from Living in Iowa
Preston Love Interview
SHEPARD: In a nutshell, can you
tell me about your career.
LOVE: Being 79 and being in the business all of the
last 60-61 years, you have so much to say and so many stockpiles
of experiences. It's hard to list them and numerate them.
But I never exaggerate what I've done. I'm very proud of
them. There are very few people in rhythm and blues .blues
and jazz, which I regard as "black music", that I haven't
played with or knew personally.
Music has been a part of your life.almost all of your
life.your brothers played music,...you kind of picked it
up from them...can you tell me a little bit about the beginnings?
LOVE: With black people...our music was an important
thing because it was one of the few things we had in the
early days, the people that escaped anonymity and became
well known, were usually musicians. We didn't have major
league sports stars, so the Cab Calloways, the Duke Ellingtons,
the Don Redmans and these famous music figures. So, at the
early age of like 13-14, we became very aware of the great
black names of music.
were your heroes?
LOVE:They were our heroes and they came here to perform
and we would see them by one means or the other. So, music
has been an important part of my life as well as the life
of almost every African-American. The black neighborhoods
which we are in the midst of now..were small. The few who
escaped to the bigger time...are those who were talented,
right here in Omaha or Des Moines or Sioux City or Waterloo.
I've had people come, on the job, where I'm playing, "how
much do you want for your autograph?" I say, "you honor
me by even wanting my autograph". "You flatter me by wanting
Preston Love's autograph'" and "I'll be happy to sign it."
Tell me about the biggest thrill. Playing in Honey Creek,
Iowa had to be a big thrill, tell me about that?
LOVE: The beauty of these little towns..the beauty of
coming to 12th and Center and playing the Billican
_____________in Des Moines, IA, with these bands, these
territory bands and then later with my own band. I was once
a big name in Des Moines. We had young, good looking guys.
I was young and handsome and these young women went crazy
over us and as the women went, so the men went. Sioux City
was another very charming place, where we drew big crowds.
Waterloo. I probably hold the biggest..the record for the
biggest crowd ever at Electric Park. We played the kind
of music they wanted for that era.
Tell me about the thrill of playing that first concert?
LOVE: At the Airplane Inn in Honey Creek, which is exactly
17 miles due east of where you're standing and where I'm
sitting. Black bands were a novelty because we had a different
approach to the whole thing. They expected us to play "in
the moods" and "the darktown strutters ball" and some of
the corny things but in our way, which was unique and decidely
different from the way white bands played. Honey Creek had
bigger crowds on the Saturdays we played. Ordinary Omaha
bands and Iowa bands from Des Moines and around could not
outdraw the blacks. The Airplane Inn was very dilapidated.
The roof and all that. It wasn't at all fancy, but they
would pack it. Those farmers and the people from the surrounding
towns, even like Omaha and Council Bluffs, liked to come
there because they got away from town where they could have
a ball. Warren Web and the Spiders was the band I first
played with as a drummer. There wasn't much of a town there.
There was a garage across the street, and there were two
or three little buildings, that was all that was there.
me about the thrill of being up there the first time?
LOVE: I was too young to realize the impact and importance
of that. I was 15 then.
LOVE: Later, I suffered great nervousness when I performed
some places, like Carnegie Hall and the Roxie Theatre in
New York and places like that. But I wasn't the slightest
bit nervous. Young, and blissfully happy. I thought I was
better than I was. Then we played on New Year's Eve night,
we played the Armory in Red Oak. Got $2.50 for that night.
I never suffered nervousness. I was excited about doing
it but I never intended to be a drummer, I wanted to be
a sax player.
you describe what a typical dance would have been like?
Can you include packing stuff up in the bus, making the
drive, trying to get it arranged, setting up, what the crowds
would have been like? Can you set the scene for me?
LOVE: The whole aura of playing an engagement, was part
of it and all of it was significant. Getting in that bus,
getting there to the job was very difficult with those old
raggedy vehicles, getting dressed because we dressed up
and fixed our hair slick. Playing for those people, they
were sacrosanct, ....
They were sacred to you then?
LOVE: You have heard of the hungry musician? Nothing
was ever truer than that adage. We tried to make a show.
