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D.C.'s 'Marathon Man' Of Jazz Celebrates A Lifetime Of Making Music

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Andrew White has been in the music business since he was a student at Howard University in the 1960s.
Andrew White
Andrew White has been in the music business since he was a student at Howard University in the 1960s.

Andrew White has been called a lot of things in his time: "Saxophoniac," "Baronet Saxophonist," "Mister Vocalese Buzz," Droobie Drooroo Rambo Sax," "Saxophonic Eboniac," "Slide Saxophonist," "Zorro Sax" and "Chicken Alto," among others.

But you can also call the 70-year-old D.C. native an author, transcriber, improviser, composer, producer and ever-enterprising entrepreneur.

As the president and founder of Andrew's Musical Enterprises, White sells more than 2,800 items in his catalogue — from recordings and transcriptions to essays and novels. You can even buy White's hefty 840-page autobiography: Everybody Loves the Sugar.

"It is the largest autobiography in the history of music," he says, "and we sell it here from Andrew's Music, direct."

Andrew's Music celebrates its 41st birthday on Sept. 23: that's the day legendary saxophonist John Coltrane would have celebrated his 86th. And given yet another name White's been called, "Keeper of the 'Trane." The matching birthdays aren't exactly a coincidence. White has transcribed 701 of Coltrane's solos, and sells each one through Andrew's Music.

He has one of these transcriptions hanging all the way across the wall of his Music Museum: a cozy house beside his Brookland residence, where he displays reviews, posters, photos and other mementos from his musical career.

White takes pride in that career, which started in 1960, when he began studying music theory at Howard University by day, and playing sax with the JFK Quintet on U Street by night.

"We were at the Bohemian Caverns for well over two-and-a-half years," he recalls, "And we were famous for being groundbreakers. We were doing a lot of original material, and then we had a stark contrast in our band between the trumpet player, who was a good soul trumpet player, and whatever you want to call me. I consider myself a 'swaggering iconoclast!'"

Since his days with the JFK Quintet, White and his alto saxophone have "swaggered" all over the world. But sax isn't the only instrument White has mastered. He's played bass with The Fifth Dimension, The Weather Report and Stevie Wonder, and he has even studied oboe in Paris and toured as principal oboist with the American Ballet Theatre of New York.

"I was with Stevie Wonder and the American Ballet Theatre for three years, concurrently," White says. "And I did have close calls where I was doing back-to-back work, and people would look around and didn't believe that they saw the same guy doing the same — they thought I had a twin!"

Which actually brings us to some more names the indefatigable Andrew White has earned: "Marathon Man" and "Hercules"

He got these monikers in 1975, after a rather Herculean event: what White calls "Marathon '75."

"That was a 12-hour concert that I played right here at the Top o'Foolery [House of Jazz] down on Pennsylvania Avenue, from 6 p.m. Nov. 16 to Monday morning, 6 o'clock," White recalls fondly.

Today, Andrew's Music offers the live recording as a nine-record set. Two quartets performed in shifts, but White — our Hercules Marathon Man — played the entire 12 hours.

So, talk about "swaggering iconoclasm!" The guy's recorded a nine-disc set of a 12-hour concert. He's done double duties with a pop-funk superstar and a classical ballet company. He started his own publishing company. He's been known to hawk his own merchandise at gigs. He's never even hired an agent or manager.

"As an artist, if I've got something I'm doing and so on and so forth, I can't stop that simply because I have a contract with you that says I owe you this and blah-blah this," White says.

But if you ask Andrew White if he'd recommend that other musicians follow his lead, he'll answer you immediately and emphatically: No.

"From an artistic perspective it might sound noble," he says. "But when you index all of that with the practicality and the economics of it and all that? No."

If you ask White what he does recommend, his answer is simple: "I don't! Because I know it's different for everybody — artistically or professionally. So, you're going to sink or swim, you need to find that out for yourself!"

And Andrew White has had his share of sinking and swimming since those early gigs on U Street. And though these days he performs and composes far more rarely, he says he manages to stay afloat, all the while remaining true to the music that has made him D.C.'s very own swaggering, iconoclastic Chicken Alto Saxophoniac Marathon Man.


[Music: "Delories" by The JFK Quintet from New Jazz Frontiers From Washington]

Photos: Andrew White

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