For Roger Rosenberg, a veteran New York jazzman with a gift for making the big baritone sax sing and dance, finding direction in life wasn’t difficult.
“I hear about kids going to college to try to find their direction,” he says. “It’s a big deal for a lot of people, but it never was for me. When I was about 13, I knew from then on that I wanted to be a musician.”
That’s about the time he discovered the baritone sax.
“I really took to the instrument, and all kinds of opportunities opened up for me.”
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For Rosenberg, who’s coming to town this week for a series of gigs with tenor saxophonist Rob Scheps, those opportunities have included gigs with trumpeter Chet Baker, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, drummer Buddy Rich and even one with Miles Davis; lots of studio work, including the John Lennon-Yoko Ono “Double Fantasy” album; and long tours with Steely Dan.
He’s one of the best practitioners of baritone sax on the scene, playing solos that flow with the speed and precision that are rare on the big instrument.
“For some reason, the moment I started to play it, I felt I had a voice on that instrument. It just felt very natural to me,” Rosenberg says.
He’s expanded to soprano saxophone and sometimes bass clarinet, but mainly he makes his stand with the big horn.
OK, there was a flirtation with another sax.
“I had a period toward the end of high school and college where I wanted to play tenor. I got to be in love with John Coltrane, and that became everything. But as I started to become a professional in New York, I decided I better take the bari out of the attic so I can get some work.”
He’d landed back home in New York about 1973 after a sojourn at the New England Conservatory of Music (as Scheps would later, Rosenberg studied there with sax guru Joe Allard). His first steady gig was in Tito Puente’s band, “seven days a week, sometimes starting at 2 o’clock in the morning. … There were nights when listening to him was absolutely inspirational.”
He left Puente for Buddy Rich’s big band, then went with another percussionist-leader, Mongo Santamaria. “When he was on fire, it was a transcendent feeling. You just couldn’t believe what was going on.”
Then Rosenberg chose the challenging path of working with Chet Baker, for a taste of “being able to stand up and play a solo as long as I wanted.” There were also gigs with other Latin bands — Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri. And he played in alto saxophonist Lee Konitz’s nonet and bebop pianist Walter Bishop’s band.
He memorably participated in two classic large-ensemble performances — the premiere of Charles Mingus’ “Epitaph” (Bobby Watson and Wynton Marsalis were also in the band), and the Miles Davis-Quincy Jones collaboration at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1991. “I had to buy my own ticket — but I’d have the chance to play with Miles!”
Living the life of the well-respected sideman, Rosenberg has also had long periods of studio work and Broadway pit bands. The money’s good, but the satisfaction of playing jazz is elusive. Still, his studio connections led him into one of the most important opportunities of his career.
When fellow saxophonist Lou Marini was helping to organize a session for Donald Fagen’s “Kamakiriad” album, he called Rosenberg and said, “You’re not going to pass this up.” Rosenberg played on that record, one thing led to another, and eventually he landed in the Steely Dan touring band. In fact, he has just come off a world tour with it (so this is his second trip to Kansas City this year).
Despite all that Broadway and studio work, Rosenberg has been trying to emphasize the jazz side of his career for the last decade or so. And a career as leader has developed slowly. When tenor saxophonist and bandleader Frank Perowsky offered to help Rosenberg make his first CD as leader, Rosenberg rose to the occasion, showing off compositional chops to rival the playing skills. A second Rosenberg CD was produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker.
Rosenberg has some discerning fans. His gigs in the Kansas City area with Scheps should win him some more.
Right now, Rosenberg and Scheps are slated to play one of the first shows at the new location of Take Five Coffee + Bar, 6601 W. 135th St., Suite A21, in Overland Park. They’re scheduled to play there at 8 p.m. Friday. They’ll also present a clinic at 3 p.m. Sunday at Take Five. (To get to the new place from 135th Street, drive around the east side of the Von Maur store and keep going back.)
Rosenberg and Scheps will be around the region for a couple of weeks. Don’t be surprised if they make a guest shot with some other bands around town.
▪ The next live performance/recording session for the “12th Street Jump” radio show features a true giant of jazz, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and his guitar partner Ed Laub. It’s at 7 p.m. Monday at the Broadway Jazz Club, 3601 Broadway.
The new Take Five also has scheduled a special evening for bassist Gerald Spaits as leader and composer — a full program of his original music, with saxophonist Dave Chael, pianist T.J. Martley and drummer Brian Steever. It’s at 8 p.m. Saturday.
▪ The Blue Room has organist Ryan Howard’s trio at 7 p.m. Thursday, neo-soul singer Lee Langston at 8:30 p.m. Friday and the Jazz Disciples plus singer Paula Saunders and trombonist Jason Goudeau at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Pianist T.J. Martley is in charge of the Monday jam at 7 p.m.
▪ Highlights at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., include saxophonist Brett Jackson’s quartet at 9 p.m. Thursday, organist Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m. Friday, organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 10 p.m. Saturday and again at 9 p.m. Wednesday; the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8:30 p.m. Sunday; and a vocal showcase for the Kansas City Kansas Community College jazz program at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
▪ Highlights at the Broadway Jazz Club also include singer Dave Stephens at 7 p.m. Friday, followed by pianist Mark Lowrey at 11:30 p.m.; singer Angela Hagenbach at 7 p.m. Saturday, followed by singer Linnaia McKenzie at 11:30 p.m.; and singer Pamela Baskin-Watson at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
To reach Joe Klopus, call 816-234-4751 or send email to email@example.com.
Jazz scene suffers big loss
Reed man Horace Washington, a big presence on the Kansas City jazz scene, died suddenly last Thursday. He was 62, according to his family, and played gigs just days before his death.
Washington, a tall virtuoso with distinctive sounds and a free-flowing style on tenor sax, soprano sax and flute, was a popular bandleader in the ’80s and ’90s before heart problems slowed down his career. He was a mentor and friend to many, and remained a compelling player to the end.
Here at Jazz Town headquarters, we also appreciated his candid, knowing way with words. The general public got a taste of that when Washington spoke at a panel discussion on Charlie Parker’s influence in August at the American Jazz Museum. That evening, Washington was the star.
A memorial gathering will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday at Watkins Brothers Memorial Chapel, 4000 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd., followed by a memorial jam at the Blue Room from 2 to 4 p.m.
The family suggests contributions to the Coda Jazz Fund, P.O. Box 412116, Kansas City, Mo. 64141-2116.