Richard Oppenheim (1971) Alto Saxophone Biography

Ed. Note: Richard Oppenheim was a member of the New Trier Recording Jazz Ensemble during the 1969, 1970, and 1971 Years. He participated in the 1970 Tour of Mexico. This was the first international tour by any New Trier group in the school’s history.

Part 1: My Autobiographical Sketch,
or as I like to put it, The Ballad of Slim Regor

Richard Oppenheim

You can never be certain about these things, but I’m pretty sure my parents’ decision to decamp from 88th and Merrill to the North Shore, particularly and deliberately intent on an educational upgrade, didn’t include the calculation their third and final attempt at child-rearing would find his calling as a musician qua luftmensch. Little did they dream that subterranean subversives like Roger Mills would be operating within the walls of the city-state known as New Trier Township.

By the time I was a freshman, Mr. Mills had already established a beachhead with the Jazz Ensemble (no “stage bands” for this lofty enclave); being recruited into the feeder band was pretty heady stuff for a dweeb who barely knew which end of a saxophone to blow into. When sophomore year brought the opportunity to weasel my way into “The Show,” I just figured life was taking care of itself quite handily without much input from me, and why
question it? This, by the way, became the operating principle impelling me along life’s arc, such as it has turned out to be.

Roger had the rare gift of being able to harness the outsized talent of some stellar prodigies (no, not me) without ever coopting them. His ability to find and to cultivate musical channels for the likes of Eric Hochberg, Steve Eisen, Rich Ruttenberg, Chuck Norris, Bill Purse and others—the “rabbits” at the dog track—gave the rest of us a glimpse at what was truly possible. And once you’ve seen those possibilities, you’ve got some decisions to make. And that, by the way, is called education.

There are, of course, other more quotidian components comprising an educational to-do list. Mathematics, frankly, scared the shit out of me, and I was well on my way toward establishing a new and hideously low floor in that field. Fortunately, Mr. Mills also subbed in the math department. He took me aside one day in my junior year and announced that if I fulfilled what appeared to be my destiny and flunked out of algebra I’d be ineligible to perform with the Jazz Ensemble. He went on to say that if I’d be willing to put in some serious time with him after school, he’d straighten out my wig (or something to that effect). And so into the woodshed we went. Somehow this guy managed to elicit just enough comprehension out ofme to pull out of the nosedive. It could not have been easy.

Mr. Mills also made sure that those of us whose interest in jazz was more than casual actually got out into the real world to see how it was really done. On one memorable occasion, he chaperoned about ten of us to a club in Old Town to hear Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims with a local rhythm section. He got a bit more than he bargained for, as several of us discovered another room in the club, marginally cordoned off by swinging saloon doors, in which a beautiful woman was giving an anatomy lesson. True, Roger was on the verge of catatonia when he found out, but this impressed upon me music’s value as a conduit to all that life has to offer.

Anyone who stays in the music game long enough can recite a creditable list of luminaries with whom they’ve performed. What registers more with me, though, is location, location, location. While there are many holes in my travel resume, music has taken me to just enough interesting outposts to underscore exactly how little I really know about the world—and that’s a happy circumstance. A few months in Mumbai, a few months in Abidjan, a few weeks in Port Au Prince, thirty years in New York City, you begin to sense there’s actually life out there. I would say that Roger’s determination to take the band to Mexico for ten days or so really opened my eyes to the fact that music can get you past the velvet rope and into some genuinely weird precincts. Let’s not forget, too, that one of the ways he found to finance this venture was to pimp us out as ballot-counters for the Downbeat International Jazz Poll. Creativity takes many strange forms.

I’ve led a privileged existence. One of the greatest privileges was to have happened upon my teacher, Roger Mills.

Part 2: My Biography

Fans of saxophone player Richard Oppenheim owe a debt of gratitude to two things: a fingernail chart and Hebrew school. In 2013 he recapped his career in an interview.

“I started on guitar when I was six. I studied classical guitar until I was ten,” Oppenheim said. “I thought I was going to be a little folk singer, but my teacher moved away. I got a new teacher, and he showed me a fingernail chart, a chart that showed how I was supposed to contour my fingernails.

“That’s the last time I saw him. I’m pretty sure no 10-year- old boy wants to contour his nails.”

