Andrew Nathaniel White III, 1942–2020

Andrew White

Andrew White—saxophonist, oboist, bassist, educator and scholar—passed away on Wednesday, November 11. He was 78 years old. White is best known to Weather Report fans for playing electric bass on Weather Report’s third album, Sweetnighter. He also played English horn on the band’s previous LP, I Sing the Body Electric.

When I think of Andrew White, the first phrase that comes to mind is “one of a kind.” There truly was no one quite like him in the jazz world, if not the world at large.

For nearly fifty years he ran Andrew’s Music from the same unassuming house in Washington, D.C. He never entered the computer age, never had an email address, and didn’t use a cell phone. If you wanted to contact him, you either had to call his home (which invariably resulted in getting his answer machine, one of his few nods to the modern age), or you had to write him a letter and send it via postal mail.

Whenever I wrote him, I addressed him as:

Mr. Andrew White
President, executive producer, producer, editor, collaborator, transcriber, copyist, recording supervisor, arranger, accountant, publicist, typist, engineer, composer, performer, author, manager, booking agent, package handler, mail boy and janitor

I got these titles from his books. It’s how he described the various roles he undertook while running the one-man shop that he used to produce and sell his own records and publications. He billed himself as “the most voluminously self-published artist in the history of the music business (so I’ve been told),” and his voluminous catalog listed thousands of items for sale from Andrew’s Music.

White was recruited by Joe and Wayne to play electric bass on Sweetnighter because Joe had seen him with the Fifth Dimension on television. Zawinul thought White could provide the funky sound that he wanted for Weather Report’s new music. Before the Fifth Dimension, White played the bass in Stevie Wonder’s band. These gigs paid well, and they bankrolled his other activities, including making his own records and faithfully transcribing hundreds of John Coltrane solos.

He also sold a transcription of his bass part on “125th Street Congress.” “That’s one of my biggest bass transcriptions in terms of sales,” he told me in 2017. “And every time Columbia puts that record out, people look on there to see who the bass player is, and it’s me. And then they start calling me. And I say, well, if you want to play like me, you buy that transcription. I’ve been selling that transcription for thirty years.”

White was a music scholar, graduating cum laude from Howard University in 1964 with a major in music theory and a minor in the oboe. He continued his academic career at the Paris Conservatory of Music, Dartmouth College, and the State University of New York, and became the principal oboist for the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra in 1968. But he also had a bawdy sense of humor that was unfiltered by the norms of polite society. One of the forty-odd LPs he self-produced was Far Out Flatulence: A Concerto for Flatulaphone, which consists of 56 minutes of White farting into a microphone.

While jazz was White’s primary love, he was never fully accepted as a jazz artist of stature. In a 2019 Jazz Times profile, White said, “My whole career started out, even in 1960 when I came to Washington, with a severe handicap, which is, I was told very early on that I had no commercial viability,” he says. “My saxophone sound has too much resonance in it, and I was told it would not register well on recording tape, so I couldn’t make good records-and they wouldn’t even know what to do with the records anyway. So I’ve been off in the corner ever since. But nobody ever said I couldn’t play.

“Nobody was knockin’ on my door, so I knocked on my own door, because I had the resources from [professionally performing] rock ‘n’ roll. There are other fellas in my ilk like Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Ornette [Coleman], they probably didn’t have the resources to do it themselves, and if they did who knows what we could have had from those cats, because they were working under what they call professional supervision. I’ve done all this myself, so I’ve never had anyone tell me what won’t sell,” he laughs in his deep, distinctive guffaw. “I put it all out myself and it’s done well for me, but then I’m not ambitious either. I’m happy with the sales I get, which wouldn’t impress somebody else who would tell me what won’t sell and who probably wouldn’t put it on the record. And who knows how much music that Coltrane had, and all those cats, who never got to even play it in the studio because somebody told them, ‘Well, we don’t need this.’

“I was considered an oddball just like they were. I think Coltrane and Eric and Ornette, to a lesser degree, they didn’t have so much resonance in their sound that it wouldn’t register well on tape.”

If that lack of acceptance hurt Andrew, you wouldn’t know it by talking to him. He was a cheerful man with a big, hearty laugh. He conducted himself with the satisfaction of having done things on his own terms. I will miss him.

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