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Jazzman plays it 'cool' like Dizzy
Question of the Day
Ron Holloway, a Glen Burnie, Md., resident and District of Columbia native, is more than just a jazz saxophonist. He's a local fixture.
"It seems like he knows everybody when he walks into a hall," says Mimi Clark, who will produce Mr. Holloway's performance Saturday at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in the Georgetown neighborhood of the District, "so it's like he's coming home."
Mr. Holloway is the son of Marjorie and Winston Holloway of Takoma Park, Md. They can tell you how he played before he won this year's Musician of the Year award from the Washington Area Musical Association. (He has won 31 Wammies.)
"At first, he kind of started loud and awkward, and the kids used to laugh at him in the band," says the elder Mr. Holloway of his son's school debut at age 13. "The teacher placed him over on the other side of the room, I think, his tone was so strong."
Mrs. Holloway laughs gently at the memory.
"He'd cry some, but he was still dedicated," the father continues proudly. "He started improving, and he didn't limit himself to just jazz. He listens to all kinds of music, and it enables him to perform all types."
Saturday night, the Ron Holloway Quintet performs as part of the Dumbarton Concert Series, now in its 22nd year. Joining Mr. Holloway, 47, will be legendary bassist Keter Betts, Tommy Williams on trumpet, Harry Appelman on piano and Harold Summers on drums. The concert sold out early Monday, which is unusual for a Dumbarton jazz event.
The five will re-create what jazz fans have called "the greatest jazz concert ever." One night in 1953, Toronto's Massey Hall delivered Charlie "Bird" Parker (the "bebop genius of the alto saxophone," Mr. Holloway says), Dizzy Gillespie on his famous bent trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums.
"It has become jazz lore," Mr. Holloway says.
Mr. Holloway personally relates to the concert, too. He was born in 1953. Ten years ago, he and Mr. Gillespie's band played Massey Hall together.
"It was a little bit intimidating," Mr. Holloway says in a slow, smooth baritone far more modulated than the sound of his rangy Keilworth SX90R tenor sax.
Mr. Holloway sports an Afro and thin mustache. The word "cool" rolls off his tongue without a drop of affectation.
He plays in about 10 bands, he guesses, so many he can't readily count them all.
He sounds grateful that his parents always supported his early desire to be a jazz performer. Mr. and Mrs. Holloway, who have lived in Takoma Park since 1966, fondly recall going to the Howard Theater to hear jazz in the 1940s, "when we were courting," as Mrs. Holloway says. The senior Mr. Holloway has an ample jazz collection and often found out about new artists coming to town before his son did.
"You might say I learned jazz in the womb," Ron Holloway says.
When he picked up the saxophone, he took to it with gusto sometimes practicing with his father's records at all hours of the day.
"I was afraid for his health," his mother says, laughing. "He would practice in our basement, and when I would insist on him coming to eat, he would not want to stop."
The young Mr. Holloway met Mr. Gillespie in 1977 when the trumpet legend played the now-defunct Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring, Md. (This came after Mr. Holloway's father typically had alerted him about the show.) Mr. Holloway brought Mr. Gillespie a cassette of himself playing to a Sonny Rollins record, but he left his horn at home. He didn't want to be presumptuous.
"Dizzy laughed and said, 'That's a good word, 'presumptuous,' " Mr. Holloway says.
The next night, the "Yoda of bebop" let Mr. Holloway sit in.
Mr. Gillespie liked what he heard, which earned the 24-year-old Mr. Holloway an open invitation to sit in whenever Mr. Gillespie passed through the area. The honor, Mr. Holloway later discovered, fell upon only a handful in the world. He soon gleaned arrangements from other big names, most notably saxophonist Rollins.
Along the way, Mr. Holloway played with everyone from Root Boy Slim to Gil Scott-Heron. In the summer of 1989, Mr. Gillespie asked Mr. Holloway to join his group.
"I was ecstatic, needless to say," he says.
He traveled all over the world with Mr. Gillespie. He performed on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" and "The Arsenio Hall Show."
Mr. Gillespie and company met Nelson Mandela shortly after the South African's release from prison. Mr. Holloway recalls personal raves backstage from Diana Ross and waving from the stage to Shirley Temple Black.
Deep down, working with Mr. Gillespie, a practical joker but a stickler for punctuality, was what meant the most to him.
Mr. Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, 1993. His last club date was in January 1992 at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Mr. Holloway remembers that he was in Alexandria, Va., when he heard that Mr. Gillespie had died at age 75.
"It was pretty shocking," he says, "I mean, I knew he had been ill, but we all expected him to recover. It had kind of a numbing effect on me at the time."
Saturday's Dumbarton Concert and his forthcoming fifth release on Milestone will be his tribute to Mr. Gillespie.
Mr. Holloway will indeed be traveling back to 1990, when he got the chance to play Massey Hall with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet.
"At one point, when I was on stage, I looked around; I consciously thought to myself, 'This is the guy that's one of the five guys that's responsible for the aura.'
"And, of course, at one point, I wondered to myself, 'Gee, I wonder where Charlie Parker was standing?' "
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