Tenor saxophone master Ron Holloway is a hero to thousands of jamband and blues-rock fans.
He earned it through extensive work over the past 15 years with the Allman Brothers Band, Warren Haynes Band, Derek Trucks Band, Little Feat, Susan Tedeschi and more.
Yet Holloway, whose resume also includes a decade with the late gonzo rock ’n’ roller Root Boy Slim, is a big-time jazz man, too. He’s blown his horn on tours as a sideman with Dizzy Gillespie and Gil-Scott Heron. Sax icon Sonny Rollins is a mentor and friend who got him a jazz recording deal.
When he hits Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill on Friday night, he will be fronting a funky, seven-piece, R&B and soul band. Despite experience in practically every genre, Holloway tours with this band because it represents the styles that most people recognize from him these days.
“The people who have been listening to me since my association with Little Feat and the Allman Brothers [enjoy] music that’s blues-based or has R&B elements in it, and it’s funky stuff,” Holloway said in a phone call last week. “I didn’t want to get too far away from what people had heard me playing in those settings. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get too far away from that in my own band.”
It’s sort of a full-circle thing for Holloway, who came up in the Washington-area clubs playing R&B, blues, jazz and other genres, including covers of Little Feat and the Allmans. When it comes to what has influenced him the most, it’s definitely jazz.
Holloway, 62, started playing saxophone in sixth grade, after two buddies badgered him to come see what the band program was all about. When the teacher pulled out an alto sax, Holloway — whose father had an extensive vinyl collection of recordings led by great jazz saxophonists and trumpeters — called dibs.
The young fellow who previously spent all his time with a microscope and telescope quickly became a budding sax man, switching to tenor sax three months later and digging into the styles on his father’s records.
He came up in a golden age of the Washington-area scene, with jazz clubs in abundance and lots of other genres represented, too. He would carry his horn all over town, looking to gather as much experience as possible in multiple styles.
“I loved all kinds of music and I was figuring out a way to fit my instrument, the tenor saxophone, into all these different genres,” Holloway said. “If there was nothing else going on, I would even go by clubs some nights and sit in with a country band.”
Ultimately, Rollins and John Coltrane became his biggest influences, and in the mid-1970s, he sought out the great jazz men who would play gigs in D.C. He had an interesting calling card — cassette tapes of his playing — and a cool method of creating it. He set his father’s cassette recorder near a turntable, then stepped farther back in the basement to play the melody and to solo over non-horn sections of great jazz songs.
He presented those tapes to Freddie Hubbard, Gillespie and Rollins. Each one right away asked him to sit in with their bands, he said. Each later invited him to sit in whenever they hit town.
“Those were three of the biggest people you could ever have played with in jazz,” Holloway said.
‘I’m Root Boy’
In 1976, he got a random call to hit a studio in Silver Spring, Maryland, where a diagnosed schizophrenic named Foster MacKenzie and his band were recording demo tapes. He found MacKenzie, better known as Root Boy Slim, asleep and snoring on a couch. Holloway cut a few tracks, then came back the next day, meeting an awake MacKenzie and joining Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.
“No one had actually had a sex change,” Holloway said.
Catch Holloway in a video of the band’s most famous song, “Boogie Till You Puke,” complete with an introduction by the late comic writer Michael O’Donoghue, via youtu.be/roC_JLOcnxE.
Root Boy Slim, who died in 1993, never made the big time but was a massive cult figure in the D.C. area nightspot and college scenes. His wild ways were a big part of the legend.
He was a very intelligent person, though erratic when off his medications, Holloway remembered. “But he was also a person who was very much aware of his own legend and tried to bolster it,” he said.
Holloway remembered giving Root Boy a ride to a party one night. They walked up to an apartment door, and the person who opened the door, a Root Boy fan, was in awe. MacKenzie, however, was more interested in the two lines of cocaine he immediately spotted on a table across the room.
“It was that kind of party,” Holloway said. “He immediately walks over there, covers up one nostril with one of his fingers and proceeds to act as a Hoover vacuum cleaner and snort up one line of coke. Then he went in the other direction and snorted up the second line, turned around and left the party. So he was there for maybe about one minute, long enough to snort two lines of coke and leave.”
Holloway followed him out, of course.
“I didn’t want to be around trying to explain that one,” he said. “That was him, bolstering his own legendary image. He wanted that kind of conversation to be going on amongst his fans, about him. You can’t blame me. I’m insane. I’m Root Boy.”
Holloway was gigging with Heron, the spoken-word jazz and soul poet, at about the same time, so he would substitute in Root Boy gigs. After Gillespie hired him, in 1989, Holloway focused primarily on his work with the world-class trumpet man.
He toured the world with Gillespie and got to meet the likes of Johnny Carson, Shirley Temple Black and Clint Eastwood. Most of them complimented him on his playing. He also remembered kind words from Diana Ross after a Heron gig.
The way he handled such praise is good advice for any musician.
“You can always get better,” Holloway said. “You can always grow. And you don’t want to ever let something go to your head that would prevent that from happening. So even though I used to get all these compliments, I would always say to myself, keep your focus, keep practicing, keep trying to improve.”
You can see and hear the results on Friday night in Roanoke.