Oliver Lake

2006 Living Legacy Awardee

Color photo of Oliver Lake playing the saxophone.

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Image: Oliver Lake. Credit: R. Cifarello ©Phocus.

“It’s all about choices,” states modern Renaissance Man Oliver Lake to explain his expansive artistic vision. An accomplished poet, painter and performance artist, Lake has published a book of poetry entitled Life Dance, has exhibited and sold a number of his unique painted-sticks at the Montclair Art Museum, and has toured the country with his one-man performance piece, Matador of 1st and 1st. But it’s his extraordinary talents as composer, saxophonist, flautist and bandleader that have brought him world-renown. Although his greatest reputation exists in the world of jazz, Lake’s amazingly eclectic musical approach is best expressed by his popular poem SEPARATION: put all my food on the same plate!

Whether composing major commissioned works for the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic; creating chamber pieces for the Arditti and Flux String Quartets, the Amherst Sax Quartet and the San Francisco Contemporary Players; arranging for pop diva Bjork, rocker Lou Reed and rap group A Tribe Called Quest; collaborating with poets Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange, choreographers Ron Brown and Marlies Yearby, Native American vocalist Mary Redhouse, Korean kumongo player Jin Hi Kim, and Chinese bamboo flute player Shuni Tsou; doing unique performances with MacArthur Award recipients, actress/author Anna Devere Smith and writer/law professor/political commentator Patricia Williams; sharing the stage with hip-hop artist Mos Def and pop star Me’shell Ndegeocello; or leading his own Steel Quartet, Big Band and cooperative ensembles the World Saxophone Quartet and Trio 3; Oliver views it all as parts of the same whole.
dixieland, be-bop, soul, rhythm & blues, cool school,
swing, avant-garde jazz, free jazz, rock, jazz rock

Extremely few artists could embrace such a diverse array of musical styles and disciplines. Lake is not only able to thrive in all of these environments, but does so without distorting or diluting his own remarkable artistic identity. Part of this is due to his experience with the Black Artists Group (BAG), the legendary multi-disciplined and innovative St. Louis collective he co-founded with poets Ajule and Malinke, and musicians Julius Hemphill and Floyd La Flore over 35 years ago. But in reality, Oliver’s varied artistic interests go back even further than that.

My best grip starts at 360 degree angle (from Best Grip).
Born in Marianna, Arkansas in 1942, Oliver moved to St. Louis at the age of two. He began drawing at the age of thirteen (and paints daily, using oil, acrylics, wood, canvas, and mixed media), and soon after began playing cymbals and bass drum in various drum and bugle corps. At 17, he began to take a serious interest in jazz. Like many other members of BAG and its Chicago-based sister organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Lake moved to New York in the mid-’70s, working the fertile ground of the downtown loft scene and quickly establishing himself as one of its most adventurous and multi-faceted artists.

A co-founder of the internationally acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet with Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett and David Murray in 1977 (and recently celebrating its 26th anniversary with an album of Jimi Hendrix pieces for Justin Time Records), Oliver continued to work with the WSQ and his own various groups – including the groundbreaking roots/reggae ensemble Jump Up – and collaborating with many notable choreographers, poets and a veritable Who’s Who of the progressive jazz scene of the late 20th century, performing all over the U.S. as well as in Europe, Japan, the Middle East, Africa and Australia.

While he has continued to tour regularly with his own groups, collaborations and guest appearances – in the last three months of 2003, he performed in Europe, Japan and various U.S. cities – Oliver recognized the changing trends and new challenges facing creative artists, especially those working in the jazz tradition. Always a strong proponent of artist self-empowerment and independence, in 1988 Lake founded Passin’ Thru, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit, dedicated to fostering, promoting and advancing the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of jazz, new music and other disciplines in relation to music.

makin’ a can out of a can’t
a will out of a won’t
a do out of a don’t (from Continued…)
Under his artistic direction, Passin’ Thru has commissioned new works, sponsored performances by emerging artists, documented works by prominent artists, and has established on-going educational activities not only in its home base of New Jersey and New York, but also in Florida, Minnesota, Arizona and Pennsylvania, along with occasional activities in other locales all over the U.S. The organization also operates Passin’ Thru Records, which has recently issued its 12th recording (Dat Love by the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet). In addition to Oliver’s albums, ranging from solo to big band, Passin Thru has also issued recordings by the late, legendary multi-reed master Makanda Ken McIntyre, piano great John Hicks and the first recording by Lake’s mentor, St. Louis tenor sax giant Freddie Washington. A 13th album by renowned trombonist Craig Harris is scheduled for release in the spring of 2004.

makin’ a could out of a couldn’t
a is out of a isn’t
and a be from an ain’t (from Continued…)
A recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Lake is one of the most heavily commissioned composers to emerge from the jazz tradition. He’s the most-commissioned composer in the history of the eminently respected organization Meet The Composer, most recently completing a three-year project funded by its New Residencies Program that resulted in six new musical works, a theater piece, three dance pieces and extended educational residencies in New Jersey and Tucson, Arizona; along with the establishment of Common Thread, an annual series of concerts featuring gifted female artists.

Other commissions have been received from the Library of Congress, the Rockefeller Foundation ASCAP, the International Association for Jazz Education, Composers Forum, the McKim Foundation, the Mary Flagler Cary Trust and the Lila Wallace Arts Partners Program. In addition to the ensembles mentioned earlier, others who have commissioned works are the Wheeling Symphony, New York New Music Ensemble, and Pulse Percussion Ensemble of New York. Oliver is often specially cited for his numerous endeavors with female artists and performers, to the extent of being called “The Feminist Composer” in an arts course taught at Wesleyan University.

Currently, in addition to performing and touring with his Steel Quartet, his Big Band, the WSQ and Trio 3, Oliver continues to collaborate with Mary Redhouse, Anna Devere Smith, Patricia Williams, Craig Harris and various artists in many disciplines. He is currently developing a symphonic piece that draws upon elements from his African, Native American and European heritage, and is in the midst of an extensive residency in Tucson, Arizona, partially sponsored by Chamber Music America, and a two-month multi-arts residency in Minneapolis.

*Bio from Award presentation.