We wanted fancy clothes, fancy pants, fancy, shiny horns.
All of that was part of it. It was even more important to
us than even when we got to be big time because we were
striving to reach New York City and Broadway and Hollywood
How did the crowds react to you?
LOVE: The audience were much more informed and cosmopolitan
and knowledgeable about the music than they are today. Back
then, if you couldn't swing, they knew you couldn't swing.
And they wouldn't turn out for your dances because swing
was the music of that time. And with us black guys, we had
an edge, we had something, they found us very exotic and
what would they do when they did like you?
LOVE: Scream, holler, jump up and down, fill the dance
floor. The best barometer of how we were going is how that
dance floor filled up and they would react just like they
do for rock bands now.
Tell me what it was like to play an Iowa gig? Was there
any difference in playing in Iowa than in other places?
LOVE: North Dakota, South Dakota, far Northern Minnesota,
way up in Montana, way up in Western Nebraska, some of the
cities around the various Midwestern states, where we played
mostly, were very provincial. Very countrified. Iowa, and
I mean this, because we said this in the buses, was the
most progressive, advanced of all of these states. They
were closer to Omaha than other states, and Kansas City.
So, Iowa audiences in most cases, were ...we liked the word
"hip". Plus, as far as the racial thing is concerned, they
were the least discriminating of any of these states, except
You mentioned some of the other places you played besides
Honey Creek..you remember the ballrooms?
LOVE: There was a Tom Archer ballroom chain. He had
a ballroom in Clear Lake, The Surf, they had one in Marion,
they had 4 or 5. The one in Des Moines...which was the Val
Air and the Hundred__________(Hunter) Club. They had the
Tromar__________in Des Moines. Boy, that was the real big
time. Electric Park, Spider Curve _________, The Roof Garden.
So you spent a lot of that time playing dances in Iowa.
You also did some Artist in Residence work in Iowa schools,
also, didn't you?
LOVE: One of the prominent things that I mention so
often is the Iowa Arts Council. They treated me royally.
They saved my career at one period. I wasn't working. My
money was gone here and I started doing a 1975 Artist in
Residence at the schools. I couldn't count the weeks that
I've been in Iowa. I've crisscrossed that state doing Artists
Tell me what do you hoped to accomplish in those residence
programs? Did you ever instruct them on how to play?
LOVE: First thing I made them know, if I'm pretty good,
they were awed by what I could do, what about the guy that
can do it so much better than I? The Charlie Parkers, etc.
They were astounded. They said, "you mean there was
somebody that could do that better than you?" I said,
"Infinitely better." There were greats sitting
right next to me, countless ones...Illinois Jacket. Lester
Young. Don Byas ___________. Lockjaw Davis.
You grew up with some people that you admired that you
ended up playing with. Can you tell us a little bit about
LOVE: Most of the guys that I played with in the big
time, at one time..I had worshiped, idolized and admired.
And here suddenly, I'm sitting next to this guy. Suddenly,
I was playing first sax over them. The first of my sets,
I set next to Don Byas __________, can you imagine that?
On that stage. And I thought he was the greatest tenor player
other than Lester Young that ever lived. I still think it.
How do you define jazz?
LOVE: The only standard for jazz is how well you can
improvise and if you have a melodic line...if you have a
good ear, because it's played by ear most of the time. Inventive.
You must be inventive, like you're inventing the cotton
gin. You must be creative. If you aren't, then you're not
a jazz player.
Now, if you can improvise, you're a jazz player, do
you improvise every time you play that song?
LOVE: If a man asked me to play "Stardust"
straight. I'd play "Stardust" straight. But here's
the difference. I might put more feeling in it. More pathos,
more hesitancy at times and that's what makes it jazz. But,
a person that doesn't have a talent for that can never do
it, meaningfully and improvisationally and deviate from
What's your gift?
LOVE: But, without an ego being involved and you can
check this with every authority, I'm one of the top five
lead saxophone players that God ever let be birthed in jazz.
I'm not one of the great soloists at all. Although I can
Who else is on that same team of five great saxophonists?
