How Charles Lloyd Finds a Better World Through Jazz

Charles Lloyd (center) with The Marvels.
Charles Lloyd (center) with The Marvels. D. Darr
Musician Charles Lloyd has been performing professionally for more than five decades, working alongside such legends as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. For someone who plays saxophone and flute as naturally as we breathe, it is refreshing that a jazz great such as Lloyd still gets antsy before the start of a concert.

His nervousness is apparent when you see the man who earned jazz’s highest honor, the title of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, almost hiding from the camera on the cover of I Long To See You, his latest release with his band The Marvels. The quartet, which includes guitarist Bill Frisell, Reuben Rogers on bass, drummer Eric Harland, and steel guitarist Greg Leisz, are standing in an elevator with smiles from ear to ear waiting for a concert to begin, but the corners of Lloyd’s mouth are barely raised. This is a reflection of Lloyd’s anxiety as well as his humility.

“I am reticent by nature and shy away from people,” Lloyd says by e-mail. “I am also very nervous before the start of a concert, but once I get out there and start making music, it has a life and voice of its own.”

Lloyd’s introverted nature and transcendental perspective of his craft are what have brought him on and off the stage. As a child growing up in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, he questioned the meaning of life as it existed in the South. He found some relief from the racism and inequality by listening to Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday on the radio.

“Music was my solace and refuge,” he recalls. “In that place, I could find harmony and a [better] world.”

He moved to the West Coast to attend the University of Southern California. In the years after he graduated, Lloyd became a prolific music composer, developing his expressive and sensitive style as a member of several high-profile jazz groups. He formed his own quartet in 1965, and his career took off. Among his early achievements, Lloyd was one of the first artists to integrate world music into his output. His recording Forest Flower sold more than a million copies. Even the most prominent and progressive rock musicians of the late 1960s were inspired by and collaborated with Lloyd.

“Jazz has a lot more freedom than rock,” Lloyd says. “I think the Grateful Dead, Jimi [Hendrix], The Doors, Janis [Joplin], Santana heard that freedom and wanted to experience it.”

At the height of his fame, Lloyd’s introverted nature caused him to retreat from the spotlight. He moved to Big Sur, California, which he describes as “a deep power spot on the planet.” He would occasionally pop up on stage but he found something healing in the central California coast where so many artists like Langston Hughes and Jack Kerouac sought their own refuge.

After a medical condition almost took him out of the game, Lloyd recommitted himself to music in the 1980s and released the some of the most experimental and critically acclaimed work of his career. I Long To See You is a perfect introduction for those hearing about the accomplished jazz musician for the first time. It includes contributions from Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and an eight-minute rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War.” It is an uplifting and tender work that captures jazz’s independent spirit and Lloyd’s mission to bring hope to others.

“I take a walk in the mountains and absorb the beauty of nature,” he says. “When I am looking at a bird in flight, I soar, too. It is not healthy to dwell on the negative.”

Charles Lloyd and The Marvels are scheduled to perform Sunday, April 16, at the MIM Music Theatre.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil