Primary Instrument: Saxophone
Earl Turbinton - alto, soprano saxophone, educator
Earl Turbinton, the adventurous saxophonist who helped pioneer the modern jazz scene in New Orleans, followed an idiosyncratic path in music. A jazz master, he could take an audience along on his musical journey, altering consciousness at will with playing that was both spiritual and passionate.
Earl Turbinton grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. Turbinton's musical training was with bandleader and educator, Clyde Kerr, Sr., who had an enormous influence on the New Orleans music scene. He continued his musical education and studied jazz with clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Southern University.
As with many New Orleans musicians who were jazz players at heart, Turbinton often made his living playing R&B, blues, and funk gigs. He was a sideman in the early ‘60’s on the road backing Bill Doggett and Jerry Butler. In the late ‘60s, Turbinton co-founded The Jazz Workshop; a nonprofit Decatur Street club that he hoped would serve as an incubator for avant-jazz. That ambition did not come to pass, but the African Cowboy, as Mr. Turbinton referred to himself, continued to work as a leader and sideman.
But he kept coming back to jazz, developing into a world-class player. Evidence of that was his appearance on Joe Zawinul's 1970 solo album, “Zawinul.” As a result of those sessions, Earl was asked to join Weather Report, but decided against it. Instead, he went back out on the road for several years, this time with B. B. King's band, and appeared on B.B.’s 1972 release Five Long Years.
During much of the 1970s in New Orleans Earl held down a teaching position while also gigging regularly around town playing jazz or backing up local favorites such as Professor Longhair and L'il Queenie and the Percolators. He also recorded with his brother, Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton), on several notable projects, including their band The Gaturs. Earl joined Willie for his groundbreaking collaboration with the Wild Magnolias, uniting funk grooves and instrumentation with the Mardi Gras Indians' unique music. They put out two records “Wild Magnolias,” (’74) and “They Call Us Wild Magnolias.” (’75) Also in this time frame, he often gigged with the future members of jazz ensemble Astral Project, ignoring the unspoken color barriers that sometimes bedeviled bandstands.
He accepted odd jobs for extra income, but mostly focused on musical pursuits. He directed the jazz studies program at Dillard University and taught privately; his students included saxophonist Wessell Anderson and vocalist Cassandra Wilson. The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Fellow in 1983. He visited every continent except Antarctica and lectured at jazz clinics at universities and prisons.
In 1988, he collaborated with his brother on the Brothers for Life album, for Rounder Records. This record has Willie in a featured role as songwriter, arranger and keyboardist, with James Singleton on bass, and drummer David Lee Jr.
He was also featured on drummer Johnny Vidacovich's “Mystery Steet”(1995); and on ‘A Portrait of Champion Jack Dupree.” (2000)
Turbinton delivered a memorable set at the 2002 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, then suffered a stroke weeks later. As he struggled with a series of medical setbacks over the next five years, he still adhered to the spirit of improvisation that defined his music.
Turbinton lived in the Christopher Inn in Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans, until evacuating before Hurricane Katrina. He eventually ended up in Memphis, Tenn. Eager to return to his home state, he finally settled in a Baton Rouge nursing home.
Earl Turbinton died Aug. 3, 2007, in Baton Rouge after a long illness. He was 65.
Bio from tributes by Keith Spera and Dan Phillips.