Stanley Turrentine, a tenor saxophonist with a rich, earthy sound who recorded a number of albums that made their way to the jazz charts in the 1960s, died Tuesday in a New York hospital. He was 66.
Turrentine suffered a stroke Sunday in his hotel room just hours before he was scheduled to perform at the Blue Note, a legendary New York jazz club.
While never as critically acknowledged as his somewhat older contemporaries, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Turrentine possessed, as they did, an original, immediately identifiable sound and style.
“Turrentine was a consummate blues artist,” said Don Heckman, The Times’ jazz writer. ". . . His solos were driven by gospel-tinged phrasing that moved easily from smooth, persuasive swinging to wildly declamatory, preacher-like shouting.”
But, Heckman noted, Turrentine was more than a blues player.
“His ballad work--harking back to Lester Young’s assertion that improvisers should know the words as well as the chords to the songs they play--made a point of retaining both the spirit and the arc of the song in focus as he proceeded through his improvisation.”
The Pittsburgh-born Turrentine was part of a musical family that included his father, Thomas, an amateur saxophone player; a brother, Tommy, who is a jazz trumpeter; and another brother, Marvin, who played the drums. Before turning to the saxophone, Turrentine learned to play piano at the age of 7 from his mother, who he later recalled was a “great stride pianist.”
Turrentine formed his first band--Four Bees and a Bop--in high school, playing proms and dances. His first professional gig was with his brother Tommy at a bar in Pittsburgh. That gig led him to a life on the road.
“When I was 16, I left school and joined Lowell Fulson’s band--Ray Charles was the band’s pianist at the time. My mother was crying when I told her but I said: ‘One day I’ll make you proud of me,” he told a reporter some years ago.
During the 1950s, he and his brother Tommy played in Earl Bostic’s band and Max Roach’s quintet. Turrentine made his debut on Blue Note Records as a sideman on organist Jimmy Smith’s noted “Midnight Special” album. In 1960, he became a member of the Blue Note roster. During this time, Turrentine married organist Shirley Scott and the two of them were guests on each other’s recordings throughout the decade. They divorced in the early 1970s.
Turrentine’s greatest popularity came in the 1970s, when he released a series of smooth yet innovative albums for the CTI label, including his big hit, “Sugar,” which featured such legendary figures as Geoge Benson on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Ron Carter on bass. These CTI albums sold well and appealed to a broader audience but some critics accused him of selling out, of not playing jazz anymore.
Turrentine would dismiss such criticism, saying he liked making distinctions in music.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘jazz,’ . . .” he told a reporter some years ago. “I listen to all kinds of music. . . . If I hear a song, and it appeals to me, and I feel, hey man, it’s a nice song to play, I’ll play it, no matter what category they put it in.”
Turrentine survived a brush with death in 1989, falling ill with a pulmonary edema--a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Taken to a Pittsburgh hospital in a coma, Turrentine later said the experience changed his life.
“I try to live it as fully as I possibly can. We can go around feeling depressed and feeling bad, but it’s up to us, man. We have the privilege of making it a good day or a bad day.”