Ron has been performing on the international stage since the late 1970s, even traveling to Russia 3 times… Once with Dizzy Gillespie in 1990 and twice on his own, in the 2000’s, performing with Russian musicians. He’s well known for his work in the Warren Haynes Band as well as his frequent sit-ins with the Allman Brothers and their extended family. Ron is also a legend in the realm of jazz well known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, Gil Scott-Heron and Root Boy Slim.
Since 2014, audiences have been filling venues to see Holloway’s latest project: His own band. A high energy, sax-driven funk machine named The Ron Holloway Band.
We recently asked Ron about his musical adventures across the globe, the DC Funk Parade and much more!
You’ve shared the stage with many great musicians. You first approached Dizzy with a recording of you with Sonny Rollins, you stayed in touch and eventually you began touring with the band full time. What’d you learn with Dizzy Gillespie that still stands out today?
The opportunity to stand next to and perform with the great Dizzy Gillespie was a dream come true!
As you pointed out; it happened because I wanted so badly to meet him and be heard by him, I took a recording of myself, sitting in with the great Sonny Rollins, who has been my tenor saxophone hero since I was about 13 years old. I sat in with Sonny at a clinic he gave at Howard University, in 1975. Sonny and I have kept in touch, since. You could say he’s my mentor. He helped to get signed to Milestone Records, in 1993. (Milestone was a subsidiary label of Fantasy Records)
So, two years later, in 1977, I introduced myself to Dizzy at a Jazz club in Silver Spring, Maryland, called”The Showboat Lounge”. Dizzy listened, attentively, to my tape and afterward, invited me to sit in for the rest of the week. This was July, 1977. I continued to sit in with him, whenever he came to the DC area. I eventually became a member of his quintet, in June, 1989….Twelve years after I originally sat in with him.
I learned some very important things from him….Some of these were life lessons. He had so many attributes, I could go on for twenty minutes listing them. As a man, he was was very honest and very thoughtful of others. He set high standards for himself as a person and a musician. He was very intelligent and very studious. He had a lot of discipline and focus. One of the things that made him so exceptional was, he took the time to listen, very carefully.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend intimate time with such a man as Dizzy. I made it my business to hang with him when we were on tour. I used to accompany him to cigar shops in different European cities. It was a joy to listen to him talk about anything and everything. I loved his sense of humor. He was a RIOT!
I’ll always treasure the time we spent together, on and off stage. He was a great man.
How did you start playing the saxophone?
I was born in Washington, D.C. in 1953. I grew up in a household with two parents who are avid Jazz fans, so I probably heard music in the womb. I remember my dad coming home from work with Prestige and Blue Note records at least once or twice a week. He’d get off work and stop by the record store, on his way home. During those early years, I had no thoughts or desire to learn an instrument. I did enjoy listening to the music, though.
Finally, in 1966, I was 13 years old and entering Carter G. Woodson Jr. High School, in D.C. I was sitting in the auditorium with two good friends of mine.
There were several teachers who addressed the students, that day. One of them was the music teacher, Mr. Arthur Capehart.
He informed us; he didn’t have enough students to form a full band. He invited anyone who wanted to learn an instrument, to come up to the band room, the next morning. The next morning, the three of us went up.
Mr. Capehart pulled out three instruments: A clarinet….a french horn….and an alto saxophone. Because I grew up around my dad’s huge Jazz album collection, I immediately recognized the saxophone and quickly spoke up, expressing my enthusiasm. I got my wish….Mr. Capehart handed me the saxophone. I was thrilled! I felt I had a head start on learning the saxophone, because I had been listening to all the great Jazz saxophone masters, all my life.
I brought the school sax home with me and practiced about three hours each day, until it was time to eat dinner. This was about October, 1966. I played the alto sax for about three months and then switched to the bigger, tenor saxophone in December…..Later, in December 1966, my parents and brother, along with my grandmother, moved from D.C. to Maryland. This event couldn’t have been more perfectly timed! Everyone in my family made the same observation.
We moved from a two bedroom apartment (my grandmother had her own apartment, in the same building) in northeast Washington, D.C., to a house, in Maryland, that had a nice sized basement. It was the basement I was most excited about on the first day I got to see the house. It was easy to pick up on my dad’s excitement, when he showed my brother and I the shelves that had been made, into the walls, specifically to store record albums! In our minds, there couldn’t have been a more perfect house for us to move into, at the moment in time!
Could you give us your personal history regarding the DC music scene and why a day like Funk Parade is so important to appreciating and continuing a good artistic community in the area?
No one ever had to make me practice. In those early years, there weren’t enough hours in the day. I devoted every waking moment to either practicing the saxophone or listening to all of the great Jazz saxophonists.
I was now attending Takoma Park Jr. High School.
I got involved with the school band, but the real excitement was meeting some young musicians in our area, who were forming a band! It wasn’t long before I joined my first band! It was called “The Speculations”. We played Top 40, R&B and Soul music.
It was a great experience on several different levels. The thing that made it especially interesting for us; it was a band that included several nationalities. It was a great environment and learning experience.
The Speculations began playing at, what were called back there, teen clubs. We played, mostly, for school dances and dances that area churches put on, every weekend. There were a lot of similar, young bands in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area that played these events. The schools and teen centers would rotate all of these bands, so everyone kept busy.
