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Straight Up

William Goffigan's Life in Jazz

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William Goffigan

By James D. Dilts | Posted

The day-to-day life of the working jazz musician in Baltimore is not terribly glamorous. Calls from fashion designers to appear in glitzy ads are rare. The list of places to play is shorter than it was just a decade or so ago, and the public ear, along with that of the local media, has largely turned to types of popular music regarded as a) less esoteric, b) less demanding, and c) less boring. Nationally and internationally there seems to be as much creativity and ferment as there has ever been in jazz, but most of the action bypasses Baltimore.

None of this appears to bother drummer William Goffigan. He has spent most of his career as a working musician here and discovered ways to make a living at it. His most recent CD, Jazz Straight Up, 2000 and Beyond (on his own Anig Records), features a cast of outstanding Baltimore- and New York-based players, including sax player Gary Bartz, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and keyboardist Cyrus Chestnut.

Goffigan wrote five of the disc's seven tunes, which reflects a quantum leap forward from his recorded debut, William's Lullaby, released 10 years ago on cassette. The writing is more assured, the playing less tentative, and the production vastly improved. In fact, the CD measures up to mainstream jazz albums being marketed by the major companies in New York.

Jazz Straight Up is actually Goffigan's fourth self-produced album, and, like its predecessors Eternal Flame and Time (both available on cassette and CD), it was recorded in the early '90s at Avalon Sound Studio in Bethesda. (Goffigan says he held back some of the Avalon material until his contract with a previous record company expired.) Together, his records represent not only a compilation of his compositions but a showcase for Baltimore jazz musicians, past and present.

"Cyrus [Chestnut] was in my band," the soft-spoken 57-year-old says. "I knew Gary [Bartz] from the '70s, when he was with Miles Davis. We played at the Left Bank Jazz Society and at the Bandstand [a defunct Fells Point jazz club]. Tom Harrell and I worked together with [pianist and bandleader] Horace Silver." Chestnut and Bartz, both originally from Baltimore, pursue successful jazz careers elsewhere but come back regularly to play.

Goffigan and his wife, Jennifer, promote and distribute his albums themselves, though they also use outside distributors and hope to line up one for Jazz Straight Up. "It's tough to try to do the whole thing yourself," he says. "You really need some assistance."

Typical of the earnest dedication that's marked his career, Goffigan covered the cost of his debut album with the insurance settlement from a car accident. He has financed the succeeding ones with savings from his career as a full-time musician-for-hire. He works mainly as a percussionist for dance groups, including the Morton Street Dance Co. and the Goucher College dance program. He also plays for dancers at Towson University, the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus, Howard Community College, and the Maryland State Arts Council. (The new album concludes with a Goffigan original titled "Song for the Dancers.") The William Goffigan Trio, featuring tenor saxophonist Gene Walker and keyboard player Charles Etzel, also plays local shows regularly. Goffigan would like to do more club work with his group, but for the time being, he says, "the dancers have taken over from the nightclubs."

Goffigan hails from Norfolk, Va., and spent some of his early years in New York, where he learned percussion. In the mid-1960s he played for the first time in Baltimore, and the city, with its mix of Northern and Southern influences and then-thriving jazz scene, got into his system. "I drank the water," he jokes. "I had been living here vicariously for years." By 1969, he was living here for real, and his William Goffigan Trio was playing five nights a week at the Chanticleer nightclub on North Charles Street, accompanying Baltimore vocalist Damita Jo on gigs around town, and participating in the regular jam sessions at the Sportsmen's Lounge.

Ten years of touring followed, first in Europe with the Gasoline Band, a jazz-rock outfit similar in style to the band Chicago. "That was the band that showed me what it was like to be on the road," Goffigan says. "Sometimes we wouldn't even get to the hotel--we'd go right to the club for a sound check." Stints with organist Jack McDuff, Sun Ra's big band, and Horace Silver followed.

Amid all the traveling, Goffigan met his future wife in 1972. Flying into New York with Silver after a European jaunt, he recalls, "Jennifer drove to Kennedy Airport [from Baltimore] to meet me. That's when I realized she's the lady for me." The couple recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and have a 22-year-old daughter, as well as three older children from previous marriages. Willetta, the youngest, is a dancer, but the rest chose nonmusical careers. "They did not want to struggle," he says.

Goffigan has worked over the years with most of the members of the Baltimore jazz community. Several local musicians fit right in with the New Yorkers on his new album, including saxophonist and big-band leader Whit Williams; Warren "Chano" Wolf, a young vibraphonist who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Peabody Institute and is now at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; trumpeter Oliver Brown; and tenor saxophonist Adam Antebi. Goffigan says Antebi, a regular on the local jazz scene during his days as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, put aside his horn for a career in biology, which he now pursues in Germany. Science's gain is jazz's loss--Antebi comes up with a knockout solo on Straight Up's "Tangerine."

Goffigan's long career has honed his playing and his business sense, but it has also taught him about being a bandleader. One of his mentors was legendary drummer Art Blakey. During an appearance in Baltimore for the Left Bank Jazz Society, Goffigan recalls, Blakey grew annoyed with the overlong solos members of his group were taking. In the dressing room at intermission, he chewed his musicians out for their self-indulgence. Playing, he told them, "is like making love," says Goffigan, who witnessed the scene. "You make your statement and that's it." When they went back to the bandstand, Goffigan says, "they were burning."

Blakey specialized in bringing talented young musicians into his band and instructing them in the ways of jazz. William Goffigan's percussion style and methods of nourishing the jazz flame are not as eruptive but no less committed.

For more information about recordings by William Goffigan, contact him at (410) 435-4915 or P.O. Box 39353, Baltimore, MD 21212.

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