Oppenheim, 60, was born in Chicago and raised in Wilmette, Ill. After the fingernail chart incident, he stayed away from music for three years.

“By then I had started listening to jazz,” he said. “An older brother sent me records to listen to. I got into Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Rollins blew me away. When I was thirteen, my mother told me I could continue Hebrew school studies or go back to music lessons. I told her I wanted to play saxophone.”

Forty-seven years later, Oppenheim is still playing saxophone. Since he and his wife, musician and educator Katchie Cartwright, moved to San Antonio from New York in 2006, Oppenheim has become a first-call alto saxophonist. He works with almost every jazz aggregation in town, including the King William Jazz Collective, Small World, Katchie & Le Monde Caché (with Cartwright) and the Primetime Jazz Orchestra.

When Oppenheim and Cartwright arrived in San Antonio, word spread quickly about a new saxophonist in town. He was welcomed on the jazz scene with open arms — and gigs.

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” Oppenheim said. “(Saxophonist) Rob Hardt had just left town with (drummer) Gerry Gibbs. Polly (Harrison) and Kyle (Keener) invited me to play with them in Small World. Polly told me about John Magaldi and Primetime. I met George Prado and played at Holiday Saxophones. I’d met Aaron (pianist Aaron Prado) when I was still in New York and he was going to school there.

“The welcome I got here really struck me. I’ve seen enough times when people come to a particular locale and get cold-shouldered; not here and not me.”

It has not hurt a thing that, though he is a jazz player through-and-through, Oppenheim has a wide range of interests and a wide range of experience. An Indiana University grad, he has played blues with Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush and Johnny Winter; R&B with Marvin Gaye; rock with Mick Ronson, Foghat, David Johansen and Ian Hunter; and jazz with Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Rich, Jaki Byard and many others.

That range of interest, and talent, is reflected in his new CD, “Greenhorn in a Red State,” slated for release any day now on the Oppenheim/Cartwright label Harriton Carved Wax. Songs such as “Texas Three-Lane Sideslip,” “The (Intermittent) Sidewalks of San Antone,” “Sunken Kitchens of Terrell Hills” and “Boog Powell’s Greasy Barbecue Pit (Is Not in San Antonio)” run the gamut from straight-ahead jazz to Latin to funky R&B- meets-soul jazz.

The band on the disc includes Cartwright (piccolo); the couple’s daughter, Eleonore Oppenheim (double bass); Georgie Padilla (percussion); Mark Lomanno (piano); and Kevin Hess (drums).

Thematically, the compositions reflect Oppenheim’s outsider status.

“I’m just not from here,” Oppenheim said, laughing. “I’d applied for a grant to do an album from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, twice, and didn’t get one. I submitted a third application and got it. I thought, ‘I just got a grant from a local foundation funding local artists. What the hell am I doing here?’

“I was coming up with sketches upon sketches and couldn’t seem to finish anything. My daughter was flying in from New York to play bass. I had all these disparate things in a pile. Three days before we were to start rehearsals, certain of the sketches blended with certain others and they sorted themselves out over two nights with a lot of coffee and enough alcohol to smooth out the coffee.”

Oppenheim works regularly with Cartwright. The couple works infrequently with their daughter Eleonore because she’s busy in New York, and elsewhere, making music with Philip Glass, the Wordless Music Orchestra, Victoire and others.

“I knew I was going to have Eleonore playing bass, so I wrote for her. “If you can’t exploit your kid, who can you exploit,” Oppenheim said, laughing again.

Though he was the leader on “Greenhorn in a Red State,” and has led other bands, that is not necessarily his strong suit.

“I’m very rarely a leader. There’s certain comfort in being a sideman,” he said. “It’s interesting to see how other people lead. Basically I shut up and play.” Oppenheim does pay attention to the jazz scene.

“We’re at an interesting time right now. Things are looking precarious because there’s a relatively small infrastructure,” he said. “When the Landing disappeared, it had a not-good ripple effect. Besides the Jim Cullum Jazz Band inside, there was a tremendous amount of jazz on the patio. Now Paula’s joint (Carmens de la Calle) is closing, and I don’t know what she is going to follow it up with.

