Fred Staton, a saxophonist touted as "the world's oldest jazz musician," has died at the age of 102. His death was confirmed by his grandson, Richard Staton.
A member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band and the older brother of singer Dakota Staton, he was active as a performer even after his centennial, when WBGO profiled him in our program guide. We've reprinted that story below.
“Jazz is a feeling.”
On a gray, late winter day in the Bronx, Fred Staton sits beneath a painting of an orange sunset. He pauses and looks away to a distant somewhere. “The only way I can describe it as a feeling. With a feeling comes the intonations, the configurations, all the stuff that adds into one capsule. But it comes out through the feeling.”
Staton is well acquainted with the feeling of jazz. Over the course of his century on earth, he’s been steeped in it. Born on Valentine’s Day, 1915, Staton’s musical life began with the strains of his mother’s player piano and 78 discs of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. He cites a Johnny Hodges cut on an Ellington big band record played off the family’s Victrola as the inspiration for his life-long infatuation with the saxophone.
A singer in his church’s gospel choir, Staton’s introduction to playing jazz came when the group’s sponsor brought in a full band’s worth of equipment, along with charts of popular music. First gravitating towards to the drums, he admits it was the frustration of having to a pack up his kit while his bandmates left to flirt with women after gigs that led him to commit to the saxophone.
Staton came up in Pittsburgh during a time that defined the city as a great source of jazz talent. He played in the first ensemble Art Blakey ever formed, alongside legendary pianist Erroll Garner. Staton recalls the anxiety of watching the young Garner casually risk his gifted hands as he indulged his other great love, high school football. The lack of opportunity for a young black man in segregated Pittsburgh—as well as the persistent lack of venues for jazz groups—lead Staton to leave the Steel City and find his fortune gigging on the East Coast. Along the way, he encountered a recent high school graduate with magnetic talent in Connecticut—one Horace Silver—and watched fellow Westinghouse High School graduates Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal pen iconic compositions.
Staton is still playing. He is a ten-year veteran of the esteemed Harlem Blues & Jazz Band, with whom he’s toured Europe and Russia to much acclaim. He happily recalls being billed in St. Petersburg on a sign just as large as the Eric Clapton billboard next to it, and the standing ovations the group received at Shostakovich Hall. He’s received commendations from numerous groups—from churches to congressmen— for his considerable contributions to the jazz world, and awards proudly line the walls of his apartment.
A member of WBGO, Staton supports the station because it “plays the music I can relate to. Music that I have performed over the years myself. I can feel it, I can pat my feet to it, and I can completely enjoy it.” His devotion to jazz is one of deep connection, to a “flow” he attributes to the spirituals of the cotton fields of Mississippi, a straight ahead beat that unites gospel, blues, and jazz. “If you can play one, you can play the other,” he says. “They all interact.”
Staton speaks deliberately and with great seriousness about the craft that’s defined his life. The connection he feels is apparent, and that flow, that continuity he draws from the music is as clear in his eyes now as it must have been all those decades ago. In a home surrounded by tablature, CDs, a PA system for his gospel band, and all the other evidence of his achievements and passions, he quietly captures the essence of what music means to him: “Jazz helps to put me in a comfort zone. It’s a feeling.”