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Being Ernie Krivda

Being Ernie Krivda

By David Faulk

“Play me something” says the tenor master during our first lesson together. I squirm uncomfortably in my socks, having left my shoes at the door of the immaculate if modest music studio. So I pop out a several notes of “Have You Met Miss Jones?” a Rogers and Hart standard from 1937 on a saxophone from about the same era that I found at a flea market last summer. But the notes are woody and the air stale. I awkwardly get the melody out, playing from memory and flubbing one note.

Ernie, Cleveland’s nationally known tenor saxophone legend, or Mr. Krivda, as I prefer to call him, eyes me suspiciously.

“It’s all about the air. That’s why they call it a wind instrument.”

“It’s all about the air,” he says with an authoritative, yet not unfriendly tone. “That’s why they call it a wind instrument.”

“You’ll find that most problems you will have with the instrument can be solved with the right airstream.” Ernie checks off the fundamentals: position of instrument, embouchure, posture. “All of these things are important, but it all starts with the breath.” We talk at length about the velocity of the airstream and ways of conceptualizing it.

I try again. It’s a vastly improved yet still amateur performance. I’m still committing the greatest of music offenses. I have no “musical personality.” The master doesn’t need to say it. I can read it in his body language.

Without saying a word he picks up his horn and our eyes meet. The seventy-year-old looks devilishly playful as he places the mouthpiece in his mouth, adjusting both with surgical precision until they meet just the right way. His mouth assumes a shape around the mouthpiece born of decades of physiognomic development around that piece of metal. Then he inhales an enormous breath and pops out a crystal clear lead line from “Have You Met Miss Jones?” one moment refined and, the next raw and virile. It’s a big-boned sound, bold and edgy, filling the room. And then he’s off hauling ass all over the horn in a modification of the melody, parsing long phrases where his whole torso wobbles along with his thick vibrato near the end, still demonstrating the airstream concept and the sound, that Ernie Krivda sound that I’d learned to love from YouTube videos since last summer long before this meeting.

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com

Ernie Krivda

With some players, you get the impression they are being paid by the note, but not with Ernie. Even when he is flying all over the horn, you get the feeling that each note has its rightful place, bent, accentuated or left in the background, just as God would have played it were He a Jazzman.

You could say I’m in the initial stages of Ernie worship. It is a response, I soon learn, to “smooth jazz,” and an attempt to return to jazz’s hard-charging bebop roots. On a bone-chilling February afternoon I park my car next to a mountain of snow near his studio in Lakewood and reassuringly clutch my icy saxophone case on the passenger seat as the car’s thermometer registers zero degrees. Smooth jazz plays on the radio, but the wispy, airy sounds of the local jazz station’s playlist are annoyingly alienating in the current polar vortex, like thoughts of palm trees and Pacific breezes in a serious ice fisherman’s hut. These light, breezy sounds of smooth jazz sell records in national markets, but they don’t connect well to the ice-covered sidewalks and the artic chill gusting in from frozen Lake Erie. In fact, not unlike the Muzak of old, smooth jazz has a way of appropriating phrases from the language of hard-driving jazz without ultimately signifying anything. Not yet really understanding it all, but sensing something inadequate, I frown and turn off the radio. And then the source of my dissatisfaction is revealed. As I walk towards the address given to me over the phone the week before, the sound emanates from Mr. Krivda’s studio, like radiant heat through brick walls powerful enough to burn palm fronds thousands of miles away. This is Cleveland jazz.

Cleveland has gone through such a culturally and economically demoralizing experience in recent decades that it is easy to forget, unless one lived through it or studies music history, just how good the city had it in terms of music in the golden days of jazz.

“Cleveland lies at the heart of a number of cities with deep jazz roots …”

“First you have to look at the geography,” says Krivda, assuming the air of a professor. “Cleveland lies at the heart of a number of cities with deep jazz roots: Chicago and Detroit and Indianapolis to the west, Pittsburgh and to an extent Buffalo to the east and Columbus and Cincinnati to the southwest.”

All these cities, most of them former industrial powerhouses, had thriving jazz scenes and their musicians would play club dates in Cleveland, traveling on a circuit, typically playing a week in each city.

“Everybody was coming through Cleveland on club dates and a number of prominent jazz personalities settled here because of the location,” the professor continues.

