If the actor who intones “stay thirsty my friends” ever gives up his Dos Equis gig, the brewery should look into hiring Roger Glenn as a pitchman. The veteran jazz musician could run ploymathic laps around that poseur who claims the title of “the world’s most interesting man.”
A pilot who serves in the Civil Air Patrol flying search and rescue missions in his spare time, Glenn is a dauntingly accomplished multi-instrumentalist who contributed to classic albums with Cuban percussion legend Mongo Santamaria (Mongo´70 on Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd (Black Byrd on Blue Note), and vibraphonist Cal Tjader (La onda va bien on Concord Picante). He brings his flute, clarinet and vibraphone to the California Jazz Conservatory 8 p.m. Saturday as a special guest with Berkeley guitarist/composer Tony Corman’s 17-piece Morechestra.
His sheer profusion of creative pursuits is one reason why Glenn isn’t more of a marquee name. It’s not that he spreads himself thin. Glenn’s particular talents mean he’s the cat to call for a vast array of situations. Last January he did the the Legendary Rhythm & Blues with Taj Mahal, playing percussion and tenor, alto and soprano saxophones. Last winter he played a series of gigs as a featured soloist on flute and vibes with Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling. In the spring his organ trio toured as an opening act for Steely Dan. And he recently got back into town after a tour of New Zealand and Australia playing baritone sax with the Count Basie Orchestra.
“I’m not really a big band musician, but playing with the Basie Band was fun, and I did it as a tribute to my father,” says Glenn from his home in Pacifica, referring to trombonist/vibraphonist Tyree Glenn, a widely respected jazz and studio musician who toured and recorded with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
“I’ve always seen myself as a musician rather than a flutist or vibraphonist or saxophonist. I’m a musician and these are the things I play. Why not? I have to have a moving van to go to gigs, with vibes, marimba, flutes, clarinets, percussion and on and on.”
Corman knew Glenn’s work, particularly his flute playing on the 1971 album Mongo at Montreux (Atlantic), but only connected with him recently when he needed to locate a new Morechestra rehearsal space. He ended up finding a good fit at Oakland’s Plymouth United Church of Christ (which also calls itself the Jazz & Justice Church). The congregation’s music director David Sturdevant suggested that Corman collaborate with Glenn, a longtime member of the church.
“I knew he was Tyree Glenn’s son, but wasn’t really aware of what a wonderful career he’s had,” Corman says. “I had been hung up on the record Mongo at Montreux. Some of those tunes really stayed with me, so I arranged a bolero from that album by pianist Edy Martínez, ‘Disappear’ for Roger on flute. He’s got this very pretty Hubert Laws tone. He wanted to do ‘Memories of You,’ so we put together a mini-swing set, and I arranged that as an Ellington-inspired trio of two clarinets and bass clarinet against the rest of the band.”
Corman created the Morechestra as a vehicle for his writing and arranging, and he’s steadily honed a diverse book of material for the group. Saturday’s show includes his arrangement of Donald Fagen’s “On the Dunes” and Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta’s “Aquelas Coisas Todas,” a piece he originally wrote to feature trumpeter Steve Campos (who died last year and to whom the evening is dedicated). Morechestra’s biannual concerts usually feature a special guest–last year’s CJC performance made brilliant use of vocalist Ed Reed–and Glenn is the kind of artist who stimulates an arranger’s imagination.
Born in Manhattan, he grew up mostly in Englewood, New Jersey, a community rife with jazz musicians. His father left his vibes by his crib, and he was drawn to the instrument as a baby. Later on, Tyree made sure Roger and his brother Tyree Jr. were exposed to the music world. “I remember as a kid going to see his rehearsals with Duke Ellington, and there would be Billy Strayhorn and various members of the Ellington Orchestra,” Glenn says.
He credits his mother with instilling his love of Cuban rhythms, and by junior high he was leading his own Latin combo. Always interested in a variety of instruments, he studied flute and various reeds, but when he went off to college he decided to major in math and physics. He spent the last three years of the 1960s in the service, playing in an Army band with Grover Washington Jr. and Billy Cobham at Fort Dix, but ended up stationed in Hawaii “which is where I started flying, and got into scuba diving and sailing,” he says.
When he got out of the service in 1969, Glenn didn’t waste much timing working his way onto the New York scene. He made his recording debut that year with pioneering pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams on Music For Peace (tracks later reissued on the Smithsonian Folkways album Mary Lou’s Mass). He also did some playing with his father when Tyree wasn’t on the road with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, in a combo that also merited all-star billing (with players like pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Papa Jo Jones, and bassists Slam Steward, Milt Hinton, and George Duvivier). “That was a PhD for me,” Glenn says.
He spent several years with Mongo Santamaria when the conguero was a regular presence in San Francisco, and each time Glenn visited he felt drawn to the region. He ended up making the move west in 1973, a jump facilitated by a gig at Cesar’s Latin Palace. A few years later, walking down Market Street, he ran into Cal Tjader. They had played together with Dizzy Gillespie at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Tjader invited him to bring his flute to a recording session the next day. The resulting album, La onda va bien, won a Grammy.
Given all his activities, Glenn hasn’t had time to put out his own album for a while, but he’s got a project focusing on his original compositions, In the Moment, ready to go. When he’s not playing music, flying, or sailing, he works as the music director at the Circus Center in San Francisco, where he’ll be performing on Feb. 12-13 on the cabaret program Through With Love.
He’s also an amateur astronomer and actor who was featured in the California Lottery’s recent holiday Scratcher television spot. So Dos Equis, if you want to hire the guy who’s really the world’s most interesting man, Roger Glenn might be able to make time for the gig.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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