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How visionary musician and entrepreneur Andrew White became his own biggest fan.
For 55 bucks, I’ve just made the past four years of accomplished classical oboist, jazz saxophonist, rock bassist, and entrepreneurial visionary Andrew White’s life worthwhile. Maybe not the entire four years, but a good part of it. White didn’t keep track of the hours he clocked between Oct. 15, 1997, and April 30, 2001, sitting in his basement office behind a plywood-on-sawhorses desk banging out Everybody Loves the Sugar: The Book on a typewriter he bought new in 1966. He doesn’t like to talk numbers. He can’t say how many albums or John Coltrane transcriptions he’s sold nor how many copies of this new book he’s printing up. But it must have taken a good part of those four years to write, because Sugar, White’s autobiography, is 840 pages long and weighs nearly 6 pounds. And I’ve just bought copy No. 1.
“When I sell one, that’s the end of it,” White says, standing by a tall stack of the new hardbacks in the basement of his brick home on South Dakota Avenue. “I’m through,” he continues. “Any artist is like that. As soon as he sells the first one, the ambition is complete. I’ve completed the cycle of communication. That’s it. If one person gets your message, that’s it. If any artist tells you different, he’s lying. From one on up to 20 million, that’s something else. The first person who buys it has completed the cycle, and you be the first one.”
Most writers would no doubt be less thrilled to move a single book. But though White has penned 30 tomesincluding Treatise on Improvisation, Trane ‘n’ Me, and My Life in Paris (X-Rated Band Stories Volume Five), all self-published through Andrews Music Inc.he’s the first to admit that he’s no writer. “I’m an artist carrying out my muse,” he says later, sitting on a couch in his living room. He’s wearing thick, black-framed glasses, a purple-and-blue-checked shirt unbuttoned to his navel, blue canvas pants that stop at his calves, and a pair of big leather slip-ons patched with silver duct tape on the left heel. “I didn’t have any plan to write this book. It just evolved. I just treated it like an improvised solo, just sat down to write. I just said, ‘Let me start this solo here and see what happens.’”
What happened is a mammoth inventory of White’s musical life, from his nights with the JFK QuintetBohemian Caverns’ house band in the early ’60sas a saxophonist and Howard University undergrad to his oboe residency with the American Ballet Theatre in New York to his three-year stint playing electric bass with Stevie Wonder. With 420 pages devoted to cataloging White’s own records, books, and instrumental sheet music, and the myriad other products put out by Andrews Music, Sugar encompasses much more than a typical memoir.
And yet it’s so much less thorough. In the “Early Andrew” chapter, White barely begins rehashing his Nashville childhood before tripping into a 30-page aside that skips from topics ranging from racism (a section subtitled “Say No to de Fros”) to the recent nerdification of jazz (“Cigars, Cell Phones, No Sin and No Swing. Lord! What’s This Business Coming to???”). Chapter 6, “My Jazz Life While at Howard University,” is largely devoted to a 15-page diary of White’s sexual liaisons. Chapter 9, “Buffalo New York,” devotes a single paragraph to the years White spent playing oboe and English horn at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Paragraph 3 of that same chapter reads: “With all due respect to any and everybody’s morals, mores, artistic talent, genius, muse, and/or soulI’ll tell ya, nobody functions in the bedroom like an acid queen who’s high at the time on LSD. Believe me, check it out and see, glory be to me!”
You quickly get the feeling that no editor perused White’s text. When White tells me that he’s heard that it’s hard to put the book down once you get started, I ask who told him that. “Me,” he laughs. In fact, no one looked at White’s book before it went to press besides White. “Editing is kind of part of the creative process to me,” he says. “It’s almost like a one-step process; it’s very difficult to explain. I’m able to create and edit at the same time so that the editing doesn’t really take place with me. I didn’t bother with all that, because it was all set before I reached the typewriter. I just read it to check for spelling the best I could and did the grammatical thing. The closest thing to editing is putting everything in order.”