First there was saxophonist Joe Alexander, an inspiration to John Coltrane, who moved up from Pittsburgh when his wife took a job as a nurse. Ed McKeta, whom Ernie calls “the swinging machine” from Bedford Heights worked the Esquire Bar with drummer Gary Jenkins. Drummer Ronnie Browning from Euclid and pianist George Peters and tenorman Tony “Big T” Lovano were commonly seen around town. Bobby Lopez from Lakewood played in tenorman Dave O’Rourke’s groups. Trumpeter and arranger Tom Baker from Euclid was a regular local on the scene. One can’t leave out two of the greatest local jazz powerhouses of all, Eddie Bachus and Bill DeArango. By the time Ernie was an apprentice on the scene, there was Val Kent, Hugh Thompson, and Lamar Gaines.

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com

Ernie Krivda and The Fat Tuesday Big Band at Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club, February 17, 2015

He may be Cleveland’s Dean of Jazz, but Ernie talks about Cleveland’s music history in realtor’s terms: The city’s musical value was based on location, location, location. It made Cleveland a different kind of music city than say New York, Chicago, or LA, cities which did not enjoy a central location in a regional game of musical chairs, but rather grew around a studio scene and “the industry,” with many musicians recording jingles, television or movie soundtracks, and playing in pit orchestras. It was once hotly debated whether a studio musician was being true to the craft of music and whether playing jingles for money was compatible with authentic musical expression. But such debates were always a little foreign to the shores of Lake Erie, where musicians were first and foremost struggling artists playing the music they loved.

Jazz aficionados still talk about the scene centered around 105th and Euclid. There were ten or twelve jazz clubs in all, “lounges” to be more precise, and the music was full of syncopation and experimental harmonies, all live. Workers were coming in from the mills and they wanted to hear music that swung hard. The Great American Songbook was standard fare, bluesy and swinging. “It was really one big red light district, but I was too naïve to realize it at the time,” recalls Krivda. “I lacked, as I have numerous times in my life, a certain awareness,” he explains. For Krivda, born Krvda Erno into a working-class Hungarian-Sicilian family, he attended, so to speak, the Musical Conservatory of 105th and Euclid, blowing his saxophone side by side with hookers, mobsters, and the drug-addled.

It would go something like this. Acolytes would stand around learning the craft and hoping to be schooled by the local masters or take pointers from the many traveling bands filled with world-famous jazz stars. Musicians would teach each other, staying up all night exploring different chord progressions and musical ideas. And always those shady people in the background, making money off the music or just being entertained.

“I was an innocent,” he says about his relationship to the environment.

Then it all fell apart. The demise of the region’s jazz clubs was merely one aspect of the Rust Belt saga. Like a canary in a coal mine these clubs were all gone by 1975, a sign of rough times to come, the economic apocalypse of the 1980s.

Ernie seems just a tad nostalgic, but not too much. His musical world is going quite well at the moment. “As long as I’ve got my health,” he says, “I’m just getting started.”

***

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com
1951. Increasingly, worry that the Reds will push the button down. An old General as President. Space Race. Cleveland was pouring out steel and durable goods for the postwar boom. White flight is just beginning as African-Americans migrate from the deep South. Six-year-old Erno gets his first musical instrument, a clarinet, his hands just big enough for its petite early 19th-century fingering system. Bartók plays in this Hungarian-Sicilian-American household long before a hyphenated identity is cool. Erno, of a working-class but rising immigrant family, was receiving mixed messages from his multilingual environment.

“Dad was constantly walking through the house playing his saxophone and discouraging me from following in his footsteps, like ‘don’t do this.’”

“They wanted something better for me, they wanted me to play classical music, so they got me a clarinet,” Ernie explains, as if it was a futile effort to make him into something other than he was destined to be.

“Jazz has had to fight a certain stigma,” he says. “When Harry James, the famed Benny Goodman trumpeter, appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1938, he stood up and said ‘I feel like a whore in church’ and that was the way people, including jazz musicians themselves, thought about jazz’s relationship to the European tradition.”

The inferiority of jazz as an art form is still being felt throughout the jazz world and it pervades the Krivda household. Dad, the hard-knocks child of the Depression, is playing at the invitation only-Hot Club sessions, which move around town from locale to locale. The Sicilian mother holds out for her son to be an opera singer while the Hungarian father, the son of an actor from the old country, keeps the family together financially with his jazz money. Anything as long as young Erno doesn’t frequent those clubs where his father plays long nights with the greats. The family had moved to the multiethnic neighborhood of Garfield Heights into one of its many recently built starter homes, and by the time Erno is in Catholic middle school he is playing clarinet for $5 a night in local polka bands. But the family wants better for him than polka. And for the boy, always searching, it still wasn’t jazz.

