Tony Kofi: his kind of soul

It was a long road to recognition for the Nottingham-born saxophonist but now he pays back one of his idols, Cannonball Adderley

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Tony Kofi at Scarborough jazz festival, 2019. Photo © Brian Payne

Nobody could accuse saxophonist and bandleader Tony Kofi of having it easy; early attempts to learn music were frustrated and even encouragement at home was sparse. Tony was born in Nottingham in 1964 and his family were well established there having come from Ghana in West Africa. He is one of seven boys and I asked him if his parents had been trying to get a girl but not having any success.

“I think that was the idea”.

His interest in jazz began very early as his mother saw Louis Armstrong on his first trip to Ghana in 1956 and had then collected his records along with those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Tony listened to all those records as he grew up. On going to school though he was frustrated by teachers who would not let him learn; they considered he was not good enough to learn music. 

“They passed me over and gave lessons to people they thought better, and I was given woodwork”.

According to Tony it was part of the recreation thing: “‘You do music, you do woodwork’, like that – no consideration given to whether you were good at something”.

“Choices were music, cookery, woodwork, metalwork, anything like that”. Then, as a result of working as a carpenter, he got into music.

Tony Kofi didn’t touch an instrument until he was 16 and even that happened as the result of an accident. Working on a building site he fell from a ledge and spent some time in hospital

Tony Kofi didn’t touch an instrument until he was 16 and even that happened as the result of an accident. Working on a building site he fell from a ledge and spent some time in hospital. He was, understandably, pretty shaken up as he had fallen some distance and was quite badly injured.

“But you know, I thought I’m here, I didn’t die, and I will get a little compensation money – not much, but with that money I will buy an instrument. It could have been any instrument, but something told me to choose a saxophone”.

He wanted a tenor sax, but it was too expensive, so he settled for an alto. He also wanted lessons but was disappointed there too. “My parents said it was too expensive and they couldn’t afford it”.

So, he started to teach himself, starting off as a hobby but continuing, and he is now completely self- taught. “It was just fun at first but then some friends got me listening to Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley. I didn’t understand it at first but then I heard a John Handy track on the radio, and I memorised it. It was called Love For Brother Jack and I was totally mesmerised”. He taped the music and played it over and over, kept rewinding it and tried to emulate what Handy had played.

“It was then that I discovered that I had a very good ear. I could hear notes and play them back. Then it got really serious, you know? When I heard people like Parker, Cannonball, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, I thought this is what I want to do, this is it”.

Did hearing people like Coltrane, Parker and Coleman frighten him at all?

“No, why should it? I had nothing to compare it with. No, it didn’t frighten me, it drew me in. I thought this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. Then I told my parents – they’re gone now, God bless them – but my mum put her head in her hands and said ‘Don’t do it, nobody makes a career from music'”.

Tony’s father told him he must get a proper job, but he asked them to just give him a chance and he would prove that he could do it. It was at that point he started practising seriously – “five hours a day and then up to 10”.

Tony started applying to music colleges but none of them would take him as he had no grades. It was when he had exhausted all the UK music schools that he applied to the Berklee

Tony started applying to music colleges but none of them would take him as he had no grades. It was when he had exhausted all the UK music schools that he applied to the Berklee College of Music in the USA. This was the turning point for Tony as he had received nothing but rejection to this point.

“I wrote a letter telling them what I was doing as a musician and they replied asking me to send a short recording of me playing in three styles of music – ballad, swing and bossa-nova. Oh, and a blues”.

It was a slow process in those days but he recorded, sent it off and eventually they responded, praised the way he played and offered him an audition. “They gave me various tests – sight reading and things – and eventually they came back and said I had been accepted”. He keeps a big scrapbook with all his important landmarks including details of his four-year scholarship at Berklee College. “When my kids saw that they said ‘wow’. Before that they thought I was just an ordinary dad”.

Tony sees the scrapbook as a documentation of what he has done over the years and something to leave for his family when he is no longer around.

Finally, it was a time of change and acceptance for Mr. Kofi. He studied at Berklee for two of the four years and came home and got a gig playing in Nottingham. “I couldn’t do the whole four years at Berklee because I ran out of money for one thing. I had played in America and met people like Roy Hargrove and others so coming home was a bit of an anti-climax”.

“I got to play with Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop after Courtney Pine heard me and introduced me to Gary”. Pine invited him to come to London and told him he knew people that could use him, find him work. He introduced him to Crosby initially and the rest of the Jazz Warriors and at this point Tony decided to move to London and work there. “It wasn’t easy, but I got to meet people like Byron Wallen and Winston Clifford; I played in the Jazz Warriors as they needed an alto. I also met and worked with Julian Joseph and there were so many other musicians. It was just a great time to be a musician in London”.

Tony speaks with great enthusiasm about this time and his beginnings as a successful jazz musician. He enthuses about hearing and meeting Elvin Jones, Cedar Walton and others. From the early rejection he received from all quarters it was a complete but deserved reversal; he was working, playing regularly, not short of gigs and meeting all the musicians he admired. He met up with David Murray and they hit it off together immediately. “He came to hear me play at the Jazz Café in London and remembered me. A year later he invited me to play in this big band, an Anglo-American orchestra, and some years later he invited me again to play with them. He then invited me to join the World Saxophone Quartet as a dep for Oliver Lake but when Lake returned, they still kept me, and I played with that group until it ended”.

As to ambition, Tony thought about it for a moment and then told me that working with Julian Joseph’s academy he helped to get young musicians started before they had formal training, with an emphasis on ear training. “Because this is the way we learned. As part of the academy we teach them the aural way, with help from occasional visitors like Branford Marsalis”.

Along with the playing and composing, education is his prime concern. “I’d like to record more, and I have a lot of music but financing it is very difficult now. But I want to keep touring. I love touring, I love playing but you know it’s all connected”.

‘There is much adulation for Coltrane, Parker, Bud Powell, and rightly so – but why miss out on Cannonball? They say he sold out towards the end of his life but then so did Miles’

As to influences Tony mentions Parker, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette and Mingus. “Parker was my go-to musician because of the alto but also Cannonball because although Parker was the complete master, Cannonball was too, and I don’t think he was represented as much as he should have been. There is much adulation for Coltrane, Parker, Bud Powell, and rightly so – but why miss out on Cannonball? They say he sold out towards the end of his life but then so did Miles. Miles was moving with the times as many of them did and Cannonball moved with the times too”.

It becomes clear that of all his influences and inspirations, Cannonball is the one that is uppermost in his thoughts and a new record has resulted. “When it came to paying homage to someone, he was the one”.

The new record, Another Kind Of Soul (Last Music Co, LM 217, LP or digital), was released on 24 April. It was recorded live at a jazz club and has an atmosphere and ambience reminiscent of the sort of performances Cannon himself used to give. I suggested to Tony that although he has a distinctive sound of his own, he occasionally uses phraseology and licks associated with Cannonball. “Yes – I think that is more subconscious because I’ve studied those guys for years and years. Parker comes first and without him there is no Cannonball but personally I think they are both great and I lean more towards Cannonball as a prime influence. He had that big, expansive, vibrant sound.

“I wanted to make a record that paid homage to Cannonball but not one that sounded just like him. I wanted it to be my voice and my name that people associated it with. The way you hear me on the album is the way I always sound. If I play at the Crucible theatre Sheffield, Ronnie Scott’s or a small pub gig I always play the same. And I think the consistency comes across”.