Which is not to say that Sugar is in any kind of conventional order. As the title page explains, “My life is a collage, thus, so is the bio.” Before the “Early Andrew” chapter, there are pages wishing White a happy 59th birthday and his company a happy 30th anniversary. There are also a six-page eulogy White delivered at his mother’s funeral three years ago and a small glossary: “‘Sugar’that part of my personality that’s mischievous, enfant terrible-ish, sexually sinister, funny, witty, whimsical, that you love to hate, hate to love and just got to adore and cry about ’cause it’s just so sweet.” White’s own handwriting is scrawled throughout the book, mostly in passages that simply say, “Thanks, Andrew.”
Though he describes his memoir as a “piece of music in words,” you get the impression that White sounds a whole lot more coherent through a saxophone or an oboe or a bass. After all, White does say that he has the most unusual career of anyone who’s ever been in the music business. And he’s probably right.
Andrew Nathaniel White III was born at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1942, in Washington, D.C., the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. Six years later, the family moved to Nashville, Tenn., where White scored a rusty, dilapidated soprano saxophone from a musically inclined uncle. White’s father sent the horn off to a repair shop, where it stayed for a year and a half. “It was the pent-up frustration of waiting for those repairs to be completed that fueled my cauldron of desire and need to play music,” White writes.
When the saxophone finally came back, White joined his elementary school band and discovered his perfect pitch. He’d been transcribing music from cartoons for three years, in a notation he invented himself, when he discovered Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in an aunt’s record collection. He transcribed the piece in two days. “I’ve always been predisposed to the nonperformance aspect of music,” White says. “It’s part of my natural talent. My gift is comprehensive. Coltrane and [Charlie] Parker had specialized gifts, but my gifts permeate the whole musical palette.”
White’s affection for transcribing was more than a personal preferenceit was also the product of social conditioning. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, White felt the limitations that ate into the daily lives of African-Americans. In a section of his autobiography called “Can Do, Can’t Do,” White writes, “You can shop lavishly at a department store, but you can’t eat a meal at the lunch counter under that same roof….You can sit in the back of an auditorium and listen to the youth symphony orchestra play, but you can’t sit in the same orchestra and play next to a caucasian kid who plays half as well as you do.”
“I was aware of how blacks could be killed for trying to learn,” White says. “Anything intellectual was forbidden to blacks. So I wouldn’t think of buying music because someone might kill me for doing it. I know it’s an exaggeration, but that’s the way I saw it. Rather than go downtown to a music store, I took advantage of my ability to transcribe it.”
Nonetheless, White picked up the oboe in eighth grade. He began playing the French horn soon after, performing with the Tennessee State University concert band from the 10th through 12th grades.
But his real entree into the world of live performance came during his years at Howard, after Shirley Horn’s six-night-a-week contract at Bohemian Caverns expired at the end of 1960. For the next three years, the JFK Quintet, which featured White on alto saxophone as well as an arsenal of drummers that included jazz legends Billy Hart and Joe Chambers, played every night of the week but Monday, usually until 2 in the morning. Cannonball Adderley was so taken with the group that he produced its first three recordings.
Leaving Howard in 1964 with a minor in oboe, White immersed himself in the instrument for the next six years. He spent the following year studying at Dartmouth College, leaving the following autumn for the Paris Conservatory, where he’d received a fellowship. He also took his saxophone to Paris’ Blue Note Club, subbing for Ornette Coleman for a month.
But the year wasn’t all work. On a “skirt-chasing expedition” to Sweden, White visited a woman his roommate had brought home one night in Paris. “Sweden must have burned out with what we were doing up there,” White recalls. The two were soon engaged. Before his return to the United States that summer, White took a second fiancée, a student from Dijon to whom he is still married. “I was gonna marry both of them and live with both, but it didn’t work out,” he says.
White then spent two years playing oboe and French horn at SUNY Buffalo on a Rockefeller Foundation grant before accepting a post with the American Ballet Theatre. All the while, he’d been freelancing as a jazz saxophonist. “I have a pure love of all these different types of music, and I love them equally,” White says. “They just feed off each other.” But a few years later, he retired as an oboe player. “My reasons for stopping were in this order: artistic, physical, business, and social,” his book explains. “Simply put, I felt I had too much to offer this world to jeopardize myself by means of exposure to physical and mental destruction.”