LOVE:I would say Earl Warren is the greatest of history,
then I would say Willie Smith, then I would say, Aldo Hardwick___________________with
Duke Ellington, then I would say, Teddy Bruckner, he and
Willie Smith and Hilton Jefferson of the Cab Calloway band.
How about the men that would play the solos?
LOVE: Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderly,
James Moody. Sonny Stitt, he and Charlie Parker were my
favorites. Lester Young. Ben Webster. Illinois Jacket, who
I worked in Basie's band with...John Coltrane..they're all
much better soloists than I am.
You've got to love music..
LOVE: There's nothing in the world greater in my life
than music, except my wife of 60 years, of course, my mother
was and my progeny. There's nothing greater in the world
other than those things that music is in my life. Not only
as a player, but as a critic of it.
What was it like for you to play with Count Basie? For
you to audition for Count Basie? Tell me how you felt about
LOVE: If there's a heaven, I went to heaven on September
6, 1943, on the stage of that place, when I auditioned in
Earl's place, a man I idolized and worshipped and the band
that was all of my life..and I played one number. I left
from right over there, in front of the building to go to
New York with Count Basie.
They don't call it dreamland for nothing.
LOVE: Everything that happens in my life, from here
on, is anticlimax.
So, when you finally sat in with the band and you played
and you played quite a bit .....then you got the job?
LOVE: They tried other guys out and I sounded so much
like Earl, I was his alter ego. Fortunately, I was a sight
reader and very few black musicians were in that day. We
didn't have the opportunity for training and education.
I began to break away from Earl a little, as I became exposed
to rhythm and blues because Johnny Otis got me exposed to
rhythm and blues and I really have more rhythm and blues
credits than I have jazz credits.
Partially because of your age..you were a very young
man when jazz really got going?
LOVE: Jazz, that's what the little kids in Minnesota
and Dakotas and Iowa and Nebraska applied to our music.
"You guys play jazz?" Duke Ellington never used
that term, jazz. In my younger days, the term jazz, referred
to the sex act. If you went with a woman, you said you 'jazzed
her'. I thought our music was too sacred for that.
Should we call it swing? Should we call it bebop? Should
we call it dance music, is that better?
LOVE: Let's not categorize things. Put them in slots.
That is the failure of the American society, so that they
can sell it and market it. But there are different music
idioms and each one has its place. It's not about jazz.
Why can't we form our lips to say "black music"?
Why do we find it so hard. Why do we find it so hard to
say "black music". That was once what it was considered
exclusively. All of this documentation of jazz, all of this
chronology, all of this is fine but again, it is no more
sacred to be a great jazz player than it is to be a great
Part of my question was more "why do we care"?
LOVE: We care because jazz is America's great artistic
contribution to the world. We didn't give polkas, waltzes,
symphonies, classical music, that's not black at all but
we gave them all of jazz and blues, that's all black. Suddenly,
we're going to be talking about Benny Goodman. I don't consider
his jazz meaningful at all.
He's a great player.
LOVE: Great clarinet player. Harry James, great trumpet
player but what about that corny jazz he played? Corny improvisation.
It sold. So the downbeat that these people are concerned
about, sells. Money, commerce, the great corrupter of art
is money. So most of these documentaries, I avoid them.
So, let's do a 19 hour on Preston Love and I'll tell you
the truth. Not what I read in a book but what I experienced.
So, let's get funded to do a 19 hour Preston Love and I
will point out the great players of history, who this man
Ken Burns didn't know anything about.
LOVE: The obvious names of this term jazz, everyone
knows them but in many cases they become that way through
hype, promotion and personal subjective evaluations. So
some of the guys who were all that famous weren't as good
as some guys who never made it. There are some in cities
like Omaha that were completely passed over because they
didn't know about them. Why are they going to deify, canonize,
this term jazz, if we're not going to remain true to who
they are? Why are we going to include some people, like
Woody Herman who was not a great jazz player at all? Because
the public wants ..he was a popular figure. Benny Goodman
is going to come off as the greatest jazz clarinet player,
not at all. Lester Young played two solos, on two records,
"Texas Shuffle" and "Blue and Sentimental",
that in a true jazz sense, would wipe out everything that
Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman played in their
We're counting on you being the authority. You wrote
a book about it. You wrote a history on the music. Why did
you write that book and who did you write it for?
