Steve Turre (Music)

Going places

Steve Turre

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.” For the last 27 years, that familiar refrain has been part of Steve Turre’s workweek.

Turre is the trombone player in one of music’s most enduring acts—the Saturday Night Live Band. And while that kind of high-profile job would be enough to keep some people busy, not Turre.

He’s also a professor at the renowned Juilliard School, a respected session musician who has played with such legends as Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Shaw, and a musical innovator who incorporates seashells as instruments in some of his many side projects.

“’Saturday Night Live’ has only 20 or maybe 22 shows a year. And I only go in the day of the show,” he says.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Show days are long days. “It’s a totally different show every week—different music, different skits, different performers,” Turre says. “I come in at 11 in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon and the show goes until 1 a.m.”

He landed the SNL gig after being asked to audition for the show. But the audition route is not routine for Turre. The only other job that came through audition was when he was asked to try out for Charles in 1972. That led to a yearlong tour.

“I got the rest by sitting in with other musicians, in jam sessions,” he says. “Usually I would ask, or was invited, to do a song. Then later, when they needed a trombone, I’d get a call.”

Turre’s affinity for playing conch shells was inspired by one of those collaborations.

“I used to work with a great sax player, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He had a shell and just the tone of it, it was so beautiful,” Turre says. “It captivated me. It was only a matter of time that I got one.”

While the shell finds its way into a number of Turre’s recordings and performances, he also likes to explore a variety of musical styles—Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, salsa, blues and, of course, jazz. “If I hear something I like, I check it out. The world is not one-dimensional,” Turre says. “I try to explore, to learn, and sometimes I end up participating.”

Turre says his position as a teacher of jazz trombone, first at the Manhattan School of Music and now at Juilliard, is his way of keeping the music alive. He says that what children in this country are taught as “classical” music is actually orchestra, which he considers European classical music.

“Jazz is American classical music. But kids don’t get to see it on TV. That’s why I have to keep it alive. I have to pass it on.”

Turre knew he wanted to play jazz even as a student at Sac State in the late ‘60s, though the University did not have a jazz program at that time. He credits one of his music professors with not only encouraging him to pursue his dream but also for giving him a musical foundation to build on.

“At Sac State I had such a wonderful music teacher, Herbert Harrison. He made a difference in my life,” Turre says. “He taught me music theory not only so I could understand and comprehend music, he made it fun. He made it enjoyable. That’s what good teachers do.”

After two years at Sac State, Turre went to college in Texas and then began playing professionally. He would later earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts and master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

“Sac State is where I learned to read and write the music. I learned to play by playing,” he says. “Working with Ray Charles, working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, working with Dizzy Gillespie, working with Woody Shaw—this was school. There are a lot of aspects of education that are beyond institutional walls.”