Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake and guitarist Bobby Broom have played together many times over the years, going back to Broom’s 1997 album, Waitin’ and Waitin,’ and beyond. It was Broom who hired Blake for his band shortly after his college years. The strong chemistry between these musicians is one of numerous elements that make Mistaken Identity—Blake’s first album under his own name in 15 years—special. (They’re joined by Nat Reeves or Reuben Rogers on bass and Kobie Watkins on drums.) Another key factor is the heartfelt inclusion of songs by jazz legends who have played important roles in Blake’s personal life as well as his career.
“Uncle” Benny Golson’s classic “Stablemates” is performed with soulful clarity. The late Johnny Griffin’s beautiful minor key ballad “When We Were One” features Blake at his most lyrical on tenor. Then there is Blake’s hero Sonny Rollins’s “Allison” (from his underrated 1987 album, Dancing in the Dark), on which the tenorist’s unencumbered playing is bolstered by Broom’s forceful comping and sweetened by the guitarist’s unison lines.
Recorded before and after the Covid lockdown Mistaken Identity boasts a pair of Blake originals, the lively postbop vehicle “Beyond Yesterday’s Tomorrows” and the ruminative “Grace Ann,” a duet with Rogers. Broom contributed “No Hype Blues,” one of the first songs Blake played with him. The golden Blue Note era is recalled via Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?” And steel pan artist Victor Provost wrote the title calypso tune, which celebrates Blake’s Caribbean roots and Rollins’s classic “St. Thomas.”
Ron Blake was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico on September 7, 1965 (he’s thrilled to share a birthday with Rollins) and grew up in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The youngest of four children, he inherited his architect father’s love of jazz, particularly the alto saxophone, which he began playing in school at age 10 (having first taken guitar lessons at eight).
In 1979, at the age of 14, Blake left home to attend the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan for three consecutive summers and remained there to enroll in the Interlochen Arts Academy where he completed his junior and senior years of high school. He studied music there under distinguished classical saxophonist Dr. Frederick L. Hemke. Hemke then convinced Blake to attend Northwestern University outside of Chicago, where he taught.
It was at Northwestern that Blake committed himself to jazz and started playing baritone and tenor, in addition to alto saxophone. He received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Artistic and Academic Achievement. When he began playing at various clubs in suburban Evanston, where Northwestern is located, he was largely unfamiliar with Chicago’s celebrated Tough Tenor tradition. But with tenor greats including Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan, Eddie Johnson, and Fred Anderson still active on the scene, and Johnny Griffin paying his annual visits from Europe, he gained a deep appreciation for it.
Shortly after college, where he acquired a degree in Classical Saxophone Performance, he began playing with Broom, a New York native enjoying a revitalized career in Chicago, while also working as a pharmaceutical technician at Evanston Hospital. “Bobby gave me my start,” he says. “He was the first person to hire me. I learned so much about phrasing and internalizing the time from him. There is a lost recording of us from that period with me on alto along with Tyler Mitchell on bass and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on drums. Bunky Green, whom Dr. Hemke introduced me to, was a huge influence on my playing at the time.
In 1987, Blake returned to St. Thomas to teach saxophone in summer music programs for middle and high school students. At the first International Virgin Islands Jazz Festival that summer, he was exposed to and performed with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Hamilton, and Richie Cole. Twelve years later, he and fellow V.I. native Dion Parson, who went on to become a prolific drummer in New York, co-founded the 21st Century Band, which combined mainstream jazz influences with Caribbean rhythms. Reuben Rogers, Rashawn Ross, and Victor Provost are other Virgin Islanders that have worked in the band, which has released six albums.
After returning to Chicago in the Fall of 1987, Blake spent a lot of time practicing and listening to local musicians on the scene as well as at the world-renowned Jazz Showcase. In the winter of 1988, Blake played at the jam session at the famed Green Mill jazz club led by trumpeter Brad Goode. The Green Mill became a regular spot to work out ideas and continue the transition to the tenor sax. He studied composition at Northeastern Illinois University and performed in a jazz quintet led by Dr. Aaron Horne, but learned at least as much from playing with and just being around Von Freeman, Wilbur Campbell, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens, and many others on the Chicago scene.
