Tony Kofi is a living, breathing and blowing example of how serendipity can change the course of your life. The 53-year-old British saxophonist is one of the stars of this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. His Tel Aviv Cinematheque gig (tonight at 8 p.m.) features a quartet salute to modern jazz pioneering pianist Thelonious Monk whose centenary is being celebrated at jazz venues and events right across the globe.
But had it not been for what, at the time, seemed like a calamitous turn of events Kofi’s life may have been a very different professional kettle of fish. “It all started for me [musically] when I was 16 by accident – literally,” he says. “I used to be a builder, a carpenter, and I fell off a roof and I ended up in hospital for a few weeks.”
That enforced hiatus in Kofi’s early working life afforded him the unexpected luxury of being able to reflect on where he was, and where he should really be heading. “After the accident, I decided I was going to do something that I wanted to do, and not just do what my parents wanted me to do.”
It was also a matter of showing his teachers they’d got it wrong too. “At school, I was told I wasn’t good enough in music so they put me in a woodwork class.” The educational placement was not entirely to the youngster’s dislike, but it did lead, in a roundabout way, to the work site mishap but, then again, that got the teenager “athinking,” and then “ablowing” into a saxophone. “Being in the woodwork class is where my love of carpentry came from,” Kofi recalls. “At 16 I became a carpenter’s apprentice. One day I was working three stories up on the roof and that was it, I slipped and fell.” That horrific cloud eventually revealed a mellifluous silver lining. “I ended up in hospital and I had time to think about things.” It was a true epiphanous event. “To fall three stories and not die made me think there was another plan from the creator, why I’m not dead. I should have been dead. But I survived, and I decided I was going to do something I really loved.”
Shortly after he got out of hospital, Kofi set about putting his money where he hoped his mouth would be and got himself his first saxophone. “I spent £60 on it,” he says. “All my friends thought I was crazy. I’d gotten a knock on the head when I fell off the roof, you know,” he laughs.
But this was clearly no passing fad, and he got some parental support for his new direction in life. “I come from a big family. I have seven brothers. My mum couldn’t afford to pay for music lessons for me, but she gave me a stack of records. She said, ‘if you’re really serious about the saxophone you learn from these.’”
The youngster got well and truly stuck in. “I listened to all the records she’d brought with her from Ghana when she was a girl – you know, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Doris Day, she brought a lot with her. That helped me develop my ear.” He also got to grips with the horn he’d purchased. “I practiced eight hours a day,” he says.
Kofi was determined to go the distance with his newfound direction in life, and to do it his way. “I’ve never had a teacher,” he states. That may be true in the formal sense of term, but the budding musician did get a better handle on how to go about making sweet and creative sounds on his sax from a bunch of senior professionals. That included attending a series of jazz workshops in Leicester, not far from Kofi’s home in Nottingham, and also taking lessons from local saxophonist and jazz mentor George Carmichael.
Kofi persisted with his left-field approach to developing his craft even when he did, at long last, make it to a recognized institution of musical education, and a stellar one at that.
“When I eventually won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music [in Boston, Mass.], you could take four options and, obviously, having a personal teacher was one of them,” he explains.
“But I decided not to take that option. I took the history of music, arranging, harmony and ear training. I wasn’t very strong on theory.” The then twenty-something Brit reckoned that the hands-on side of his musicianship was in decent shape, and that he needed to complement that with some academic support. “I realized that my playing as a musician got me the scholarship to Berklee, so I just developed the other side, by listening and studying, and keeping practicing.” He was determined to carve his own niche in the art form. “I found my own style by not having a teacher show me how it’s done. I checked out all the masters – Bird [modern jazz founding father saxophonist Charlie Parker], Monk, [saxophonist] Cannonball [Adderley], Trane [iconic avant-garde saxophonist John Coltrane]. I’ve had people show me things, but I’ve never really had a formal teacher.”
Kofi has, clearly, always been his own man, and this comes through in his singular approach to the works of such pioneering masters as Monk and Ornette Coleman, as well as in his own writing and renditions. Over the years, he has enjoyed prestigious sideman berths with a whole host of leading lights on the more creative side of the jazz tracks, including reedman Sam Rivers, and pianists Andrew Hill and Abdullah Ibrahim.
After he returned to the UK, in 1991, following three years at Berklee, Kofi quickly established himself as a staple of the British jazz scene, working with the Jazz Warriors high profile outfit. He also spread his burgeoning inventive lyrically robust style across a wide swathe of other acts, including the David Murray Big Band, Jazz Jamaica and trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and also with star commercial artists such as rapper Queen Latifah and hip-hop threesome Salt-N-Pepa. In 2006 Murray also asked Kofi to join the veteran World Saxophone Quartet whose various lineups over the past four decades have featured such illustrious envelope pushers as Rivers, Branford Marsalis, Oliver Lake and James Carter.
Kofi also lead his own combos – a trio including a Hammond B3 organ player, and the quartet which he is bringing to Tel Aviv, featuring pianist Jonathan Gee, bassist Ben Hazleton and drummer Winston Clifford. The foursome has been together since 2000, working their way through Kofi’s material and, in particular, offering inventive readings to Monk’s oeuvre. The quartet’s 2004 album All Is Know – Kofi’s debut as leader – features a selection of Monk originals with additional string arrangements by composer Philip Clark, and the band went out on a limb at the 2003 and 2007 editions of the London Jazz Festival, performing the full Monk repertoire – all 70 works – at marathon six-hour concerts.
Playing his own furrow through the ever-evolving riches of jazz, Kofi could do a lot worse than feed off Monk and his parental African backdrop. Now, a century after the great pianist’s birth, the British saxophonist is at the forefront of celebrating Monk’s role in expanding our musical and spiritual mindset. “It’s a beautiful time to be playing Monk,” says Kofi. “Coltrane said he learned to play music from Monk. I’d agree with that.”
For tickets and more information: *9080 and www.zappa-club.co.il