“We’re at a wait-and-see point. But the talent here is just plain phenomenal, on any instrument you can mention. It’s incredible how many great players there are here.”

In addition, Richard Oppenheim has logged road time with the bands of Illinois Jacquet and Buddy Rich, and headed up the sax section in Marvin Gaye’s large touring unit. After putting in a year and a half with the Paul Jeffrey Octet, he segued into the octet of valve trombonist Marshall Brown, and played baritone sax with Jaki Byard and the Apollo Stompers. Two smaller ensembles, Fat Doggie and Zambomba, led respectively by Gregory Alper and Mark Holen, allowed him to stretch in the intrepid company of Bern Nix, Shelley Hirsch, Ray Anderson, and Chuck Loeb, among others. Oppenheim also fronted bebop trios featuring Cameron Brown, Eliot Zigmund, and Bill Goodwin, and shared the bandstand with Charles Mingus, Clifford Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Dave Liebman, and Dennis Charles.

A tour of Haiti with the compas outfit System Band brought an opportunity to pour his style into a different mold. Sets often lasted for hours, with Oppenheim frequently called upon to deliver marathon solos over lengthy vamps. In common with many jazz musicians, some of his most formative experiences have come sitting in with such blues men as Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush, and Mike Bloomfield, all of whom established their reputations in Oppenheim’s native Chicago environs. In the realm of rock, he has worked and recorded with Foghat, Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, and The Rattlers. He has played alongside Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and David Johanssen.

After many years in New York, saxophonist Richard Oppenheim relocated to San Antonio, Texas in 2006 with his wife and longtime musical colleague, Katchie Cartwright. He is thriving there, and yet coming to grips with the notion of ‘always being an Auslander in these parts’–or a Greenhorn in a Red State, to quote the title of Oppenheim’s new release for Harriton Carved Wax. Leading a fine sextet with Cartwright on piccolo, daughter Eleonore Oppenheim on bass, Mark Lomanno on piano, Kevin Hess on drums, and Georgie Padilla on percussion, Oppenheim muses on ideas of belonging and unfamiliarity, of how to call where you are home. The term ‘greenhorn,’ he recalls, was his grandmother’s description of herself and other immigrants upon arrival at Ellis Island. ‘It is also a reference to the vivid green patina my Selmer Mark VI has acquired since Katchie and I moved down here,’ Oppenheim adds. The vibrant tonal blend of Oppenheim’s alto sax and Cartwright’s piccolo is what anchors Greenhorn in a Red State, from the opening 5/4 strut of ‘Where is Baseball?’ to the closing slow shuffle of ‘Boog Powell’s Greasy Barbecue Pit (Is Not In San Antonio).’ With the baseball reference, Oppenheim, an ardent fan, rues the fact that no one in San Antonio can be bothered with the sport. There is almost a Latin block- party flavor, very much a taste of New York, in this band’s front line, and in Padilla’s roiling congas on numerous tracks. Echoes of boogaloo, funk and rock come through on cuts like ‘Mean Old Bastrop’ and ‘Sunken Kitchens of Terrell Hills,’ highlighting the tight and inventive rhythm section. Along with the group’s loose, improvisatory feeling, there is a strong element of counterpoint and rhythmic precision. The shifts in mood, too, can be dramatic: ‘Debutante at the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo’ (an actual thing in San Antonio) proceeds as a pair of ethereal duets, first for alto sax and pizzicato bass, then bowed bass and piano. These moments and many others on Greenhorn in a Red State reflect the broad range and eclecticism of Oppenheim’s achievements in music, as a sideman and a leader. Born in Chicago in 1953, Oppenheim has played alto saxophone since age 13. Following his studies at Indiana University, he gained experience playing with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Charles Mingus, and Lonnie Brooks. On relocating to New York in 1976 he recorded with Ray Anderson, Chuck Loeb, Bern Nix, Bill Goodwin and many more. From the late ’70s through ’80s he performed with Lionel Hampton, Clifford Jordan, Otis Rush, Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, Foghat, Johnny Winter, Buddy Rich, Bernard Purdie, Jaki Byard, David Johanssen, and Illinois Jacquet. With Greenhorn in a Red State, Oppenheim takes another important and uniquely personal step in his musical journey.