I look around the studio, many photos of Ernie and his saxophone and many photos of Ernie’s family, but no photos of a young Erno with a musical instrument, something that one would think would be prominently displayed if it existed. I suggest that playing jazz is an act of transgression in that environment, but he reassures me that he was just following in the family’s footsteps: “It was something I was able to do because I was born into this rich environment.”

We talk about various woodwind instruments and the topic of airstream takes on almost metaphysical or familial-psychological overtones. “With the clarinet, the resistance is too great,” he says. “I remember getting that first saxophone when I was sixteen, how open it felt, how the air just flowed.” I think of sixteen-year-old Erno finally able to play the father with that hunk of curved Oedipal brass between his hands, the foreign-feeling clarinet, the product of misdirected maternal class aspirations, tossed off in the corner.

“The clarinet has a much longer history,” he explains. The saxophone is a new instrument with less baggage. “You can make of it what you want.” You can, in short, become the father. And the father plays jazz.

***

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com“It took some balls to play the Eddie Sauter material after Stan Getz did it,” I say, trying not to sound too sycophantic, but voicing what many leading saxophonists feel today. I’m standing in front of a piano in Ernie’s studio eyeing pictures of him playing soulfully at the Tri-C Jazz Festival. We’re sipping green tea. He sets his cup down next to another teacup full of soaking saxophone reeds, which I at first misrecognized as some kind of Yerba-mate-like herbal drink or some accoutrement of a junk habit. I have my misconceptions about jazzers.

Ernie had rerecorded the Eddie Sauter magum opus “Focus,” performed by the musical genius Stan Getz. The Krivda concert took place at Severance Hall in 1998. The material required the kind of historical reconstruction that is Ernie’s hallmark. A colleague went to dig up the deteriorating scores at Yale, where Sauter had a studio; nobody else dared touch the material, so masterful was Getz’s performance, one of the greatest saxophone performances of all time. But Ernie seized the opportunity and proved that the music still had interpretive potential, even in the footsteps of a giant. It was a minor musical coup which sort of put Cleveland back on the map among saxophone aficionados at a time when the city was, musically speaking, nearly dead.

“It was something I only could have done because I was here in Cleveland,” he replies. Ernie was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music when the original Stan Getz performance took place and the music “was looked down upon” by his classical teachers.

“But I noticed it and always had it in the back of my mind that I would record it one day.”

***

1963. Kennedy is assassinated. A newly minted President promptly affirms support the anti-communist forces in Vietnam. Black Clevelanders begin a year-long mostly unsuccessful protest effort to desegregate the public school system. Sit-ins, mass demonstrations, and boycotts follow. The musicians unions are desegregated, the black union folded into the white one. White flight causes Cleveland’s city population to begin to shrink although the city and region remain an economic powerhouse for another decade and a half. Swing band director Jimmy Dorsey has been dead 6 years and a tenor sax seat opens up in his ghost orchestra. Young Erno is recommended by a trumpeter and gets the job, although he plays alto. He’s got his work cut out for him; his name is hard for other band members to pronounce. The band, a staple of white audience variety shows, already sounds dated in the era of civil rights.

“But it was work,” Ernie recalls matter of factly. When news of the job surfaces, his father realizes the value of a job, despite his class-status reservations. His son is, after all, a prodigy, and one must support such rarities. The proud father breaks open the family piggy bank and buys his young son a tenor sax. Armed with an unfamiliar Otto Link #5 mouthpiece and a box of Rico reeds, Erno boards a bus to Atlantic City and meets up with the band, playing his first gig without a rehearsal.

“I was a bebopper at this point and I quickly realized that bebop was not what they were playing,” he says pensively. He seems a little dissatisfied, but grateful for the break and the chance to grow musically. In the Dorsey band he plays the same charts night after night with little chance for improvisation or personal self-expression. Young Erno, now known as Ernie, yearns to be back in Cleveland, not spending hours a day on the same bus and lying in a hotel bed at night listening to his favorite music on the radio.

Ernie arrives back in Cleveland six months later with a draft notice in hand (he would be spared later by his eyesight) and has a few good years on at 105th and Euclid. They are some of the best years of his life, to hear him talk about them. By the late 1960s, however, interest in jazz plummets, caused by the triple whammy of R&B, Motown and the British Invasion. Racial unrest and tough-on-crime policies bring down the 105th and Euclid scene.

