Saxophonist Jeff Crompton was 15 or 16 when his mother came home with a present. She had developed a habit of grabbing anything from thrift stores that resembled a jazz record to support her son’s growing fascination with improvised music. This time, she had stumbled upon something earth shattering. Crompton remembers dropping the needle on his gift, an avant-garde sampler record, hearing a tune from the far-left-of-center saxophonist Albert Ayler, and sitting in shock.
“It’s like, ‘That’s the ugliest music I’ve ever heard. Let me play it again. Because I want to figure out why they’re doing this,’” Crompton, 63, said recently between sips of Sweetwater 420 on the temporary parking lot patio behind Manuel’s Tavern. “And so I played that record until I started hearing it and it started making sense.”
The Atlanta native has spent the last four decades making sense of the music, performing in various groups around the city, playing what he simply calls “weird jazz” — basically ever since he returned to the city from University of Georgia with an undergraduate degree in music, ready to begin his day job as a school band teacher. He taught generations of kids in north Fulton County from the early 1980s to 2010, when the school district tendered Crompton his early retirement. He’s spent his days and nights since digging into his music, no longer tied to a 5:30 a.m. alarm to prepare for the commute from his Candler Park home.
Credit: Courtesy of Steve Eberhardt
Credit: Courtesy of Steve Eberhardt
To find a fit for all the music he now creates, Crompton performs in five fully formed bands. One of them, which he just started rehearsing, plays “weird little jazz art songs”— his first attempt at writing songs with lyrics.
“When you play off-center music, if you want to keep playing, you have to have a lot of bands because nobody wants to hear the same one over and over again,” he said. “Each one of them brings something different.”
Crompton performs May 31 at No Tomorrow in Underground Atlanta not with one of those bands, but as a duo show on the more expansive side of instrumental music: He joins guitarist Mike Baggetta for a concert of “pretty lyrical stuff to skronky guitar sounds,” Crompton said. The music starts at 8 p.m.
Baggetta and Crompton met performing with the musician Rev. Fred Lane. Baggetta sat in on guitar during one show, and the two hit it off, but they have never played in a duo setting. In fact, Crompton said there likely will be no time to rehearse, so the show will be entirely improvised. That doesn’t bother the seasoned saxophonist, but in most of his work, Crompton skews toward compositions.
His most substantial composition so far is a 30-minute opera about New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden, the mythical father of jazz. With the help of a grant by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the opera was to be performed with a full cast of singers and music by Crompton and his Edgewood Saxophone Trio. That plan became another casualty of the pandemic, so Crompton decided to record the performances individually, stitch everything together and release the opera on www.buddyboldenopera.com. Crompton hopes to find an organization that will create a full production of the opera in a live setting soon.
The saxophonist has ideas percolating for symphonic compositions as well, but for those looking for an entry point into his music, Crompton suggests something shorter: his compositions “King Oliver in Savannah” and “Tutweiler Depot.” On Bandcamp, the 2017 7-inch record containing those songs is described as “multi-tracked saxophone pieces which celebrate, in an edgy, contemporary way, the history of Southern music.” Crompton plays all saxophones and clarinet on the tunes. He’s also partial to “New Normal” by Three Way Mirror, his band that links the saxophonist in a trio with Bill Pritchard on tuba and John Arthur Brown on congas.
While Atlantans’ appetite for jazz has never seemed that ravenous — with the sole exception being the Atlanta Jazz Festival in Piedmont Park — Crompton sees a demand for his type of music. “There is a sizable younger audience who just wants to hear some interesting music, and they don’t care what it is,” he said.
Crompton will still play straight-ahead jazz, just with a slightly different perspective, as he did on a cool May evening in Cabbagetown Park. Crompton, on a makeshift stage with his band Standard Practice, told a small assemblage of locals and curious onlookers to prepare for “a weird little Monk tune” before launching into the off-kilter blues “Bright Mississippi.” The trio, with drummer Kenito Murray and bassist Chris Riggenbach, is Crompton’s first group devoted to jazz standards and Great American Songbook tunes. The group doesn’t exactly place him squarely in the Atlanta jazz community.
“There are some great straight-ahead jazz musicians in Atlanta,” he said. “But even when I’m playing standards, I don’t want to play them correctly all the time. It’s like, if I want to play this flurry of notes that doesn’t fit the chord and is going to shock everybody, I want to do that.”
Whatever the audience and fellow musicians call his music, Crompton will keep sanding down the edges of that definition with new sounds and perspectives for as long as he keeps performing and composing.