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Feeding the Fever : Can’t Shake the Fever : Sax man Keith Fiddmont’s love of music quickly ended an attempt at early retirement.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times. </i>

Keith Fiddmont, the vibrant, versatile saxophonist whose communicative style has been heard with such notables as Lionel Hampton and Billy Childs, tried to quit music.

It was 1987, and Fiddmont, brother of the well-known studio session singer Lynn Fiddmont, was tired of his situation with Hampton’s band. It involved “a full-time commitment,” says Fiddmont, but resulted in “part-time pay.” He had other occasional work around his home base of New York City, but not much. He had a wife and child to support, and felt that if he hadn’t made it to the jazz big time by the time he was 30--he was born in 1957--"It probably wasn’t going to happen.”

“It was time to settle down, make real money, have a real family, live in a real house,” says Fiddmont, a native of St. Louis.

So he put down his horn and took a day job in programming at a New York City cable television company. “That lasted about a year. I really missed playing,” he says emphatically.

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Though he kept the cable job for another two years, by 1988 he was practicing heavily and had started to work some jobs with alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, whom he had met in Hampton’s band and who has since made several recordings under his own name.

“That started the fever going again,” Fiddmont says, and it hasn’t stopped.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1991, Fiddmont got a few breaks. Herring recommended him to drummer Ralph Penland, and the sax man worked with Penland’s band on numerous occasions. The bass player on some of Penland’s engagements was John Leftwich, who also worked with singer Rickie Lee Jones. Leftwich got Fiddmont an audition with Jones and he ended up working with her for 18 months, doing her “Pop Pop” tour. These days, Van Nuys resident Fiddmont, married to singer Bridgette Bryant-Fiddmont, makes his living with music, but does some free-lance bookkeeping as well. He plays one-night casuals and TV jingles and teaches instrumental music at the 52nd Street School in Los Angeles. He also works in horn sections behind such groups as the Temptations and Tony Toni Tone and plays with jazz bands led by bassist John B. Williams, pianist Childs and others. And Monday he will front his own ensemble at Common Grounds.

Working with a quartet that includes Penland, Leftwich and an as-yet-unidentified pianist, Fiddmont will deliver originals and tunes by Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington. Fiddmont’s sound on tenor saxophone is robust and warm, his soprano saxophone tone alluring and pensive, and his improvised statements have creative spark.

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Childs, who employed Fiddmont for a weeklong stint in San Francisco last year, found him to be a truly resourceful saxophonist. “He played his tail off,” says Childs.

Fiddmont has been studying the classical repertoire with renowned San Fernando Valley-based teacher Phil Sobel. He also has recently joined up with fellow sax men Ron Brown, Kirk Whalum and Darryl Richards and formed a saxophone quartet that plays everything from Haydn to Lennie Niehaus.

Fiddmont began his musical life as a clarinetist at age 10, then added saxophone a few years later. He studied the latter instrument in earnest at Boston University. He joined Hampton’s band in 1984.

“The camaraderie was great,” he says. “Sometimes we’d laugh the whole day, so it was like family. Lionel was happening.”

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Where and When

What: Keith Fiddmont at Common Grounds.

Location: 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge.

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Hours: 9 p.m. Monday.

Price: No cover, $2.50 minimum.

Call: (818) 882-3666.


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