“The first time I played with Von, I had been regurgitating Dexter Gordon solos on tenor,” Blake recalls. “That night, I played his solo on ‘Night in Tunisia’ note for note. During a break, Von started talking casually about Freddie Hubbard and how he’d mentioned that when he was starting out, it took him 15 years to develop his own sound. I got the message. That was the last time I played transcriptions on the bandstand.”
In 1992, after two years on the music faculty of the University of South Florida in Tampa, Blake moved to New York, where he played (and moved in) with drummer Dion Parson and joined the quintets of two trumpet greats, Roy Hargrove and Art Farmer. Hargrove, whose career was just taking off, used Blake on three of his albums, including With the Tenors of Our Time, an extravaganza featuring Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman.
“Roy was as special as they come,” says Blake, who first met him at Marc Cary’s apartment. “He lived and breathed music. When we went on the road, he would sometimes show me a tune before a show and say how it should go. Then we’d play it that night. I’d play what I could recall over the next few shows until I learned it.”
Blake played with Farmer for seven years and was featured on three of his albums, when the proponent of the “flumpet” was in the midst of a glowing comeback.
In 2000, Blake released his solo debut, Up Front & Personal, released on Tahmun, the label he started. It features Johnny Griffin, who was a mentor and dear friend. Blake composed a song for producer Michael Carvin as well as compositions for his parents. Blake played in support of Meshell Ndegeocello and multicultural ensemble Yerba Buena on the 2002 tribute album, Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti (“I felt like I was playing Caribbean music again”) and is all over Yerba Buena’s Grammy-nominated 2003 effort, President Alien, playing tenor, soprano, baritone, and flute. He also can be heard on Ndegeocello’s 2005 album, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel.
As busy as he was, Blake was feeling the pressures of fitting into a genre specific career that seemed to be the path of many before him. His work with Yerba Buena reconnected him to his Caribbean roots and to the baritone sax. After sitting in with trombonist and Saturday Night Live band member Steve Turre at Smoke in 2005, he was invited to audition for the baritone saxophone and flute position in the SNL Band. He has been a member of the band ever since and has Emmy Awards to show for it.
Blake subsequently was signed to the Mack Avenue label, for whom he released three well-received albums: Lest We Forget, featuring organist Joey De Francesco and produced by Christian McBride; Sonic Tonic, which combined Weather Report-style electric jazz with funk, Latin, and Caribbean music, produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, and Shayari, featuring Jack DeJohnette, Regina Carter, and Christian McBride (whose bands he had begun playing in since 2000). He also appears in several albums by the great West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson for Mack Avenue.
Blake had planned on recording a fourth album for Mack Avenue to complete what he envisioned as a series of different projects, but the label dropped him—partly because as a member of the SNL band, it was difficult for him to hit the road in support of his recordings.
In 2007, he joined the faculty of the Juilliard School and in 2010 completed a Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies with a Film Scoring emphasis at New York University. Among his scoring efforts is the podcast A Bedtime Project. In 2012, he won his first of three Grammys as a member of Christian McBride’s Big Band for The Good Feeling. He has been a member of the Mingus Big Band/Orchestra since 2014 and the Love Rocks NYC House Band, led by bassist Will Lee, since 2017.
Between his playing and performing, his teaching, his music and education efforts in the Virgin Islands (for which he alongside the members of Dion Parson & the 21st Century Band were recognized by the Virgin Islands Legislature and United States Congress), it’s difficult to imagine a jazz artist who has had a fuller or more wide-ranging career. Have we failed to mention that he founded the Caribbean Jazz Institute at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney, Maine? And that he has presented master classes and clinics across the country?
In the end, there is no mistaking how important Blake is to jazz. And there’s no better place to appreciate that than Mistaken Identity.