Jazz was, in Ernie’s words, “evolving” into a symbol of “social frustration and anger which was alienating its audience.” Jazz was once a scene that brought people together, but it was increasingly becoming “divisive and dangerous.” Then against this evolutionary background of jazz came the revolutionary sounds of rock ‘n roll.

Ernie remembers playing in the Lucky Bar on Cedar, being in the middle of a set with bassist Willis Lyman and drummer Lawrence Jackson, when the owner of the establishment came up and said, “get in your cars and go … NOW.” He finds himself driving through the race riots that were spreading across town and ending an era.

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com
The jazz scene is now dead and its musicians personally begin to despair. Ernie brings in a few bucks playing jingles and then experiments with Motown and funk, and when the bottom falls out of the jazz scene completely, he takes a gig with a show band out of Michigan.

I take a sip of green tea and listen.

“I remember being stuck in Florida playing in the boonies in this shabby, godforsaken place and not having any money, playing music that was not to my taste and being depressed about it.

“Then we heard that Ira Sullivan had a regular gig at The Rancher in Miami and we go and this guy is just playing from the heart.” He speaks the words “playing from the heart” as if they hold special, secret significance.

Ernie goes into the Rancher like a wayward soul into a personal tent revival and he comes out whole again. He is reborn, torn body and soul from the most dismal time of his life. He now knows what he wants to do.

“Nobody was interested in the music, but I learned a lot from Sullivan such as how to deal with the public and be true to the music.” He was soon on his way back to Cleveland where he would increasingly follow his own path. He is, for the first time in his life, a true artist.

***

I’m standing in the studio in my socks with a guy whose graying hair is feathered back with what looks like Brylcreem and whose emotional state has risen and fallen through the decades like a barometer that measures the public’s taste for jazz. But then suddenly he takes on the dignified emotionless air of a banker. Five decades of saxophone have built a stiff upper lip. I now understand why he doesn’t tour much beyond the Great Lakes region. Every period of his life spent on the road was like a low point when authentic jazz remained elusive. Contrast that with being back home in Cleveland during the golden years of 105th and Euclid, “having the time of [his] life” as he calls it, playing real, hard-charging jazz.

He places the horn to his lips, adjusts the mouthpiece carefully between his canines and blows like he’s blowing his own roof into Lake Erie. The banker is gone, replaced by something nearly demonic. I think of what Jack Nicholson would be like with a saxophone under his skin. Ernie’s wife, Faye, is in the kitchen and the smell of brownies wafts through the house. Another reason not to tarry far from the ship.

He takes a break from his solo long enough to slip easily back into music educator mode and picks up his earlier train of thought: advice for a novice.

“Do you record yourself playing?” he asks.

When I shake my head, he points out that he records himself every day just to stay on track tone-wise. It’s a way to get outside yourself, he explains.

***

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com
1975. The war in Vietnam has ended, and, on the heels of Watergate, a newly minted President promises a more trustworthy government. Dayglow has come and gone and soon “all those kids who used to paint the face” will “have joined the human race.” Other Steely Dan lyrics fill the airwaves from a band that understood those jazzy 9th and 11th chords. Cocaine, but not yet for everyman. The musical world begins to feel overly satiated. (This was coincidentally the year I turned six, Erno’s age when he received his clarinet, and my first musical memory is jumping on my parents’ bed to Paul Simon’s bluesy, gospel-inspired “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The chord progressions and rhythms have stuck with me ever since. But it is not jazz.)

Recommended by Cannonball Adderley, Ernie, the firebrand from Cleveland, known as the most aerobic saxophonist on the scene, is offered a gig in Quincy Jones’s band and begins touring again. It’s his third stint on the road and as they say, third time’s a charm. This time he has something that he lacked the other two time’s around, cash in pocket, and plenty of it, his “stash” as he refers to it today. And the music is tolerable if not actually a bit interesting, experimental.

Ernie has nothing but positive things to say, mostly out of deference to Jones, the former Jazzman with Lionel Hampton and consummate businessman.

“The experimentation was fascinating,” he says. But it wasn’t Ernie’s music. He got his own record contract on Inner City Records and put out his influential album Satanic.

***

“So what’s this I hear about you dissing Miles Davis?” I ask, immediately regretting my choice of words.

