Total Honesty

Fred Sanders

photograph by Shannon McIntyre

Leaning back in the chair, arms folded across his chest and eyes squinted ever so slightly, he speaks in a slow, gravelly whisper. "Fred, my man, you gotta look at everything in your life as an experience." He lets the weight of the words settle sufficiently, holding his breath for a moment. Finally, he lets the air rush out with a small burst of laughter. That was Fred Sanders doing his best impression of Mr. Martin Banks. "Those words are true," affirms Sanders, the gravel now replaced by the local pianist's light and jovial voice. "I'll always remember them."

Referring to Austin's resident trumpet legend, Sanders makes clear his affection for Banks, the premier statesman of jazz still playing around these parts. As with the rest of Austin's young jazz lions, the 26-year-old Sanders has the utmost respect for Banks, an old jazzer who speaks exactly as you would expect and hope, punctuating his sentences with "you dig," "cats," and extended "yeeeaahs." Banks' truly inimitable presence and his playing have had a lasting effect on Sanders -- as have a great many other people in his life -- and the young pianist's life story is a tale connecting all these people.

"First it was drums," says the Dallas-born musician. "I played drums in church, the Galilee Church of God in Christ, at age 7. After the first time, they told me if I wanted to play I'd have to come on Tuesday nights when all the young people in the church would be responsible for the actions of the service. I couldn't play in the Sunday service, because you know, I was just banging on them. I eventually got to play drums again after all the good drummers grew up and moved on."

At this point in his young life, Sanders brushed up against the piano briefly, but he was still many years from recognizing it as a non-percussive instrument. "My grandma had a nice old piano and I wanted to play it, you know, just get on it and bang. She wasn't having that. She said if I wanted to play it, I'd have to learn to do it right."

But Sanders wasn't interested. There were other strings he wanted to pluck instead -- like those attached to a bass guitar, and later the electric guitar his mother bought him at Sears (it was all they had). After he blew his small amp on the first day, the violin followed, but the shrill tones weren't what he was looking for. "I couldn't get a big upright bass home; I was too small," says Sanders. "So I took the cello."

The cello provided the happy medium Sanders stayed with all through his college years, during which he studied classical music -- a genre he never felt completely comfortable with. "Late in high school, I was making all city and all region orchestras," recounts Sanders. "I tried for all state, which was something I wanted to accomplish before I left school, and just before the competition, they changed the music. Nobody told me. They decided it was a bit too easy, I guess, and I didn't get the information that they changed the repertoire. I played, though. I made them mad too, because first I played the piece I had worked on. Man, I played it excellent, and they were not pleased. Then I sight read the new one. I played it okay, but not good enough."

Not that this was a negative experience.

"I hold no grudges," he says with a smile. "Those kinds of situations inspired me and kept me grounded.... I've learned that from people who know what's going on, people who have been there to guide me. Someone told me -- I can't even remember who -- that `It's not about how you live, but how you wanna die.' In other words, what counts is what I leave behind. So I gotta keep working."

This work ethic, along with an immediate love of jazz, would be the thing that eventually sat him down on a piano bench. Sanders attended the public, arts-centered Arts Magnet High School in Dallas. It was there, on his first day -- third period -- that Sanders discovered jazz.

"I was in a music history class," he recalls, "and I heard a band count out a tune and start playing it. It was a [Freddie] Hubbard tune called `Red Clay.' I was like, `Man that sounds good.' The trumpet player was in the 10th grade, a cat named Roy Hargrove. It was inspiring, because he was in the top combo with all the juniors and seniors. He was playing melodies, soloing -- he did it all. That sparked the interest. I had always been doing music and improv-ing, writing songs and stuff. I didn't know what it was, but I wouldn't call it jazz. I was just taking my environment and trying to learn how to embellish it musically. When I learned there were other people practicing [improvisation], ooh man! That turned something on inside my head.

photograph by Bruce Dye

"Later that year, I went to one of the directors wanting to play in that combo, but they didn't have any parts for cello. It really made me mad, 'cause I coulda played that combo, but he didn't want to break away from the sounds he was hearing. I just wanted to play. Sophomore year, it was required that you take piano if you never had piano lessons. So I started learning fingering and scales and hand exercises. I couldn't play them, because I just wanted to get to the jazz portion of it.... By the end of the year, I'd get to school early, 'cause Roy had a jam session with some friends and I'd go try to hear them and get as much information as I could. Basically, I wanted to find a way into that band. I had no clue that I wanted to become a piano player. I was trying to better myself as a musician."