LOVE:I didn't write it mainly as related to my music
career. It was really my autobiography. We got diverted
from that some because I wasn't famous enough for an autobiography.
So, it became a combination of both. Having played with
some of the people I played with naturally, I should get
some recognition in the music aspect of my life. Two major
critics described it as the greatest jazz book ever written
by a jazz musician.
Tell me some of the great things about the bands you
played in? Tell me about the first band you played in and
what you loved about the music and the people you played
LOVE: Lloyd Hunter was the first big band I played with
in Omaha. All the guys were Basie crazy in those days, Jimmy
Lester crazy, Duke Ellington everybody was and Lloyd was
the closest to Basie. We played dances throughout the territory..we'd
drive 600 miles overnight for a gig, to make $4 which was
not like $4 today, a lot more money. We'd go all the way
across the State of Iowa to Wyoming...all the way down to
Goodland, Kansas, to work for the door. We might make $3,
we might make $4. But that money, you could subsist on that
kind of money in that day with families. It was 1941. Those
guys went to play with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, most
of them. Most of those guys ended up in the "big time".
They recruited them from Omaha. From right where we're sitting,
they lived in these homes around here. The greatest band
of course, to me, in God's history was Basie. Playing with
Basie was like, suddenly God would give you his best reward
and I played with him twice briefly in 1943 while Earl was
sick and I went back and played permanent with him from
'45 to '48. After that, I played with the Ray Charles big
band. Ray Charles' band in 1966, if Ray himself, were qualified
to lead a big jazz orchestra, that would have been the best
of the bands because he had more money than Basie and all
of them and he could really develop the band, and had the
top engagements and the top money in the world.
What was being on the road like back then?
LOVE: The white bands traveled in relative style and
luxury. We didn't. They had fine buses. They could check
into the fine hotels in the towns and they could eat in
the restaurants. The main difference is the glamour. The
recognition. Out here you didn't get it. It was all in New
York. It was back East. Philadelphia, Chicago, New York,
Boston. Iowa was more rewarding to our careers than Nebraska.
The towns were bigger. Blacks in every town..the bigger
towns. You're playing West Nebraska, after you leave Lincoln,
you might not see a black person for a year. We were in
Beatrice, Nebraska, there was a black family there. We went
over to see them and they looked at us..these little girls,
and they were so thrilled to see some black people.
What do you think seeing you guys up there playing important
music did for those people?
LOVE: We played Hastings, I remember, and a few blacks
came to the dance, to see these black guys. Oh yeah, they
were just thrilled.
So the music was about black pride?
LOVE: Who were the inventors, creators of the jitterbug,
the frog..the snakehips in my day, the blackbottom...who
were the beginners of that? Entirely blacks. Music was the
big, big, thing of our existence and expressing ourselves.
But money has become involved. The great corrupter has become
involved. So therefore, suddenly, we're excluded from our
Duke Ellington, Don Redman, I'm missing some great composers.
They were the great composers of jazz and performers.
Let's talk a little bit more about the life of a musician.
It appears to me that there aren't that many careers where
there is so much to do, before you really start working?
LOVE: We didn't regard it as work. It was pleasurable
to cart this stuff. It was physically debilitating, but
to set up a bandstand and adorn it, if we were going to
do that..setup the P.A. system. It was so wonderful once
that crowd came in and suddenly, everybody felt and enjoyed
some degree of star status or at least attention, the attention
of the young women, white or black.
A lot of it is about attention isn't it?
LOVE: Attention. Every human being likes it. There's
no modesty in human beings. If you were a minister, you
want to be the top minister. Whatever you are and that's
You want to be the best saxophonist, I imagine?
LOVE: I wish I had been. Every compliment I get, if
I think I deserve it, I cherish it. I cherish it. There's
people that imagine that since I'm almost 80, I can't play,
because I'm ancient, a fossil, an antique of the past. Nonsense.
