Desert Island Jazz
Lee Charlton (2010)

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Lee Charlton came to California from his native Alabama, not with a banjo on his knee, but with his drums in the trunk and pianist Ellis Marsalis in the passenger seat. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Born the son of a salesman who played saxophone, trombone and drums, Lee began playing drums at age 10 and performing professionally at age 15: so proficient was he as a teenager, he twice received the "Best Drummer" award in Alabama state competitions.

During his military service in the mid '50s, Lee was fortunate to have been surrounded by excellent musicians in the Army band: quite casually he mentions the names of fellow GIs Wynton Kelly and Phineas Newborn jr.

Lee had already known the former: before Lee enlisted and while Wynton was stationed not far from where Lee was working, they had been in an occasional trio. It was this association that gave him his--quite literal--15 minutes of fame: through Wynton's prior association with Dizzy Gillespie, Lee got to sit in for a quarter of an hour with Bird and Diz, who themselves were passing through town.

It was in 1963 that Lee brought to the San Francisco Bay Area his New Orleans Quintet: that's the one that included Ellis Marsalis, who is now internationally known (even if mostly as the father of the musical brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason), but then "just" a great New Orleans jazz pianist. Lee liked the Bay Area so much that, almost 50 years later, he's still here (but he still talks to Ellis in New Orleans by telephone every week or so).

Though long Bay Area-resident, Lee has never forgotten his roots, and performed for some two decades with fellow southerner Mose Allison (an association that dates back to the late '50s in Biloxi, Mississippi, before Lee followed Horace Greely's advice). He's recorded with out-and-out jazz people such as Mose, Vince Guaraldi, Mike Lipskin, and Jim Burke, and also with the likes of Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, Beaver & Krause, and experimentalist Richard Waters. Let's not forget Australian-born Bryce Rohde: Lee and Bryce are names often mentioned together, and with good reason; for example, in 2003, Lee performed with the Bryce Rohde Trio at Wangaratta, the largest jazz festival in Australia.

Lee has performed with singers from Mel Tormé to June Christy, trumpeters from Red Rodney to Chet Baker, pianists from Earl "Fatha" Hines to Kenny Drew, and bassists from Charlie Haden to the elusive Henry Grimes.

Although Lee has a full career to look back on, he's still looking forward, always trying to improve on that day on which, he says, he's never played better--and he has a lot of such days from which to choose.
Pick Artist Album Song Label
# 1 Keith Jarrett My Foolish Heart Oleo (ECM)
# 2 Charlie Parker The Essential Charlie Parker Confirmation (Verve)
# 3 Art Pepper Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section Straight Life (Contemporary)
# 4 The Jim Burke Trio The Jim Burke Trio Luck, Be a Lady Tonight (
# 5 The Bryce Rohde Trio Short Way Home Short Way Home (
# 6 Ellis Marsalis Monkey Puzzle Magnolia Triangle (AFO)
# 7 Lee Charlton, Chuck Foster, Jim Haden, Ellis Marsalis and John Pierce Afternooon Session, August 17th, 1968 Impressions (
# 8 Dave Grusin Homage to Duke Take the "A" Train (GRP)
Book Charles Suhor, "Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970"
Luxury Item An assorted case of '82 Bordeaux
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