Though he had offers from Northwestern University and Berklee School of Music in Boston, Sanders decided to stay in central Texas, attending Weatherford College on a scholarship from Downbeat magazine for his cello playing and arrangement skills. His years at Weatherford were well spent, with Sanders sinking his time into the cello, piano, and sampling the expansive record and CD collections of friends. One of these friends, Whitney Russell, somehow landed a gig playing trumpet legend Clark Terry's wedding.

"I don't know how it happened," says Sanders. "God's word says to live on faith and that's what I do. Do the right things and it will work out."

Things did indeed work out, as Sanders ended up meeting a number of jazz luminaries at Terry's nuptials, including (though he didn't know it at the time) Martin Banks. Another wedding guest, one that was to have a most profound influence on Sanders, was Louisiana clarinetist and patriarchal legend in his own right, Alvin Batiste.

"Mike Oughten, a guitar player from school, had gone to Southern University in Baton Rouge to a summer jazz camp with Alvin Batiste," says Sanders. "He came back like, `Man... man... I saw Roland Garrett. I saw Mark Whitfield. Wes Anderson came out and played...' He was totally blown away, 'cause these cats were just swingin. He said, `I talked to Wes and he said he'd come up and do a show. You wanna play piano?' I couldn't believe it, but we worked it out -- at some club in Dallas -- Sambuca's, I guess. Me, a tenor player named Loftin, Oughten on bass, we did two or three nights. Up until that time, I had never played with cats like this. I remember rehearsing, and thinking I had never played music like this. And rehearsing stuff off Wes' albums? Man, it was hard. And when I realized that these guys had all studied with Batiste, who I heard play at that wedding, I was gone."

Well, actually he had to buy his grandmother's car and spend the summer getting it running before he was gone -- off to Louisiana to study with Batiste. "I got there at the end of the first day of school," says Sanders. "Bat was getting ready to leave when I pulled up all sweating, no AC, in a '78 LeBaron with a broken driver's side window, and the whole car smelling like corn chips. I said, `Mr. Batiste, I came to study with you.' Bat said, `Alright, let's play some.' By the next day, Bat found me a scholarship."

Before the end of the first semester, Sanders was traveling with Batiste and his band, going as far as Europe to gig with his teacher. "I guess he saw something," Sanders says. "The thing about all of Bat's students is the way they keep their concentration -- it's like turning on a switch, like bam! And when it starts swinging, it swings to the end, to the last note -- booowwwwwwwwup-buddup, bam. It's like that. Every student he ever touched, they all have a different thing, but they all got that Bat-ism, that's what I call it. You could meet a cat, hear him play, and just know he studied with Bat."

When Sanders talks about playing music, he's almost as animated as when he's playing. In conversation, the smile rarely leaves his face and his arms wave with every idea. When he plays, he slides into a zone that's alternately straight-face focused and seat-hopping frenetic.

Unfortunately, playing wasn't paying enough to meet tuition deadlines in Baton Rouge, so after a time of couching it with his future bride and her brother -- as well as jobs in hospital security and pizza delivery -- Sanders headed back to Texas. "I went to the Elephant Room to see James Polk play, because I heard he taught jazz piano in San Marcos [at Southwest Texas University]. He had this thing in his playing, this real nice groove, so I said, `Yeah man,' and I went down there to school."

Sanders stayed with the school's well-received jazz studies program (profiled here back in June -- "The Tools of the Trade"), for a time -- coming up just 18 hours short of his degree -- before something more important came up: his debut on Dallas indie, Leaning House Records. Recorded at SWT's Fire Station, East of Vilbig is a conceptual piece centered around Sanders' upbringing.

