil and we both passed through the schools of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. [King], and Little Junior Parker. We shared many a stage around the world and spent a lot of deep time together on and off the stage.”
Lloyd has a similar respect and admiration for Chicago and its blues and jazz musicians and “serious” music fans. In fact, he’s played Chicago a lot over his career. His first encounter with the city came when was a pre-teen visiting on vacation.
“Ahmad Jamal played at a place called the Kitty Kat Lounge,” he says. “It was inspiring for a 10-, 12-year-old kid who had just come to Chicago on a summer vacation.”
One of his earliest memories of performing happened in the ’60s. Lloyd and Cannonball Adderley were playing the London House, while Coltrane was playing the Plugged Nickel. Since they were staying at the same hotel, they would get together to talk. One day Coltrane asked Lloyd what it was like playing the London House. Lloyd said the first of three sets they played happened during dinner and required playing ballads. Clearly, he wasn’t happy with their performance policy.
“Coltrane looked at me and said ‘Well, I can play ballads,’” Lloyd says. “So I broke out laughing because he could play anything he wanted to play. He had a very beautiful ballads album, if you recall. That was a comment that caught me off guard.”
He also recalls playing the jazz festival at Grant Park several times. One frequent visitor to those shows was Chicago jazz musician Joe Segal.
“Joe Segal would come around whenever we’d come and sit with us backstage,” Lloyd recalls. “He was very warm and there was a lot of memories because he loved Charlie Parker.”
Lloyd could probably talk for hours about all the great musicians he’s known from Chicago such as Booker Little, who was his best friend in high school, went to college at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and performed in the city for a couple of years. He is also a fan of musicians like Lee Konitz, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore and Muhal Abrams. That’s why Lloyd says he cherishes cities like Chicago so much.
“You can always find peers or great storytellers on their instruments,” he says.
He’s also a fan of the venues, including Symphony Hall, where he’ll play this week. Chicago jazz phenom Tomeka Reid makes her Symphony Center debut opening for Lloyd.
“Every few years I play there and it’s always been a marvelous place to play and wonderful audiences,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have a deep affinity to the music so I’m always happy when I come there.”
Lloyd’s latest band, The Marvels, will be joining him on this tour. They’re featured on his 2016 album “I Long to See You” and have been together for three years. The band features guitarist Bill Frisell, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.
“It’s an association of musicians who have a camaraderie and a deep interest in exploring all kinds of exploration,” says Lloyd. “So we go exploring every night and it’s a very beautiful experience. Bill Frisell has a wide range in taste and talent in music and we have a lot of intersections such as deep indigenous jazz music and we love spirituals and deep folk songs. We have these intersections that we celebrate.”
Best known for his saxophone and flute playing, Lloyd hasn’t lost a step with his love for music.
“I have the great blessing of beginner mind,” he says about why the saxophone is interesting all these years later. “I’m always drunk with the music. It’s always inspired me since I was a small child and it’s been my lifelong companion. It’s my expression.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.