Charles Lloyd

While Memphis may be better known for Stax than sax, jazz icon Charles Lloyd embodies the innovative and fearless nature that has defined Memphis music for decades. Whether playing avant-garde free jazz with his Quartet, ancient world music with Maria Farantouri, or 1960s psychedelia with the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Lloyd has been a towering figure in jazz for nearly fifty years and remains one of America's most influential, experimental, and spiritual musicians.

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A Musical Mecca

Charles Lloyd was born in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis in 1938 and was almost immediately engulfed in the city's burgeoning black music scene. "My mother had a large house, and there wasn't an adequate hotel, so these musicians, they would stay. I had so many questions, and they were all very kind to me." These houseguests included jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, amongst others. Lloyd was also exposed to and influenced by the music of Beale St. Already determined to make a life in music, Lloyd began singing at Beale Street's famed amateur hours at the age of seven, before deciding he "didn't have the voice that would make me swoon." Luckily, Lloyd found a solution to his singing woes that would prove life changing. "When I got a saxophone at the age of nine, it became my voice. I wanted to sing on it."

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Memphis had a rich intelligentsia of musicians who brought it always.

For the next several years, Lloyd was taught and mentored by a veritable who's who of Memphis music legends, including saxophone lessons from Irvin Reason and composition studies from Willie Mitchell. His biggest influence by far, however, was piano great Phineas Newborn, Jr. "He was a master and he straightened me out, you know. He put me on the path," Lloyd told Tavis Smiley in 2015. Lloyd also began playing with some of Memphis' greatest blues musicians, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. At Manassas High School, Lloyd befriended future jazz legends Booker Little and George Coleman, all of whom studied under the program began by Jimmy Lunceford. "It was like Mecca, you know, in those days for me. There were all these geniuses…Memphis had a rich intelligentsia of musicians who brought it always."

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California Dreamin'

In 1956, Lloyd moved to Los Angeles to attend USC's school of music. While he studied classical music during the day, he gigged at some of L.A.'s hottest clubs with avant-garde luminaries like Ornette Coleman, Gerald Wilson, and Eric Dolphy. After earning his master's degree, Lloyd joined drummer Chico Hamilton's ensemble, where he acted as the group's musical director and main composer. By the mid-1960s, Lloyd had earned a reputation as a saxophone virtuoso and a highly skilled composer. He began rubbing shoulders with jazz masters like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and joined legendary saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's band in 1964. At the same time, Lloyd had been signed to Colombia Records and began producing his own music as a leader, including the 1965 albums Disovery! The Charles Lloyd Quartet and Of Course, Of Course.

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I wanted to change the world with music as a young man. Then I realized I wasn't doing that, so I decided I had better go away and work on changing myself, which is a lifelong endeavor.
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The Charles Lloyd Quartet

After leaving Adderley's band later that year, Lloyd formed his own quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Cecil McBee. An unbelievably capable and daring ensemble, Lloyd's band electrified the music community in 1966 with remarkable albums like Dream Weaver, Love-In, and Charles Lloyd in Europe. However, the quartet reached their artistic apex during a live performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which resulted in the seminal album Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey. The performance embodied everything that would come to define Lloyd's unique genius, from the sophistication of the playing to the obvious influence of world music in his compositions. Perhaps most importantly, the album had a stunning crossover appeal that introduced Lloyd to millions of new fans and helped Forest Flowers to sell a million copies. As drummer Jack DeJohnette explained to the New York Times, "The group came together at a time when the socioeconomic and political environment of this country was opening up and we had a vibe. We could play grooves or we could play abstract. Nothing was ever done the same way twice."

Riding a wave of popularity that was rare for a jazz outfit during this time, the Charles Lloyd Quartet began performing alongside rock n' roll giants like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and the Beach Boys. The Quartet also proved to be highly influential within the wider world of jazz, influencing artists like Miles David to go electric in order to tap into the group's diverse and eclectic fan base. In 1967, Lloyd was named Jazz Artist of the Year by Downbeat Magazine and the group embarked on a world tour throughout Europe, making headlines when they played for a crowd in the U.S.S.R.

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We could play grooves or we could play abstract. Nothing was ever done the same way twice.
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In Search of Peace

Despite his massive success and popularity, Lloyd has become disillusioned with the trappings of fame and began to feel untethered from his "spiritual moorings." In response, Lloyd decided to disband his ensemble in order to move to Big Sur to focus on his spiritual well-being. "I wanted to change the world with music as a young man. Then I realized I wasn't doing that, so I decided I had better go away and work on changing myself, which is a lifelong endeavor," he told the Union-Tribune. For much of the next two decades, Charles Lloyd remained outside of the public spotlight, emerging infrequently on recording with the Beach Boys and other West Coast bohemians.

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I realized I was really dedicated to this indigenous art form, jazz, and wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to it. I got back on the bus.
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A Triumphant Return

In the early 1980s, Charles Lloyd met the virtuosic 18-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who eventually coaxed Charles Lloyd from his semi-retirement. The duo toured the world together for several years and released several heralded albums, which British jazz critic Brian Case called "one of the events of the 1980s."

Now confident that Petrucciani had received the recognition he deserved, Lloyd retreated back to the quietude of Big Sur. However, a nearly fatal intestinal disorder suffered in 1986 prompted Lloyd to return to music. "I realized I was really dedicated to this indigenous art form, jazz, and wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to it. I got back on the bus," he said. In 1988, he formed a new quartet with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and released his first album with ECM Records, Fish Out of Water. The album would prove to be a benchmark in Lloyd's career, helping to kick off a period of intense creativity and innovation that continues to this day.

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I'm interested in going deeper, and also in simplifying.
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A Giant of Jazz

For the past two decades, Mr. Lloyd has amassed a body of work that is truly staggering in both its boldness and breadth and that continues to awaken illicit awe in his peers. A life-long innovator, Lloyd's music remains as fresh and exciting as ever, although he has learned a trick or two along the way. "Nuance changes as you get older. You get wiser. Instead of playing a lot of notes, you can express them in one sound. I'm interested in going deeper, and also in simplifying."

Today, Mr. Lloyd remains devoted to both his music and his spirituality, balancing his busy concert schedule with frequent visits to the Vedanta Temple down the road. Claiming that his music has always "danced on many shores," Lloyd has also continued to explore new and novel sounds in his compositions, solidifying his role as one of music's greatest champions of world music. "I'm still in love with the music. I'm still drunk with it. It's been my life, you know. It's been a great blessing for me and I've played with all the great masters. I was around when giants roamed the earth," he said, when asked to reflect on his life and career. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Charles Lloyd now stands tall amongst these giants of music and has earned his place amongst America's greatest living legends.

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