Over the years, the question I get asked, most often, is:
“Ron, is there anything I can do to get noticed on the music scene?” For me, that’s an easy one to answer.
The main thing that enabled me to “get heard” by music fans and my peers was the time honored tradition of sitting in! The saxophone is a musical instrument that is tailor made for sitting in with other bands. It’s quite mobile, first of all. It’s easy to move from place to place with it. Usually, all one needs is the horn and a microphone. If the player has enough lung power, he or she may not even need a mic. During my formative years, I spent hundreds of hours sitting in, on the spur of the moment, with all kinds of bands! For me, this was heaven! I was eager to learn and very curious about all the various genres of music. During any given week, in the early 1970’s, I would go by bars, in all parts of the city, and sit in with R&B, Soul, Blues, Rock and Fusion bands. If I couldn’t find those type bands, I’d sit in with a Country and Western band! I was finding my voice on my instrument and discovering the incredible versatility of the saxophone! So, in a nutshell; practicing anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day and sitting in, all over town, with all types of bands, helped me to become a more skillful, versatile musician.
I eventually did something I had been wanting to do for a long time: I heard about a Jazz jam session that took place at a Chinese restaurant, every Sunday night. The name of the place was “The Luau Inn”, on Connecticut Ave., in downtown, northwest D.C. This was the place, in 1972, where I played ‘LIVE’ with a group of Jazz musicians, for the very first time in my life! I was 18 or 19 years old and had been playing the saxophone for 6 years. I didn’t have a drivers license yet, so my dad drove me to the restaurant. Incredibly, I have a cassette tape of that first Live Jazz sit in, because my dad carried one of those portable Panasonic tape recorders with him, whenever he went out to hear music!
One summer night, I had a little project in mind: I parked my car near The One Step Down (Jazz club on Pennsylvania Ave., near Georgetown) and walked from Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way up to the Cellar Door, at 34th & M Street, N.W.! It was damn near surreal to hear all that incredible live music, coming out of the doors of The Crazy Horse, Desperados, Cellar Door and others. Nearby, was also Blues Alley and The Bayou, down on K Street! The thought of that music scene somehow diminishing was unthinkable, at the time! D.C.also had establishments like “Rands”, located at 14th & I Streets. The clientele was about 75 percent pimps and prostitutes. That was an education, indeed! WHEW!! My main training ground from about 1970 to 1974 was a little, black-owned neighborhood club, in D.C., called “Jackie Lee’s”. I played there for four years- four nights a week! That’s invaluable training, that doesn’t exist nowadays, for young musicians!
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s this scene thrived, supporting hundreds of area musicians. I sat in with a diverse array of people like The El Corals, Danny Gatton, Lady Byron, Charlie Hampton, Catfish Hodge, The Nighthawks, Little Royal, Billy Price, Natural Bridge, Cathy King, Daryl Davis, Jr. Cline, Skip Castro, Billy Hancock, Marshall Hawkins and many, many others!
Around 1974, I felt the need to challenge myself with musicians from outside the area. That was the year I first sat in with the great Jazz trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard! In 1975, I sat in with my ultimate tenor saxophone hero: Sonny Rollins, in Ira Aldridge Theater, on the Howard University campus! In 1977, I sat in with the great Dizzy Gillespie, for the very first time.
In the summer of 1977, I joined a band that would prove to be a life changing adventure: Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band!
My first ever performance with Foster MacKenzie III (aka Root Boy Slim) took place at a restaurant/club called “The Childe Harold”. I found myself on stage, flanked by two naked, female dancers. At that moment, I knew I had joined the circus!
In 1980, I went to hear Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble at Desperados. After their first set, Stevie and the owner of the club took a break, upstairs. I followed them and the club owner introduced me to Stevie Ray. I said to him; “Stevie, do you ever let saxophone players sit in with your band?’ Stevie looked at me and smiled that smile of amusement. He then asked; “What would we play?” I answered him with a question: “Do you know any Hendrix?” He turned his head toward the club owner and laughed and said; “Yeah, I think we know some Hendrix.”
After the owner assured him I could “hang”, Stevie invited me to come up with the band, right from the first song.We proceeded to play an entire set of Hendrix songs! I will never forget that night. It was magical!
Another music icon I used to sit in with, around town, was the great Chuck Brown! This was always fun, because Chuck and his musicians were all Funkateers! They could lay it DOWN! Funk was always one of my favorite genres, because of it’s rhythmic sophistication! This is why I believe The Funk Parade is such a great festival. The emphasis is on this very powerful genre. Dizzy told me; “Life is full of rhythm! Rhythm is everywhere!”
Funk was being played on an outrageous level in a band that I joined around 1978-9: OSIRIS! They were so funky, it was almost like being involved in a sexual act, when you played with them! I was in that band from about 1978 until 1980, but it was an incredible experience! (I was simultaneously a member of Root Boy Slim & and The Sex Change Band).
The Funk element was also heard in the music of two of my other employers: Gil Scott-Heron (1982 to 1989) and Dizzy Gillespie (1989 to 1993). I enjoyed both of those experiences more than words can express! I learned so much about music and myself, during my association with both Gil Scott-Heron and Dizzy Gillespie.
The practice of sitting in eventually led to my ongoing association with bands and people like Little Feat, The Allman Brothers Band, Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Devon Allman, Taj Mahal and others!
I have much to be thankful for.