“I didn’t dis Miles Davis,” he responds dryly, obviously a little annoyed that the story has persisted so long.

“Well, I don’t really know the story,” I correct. And it is true. I just know that there was something there, a cryptic reference on an online message board.

“…at certain points in my life, I lacked a certain awareness.”

“Like I said, at certain points in my life, I lacked a certain awareness,” the artist explains, his 70-year-old face assuming the innocent feature of a Catholic school boy.

The story is easily corrected. In 1974, Miles Davis offered Krivda a position in his band, but as Ernie explains it, it wasn’t the best time for Miles.

“This was shortly before Miles took time off for health reasons and his band had four guitarists. It just wasn’t that good, so I have to turn it down. Besides, I was having the time of my life here in Cleveland.”

And just like that Ernie, thinking of standards, passes up playing for one of the most famous jazz musicians of all times, something that would have cemented a career. Music journalism circles spoke of original sin, but Ernie just shrugged it off.

***

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com
2009. It’s a big year for Ernie in terms of local recognition. After decades of accomplishment, the “powers” seem to notice the city’s best kept musical secret. Ernie receives the Cleveland Arts Prize award for lifetime achievement in music and the CPAC (Community Partnership of Arts and Culture) Fellowship. The 31st CD on which he appears as either a bandleader or a backup musician, November Man, is released to great critical acclaim. The CD is a 70-minute set of solo tenor saxophone pieces that would be hard for any player to pull off.

“Thank you, but you do know I’m just getting started,” Ernie quipped in an acceptance speech. The statement has proven to be accurate. Since then, he has recorded five more CDs and played numerous concert venues and regional jazz festivals.

Increasingly Krivda has crossed geographical borders and genders to make music, most notably with the late Claude Black and “the matriarch” as he calls her, Marion Hayden, both of Detroit. He teaches at Cuyahoga Community College and privately, and his students are scattered around the world.

“…I think of myself as an eternal student.”

“I enjoy teaching at Tri-C,” he says. “I find it very rewarding to teach in a musical trade school where I have the freedom to construct my classes as I see fit.” Most of his students are rising jazz stars or trying to break into the music industry. “Teaching also allows me to be around growth energy,” he explains. “It may be ill-focused but even if it is wild and even desperate it still is something I can feed off. You see, I think of myself as an eternal student.”

It has occurred to me that the eminence grise of the saxophone has not said a negative thing about anybody in the entire time that I’ve been here. When I suggest that there are players with half the skill and twice the fame and fortune, he just shrugs.

“One-trick ponies,” he says, smiling. Then he quickly recovers, saying how grateful he is that he can play the music he loves and earn a living doing it.

***

Ernie Krivda

I return to my car and by habit turn on the radio. It has now warmed up to 2 degrees and the radio is still set to the local smooth jazz station. The saccharine sounds of Najee, a two-time Grammy award-winning saxophonist from New York, fill the car. He is playing what even I recognize as amateurish solo against a simple groove on what sounds like an aluminum free-blowing mouthpiece with a soft reed. The sound is all surface, no depth. Playing like Najee is within my grasp, I think, with a new saxophone, the right “setup” (reed/mouthpiece combination in saxophone parlance) and about a year’s worth of imitation. But is it worth it, fame and fortune not withstanding? I smile and turn off the radio, as if possessing secret knowledge, knowledge that still doesn’t satisfy my yearning to be an authentic Rust Belt jazzer, but which makes me not want to be Najee. An afternoon with Ernie Krivda on a frozen Lake Erie afternoon, is enough to teach me that.

In the distance I think I hear the human blast furnace churning out another rendition, an unbelievable swinging interpretation of “Have You Met Miss Jones?” but I must be mistaken, for no sound could carry that distance into my idling car into my hungry ears. It is just my imagination on a cold February afternoon as I reassuringly clutch my warm saxophone case on the passenger seat and aim my car homeward.

More can be learned about Ernie Krivda at erniekrivda.com.

David Faulk is an independent writer living in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He teaches ESL at Kent State University, is working on a PhD in German Literature, and plays around with the saxophone in his spare time.

Photos Bob Perkoski

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2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 20, 2015

    I liked the tip about air flow. Keep breathin’, David Faulk, and good luck with the saxophone lessons.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 22, 2015

    Sounds like Ernie Krivda has what we all need for gratification in life’s journey — a direction, goal, love or quest. As from the musical, South Pacific, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true”. Great article Dave.

    Reply

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