As he writes in Sugar, the instrument just stressed him out: “When I get ready to move Mount Rushmore I can’t stand to have to think of whether or not the reed will be able to stand up to my double forte. Will there be any dust particles clogging the second octave key? Has some wise prankster put a pubic hair at the G sharp juncture?”
Mentally, though, White never really put down the oboeor, for that matter, any other musical instrument. He says that he has a “comprehensive sound palette,” an ability to apply the tonal colors of any instrument he’s ever played to any other. “Most musicians identify only with a certain part of the sound spectrum: a bassist with the bottom part, a clarinet with the middle, and a flutist with the top,” he says. “But they lose contact with all the other ranges. Even though I may no longer play a particular instrument, I still have intimate contact with its sound spectrum. I carry over the experience of all instruments to whatever instrument I’m playing.”
His book puts it this way: “You have to see me as a five headed dragon whose brain is bursting from the aggregate intensity of them all (oboist, saxophonist, electric bassist, theorist and entrepreneur) all the time.”
Indeed, during his three years as the first-chair oboist with the American Ballet Theatre, White was able to spend virtually all his free time playing electric bass for Stevie Wonder. White had picked up the instrument while working at the Howard Theatre in the summer of 1966 and sat in with Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Temptations during his tenure with Wonder. But besides indulging in an inexhaustible supply of available and willing women, White says he shunned the rock lifestyle.
“All drugs are bullshit,” he says. “Cats be thinking they’re gonna play better when they’re high. But you can’t play any more than what you know. I’ve never been high. People tell me all the time, ‘If I could come up with what you come up with, I wouldn’t do no drugs.’ I’m always high, always intoxicated. But I stick with the chicks. There’s been days where I’ve seen a woman and said, ‘I’m gonna put this oboe down for a while and go check that out.’”
In 1970, White left both the American Ballet Theatre and Wonder’s group, hitting the road with the soul/pop group the 5th Dimension, which had just scored a Grammy for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the musical Hair. This electric-bass gig would last six years. But though White says he respects rock as much as classical and jazz, his book speaks differently. “I did manage to keep a certain distance between me [and] the rock life and the rock music,” he writes. “But I was and will always be very close to the rock money.”
Money, or the fact that he couldn’t make enough of it, is what drove White to become less of a performer and more of a businessman. He launched Andrews Music in 1971 while touring with the 5th Dimension, releasing an average of three albums annually for the next 13 years through the one-man company. By now, he’s also released hundreds of pages of his own sheet music and more than 1,000 transcriptions. White’s 14 volumes of Coltrane transcriptions encompass 650 solos; he’s put more than 300 Parker solos to paper, too. “Mine is considered the world’s largest catalogue of saxophone transcriptions and this body of work is probably what I will be remembered for FIRST AND FOREMOST after I’m gone,” he writes in Sugar. The Coltrane transcriptions have boosted sales of White’s own albums. “I’ve sold thousands of records to curiosity seekers,” he says. “They want to hear the player who transcribes Coltrane.” The self-proclaimed “Keeper of the Trane,” White has also penned three commissioned Coltrane tribute pieces, two of which have been performed at Carnegie Hall.
Today, White is performing less and less but still scoring prime gigs at the Kennedy Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Blues Alley. He makes a living by selling and marketing the nearly 2,000 products put out by Andrews Music and lecturing for the occasional symposium or college course.
White left the mainstream, he says, because the mainstream wouldn’t have him. In the ’60s, he says, record execs said that his sound didn’t transfer well to tape. “They told me that my sound had too much resonance,” he notes. “Too much buzz, too much vibration, too reedy, too squawky.”
White’s mantra these days is “I am not a commercially viable jazz musician,” and he seems happy underground. “When people become commercially viable, they give up their artistic ambitions,” he says. “It’s a rat race. They can’t win because there’s too many people running that race. They’re not individuals anymore. I’m still an individual.” CP
White will discuss Everybody Loves the Sugar: The Book with JazzTimes Managing Editor (and Washington City Paper contributing writer) Christopher Porter at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, at Borders Books & Music, 18th and L Streets NW. For more information, call (202) 466-4999. White performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23, at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 337-4141.