"Vilbig is a street," explains the pianist. "My house sat east of Vilbig on Kraft street. I wrote the tune when I was in Weatherford, which was west of Vilbig. At that time, I had already been exposed to Bat and [bass player] Donald [Guerin], and those guys, and I saw the direction I was going in -- east. The story is not just about that, it's about my development as a player and as a person up to this point. For me to understand what my surroundings were and how I perceived them, I had to leave. I had to leave home to get inspired even more. As a kid there was a one or two block radius east of Vilbig where I could play hide and seek, football, and stuff like that. That's where I learned a lot of lessons."

More immediate, perhaps -- like on the cover of the album -- are the illustrious alumni that grace Sanders' recorded debut. Old friend Roy Hargrove plays trumpet, Mark Whitfield plays guitar, Marchel Ivery plays tenor sax, Guerin plays bass, and Donald Edwards plays the drums. These are heavy hitters. According to Mark Elliot, co-owner of Leaning House and producer of East of Vilbig, combining a newcomer with established names is a formula many jazz labels follow.

"There are a lot of unknowns out there that are great players," says Elliot. "I think one way to get them recognition is to pair them with a name act. It works best if you pair a person with someone who makes sense, and I think Fred's case is a good example of that because he's playing with Roy. They went to high school together, and Roy was instrumental in getting Fred to play the piano. It's a pretty amazing story, to be able to bring those two guys back together again. It's a perfect reunion."

It would seem that for a debut outing, this would be an intimidating crowd to lead, and while bandleader is a position Sanders is reluctant to assume, according to Elliot, he's working on it nonetheless. "The best bandleaders really connect with their players," says Elliot. "Duke Ellington, probably the best of all, wrote songs specific for individuals in the band. There were ballads he'd write for Johnny Hodges, because he knew how he played and what his strengths were, and he would capitalize on that.

"I think Fred tried to do that with this record. He would take songs he'd written for Roy and showcase his abilities -- for the other guys as well. Fred has a wide variety of styles of music in his background: church music, New Orleans music, the blues. I think he tried to take those pieces, which were regionally stylistic, and point that in the direction of the player he thought that best represented."

Accordingly, Sanders defers much of the praise towards his accomplices. "The guys playing respected me well enough to give me the opportunity to make the final decision about things. That was incredible, coming from these guys. Being a bandleader is not easy, I don't take the word lightly. I try not to use it at all, because I tried to make it as democratic as possible. But in a situation like that, someone has to say the last word. And if your name is on it, you might as well say it and take the responsibility.

"I want to grow as a leader and a follower. The best leaders are those who can take direction as well as offer it. That's the hardest thing, and I've been trying to enhance those skills so when I'm in front of a band, I can respect what they have to give."

Sanders' time with Hot Buttered Rhythm, the best jazz-funk act in town, has been good preparation for just such skills. "Think of all the hangups I'd have had if I wouldn't have gotten with [HBR]. If you've seen it you understand what happens up there. Six guys vibing off each other, and these are some of the best musicians anywhere. Every time we play, it's a lesson."

Sanders and his wife Sheila are currently getting ready for the birth of their first baby (Sanders excitedly checked his pager during our interview -- "False alarm, she's just checking on me. Whew!"). To this fact, he credits his strengthening spirituality and commitment to living right.

"It's about me being able to look my child in the eyes and be totally honest with him, man. I want to be able to give something different to my child. Unfortunately my dad wasn't there when I was growing up, and I was blessed to have a mother who stayed as spiritual as possible and kept me in that environment.

"I was in church every Saturday, Bible study, prayer meetings. It's a blessing that I was taught when I was young, so when I got older, I made the decision for myself. Because of that, every effort I've made musically is the truth. It's totally honest. No one can say it ain't the truth. After all, it's not how you live, but how you wanna die."

A little boy, Savon Taylor, was born to Fred and Sheila Sanders at10:05pm Friday, October 17, the day after Roy Hargrove's birthday. Fred Sanders, along with Edwards, Guerin, and special guest Wes Anderson, celebrate the release of East of Vilbig as the house band at the Victory Grill for the Women in Jazz concert series on Saturday, October 25. The next night, Sunday, they'll appear at St. James Episcopal Church for the 7pm service, followed by the `official' release party later that evening at the Elephant Room.

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