Jazz legend plays at Hyattsville's ArtSpin
Oct. 26, 2000
Jeremy Breningstall
Staff Writer

When Ron Holloway, 47, stepped up to perform Saturday night at Prince George's Metro Center, his breaths into the saxophone were a long time coming.

From his parents to Freddie Hubbard, Holloway has a long list of influences.

"I was hearing music from the time I was born probably," said Holloway. "Both of my parents are big jazz fans. My dad would come home with records several times a week, so I was exposed to the sound of a saxophone at an early age."

Holloway describes his first exposure to playing the saxophone as an accident. He was at seventh grade orientation when it was announced that his Washington, D.C. school did not have enough players to form a school band.

Two of Holloway's friends convinced him to join the band with them. At the time, Holloway said he was more interested in microscopes and telescopes and the pursuit of science than in being a musician. But when the teacher brought in a set of instruments for the students to choose from, Holloway's eyes "lit up" at the sight of the saxophone in particular

He's been playing the instrument ever since.

Holloway's first professional gig was behind a recreation center at Takoma Park Junior High School. He was paid $5 for the performance in the late 1960's.

"So from the start I was ripped off," Holloway said with a laugh. "I think we made a lot more money that night."

Holloway said his primary music teachers were his heroes, people like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

"I was exposed to the good tenor players growing up, to the point where I knew all of their solos," Holloway said. "I couldn't play them, but I knew them by heart."

By the time Holloway was in his late teens, he was coming up with his own tunes.

In the early 1970's, he began playing in clubs in the D.C. area for soul and rhythm and blues bands, including Sounds of Shea and Mad Dog and the Lowlifers.

In 1975, Holloway played with Sonny Rollins at Howard University. Their performance together proved to be fortuitous.

Two years later, when Holloway heard that legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie would be playing at a new club in Silver Spring, The Showboat Lounge, Holloway brought a copy of the tape down to the club.

As Holloway described it, Gillespie was in the dressing room warming up with long notes. Gillespie looked up, saw Holloway at the door holding the tape, and called out," Hey, what you got on the tape?"

Holloway introduced himself, and Gillespie listened to the tune, then asked him if he brought his horn. Holloway said he did not want to appear presumptous by assuming that he would be invited to play, and he had left his instrument at home.

Gillespie told him, "Presumptous, now that's a word," and told him to bring his saxophone the next night.

Nine o'clock the next night, Holloway got on the stage with Gillespie to play a funky up-tempo version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," the more challenging-to-play Gillespie original "Bebop," and other tunes.

"Because I had paid close attention to the record of my father I had learned the head of [Bebop]," Holloway said.

Holloway continued to play with Gillespie whenever he came into town. "I would just cancel whatever gigs I had and go play with him," Holloway said. "Sometimes in the early days I was playing for nothing, but it wasn't for nothing because the rewards were great."

In 1989, Holloway was invited to join Gillespie's quintet, and soon found himself playing in faraway locations, including a Namibian concert attended by Nelson Mandela, shortly after Mandela's 1990 release from a South African prison.

However, by the early 1990's Gillespies health had begun to deteriorate, and his touring engagements became more sparse. Gillespie died in 1993. That year, Holloway formed his own group and recorded his first of four CDs with Milestone Records, "Slanted."

Holloway said the song title "Slanted" and the record were named in tribute to Thelonious Monk, who "always had a different slant in terms of the way his music sounded."

Holloway's most recent release is "Groove Update." He will open for B.B. King as part of Shemekia Copeland's band later this year.

Holloway's Saturday performance was part of the inauguration of the "ArtSpin 2000: Our Global Village" exhibit at Prince George's Metro Center. Some audience members recognized Holloway from his days with Rootboy Slim more than 20 years ago.

Holloway just smiled as he played the saxophone, thinking of times past.