In celebration of Jazz at LACMA’s 25th birthday, we caught up with master trombonist Phil Ranelin to talk about the highlights of his long, illustrious music career and how art and music influence each other. Phil Ranelin & Tribe Renaissance will be playing at LACMA on June 3, so be sure to come check it out!
What drew you to jazz?
It’s kind of a cultural thing. My paternal grandmother (Helen Kimbrough Ranelin) was the one who led me down that path. She was a real jazz buff, and in the African American community, especially back then, jazz was very big. One particular day when I was about nine years old, Grandma started showing me her vast record collection and how to play the records on her Victrola. She said, “Now, don’t scratch them. You can pick anything in here and find out what you like.” So that’s what I did. I spent a whole afternoon just listening to the music. She had everything from Big Maybelle to Charlie Parker—a lot of diversity. When I played the Charlie Parker record, it was way beyond what I could imagine or understand, but I sure liked it!
When did you start playing music?
I was 11. My grandmother really wanted me to be a musician. I started with a school instrument. I wanted to play the saxophone, but by the time I got to the front of the line, they were all gone and all that was left was a trombone. Initially I didn’t have an aspiration to be a musician. When I started, I thought, this isn’t so easy; I don’t know if I can do this. Especially with the instrument I had. I really didn’t decide that I wanted to pursue music until I was a junior in high school. By then I was in the high school band, playing marches. Around that time, right in the Tech High School band room, I heard a J. J. Johnson record! Then I found out that he was from Indianapolis. It turned out my family knew him. And here I am playing the same instrument! So yeah, that was a turning point for me.
Was it Charlie Parker that made you want to play the saxophone?
Yeah. But when I heard J. J., I thought, man, that’s the same type of music Charlie Parker was playing! I guess it was a natural gravitation for me and it was the reason why I continued after high school. The instrument chose me; I didn’t choose it. After playing it a while, I began to fall in love with it. You have to be serious to want to continue with [the trombone].
Can you talk about some of the musicians you’ve played with?
I had a long association with Freddie Hubbard. That was probably my most rewarding experience. We went to high school [in Indianapolis] together and we talked about forming a group—well, he talked about having me in his group. So after he went to New York in 1958, he kept asking me, “When are you coming to New York?” A couple of years after he left, I got married, so I had really settled down in Indianapolis with my family. But Freddie kept asking me, “When are you coming to New York?” I never wanted to put my family through dealing with New York and starvation, but Freddie and I continued to play off and on for quite a while.
I played with a lot of other people, too. Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Teddy Edwards, Grant Green, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris, and most of the acts at Motown, including the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Pips, The Temptations, Martha Reeves. The thing with me, though, is that I’ve been a band leader a big portion of my career so I’ve led bands that have opened for the likes of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders, Les McCann, and Jimmy Smith. I got my initial training in Naptown. There were a lot of great musicians around my hometown. A lot of people won’t recognize the names, but they were great musicians and great mentors and influences; guys like Pookie Johnson, Jimmy Coe, Willis Kirk and Freddie’s older brother, Earman Jr., a piano player. He's still around; I just talked with him last week. He influenced Freddie to continue in music. Earmon sounds like a combination of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. I also played with Clifford Jordan, a saxophone player out of New York. Wes Montgomery was the very first guitar player I played with.
Tell us about Tribe, a band, magazine, and record label you co-founded in 1971, and Tribe Renaissance.
When I moved to Detroit, I met [saxophonist] Wendell Harrison and we formed Tribe Records. Last year, we lost one of our members, Marcus Belgrave, who was very important to the Tribe sound. Tribe Renaissance is a remembrance of Tribe Records and the group. I’m dedicating the [June 3] performance to Marcus. We’ll be playing some of the music I created when I co-founded Tribe. So Tribe Renaissance is like a continuum of the concept I was developing in Detroit back in the day. I never imagined it would last almost 50 years. Back in the ’70s we didn’t have a large following, but it’s very gratifying that today there are a lot of people who really respect what we did back then. That kind of keeps you going, it warms your heart.
Tribe has a cult following.
I had no idea until probably the ’90s. Kamau Daoud, the great poet, said to me, “Hey, Phil, do you still have those Tribe records, man?” I said, “Yeah, I have a few of them.” He said, “Hold on to them, they’re collector’s items, they go for big money.” Just think—I used to give them away!
When did you move to L.A.?
November 1977. I was in my late 30s and I was getting tired of dealing with the Detroit winters. They’re brutal. I didn’t have a gig lined up and I didn’t have any idea how I’d survive, but at least I knew some people. Freddie was out here, Motown moved out a few years before. So I thought I could just pick and choose my gigs and hang out on the beach!