I'm one of those that refuses to be that. And if I become,
I'll quit. If I could live my life over again, I'd like
to live the four weeks.the two different weeks that we played
the Orpheum_____________in '45-'46. I'd like to play the
Roxie again with Basie. I would like to play Carnegie Hall
with Ray Charles, which I did in '66. I'd like to play the
Tromar____________in Des Moines and the Val Air with Basie.
I'd like to play some of those Motown things I'd play by
Smokey and the Miracles and the Temptations and Marvin Gaye
and Gladys Knight when the crowds rioted to get to those
people and I was their bandleader and young enough to enjoy
So, there's been a lot of good days.
LOVE: There's no one who's had a more varied career
than I in history. Duke Ellington played jazz if you want
to call it that. He never played rock, rhythm and blues,
raggedy bars in Bathgate, North Dakota, at Devil's Lake,
North Dakota, 40 below zero. One thing I do regret, is that
I was never a great composer. That's where all the money
is and all the fame. And if I made one grave error in my
career, it was not joining Duke Ellington, when he sent
for me in 1954, to replace Johnny Hodges. I turned it down,
because I had my own band, played Des Moines, Deep River,
Iowa, (laugh)...that positive stigma, of playing with Duke
Ellington, would have carried me the rest of my life. That
credit would have carried me forever.
Who's the best?
LOVE: Duke is the greatest jazz musician of God's history.
Louis Armstrong was second to him even. Count Basie's band
was the greatest swing band, ever! There's nobody close.
Everybody came after Count Basie swinging. Basie himself
was not a gracious figure. He was not a beautiful figure
like Ellington and Basie's band was not as deep into the
so called jazz thing but you couldn't outswing him.
What was Count Basie like as a man? That's what I missed
from your book is that you're not telling me what it was
like to know this person.
LOVE: Count Basie. He died on my birthday, you know.
April 26, 1984. Basie was an unwholesome person in many
ways. He was a vindictive, petty, unlettered man, but he
wasn't what you'd call a "bad guy", but he did
some terrible things. We called him "groundhog",
which meant lower than a groundhog. He was not a cultured
man in any way. One of the great leaders, to organize a
band and make a band work.
LOVE: When I played the Orpheum _____________with Basie,
one week in '45..you do 5 shows a day, that's 35 shows,
so that's 70 shows we did on that stage. He never mentioned
my name. All of my people are there. Take a solo ...he never
gave you recognition, which is essential. That's the way
he was..There's nobody else that would be that unprofessional.
Who were some of the good guys?
LOVE: Duke was an easy going, loose, guy. You call him
a ------------------, he called you one. You couldn't call
Basie no ------ ------. He didn't even joke with the fellas
much. Cab was great. He gave a two week vacation every year
with pay. We had a private car on a railroad. Cab was a
great leader that way. Duke was that easy going. We're artistic,
we don't give a damn, come in around 10. The band would
play for a set and Duke would come and make his grand entrance.
Jimmy Lusford __________was a ------ because he didn't want
to pay the boys anything. He was a disciplinarian. Lloyd
Hunter was the finest here.
What was Preston Love like as a bandleader?
LOVE: Just like Duke and them. Let's have a ball! One
thing you must do though, you must be on time. You must
be sober. But so far as any class system, or strata, no.
And if I owed them a dime, they got it. My guys made more
than I did. Bandleaders usually make five times what the
people make. Most bands that I work in, I'm the best musician.
If they were better, they wouldn't be with me. They would
have been with Duke Ellington or somebody.
You talk about things people have said about you, how
do you want to be remembered?
LOVE:I want to be remembered as the most charitable
son of bitch that ever lived. I gave away a fortune every
day. I want to be remembered as certainly having more varied....a
wider range of credits of any native in Omaha, white or
black. We had guys that are greater jazz players, a greater
rhythm/blues player, better conga, whatever but the overall,
I played them all well. I was the bandleader for Arethra,
Isaac Hayes, all those names, you don't make a $100 a night
with them, you make thousands. Morris King is a great man.
He was the head of Motown. You ask him what he thought of
Preston Love as a saxophone player, what he would say would
be too much, I wouldn't accept it. It'd be so .you go and
ask the Temptations, who the greatest saxophone player they
ever played with and they would say, Preston Love. Go ask