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Booker T. Ervin: The Jazz Musician’s Favorite

We’ve recently unearthed information about another great African American jazz musician who called our neighborhood south of Union Square home, and have added him to our South of Union Square map’s music and African American history tours. Born in Dennison, Texas, on October 31, 1930, Booker T. Ervin was a tenor saxophonist who resided at 204 East 13th Street. The son of a saxophonist, Booker began his musical journey at a very young age. Upon completing high school, Ervin enlisted in the United States Air Force. While stationed in Okinawa, he learned to play tenor sax, enrolling in the Berklee School of Music following his service in 1953. Following his time at Berklee, Ervin traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he played the tenor saxophone alongside another Jazz great, Ernie Fields.

Moving to New York City in May of 1958, Ervin would quickly befriend Charles Mingus and join the well-respected Mingus Jazz Workshop. From then on, Ervin would perform alongside Mingus and Randy Weston, who once also resided at 204 East 13th Street. In 1959, Ervin contributed to the monumental Mingus Ah Um album. In addition to playing alongside Mingus, he recorded various albums throughout the 1960s. Signed to Prestige Records in 1963, these albums included: The Blues Book, The Space Book, The Freedom Book, and The Song Book. 

References to ‘the Book’ were described by Ervin’s close friend Randy Weston for his album, “African Cookbook,” in 1969: “the African Cookbook, which I composed back in the early 60’s, was partly named after Booker because we (musicians) used to call him “Book,” and we would say, “Cook, Book.” Sometimes when he was playing we’d shout, “Cook, Book, cook.” And the melody of African Cookbook was based upon Booker Ervin’s sound, a sound like the north of Africa.” (1993)

Despite the breadth of his compositions, Ervin remained underappreciated in jazz. As a result, he packed up with his wife Jane and two children for Europe. Heading overseas in October of 1964, Ervin would initially perform at Copenhagen’s Montmartre Club, followed by acts at the Blue Note Club in Paris, amongst others. Some additional countries that Ervin performed in included France, Holland, Sweden, Italy, and Germany. However, the country that held Ervin’s attention the longest was Spain. Locked in at a Jamboree Club gig, Ervin found stability in this Catalonian venue – extending his stay in Europe to 1966. 

Upon his return, Ervin moved into 204 East 13th Street. Ervin would record his song, “204,” to honor his time in this building. The family would remain in the building throughout the remaining years of his life before Ervin passed away from kidney failure at the age of 39 on August 31, 1970. Having supported and worked closely with some of the Jazz industry giants, Ervin also holds a high honor among fellow musicians of the past and present – demonstrating his true talent as a great among the greats.

You’ll learn more about Booker Ervin’s amazing life and story on South of Union Square map’s music and African American history tours. You’ll also learn more about great musicians like Roy Orbison, Benny Goodman, Art Blakey, Tim Buckley, Frank Zappa, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Junior Vasquez, the Clash, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, and Charles Mingus, and critical figures in African American history like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Robert Earl Jones, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and Paul Robeson.


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