Miles Davis wasn’t accustomed to people telling him no about anything, says Bennie Maupin, who had played bass clarinet on Davis’s jazz-rock fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew. But when Maupin got a call from Davis in 1970 asking him to join his band, Maupin had to decline, since he’d just accepted a job with trumpeter Lee Morgan.
“He was pretty pissed off about that,” Maupin says of Davis. “In fact, he hung up the phone on me. But the thing is, because I told him no, he respected me, and he continued to call me for recordings.”
Maupin, who first heard Davis’s 1950s recordings at a soda-shop jukebox across the street from his high school in Detroit, went on to record three more albums with Davis throughout the ’70s, including A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Big Fun while also playing saxophone and other reed instruments in Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk groups Mwandishi and Headhunters.
The ’70s were a fertile period for Maupin, who released three solo albums, recorded with Marion Brown, Eddie Henderson and McCoy Tyner after kicking off the decade working with Morgan. Maupin, who had recorded with Morgan on the trumpeter’s late-’60s Blue Note albums Caramba! and Taru, knew it was his destiny to tour with Morgan. “I knew intuitively that working with Lee would somehow be a better fit for me,” Maupin says.
An ideal example of that fit is Morgan’s 1970 album Live at the Lighthouse, recorded nearly two years before Morgan died after being shot by his common-law wife, Helen Moore, in the New York jazz club Slug’s Saloon. There’s some fiery playing by both Morgan and Maupin on the live album, which also showcases Maupin’s strong composition skills on six of the cuts.
Live at the Lighthouse also documents Maupin’s fierce steadfastness as a player, something he’d been working on since growing up in Detroit. During his teen years, the 77-year-old Maupin got to hear John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, who had come through on tours. Maupin soaked in a lot just by listening, but sometimes he had a chance to play with the musicians. When Maupin mentioned to Dolphy that he'd just bought a flute, Dolphy immediately handed him his flute and asked him to play something. Dolphy started teaching Maupin things like how to balance the flute and not hold it.
“He spent I don’t know how long,” Maupin says. “He would not stop showing me how to get it until I finally was able to get the sound repeatedly. And once I got it, he said, ‘There, you hear that?’ Keep it right there. Just roll it away from you. Just go back and forth. That was the only time I actually spent with Eric was that particular night. I’ll never forget that, because he was just determined that I was going to get it.”
Maupin also says he plays bass clarinet because of Dolphy, the first person he had ever seen play the instrument. During his teen years, Maupin also befriended saxophonist Joe Henderson, who was studying at Wayne State University at the time. Henderson also took Maupin on dance gigs.
“I would go, and Joe would teach me these tunes that he was going to play, and I would play with him,” Maupin says. “A lot of my earlier recordings, I sound like Joe Henderson a little bit. There’s a definite reason why I sound like a combination of Joe Henderson and Yusef Lateef: because they were the ones that I got to be with. I got to be around them.”
And it was Coltrane who told Maupin about what Ornette Coleman was doing in New York and suggested he move there. Maupin eventually did make it to New York, as a touring saxophonist with the Motown vocal group the Four Tops. During a stop there, the band gave him a little money, and he discovered Thelonious Monk playing at the Five Spot.
“So that’s where I spent all my money, in the Five Spot, listening to Monk,” Maupin says. “That was when I made up mind. I needed to move to New York. I had an epiphany. I stayed the entire night. I was fascinated, because everybody that I’d seen on record covers, they were there that night listening to Thelonious Monk. I was totally fascinated by that.”
Not long after that, Maupin packed up and moved to New York City. He found a day gig taking care of research animals (something he had also done in Detroit to pay his way through conservatory there) at the Jewish Memorial Hospital. He eventually started gigs, like with drummer Roy Haynes and pianist Horace Silver, with whom he had the opportunity to travel the country and Europe.
Maupin also found out where the veteran musicians who played with bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman would drink during the day. He’d take the subway downtown from his job and listen to them talk about their experiences on the road. “That was like going to grad school,” he says.
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Saxophonist Sonny Rollins was also part of Maupin’s jazz education. They first met when Rollins stopped in Detroit; Maupin says Rollins immediately started teaching him and giving him saxophone mouthpieces. When Maupin got to New York, they reconnected, and they would sometimes drive to a forest in New Jersey to practice, Maupin recalls, because Rollins said he couldn’t practice in his apartment because the neighbors would hate him.
During his time in New York, Maupin had a variety of gigs, playing standards or blues in Harlem one night and a jam session with Pharoah Sanders the next.
“My exposure was always multi-faceted,” Maupin says. “It was never just one thing.”