When I first got here, one of the first calls I made was to Freddie. He didn’t answer, so I left a message on his answering service. But three or four days go by and Freddie hasn’t called me back. I thought, oh, wow, I can’t believe Freddie hasn’t called me back. So I’m thinking, Freddie’s come out here and gone Hollywood on me. Meanwhile I met some other guys—Nate Morgan, Fritz Wise, Nolan Shaheed, Charlie Owens, and bassist Kent Brinkley, my homie from Indianapolis who had played in a band I had back in Indianapolis with Earmon Hubbard and David Young. I started playing with those guys at a place called Stage One, which was located on Pico and Redondo.
Meanwhile, two and a half weeks go by and I finally get a call from Freddie. He immediately hired me for a gig at the Roxy! So anyway, here it is, December of 1977, I am in Los Angeles less than a month and I’m on the bandstand at the Roxy with the legendary Freddie Hubbard. We were there a week at the Roxy and people like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Chaka Kahn, Brenda Sykes were in the house, and we had a nice blend with Hadley Caliman on tenor saxophone, Freddie, and me. Freddie looked at me and said, “We sound good together.” Then, referring to the audience, he said, “They like you, Phillip.” Later that night, after I got a standing ovation (ironically enough, on "Little Sunflower"), Freddie said, “You need to get your own band.” I told him, “Come on, Hub, I’m just trying to hang with you, you got to be kidding, no way in the world I can outshine you, man!” I meant every word, I’ve never heard the trumpet played like that. But that’s the way he was, either I played too well or didn’t play well enough.
Besides playing with Freddie, I played with a lot of other bands, including Horace Tapscott, Vi Redd, and Larry Gales, the late, great bass player who played with Thelonious Monk. I also formed my own quartet with the great trio of Billy Childs on piano, Tony Dumas on bass, and the late, great Ralph Penland on drums. We had a lot of fun playing together and made one album, Love Dream.
When did you encounter Jazz at LACMA?
First time I played at LACMA was with Horace Tapscott, with the [Pan Afrikan Peoples] Arkestra. Probably in the mid-’90s. I premiered Phil Ranelin & Tribe Renaissance at LACMA in December of 2000.
And you’re coming back with Tribe Renaissance this week.
I’m very much looking forward to this performance. I have a great group of guys: Aaron Privisor on piano, Santino Tafarella on bass, Don Littleton on drums, Carlos Niño on percussion, Keith Fiddmont and Pablo Calogero on reeds, Curtis Taylor on trumpet, and Aaron Shaw on tenor saxophone. I’ll be playing the same arrangement I did of Freddie’s “Little Sunflower” on my album called A Close Encounter of the Very Best Kind that had five horns. But this time, it will be with three reeds, trumpet, and trombone, along with the rhythm section.
Once, I was hanging out with Freddie and watching a basketball game. I said to him, “Hey, Freddie, I’m going to write an arrangement on ‘Little Sunflower’ for five trombones.” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Five trombones! What are you going to do with five trombones on ‘Little Sunflower?’ That’s one of my best!” I said, “Trust me, you’re going to love it.”
He didn’t hear it until the record came out [in 1996]. He was driving down the freeway and he turned on the radio to KJAZZ—KLON at the time—and “Little Sunflower” just happened to be on. He didn’t know who it was. He was so mystified that—he told me this later—he pulled off the freeway, then they said who it was. He was so touched by it that he called me when he got home and told me that tears started flowing as he listened to it, and thanked me for writing the arrangement. It meant a lot to me that he appreciated the arrangement so much. I said, “I told you that you were going to love it.”
Do you also go to Jazz at LACMA to listen?
Of course. I like to go and check out the other bands and show my support. I usually know a lot of the people who play there. And it’s free! I don’t have to buy a drink, I don’t have to pay admission. It’s a nice thing to do on Friday. It’s a great thing. People come with their families.
Last year, you performed in the galleries for Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada. How did you get involved?
That was the result of my representative, Dalili Pierson. She personally knew him. She was a big fan of Noah’s. I knew of his work and I had met him but I didn’t know him very well. I don’t know if it was a first, but it was unusual how we presented it: music and dance around art. It was a natural thing because music is art and art is music. There’s a connection there. It was exhilarating to feed off the art and let it influence what I was playing. I had an accompanist, a bass player, Ian Martin, and I sketched out some things for him to play and I improvised around that. I had a good time that day. And the dancers were wonderful. It was a special day. Especially when I got to the room with the ashes from the [Watts] Uprising. I felt like I was inside it. Art was influencing art.
Jazz at LACMA is 25 this year! Phil Ranelin & Tribe Renaissance will be playing tomorrow. Concerts are free and open to the public, and starts at 6 pm at the BP Grand Entrance.